Samuel Sewall Swears an Oath With (But Not On) The Bible

Samuel Sewall faced a wrenching dilemma on June 11, 1686: How, exactly, would he take the oath required for service in his artillery company? Could he, as a devout Puritan, do as he was now required and place his hand on the Bible? Should he even take it at all?

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall

In 1686, Samuel Sewall, like many Massachusetts Puritans, was beginning to chafe under the English Crown’s crackdown on the independent-minded colonists.

Sewall was a 34-year-old up-and-comer in the Puritan hierarchy. He had left England as a young boy when his family moved to Newbury, Mass., after Charles II was restored to the throne.

Born March 28, 1652, Samuel Sewall had married the daughter of a wealthy and well-connected mintmaster. He won an appointment as the colony’s official printer. Upon his father-in-law’s death, Sewall was elected to replace him on the General Court in the Council of Assistants, which functioned as the upper house and court of appeals.

For its first 56 years, the Massachusetts Bay Colony governed itself independently of the Crown, partly because of its insignificance and partly because civil war consumed England.

The same development that drove the Sewall family from England also created tension and resentment in Massachusetts: the return of Charles II to the throne, and then his brother James II. Suddenly the wayward colony across the Atlantic attracted the king’s attention.

In 1684, the Charter of Massachusetts was revoked. Two years later, Joseph Dudley was appointed president of the colony. Dudley’s appointment vacated the results of the Puritan’s last election of Simon Bradstreet. He replaced the government and began to change laws and customs – making Samuel Sewall increasingly uneasy.

Things began to change under Dudley. In May, he told the magistrates of the General Court he couldn’t acknowledge them. The church started to be separated from the state. Sewall, a militia captain, didn’t know if he could serve under the new artillery flag that didn’t have a cross on it. The Sabbath would later be profaned by a noisy celebration of the Queen’s birthday.

Things would get worse when Dudley was replaced seven months later with the despised and dictatorial Edmund Andros. Andros would further anger the colonists imposing taxes, vacating deeds, holding Church of England services in a Puritan meetinghouse. One demand horrified the Puritans: men had to take oaths by in the English fashion, by holding their hand on the Bible. They believed that gave a physical object the honor due only to God.

The conflict over the oath began under Dudley. Sewall describes in his diary on June 11, 1686, his personal compromise in taking the oath.

Friday, June 11. waited on the Council, took the Oath of Allegiance, and rec’d my new Commission for Capt. Was before at a privat Fast at Deacon Allen’s; so Capt. Hutchinson and I went about 5. clock, and all the rest were sworn, Capt. Hutchinson at present refuses. I read the Oath myself holding the book in my Left hand and holding up my Right Hand to Heaven.


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