Crime and Punishment in American History

Public Penance,
page 6 of 6

In truth, the Captain “did protest too much.” This well-acted and well-costumed piece of vainglorious repentance was not his first appearance in the Boston meeting-house in this role. Twice before had he been the chief actor in a similar scene, and twice had he been forgiven by the church and by individuals specially injured. He was not alone in his “blubbering,” as Winthrop plainly puts it. The minister at Jedburgh, Scotland, for similar offenses, “prostrated himself on the floor of the Assembly, and with weeping and howling, entreated for pardon.” He was thus sentenced:

“That in Edinburgh as the capital, in Dundee as his native town, in Jedburgh as the scene of his ministration, he should stand in sack-cloth at the church door, also on the repentance-stool, and for two Sundays in each place.”

The most striking and noble figure to suffer public penance in American history was Judge Samuel Sewall. He was one of the board of magistrates who sat in judgment at the famous witchcraft trials in Salem and Boston in the first century of New England life. Through his superstition and by his sentence, many innocent lives were sacrificed. Judge Sewall was a steadfast Christian, a man deeply introspective, absolutely upright, and painfully conscientious. As years passed by, and all superstitious excitement was dead, many of the so-called victims confessed their fraud, and in the light of these confessions, and with calmer judgment, and years of unshrinking thought, Judge Sewall became convinced that his decisions had been unjust, his condemnation cruel, and his sentences appallingly awful. Though his public confession and recantation was bitterly opposed by his fellow judge, Stoughton, he sent to his minister a written confession of his misjudgment, his remorse, his sorrow. It was read aloud at the Sabbath service in the Boston church while the white-haired Judge stood in the face of the whole congregation with bowed head and aching heart. For his self-abnegation he has been honored in story and verse; honored more in his time of penance than in the many positions of trust and dignity bestowed on him by his fellow-citizens.


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