Within a few years after experiencing her conversion to Christ, Sarah Osborn completed her set of diary entries that would serve as the basis for her published work. Harvard Divinity School religious historian, Catherine A. Brekus, weaves these diary entries into her biography of this remarkable woman: in Sarah Osborn’s World. Sarah Osborn continued to write other letters and other diaries, that Brekus also highlights in her research, giving us insight into the life of this 18th century, American, evangelical Christian woman.
Sarah Osborn lived an exceedingly difficult life. One of those difficulties was having to bury her one and only son. When her son, Samuel, was only twelve years old, he had been sent off to learn a trade, serving as an apprentice to a tailor, which was a typical way of providing an education for young boys at the time. However, Samuel contracted what was most probably tuberculosis. In an age before the development of contemporary medicine, Sarah Osborn held the hand of her pale and dying son, for several days. Unfortunately for Sarah, who had only a few years previously come to faith in Christ, she agonized over the spiritual state of her son, as he had never given his own testimony as to having a faith in Jesus.
For the early Puritans, church membership required that everyone give their testimony of their experience of God to their local minister. Puritan clergy were obliged to figure out if the testimony given was genuine, but in those early days, one could never be entirely sure whether such testimony was without flaw. A testimony could show the evidence of God’s election or it could be a false sign. One could never know for sure, though the giving of one’s testimony was thought to point one in the right direction. It was only in Sarah Osborn’s day, in the waning period of colonial Puritanism, that Christians began to gain the confidence, that you can have a real certainty of assurance regarding one’s salvation.
But for a twelve year old boy like the dying Samuel, the Christian parent was often filled with anxiety over the status of their child’s relationship with the Lord. Sarah was no less troubled. But there was added conflict. Many Puritan teachers urged that parents were sinning if they loved their children too much. If a parent grieved too much over a dying child, it could lead to the type of murmuring the people of Israel did in the desert wanderings. One Puritan preacher quoted Psalm 39:9, “I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.” A Christian parent should simply accept the death of the child as being from the hand of God. To excessively grieve over a child’s death would lead one to question God’s wisdom and decision. Sarah Osborn wrestled with this, but she also took comfort in passages like John 11:35, where Jesus wept for the death of Lazarus. In her weeping, Sarah was encouraged that Jesus would share in her grief.
Yet Sarah’s grief was not simply for the loss of her son’s life. She was disturbed knowing that if he had given no testimony of salvation, that he might be forever separated from her through all eternity. Sadly, Sarah never heard any word of confession from the lips of her son, as he lay dying in great pain.
Sarah concluded that her anxiety over her child was brought on by the Lord, as a type of punishment for loving her son too much, thus making him into an idol. But according to Brekus, by the end of the 18th century there was a shift in how to view grief over lost loved ones among evangelical Christians. Whereas earlier generations interpreted verses like Ezekiel 24:17, “Forbear to cry, make no mourning for the dead,” as prohibition against mourning, those who would eventually publish Sarah Osborn’s diaries began to understand this verse within a broader context. Such mourning in Ezekiel’s day was dismissed simply because the grief of individual loss was overwhelmed by the general state of widespread calamity in the days of the prophet, among the Jews. Instead, Christians like Sarah should understand their immense feelings of grief for lost loved ones as a reflection of God’s tender affection for them (p. 164).
This shift in thinking about grief, has continued to change, even in our day, a few hundred years later. Today, if you fail to express your feelings about things like grief, particularly in the realms of Christian marriage and intimate friendships, you might find yourself viewed as not being open and honest in your relationships with others. How we got from considering the expression of grief as a sin of idolatry, to being a virtue of open and honest communication, is a curious development in Christian thought and practice.
More on Sarah Osborn coming in the next post in this series.