As part of a focus on American Church History, over the next few months, I will blog my way through a book that I found both thoughtful and enthralling. I read it as I sat with my mother, a little over four years ago, when she dying of cancer.
The history of Christianity has been dominated by male voices. Some of the most profound literary contributions of women have simply remained forgotten. So when someone rediscovers a woman’s voice of faith from the past, it can be a real treasure to find.
Harvard Divinity School religious historian, Catherine Brekus, has given us a remarkable gift by recovering for us the lost story of Sarah Osborn (1714-1796), a poor woman from New England who met Jesus during the great revivals of the mid-18th century. It was during this “First Great Awakening” where the English speaking world was greatly impacted by the dynamic preaching of George Whitefield and John Wesley, which helped to define contemporary evangelicalism. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I did as I post up various blog summaries of Brekus’ wonderful book. Better yet, read the book yourself!
The long-forgotten Sarah Osborn was a significant part of the First Great Awakening story. Sarah Osborn was one of the few colonial women who transcribed her life story as a means of giving honor and glory to God, calling fellow Americans to repentance and new life in Christ. In Catherine Brekus’ academic, yet marvelously accessible study, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, Brekus tells the story that Sarah Osborn herself wrote in her sometimes barely legible hand for the benefit of students of Christian history. In doing so, Brekus shows us that Sarah Osborn’s life tells us a lot about living the Christian life almost three hundred years later.
Sarah Osborn came to the New World from England as a little girl, as her parents came to New England mainly for economic opportunity. Growing up a daughter of a leather worker in the seaport of Newport, Rhode Island, Sarah Osborn had no economic privilege, to give her financial security. In her late teens, she married a young sailor, bore a child, only to learn that during one of her husband’s voyages, he had died at sea.
As a single mom, Sarah was able to eke out a living as a schoolteacher, but she was always one step away from utter poverty. She was able to later remarry another widower with children, but just less than a few months after the wedding, the new family lost all of their savings during a financial crisis in the 1740s. On top of these trials, Sarah’s health remained poor all of her life, and furthermore, she tragically had to bury her only biological son. But even though her life was filled with hardships, her most remarkable legacy is the series of diaries that she wrote that were later published, by her pastor, Samuel Hopkins.
Sarah was raised a Puritan, in a Congregationalist church. But Sarah tells us that her early life was marked by rebellion. Against her parent’s advice, Sarah had married a young sailor. Her parents, thinking that such a move was unwise at her young age, refused to give her material assistance in her new married life. In defiance, Sarah stole from her parents, justifying to herself that what she had stolen was rightfully hers anyway. This act would be one of the primary sins that would torment her for years, driving her onwards towards her Christian conversion.
As a young child in a Puritan home and in an age of high mortality rates for children, Sarah was constantly reminded of the frailty of life, her human depravity, and the hellish consequences of original sin. She would have been familiar with the following catechism published by the famous hymn writer, Isaac Watts, in 1730 (Brekus, p. 38):
Question: And what if you do not fear God, nor love him nor seek to please him?
Answer: Then I shall be a wicked Child, and the great God will be very angry with me.
Question: Why are you afraid of God’s Anger?
Answer: Because he can kill my Body, and he can make my Soul miserable after my body is dead…
Question: What must become of you if you are wicked?
Answer: If I am wicked I shall be sent down to everlasting Fire in Hell among wicked and miserable creatures?
Watt’s children hymns, like the following (Brekus, p. 40) emphasized the Puritan Calvinist vision of divine wrath against sin:
There is beyond the sky
A heaven of joy and love
And holy children, when they die,
Go to that world above
There is a dreadful hell,
And everlasting pains:
There sinners must with devils dwell
In darkness, fire, and chains
Sarah kept this Puritan vision of the absolute depravity of humanity and the reality of hell throughout her life, but she was also familiar with a growing movement driven by the Enlightenment that sought to promote a more positive vision of the human condition, a tension that eventually found itself expressed in the very fabric of the emerging evangelical theology. The growth of an Arminian faction from within the Puritan movement, while still largely believing in the classic doctrine of original sin, nevertheless emphasized a more profound confidence in man’s ability to influence divine favor (Brekus, p. 26).
During Sarah’s lifetime, there were church people who even came out to reject the doctrine of original sin. In their way of approaching it, the idea of that all humans were cursed because of Adam’s sin did not seem fair. How could people living many generations after Adam be condemned for a sin they themselves did not commit? Nevertheless, the type of evangelical faith that Sarah eventually embraced would not loosen itself completely from a more sober, darker assessment of the human condition.
Evangelical Christians during this period saw the growing type of optimism regarding the human condition as nothing more than an attack on the basic foundations of Christian faith. The Puritan tradition founded on the Bible emphasized that the disposition towards disobedience towards God was humanity’s default state. Though people were originally created good, thus reflecting the image of God, that original goodness became distorted by sin, a perversion of what God originally intended. Nevertheless, the Calvinist theology of Puritanism, some might argue, so stressed the darker side of the human condition that it drove many sensitive people,such as Sarah Osborn, to the brink of utter despair, even to the point of prompting sensitive folks like Sarah to contemplate suicide. Thankfully, Sarah did not capitulate to that despair, but instead her suicidal thoughts served to raise a greater awareness of the holiness of God and therefore her own need for Christ, to heal her of that despair.
During the age of the Enlightenment, a number of more secular oriented thinkers and even more than a few Christians began to seriously chafe against this type of pessimism as being extreme. The emerging Enlightenment ideal that emphasized human “happiness,” as embedded in Thomas Jefferson’s phrase of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, stood in contrast against the older Puritan view that reminds us of the utter depravity of the human condition. From Brekus, page 47:
“Much to his frustration, [colonial preacher and intellectual] Jonathan Edwards discovered many parents in his congregation perceived their children as ‘innocent,’ and they denounced him for ‘frighting poor innocent children with talk of hell fire and eternal damnation.’ In response, he accused parents of being too indulgent. But as he seems to have sensed better than almost anyone in his generation, Calvinist thought was being eroded by deeper tides of change. People who could elect their own lower assemblies, read the latest books from England, and choose what to purchase in an expanding consumer marketplace seem to have found it hard to view themselves — or their children — as either helpless or unworthy. Free to make choices that most the parents and grandparents had never imagined, they develop a stronger sense of their own agency.”
More progressive minded Christian thinkers, who frankly included popular preachers like Jonathan Edwards, sought to distance themselves from the more harsher elements of the Puritan tradition, but they also strongly resisted the humanistic tendency of replacing the desire for human godliness with human happiness. Instead, preachers like Edwards and the less educated folk, like Sarah Osborn, stressed that only when one recognizes the depths of human depravity are they truly able to discover the sweetness and beauty of God’s unbounded grace. To go with the more intellectually fashionable idea of promoting human happiness as the greatest goal merely orients the person to trust in one’s self and one’s personal abilities to secure goodness and salvation for themselves, a damnably dangerous delusion. Nevertheless, the growth of democratic ways of thinking, greater economic opportunity, and the exposure to new ideas presented challenges that the older Puritan tradition could not safely ignore. The evangelical theology that came out of the 18th century American revivals sought to flesh out and attempt to resolve these tensions.
At the base of colonial thinking about original sin, predestination, and God’s wrath, most evangelical Christians in Sarah Osborn’s day pictured hell in very physical and concrete language, as opposed to a more metaphorical understanding in the 21st century, where most Christians see hell more in terms of being eternally separated from God, with less talk about literal fire and brimstone. But even then, there were questions being raised about such stark views of God and His anger. It reveals a type of tension in Christian thought between God’s love and God’s holiness that continues to haunt the minds and hearts of people today.
In an age where many Christians today fail to take seriously enough, core doctrines of the Bible, such as the salvation of all who trust in the Lord Jesus, and the just condemnation of all those who reject Jesus, Sarah Osborn’s story is worth studying, with a prayerful and repentant heart.
In future blog posts we will explore more themes of the Christian life by looking back upon Sarah Osborn’s experience as a female believer in colonial America. Lest we think that this is merely an exercise of looking into the past, instead we can see how many of the same struggles and victories in Sarah’s life are similar to our own today.