By Judith S. Graham
Historians have commonly characterized Puritan family life as joyless, repressive, even brutal. By such accounts, Puritan parents disciplined their children mercilessly, crushed their wills, responded callously to their deaths, and routinely sent them out of the home to be raised by cold-hearted surrogates. The diary of Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) contradicts this grim portrait of the Puritan household.
Although Sewall was an exceptional Puritan father and not a representative one, his judicial, civic, religious, and business activities projected him far beyond his own privileged and respectable circumstances. As a record of the family and social life of New England's third generation, his remarkable journal, which spans fifty-five years, is rivaled only by that of his friend Cotton Mather. Sewall provides rich details about the home where his and Hannah Sewall's fourteen children were born, and the six who survived infancy were raised. He takes the reader through the streets and byways of Boston, to the meetinghouse, to the places where his children were educated and apprenticed, and to the homes of friends, neighbors, and kin.
Judith S. Graham's close reading of Sewall's diary and family papers reveals that warmth, sympathy, and love often marked the Puritan parent-child relationship. She suggests that the special nature of childhood was a concept that parents understood well, and that there was a practical and clear purpose for the "putting out" of children. Graham provides a much-needed balance to accepted scholarship on Puritan life and offers new insights into the history of both early New England and the family.