Not too long after her young son died, Sarah Osborn was given the gift of a slave boy by friends. Sarah was too impoverished to afford her own slave. Our “tour guide” examining Sarah Osborn’s life, religious historian Catherine Brekus, surmises that Sarah’s friends hoped that having another young child to raise would assist Sarah in working through her grief. Furthermore, having a young slave might prove to be a sound investment for such a poor New England woman. In an era more than a hundred years before America was bitterly ripped apart by a Civil War, the evils of slavery were never thoroughly considered by Sarah, or her Christian friends, at that moment in time(p. 174).
Sarah did raise the boy, Bobey, and she developed a profound affection for him. Like most people of the time, Sarah believed that whites were superior to African dark-skinned peoples, but she nevertheless viewed blacks as being spiritually equal in God’s view. Sarah taught Bobey how to read, convinced that everyone should be given the opportunity to know how to read the Bible so that they might come to a knowledge of the Savior. The boy was eventually sent off on an apprenticeship at age ten.
The grinding poverty faced by Sarah Osborn and her family was contrasted with the growing economic success of towns like Newport, Rhode Island in the 18th century. Some merchants in Newport made vast sums of money from the growing slave trade, but there were other sources of economic wealth that prove less controversial. Many colonial Americans could buy imported goods from all over the world, from molasses to books to fine linens, that in previous ages were only within reach by the very rich.
Nevertheless, Sarah and her family were thrust into bankruptcy once, and then nearly put back into bankruptcy again during the French and Indian war of the 1750s. With British troops in America sent there to fight the French on the frontier, the demand for food and other goods increased, raising the prices such that families like Sarah’s could no longer afford them. Sarah was barely making a living for her family as a schoolteacher, and when she considered raising the tuition rates to offset the rising prices. She hesitated in doing so, based upon rumors that Sarah was not acting in a very “Christian” manor by imposing economic hardship on the other families associated with her school. It was a tough decision to go through, as Sarah in principle thought that she could raise her tuition rates out of economic need. But if she were motivated by “covetousness,” she would simply have to make do with what she already had, which is what she did (p. 199).
Long before the advent of “free will offerings” in the 19th century where American churches began to normally “pass the plate” to collect churches tithes, most churches of the colonial period relied on “pew rents” to fund themselves, as sanctioned by the state. Even after churches were disestablished, in relationship to the state, the practice of “pew rents” continued for quite some time. It comes as no surprise that Sarah and her family occupied one of the lesser pews of her church. Brekus has been able to research the pew rents of Sarah’s church, finding there was a clear disparity between Sarah’s family and others in her evangelical community. In contrast to Sarah Osborn, Christians who were reasonably “well off” looked upon their economic success as a sign indicating God’s favor.
It might be difficult to imagine why Sarah Osborn struggled with “covetousness” when she was so desperately poor to begin with. Her family was burdened by debt, lived in a rented home, and were not able to afford many of the “luxuries” available to her wealthier neighbors in Newport, Rhode Island. But despite various challenges that Sarah faced, she sought to be content in her condition, accepting it simply as God’s will for her life to live in near destitution. This raises a question that Christians in capitalist societies have always had to contend with: what is the difference between legitimate economic need and the sin of “covetousness?”
The years of the French and Indian War brought more grief to Sarah Osborn and her family. Like most English-speaking evangelicals of the time, Sarah viewed the conflict between the British and the French as a conflict between the powers of light and darkness, between the British colonies as the “new Israel” in covenant with God and the false Catholic religion of the French, where the pope was considered to be the “whore of Babylon,” thus fulfilling the prophesies of the Book of Revelation regarding the Great Tribulation (p. 203).
Early in the war, Sarah and her husband Henry Osborn lost one of Henry’s sons (through a previous marriage) who served in the British army. Another stepson of Sarah’s was unable to take care of his young family after failing in a privateering venture to recover French ships, forcing Sarah and Henry to take care of them while being in poverty themselves. Not too long thereafter, tragedy hit again as this same stepson died in the further fighting of the war.
Despite her poverty, Sarah did what should could to be charitable towards others in various ways. While her family managed to survive with less than half of the normal firewood provisions necessary to make it through a New England winter, she still gave freely to those around her in need. When a young man was sentenced to death for a crime, she went to him in prison and led him to have faith in Jesus Christ just prior to his being executed, which brought Sarah the greatest joy.
As an extension of what she considered to be “charity,” Sarah publicly spoke out when bands of actors came in from out of town to put on a series of plays, including comedies and some acts of Shakespeare. Like many other Christians of the time, attending the theater was considered sinful, as it glamorized evil, promoted effeminacy with men in female clothing playing the parts of women, and in general, luring people into other sinful behavior (p. 236).
To try to help relieve her financial distress, Sarah at one point considered the possibility of selling Bobey, the slave she owned, whom she had raised as if her own son. Sarah was clearly desperate for the money, but the situation was morally complicated. Sarah had helped to lead Bobey’s mother, Phillis, herself a slave, to have faith in Christ, and Sarah and Phillis had become good friends by being in the same women’s prayer group. But Phillis, the boy’s biological mother, strenuously objected to Sarah’s plans to sell her son.
Like most Christians of the time, people like Sarah simply assumed that all people of African descent fell under Noah’s curse, on his son Ham’s descendants. Black people were inferior and so the institution of racial slavery was both a sign of that curse as well as a blessing upon such an inferior race of humans. For Sarah, slave ownership was an act of benevolence, protecting the inferior from dissolution and despair.
The conflict between Sarah and Bobey’s mother clearly strained their friendship, yet in the end Sarah relented and declined to sell Bobey, indicating that what was best for Bobey was what would benefit his soul. Sarah had considered selling Bobey to another Christian slave owner, but what if something happened to Bobey’s new master ,and he was then subsequently sold to someone who was not aligned with the Gospel? So it was not anxiety over slavery itself that caused Sarah to rethink the situation but rather concern for the boy’s spiritual health.
The idea that someone can simply own another human being, seems like a moral “no-brainer” to 21st century readers. The answer is clearly, “NO.” Yet the thought of emancipation for her slave-boy Bobey was simply not on Sarah Osborn’s radar of possibilities at the time.
Nevertheless, Sarah was actually very progressive in her thinking, as we will see in the next blog post in this series.