There’s a wicked cool connection in my family history that has been glowing with relevance for me recently.
Way back in my line of great-great-grandmothers is one of the so-called Salem “witches”, hanged on Salem, Massachusetts’ Gallows Hill in 1692. She’s been my default fun fact in icebreakers for years, and now I want to write my senior thesis about one of the judges who convicted her. And I happened to be in Salem this weekend.
I leave for Iona on June 24th but was visiting my aunt and uncle, their kids Eliza and Gus, and my good friends Kevin and John who are working in Boston. It’s another coincidence that my aunt and uncle who live in Salem aren’t actually related to my grandmother-witch, who comes from an apparently impudent Puritan strain on my mother’s side.
John, Kevin and I haven’t hung out significantly together since we were a trio eating vats of tomato soup and brainstorming screenplays in my kitchen when we were fifteen. I had an awesome weekend seeing them, the whole of which included a cold and buggy beach walk, a crust punk party, my first legal beer (Urban Wheat Ale), and my uber-fascination with walking the streets of Boston and Salem, which are not only loci in my family history but also form a cross-section of events surrounding early American religion and race.
My ancestor-witch? Susannah Martin. Her crimes, according to a book my uncle cracked open, “malefic” (re: devilish) behavior. That is, afflicting people with bites, scratches, and swoons, appearing in the shape of an animal, etc. One description of her trial appears in Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World. Mather, the most influential figure in American Puritanism, doesn’t appear to have thought much of my great-great grandmother. Of “Goody Martin” he wrote, “[she was] one of the most impudent, scurrilous, wicked Creatures in the World.”
Susannah was sixty-seven and a widow, living in Amesbury, Mass. and evidently bothering her neighbors there. She was hanged in mid-July, 1692, less than a mile from where my aunt and uncle live in painfully cute yellow house…
Now here’s where my nerddom really takes off.
Judge Samuel Sewall, a Boston merchant, orthodox Puritan and Harvard man, was the only magistrate involved in the witch trials to publicly apologize for the convictions. In 1700, eight years after the trials, he also printed the first protest against slavery in New England, one of the earliest anti-slavery essays printed on American shores.
I’m not interested in Sewall just because of my DNA, though that certainly makes early Boston compelling to me. But after stumbling across Sewall’s essay, “The Selling of Joseph” last semester, I was reeling with questions about his notions of liberty, race and God.
Surprised by the early date of Judge Sewall’s emphatic plea, I realized that it is his hyper-devout Calvinism that leads him to his conclusion about slavery: that it is against God’s will because all people are sons and daughters of Adam, saved by the “last Adam” (Christ), and therefore have “equal Right unto Liberty” on earth. While he shows signs of racial prejudice, Sewall reads the story of Jesus to be a story of political liberation. Sewall also shows a penchant for prophecy, not unlike James Cone. And he wasn’t just some nut. Scholarship says that Sewall’s way of interpreting scripture was coherent with the most orthodox thinkers of the day.
So why did protests to slavery like Judge Sewall’s fall out of favor in only a few years, when instead the mindset represented by a slaveholder’s vehemently supremacist response become victorious in the mainstream? How did Sewall’s piety compel him to issue such a powerful protest for the rights of black slaves to basic liberty, as it also did for him with regard to women’s and American Indian rights?
I don’t know yet. But I do know that Sewall never read Locke (nor other Enlightenment philosophers), whose social contract would become the gospel for America’s decidedly deist founding fathers and documents seventy-six years after he printed his essay. He read sermons and scriptures; he looked for signs in the weather and the sea of the end of the world. He wasn’t a “modern man”, yet it took until the mid-eighteenth century for Americans to take moral arguments against slavery seriously.
Sewall was radically religious and also radically liberal. He was a privileged, well-educated man yet his vision of the liberating Christ was deeply uncompromised and political. This is why I wonder what liberation theology might be able to recover from his vision today. It’s essential to most liberation theologies (black, Latin American, queer, etc) that one take a view of God from the perspective of the oppressed. While maintaining this key piece, how might those who are not oppressed, ones often in positions of political or economic power, feel the same prophetic urgency to their politics?
If Sewall’s God is white and Cone’s God is black, can Sam and James want the same things? If it’s essential to black theology to know the black God and essential to queer theology to know the queer God, how can someone who is black and not queer or queer and not black interpret the Gospel as the breaking down of all categories, all social restrictions and weights, without undermining the particularity of their own experience?
It’s all a difficult, amazing puzzle I’m just beginning to unravel.