In this second blog post reviewing Catherine A. Brekus study of the life and writings of Sarah Osborn, an early American who experienced the revivals of the 18th century Great Awakening, we dig a little more deeply into the life of this remarkable woman. Sarah Osborn tells us not just about herself, in the 18th century, but she also shows us a lot about what it means to be a Christian in America in the 21st century.
Sarah Osborn grew up exposed to Christian teaching, but she admitted that a rebellious attitude sought to dull her spiritual sensitivities. At times, Sarah would have experiences that would lead her to seriously consider growing in her faith, but these moments were often followed by extended times where her thoughts were redirected elsewhere. She enjoyed frivolous activities with friends, such as “card playing” and “dancing,” but these were often frowned upon by Puritan preaching. Nevertheless, her personal struggles also brought back times of sobriety where she was able to reconsider what it meant to have faith in God.
Sarah Osborn’s awareness as a woman had a role to play in her faith experience in God. Like many New Englanders of the day, women were understood to be the “weaker” sex. Partly this was due to their reading of the Bible, but it was also due to certain stereotypes of women as inferior, undeveloped version of men. When Sarah eventually came forward to offer her testimony for church membership, she was not allowed to speak publicly, as only men were allowed to give one’s testimony in church. Instead, the pastor of her church read Sarah’s testimony as Sarah sat in quiet submission in the church service. Later, as Sarah was writing her memoirs, she viewed herself as “a vile sinner,” “too vile to be forgiven,” and “a vile wretch” (Berkus, p. 54-56). Too what extent her negative assessment of herself was simply a display of evangelical piety versus a capitulation to cultural attitudes towards women in her day is a provocative question to consider in Berkus’ research.
Sarah was particularly concerned about the assurance of her own salvation. In her day, this theological concern was changing, as the emerging evangelical movement was leading away from traditional Puritanism, established in 17th century New England. Puritans had taught that while assurance of one’s salvation is something that might be aspired to, it would be better to have some doubts about that assurance, less anyone become presumptuous about a person’s status before God. In the Calvinist theology of Sarah’s upbringing in her Congregationalist church, the Christian should be ever mindful of the “horrible decree” of God regarding the mystery of election of those who would be saved. Ultimately, one may never know if they are truly a child of God, or if they were simply experiencing “false” signs of salvation’s assurance.
However, by the time Sarah was wrestling deeply with her faith in her twenties, a new breed of preachers were traveling across colonial America suggesting that one could have evidence that could provide genuine assurance of salvation, at an emotional, experiential level. As Enlightenment thinking grew, there was a greater confidence in the powers of human observation to provide genuine knowledge that served as the basis for the development of scientific methodology, in the acquisition of truth. Part of that increased confidence in human observation suggested that even religious experience can provide reliable evidence of genuine conversion. Like many in her day, Sarah was on a quest for certainty, regarding whether or not she would be guaranteed heaven, versus suffering the eternal pangs of hell.
At one critical juncture in her spiritual journey, Sarah Osborn attended an Anglican church in Newport, Rhode Island, roughly twenty years after arriving in America in 1722. Rhode Island, one of the few colonies at the time that guaranteed freedom of religious expression, offered many different experiences of Christianity that varied from the Puritan Congregationalism of Sarah’s youth. In contrast with the starkness of the Puritan style of worship, that sought to remove from the meeting house, all that could potentially distract the worshipper, even to the point of not celebrating Christmas because of its association with pagan ideas, Sarah was drawn to the Anglican experience that tended to be more open to traditional Catholic liturgical practices, such as the symbolism of kneeling, lighting candles, making the sign of the cross, listening to organ music, and looking through stained-glass windows.
When her mother learned of Sarah’s interest in Anglican faith, her mother sternly warned her of such delusive thinking, “As sure as you turn church woman without knowing upon what grounds you turn, so sure you will turn reprobate.” Her mother’s admonishment caused Sarah to rethink her involvement in Anglicanism, and prompted Sarah to return to a Congregationalist church, where she eventually discovered the type of assurance of her own salvation that she longed for. It was an experience that on the one hand emphasized her unworthiness, but that on the other hand, also celebrated God’s goodness towards her and affection towards her. Sarah would even go so far, as not only describing Christ in terms of prophet, priest and king, but also that as lover (Brekus, p. 112).
Not everyone in the 18th century was willing to embrace Sarah’s language of her affections that described God as her “lover.” In the published version of her diaries, this type of mystical language regarding one’s relationship with God was deleted. It could be safely argued that the arrival of the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s, that so greatly impacted the American landscape, substantially changed the substance of Protestant Christianity. The earlier emphasis on Calvinistic theology and its intellectual rigor as the mark of orthodoxy gave way to a greater emphasis on emotion, feelings, and often very mystical experiences of God. The anxiety over knowing one’s status before God was replaced by a more confident sense of assurance regarding the experience of Christian salvation. In many ways, it was these type of changes that marked the end of the Puritan era and the beginning of what many observers have characterized as the era of modern “evangelicalism” that survives even now into the 21st century.
Questions about how one can have the assurance of salvation continue to be a hallmark of evangelical belief today. Debates in churches over “eternal security,” “once saved, always saved,” and “you can lose your salvation” demonstrate this. Even though the emphasis on practices like altar calls appears to be in some decline today, the desire of having some sense of certainty regarding your eternal state, while living in this world remains a vital concern among Christians in the 21st century.
Stay tuned for the next installment in this series blogging through Catherine A. Brekus’ Sarah Osborn’s World.