The last in this series of blog posts about the life of the 18th century diary writer, Sarah Osborn. I hope you have enjoyed them (Previous posts: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5).
By the eve of the American Revolution, Sarah Osborn’s health had declined so much that she was largely unable to write. Furthermore, the war severely disrupted Sarah’s ministry, as when the British first lay siege to the city of Newport in late 1775 and then finally occupied it for about three years, the city was emptied of over one-third of its inhabitants. This devastation combined with a hurricane and several harsh winters, and the loss of her husband Henry, brought Sarah once again to the brink of destitution. If it were not for the generosity of her Christian friends remaining in Newport, as practically an invalid she would have surely starved or froze to death.
Nevertheless, Sarah was confident in God grace and sovereignty. As historian Catherine Brekus quotes from Sarah’s memoirs (from page 289 of Sarah Osborn’s World):
“…When the bullets were whizzing around me, I realized the next might have a commission to reach me; and if this was the way, infinite wisdom had chosen, I had no objection to make.— I chose neither life nor death, only that God might glorify himself in me; and that, whether I lived, or died, I might be the Lord’s.”
Sarah prayed believing that the war might be leading towards the Christian millennium (her pastor, Samuel Hopkins, wrote a popular treatise defending a post-millennial view of the “End Times”). With the exception of the local Anglican church, the pacifist Quakers, and the Baptists suspicious of the Congregationalist majority, nearly all of the Christians in Newport were patriots. In Sarah’s view, the British had joined up with the forces of Catholicism bent on subjecting the American colonies with “popery.” Clearly, Sarah had to modify her view somewhat when the still-Catholic French came to aid the Americans and set up their headquarters in Newport towards the end of the war. No matter how the prophetic details were working themselves out, these were desperate times for Sarah Osborn.
When the war ended and the new nation was struggling with its newly found freedom, conditions in Newport slowly improved, but Sarah continued to slowly decline until her death in 1796. Her ideas about heaven had evolved, as did for most evangelicals at the time, from a more medieval perspective that emphasized an essentially passive approach of contemplating the divine for all eternity to a more activist experience of a completely renewed earth, where work and industry would continue and time with friends and family were celebrated (p. 325). In her last few years when she was barely able to write or read and essentially bed-ridden day after day, her confidence in the bodily resurrection in the “New Heavens and New Earth” must have given her great comfort in the midst of her horrible health.
After Sarah Osborn died, she had bequeathed her remaining writings to her pastor, Samuel Hopkins, who then published these works. Sarah Osborn’s memoirs remained in print for perhaps the first quarter of the 19th century, but her legacy declined as the rigors of her Calvinistic faith were set aside by the immense growth of Methodism and its Arminian theology that emphasized the freedom of the will. Catherine Brekus suggests that the growing Methodist influence in 19th century evangelicalism bristled against Sarah’s insistence of acquiescing to God’s sovereign will. For example, many have tended to shy away from Sarah Osborn’s extended meditations on death, describing her as “morbid” in her thinking. Instead, American Christians tended to be more activist in their faith, suggesting that through godly people the world might be changed and brought more into alignment with the advancing Kingdom of God.
But Sarah’s confidence in the sovereignty of God simply meant that God’s good purposes would finally win out in the end, despite whatever calamity she faced in her own personal life. In other words, her outlook on life was far from morbid, from her perspective. It was her Calvinistic faith that sustained her, for she wholly sought God’s glory, and God’s glory alone.
I, for one, am glad that historian Catherine Brekus has helped us to recover Sarah Osborn’s legacy. While there is a sense on continuity between the 18th century evangelical faith of Sarah Osborn and contemporary spiritual life in the church, I do find that something has been lost and it is in need of recovery. The Puritans in pre-revolutionary American surely had their faults, but they also had their virtues. Most importantly, and without dismissing the importance of trying to promote active change in our world for the better, I do find that contemporary notions of the supreme and essential goodness of human nature have obscured a truth that Sarah Osborn knew all too well. Sarah Osborn clearly understood just how deceptive the human heart really is. Even in our experience with God, many in the church today have swallowed the world’s values that can best be described as self-serving, more interested in the promotion of our own wants and desires than in seeking after God and honoring His purposes. We are so inclined to elevate our own will, insisting that God somehow “baptize” it and call it “God’s will.”
Oh, that we might learn something from Sarah Osborn that better appreciates our position before a Holy and Sovereign God.
April 18th, 2020 at 1:49 pm
Amen to your closing thoughts!