Remarkably, [Judge Samuel] Sewall also left us a careful record of his devotions during a private fast day, providing a glimpse of the mental world of a devout Puritan and the deeply spiritual aims of fast and thanksgiving days. Sewall's description of a private day of prayer and fasting that he observed on Tuesday, Feb. 10, 1708, when he was 55, is "the most full and minute existing record of a private fast-day as kept by" devout Puritans, according to M. Halsey Thomas, a historian of Colonial America who edited the published volumes of Sewall's diaries.
First, Sewall retreated from family life. He and his 49-year-old wife, Hannah, who had watched seven of their 14 children die, still had three daughters at home. He went alone to an upper room on the second floor of his house, which occupied the southeastern corner of Washington and Summer streets in modern Boston, and was surrounded by gardens, orchards, and on one side a pond. (Shoppers who visited Filene's Basement, in Downtown Crossing, entered a space that was once the cellar of Sewall's mansion.) The window of Sewall's room overlooked Boston's noisiest thoroughfare, which is now Washington Street. He fastened the shutters and closed the door.
He may have prostrated himself on the floor, as his peer the Rev. Cotton Mather sometimes did in prayer, but he surely did not kneel, for Puritans were loath to kneel during prayer, a Catholic custom that seemed to them idolatrous.
"Dear God," Samuel began, according to his notes, "perfect what is lacking in my faith and in the faith of my dear yokefellow," his wife. "Please convert and recover our children, especially Samuel," his oldest son, age 29, who was struggling in his career and marriage, "and Hannah," his sickly 28-year-old daughter. Mentioning his other living children, he prayed, "Recover [18-year-old] Mary, and save Judith , Elizabeth , and Joseph," a 19-year-old student at Harvard College. He prayed for two servants: "Make David a man after thy own heart. Let Susan live and be baptized with the Holy Ghost, and with fire."
Sewall prayed for his own church. "Bless the South Church in preserving and spiriting our pastor, in directing unto [us] suitable supply, and making the church unanimous." Moving outward, he continued, "Save the town [Boston], the college [Harvard, from which he graduated with a master's degree in 1674], [and New England] province from invasion of enemies, open and secret, and from false brethren. Defend the purity of worship. Save Connecticut and the New York government."
Extending his prayer beyond the world that he physically knew, he went on, "Reform all the European plantations in America - Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch. Save this New World, that where sin hath abounded, grace may superabound...Save all Europe. Save Asia, Africa, Europe and America."
Sewall's goal was the reformation of the entire world - all its quarters - as well as his own small part of it. His prayer was a cry to God to help humanity.
Melvin Yazawa, ed., The Diary and Life of Samuel Sewall, pp. 30-31:
One of the finest descriptions of a "private day of prayer and fasting" appears in Sewall's entry for February 10, 1708. Isolated in an upper chamber of his house, with the shutters fastened, Sewall commenced his praying by beseeching God's help in perfecting "what is lacking in my faith, and in the faith of my dear Yokefellow." He then moved on to "other important matters," progressing smoothly from his immediate family ("convert my children, especially Samuel and Hannah"), to his servant ("make David [Sinclair] a man after thy own heart"), to the province ("steer the government in this difficult time, when the Governor and many others are at so much variance"), to other colonies ("save Connecticut...[and] N. York"), to the Western Hemisphere ("Reform all the European Plantations in America; Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Dutch"), and finally to the world ("save Asia, Africa, Europe and America"). At the end, Sewall acknowledged the "bounteous grace of God" in helping him conclude a "very comfortable day."51
51 Ibid., 2:641, 961; 1:589.
Samuel Sewall, Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674-1729, Vol. 2., pp. 216-217:
Court being to be made upon next Fifth day, Febr. 12 , I pray'd God to Accept me in keeping a privat day of Prayer with Fasting for That and other Important Matters: I kept it upon the Third day Febr. 10. 1707/8 in the uper Chamber at the North-East end of the House, fastening the Shutters next the Street. -- Perfect what is lacking in my Faith, and in the faith of my dear Yokefellow. Convert my children; especially Samuel and Hanah; Provide Rest and Settlement for Hanah: Recover Mary, Save Judith, Elisabeth and Joseph: Requite the Labour of Love of my Kinswoman Jane Tappin, Give her health, find out Rest for her. Make David a man after thy own heart, Let Susan live and be baptised with the Holy Ghost, and with fire. Relations. Steer the Government in this difficult time, when the Governour and many others are at so much Variance: Direct, incline, overrule on the Council-day fifth-day, Febr. 12. as to the special Work of it in filling the Super. Court with Justices; or any other thing of like nature; as Plimo infer Court. Bless the Company for propagation of the Gospel, especiall Govr Ashurt &c. Revive the Business of Religion at Natick, and accept and bless John Neesnumin who went thither last week for that end. Mr. Rawson at Nantucket. Bless the South Church in preserving and spiriting our Pastor; in directing unto suitable Supply, and making the Church unanimous: Save the Town, College; Province from Invasion of Enemies, open, Secret, and from false Brethren: Defend the Purity of Worship. Save Connecticut, bless their New Governour: Save the Reformation under N. York Governmt. Reform all the European plantations in America; Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Dutch; Save this New World, that where Sin hath abounded, Grace may Superabound; that CHRIST who is stronger, would bind the strong man and spoil his house; and order the Word to be given, Babylon is fallen. -- Save our Queen, lengthen out her Life and Reign. Save France, make the Proud helper stoop [Job IX. 13], Save all Europe; Save Asia, Africa, Europe and America. These were the genl heads of my Meditation and prayer; and through the bounteous Grace of GOD, I had a very Comfortable Day of it.