These are days of decision. This span of weeks in April and May can be fraught ones for families with children of a certain age, when colleges await commitments from those who hope to start next fall, and as the clock winds down for students four years or so on the other side, about to be sprung from the groves of academe to workaday life. Deciding what to do about all this can be difficult for young people. These decisions arguably can be even harder for parents, who have to think through big questions of vocation and higher education–and offer support, financial and otherwise. What is all that education for? What sort of person do I hope my son or daughter becomes? How can I assist my nearly-adult child, who may want my advice least of all, in the launching of education and life’s work?
A model of earnest parental guidance comes from Samuel Sewall (1652-1730), one of the most likeable characters among the New England Puritans. Amidst a voluble and much-documented people, Sewall stands out not only for his antislavery sentiments and the sheer heft of the diary he left behind, but because he was willing to bare his foibles and mistakes. Most famously, he was the only one among the “witchcraft judges,” those who tried and convicted witches in 1692, to repent of his participation in that convulsion. In his diary Sewall recounts features of his days, minor and major: politics, weather, warfare, funerals, foodstuffs, dinner, children’s doings. Notably, Sewall labors over the placement of his namesake, the young son Samuel, in an honorable vocation.
Sewall’s ambitions and frustrations for his children have a familiar ring. While a good tutor was hired for the young Sam, the youth showed rather disappointing academic aptitude. The well educated and prominent paterfamilias not only had to appraise his son’s lackluster performance (performance that could evidence inability or sloth or both) but also had to keep trying jobs until the right thing was found. One venture after another went awry.
Parents in old New England, as now, have educational institutions aplenty to help edify their offspring. We now embrace broader opportunity and social mobility, but seventeenth-century New England parents had a few structural helps that we lack. They had a system of apprenticeship in which children were put out to live and work with another person or family. While it may seem brutal to us to send a fragile adolescent to someone else’s home to work–and abuses certainly occurred–the system did bridge childhood dependency and that abrupt cutting loose that comes at adulthood. In apprenticeships young people began practicing the skills that future work and independence would require. Youthful dependence was not a status desirable to extend indefinitely. Second, and more important, New England Puritans had a high view of vocation. Your calling was not simply what you wanted to do, our now-proverbial lighting upon “something you enjoy doing and getting someone to pay you for it,” but work suitable to your abilities, education, and standing. Further, a legitimate calling was supposed to contribute to others’ good, not cause harm or danger.
Last night Sam. Could not sleep because of my Brother’s speaking to him of removing to some other place, mentioning [Mr.] Usher’s. I put him up to get a little wood, and he even fainted, at which Brother was much started, and advis’d to remove him forthwith and place him somewhere else, or send him to Salem and he would doe the best he could for him….Sam mention[ed] to me Mr. Wadworth’s Sermon against Idleness, which was an Affli[ction] to him. He said his was an idle Calling, and that he did more at home than there, take one day with another. And he mention’d Mr. Stoddard’s word to me, that should place him with a good Master, and where had fullness of Imployment…Mention’d also the difficulty of the imployment by reason of the numerousness of Goods and hard to distinguish between them.
Sam worried about wasting his time and skills, even as he worried about tasks that seemed too difficult. He next took a post in a store run by Captain Samuel Checkley, but found overwhelming the pricing of many goods without clear labels. So father and son agreed that work at a bookshop might be preferable, since the price of each book was clearly marked. Samuel, finally, did much better there in the employ of Richard Wilkins, bookseller. He stayed at the shop for years, married well (the daughter of the Massachusetts governor), and later became a farmer.
Judge Sewall’s care in helping his son along is instructive. The father did not simply write a check to Harvard and leave options all to the child’s choosing. Nor did dictate his son’s career. While keeping a job was the responsibility finally of the boy himself, the father labored long behind the scenes and in the context of prayer. This particular child did not make things easy. Significantly, the father paired prayers for the son’s conversion and for his right work, or as Puritans would put it, for his general calling and his particular calling. Sewall’s diary notes that he “Kept a Day of Fasting with Prayer for the Conversion of my Son, and his settlement in a Trade that might be good for Soul and body.”
Though cognizant of the status of various career choices, the father’s focus was on the fit between his son’s skills and the exigencies of a job. The parent’s task was to help his grown child choose a life course that would be good for his soul and body, through work that would do good also for others.