As Sarah Osborn matured in age, so did her spiritual stature as a Christian leader in her Newport, Rhode Island community. But her spiritual influence grew out of the difficult trials she experienced in her life.
By the time Sarah Osborn hit her late 40’s, her health was so bad that she was simply unable to walk any long distances. She had to be carried to church by her friends. One would think that life for such a weak and physically disabled woman would be reduced to pure obscurity. However, this would not be the case for Sarah Osborn.
Over the next few years, Sarah Osborn would participate in an incredibly profound spiritual revival of people from all walks of life. What started out as simply an invitation to some neighbors to share in the nightly family devotional for one evening became an extensive, multi-year ministry. Night after night, people would cram inside her home to listen to Sarah share the message of the Bible. Hundreds of people from the town of Newport, Rhode Island and beyond would sit at the feet of this saintly woman who would pray for them.
These meetings were controversial for several reasons. The most glaring was the racial mixture in her home. Sarah would invite slaves and free blacks, as well as many whites to meet together to learn from the Scriptures. As many as 500 people per week would crowd into her small home, though different groups would meet over different nights to avoid alarming her neighbors of inappropriate racial mixing. But as Sarah would continue these meetings over the years, her attitude towards slavery began to change. In the early years of those meetings, Sarah would encourage the black slaves to “kiss the rod,” an old English phrase possibly derived from Proverbs 22:15 and Psalm 2:12, promising that if slaves were to humbly submit to their masters, God would eventually reward them and compensate them for their sufferings. But by the 1770s, Sarah was increasingly disturbed by the buying and selling of humans in her town of Newport. As she shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the many black people who came to her home, these new Christians learned to read the Bible, some of them expressing an interest to go back to Africa to become missionaries to their own people across the Atlantic.
Though Sarah Osborn in her 18th century worldview was never able to completely move past her cultural assumptions of black racial inferiority, her attitude towards slavery had slowly taken on a very radical transformation. In what is perhaps the most provocative aspect of Catherine Brekus’ study of Sarah Osborn’s life, Brekus argues that these changes in attitudes among colonial Christians like Sarah were due partly to a re-examination of Scripture, but they were also due to changing views of social order and human freedom brought about by the Enlightenment period in philosophy.
The meetings in Sarah’s home also caused some conflict at first with her pastor. As a woman, Sarah had no intention to assert any authority over her male pastor, according to her reading of how the Bible prohibited women from teaching. In Sarah’s mind, she was not “teaching” but simply sharing what she had learned from God with the many hundreds of men and women who poured into her home to have her pray for them.
However, a few years earlier, the wife of Sarah’s then pastor had died, and the pastor sunk down into a deep depression. The depression manifested itself in a bout with alcoholism. This disrupted the life of Sarah’s church, especially when the pastor on some occasions never showed up to preach on Sunday mornings. Sarah tried to support her pastor publicly as best as she knew how, but as soon as Sarah began her meetings, her pastor began to feel threatened by Sarah’s success in ministry. Sarah’s pastor sought to have her meetings shut down, but Sarah simply would not abide with that counsel. Too many souls were at stake for Sarah. As nearly an invalid, Sarah had not sought this ministry out. The people came to her. Sarah saw this as the hand of God at work.
The pastoral conflict was resolved when Sarah’s church removed the man as the pastor and called a new man to take his place, a man who was very much supportive of Sarah’s work through the early 1770’s. This new pastor, Samuel Hopkins, would soon become Sarah’s chief supporter in ministry and primary publisher of Sarah Osborn’s diaries, which serves as the basis for Catherine Brekus book, Sarah Osborn’s World.
Samuel Hopkins proved to be an influential pastor in New England, having been a student of the great American theologian, Jonathan Webster. But Samuel Hopkins proved to be a controversialist in his own way. Formerly a slave owner, his conversion to the abolitionist cause helped to persuade Sarah Osborn in her own change of views regarding slavery. It was Samuel Hopkins whose preaching help to lead to the end of the African slave trade, running through Newport, Rhode Island. Hopkins championed the passage of a law that granted freedom to all African slaves born after 1785, and he founded a school for the training of missionaries to preach the Gospel in Africa.
In attempting to wed a Calvinist theology to the best of Enlightenment thought, Hopkins was accused of promoting a “New Divinity” school of theology that was neither fully Calvinist nor truly “Enlightened.” For example, Hopkins rejected the traditionally Puritan view of Christ’s limited atonement ; that is, Jesus only died for the sins of the elect, and instead embraced a more Wesleyan, universal view of Christ’s dying for the sins of all of humanity. On the other hand, Hopkins thought that any true Christian should be willing to suffer damnation for the glory of God, a view that appalled the theological liberals of his day. It was this reworking of the older Puritan theology that helped to provide the intellectual fuel for the great revivals of the coming 19th century, commonly known as the Second Great Awakening, and that continues to have an impact on evangelical theology today in the 21st century.
More to come in the next and last post in the series on Sarah Osborn.