Sweeney’s Booknotes: Remembering Sarah Osborn

Catherine Brekus, Sarah Osborn's WorldCatherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, New Directions in Narrative History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

Newport, Rhode Island’s Sarah Osborn (1714-1796) has long been known as a lay Edwardsean Christian leader during and after the Great Awakening in New England. But not until now has she enjoyed the sort of critical acclaim that is commensurate with her historical significance.

In this latest of her books on early American Christian women—such as the landmark Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (1998)—Catherine Brekus, a member of our Center’s Board of Visitors who teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School, offers a sympathetic narrative of Osborn’s life and ministry that is clearly the best treatment of the subject ever written.

Born in London to a Congregationalist tanner and his wife, Sarah Haggar moved to Newport with her family in 1730. While still a young girl, she married a sailor, Samuel Wheaten, in 1731 (against the wishes of her parents) and had a son named Samuel in 1732 (who died young, at age 11, in 1744). Husband Samuel died at sea only two years after their marriage (1733), while Sarah was still a teen. Several years later (1742), she would remarry, but this time to a widower with three boys of his own, Henry Osborn, a tailor, who was more than twice her age.

Sarah lived a fruitful life as a teacher, the mistress of a local boarding school, and a lay leader of Newport’s First Congregational Church. She led a large women’s prayer group. She founded several Bible studies. Most famously, perhaps, she led a ministry to slaves and free blacks in the region. (She owned a slave herself and was something of a racist, but had a passion for gospel ministry with Africans.) These efforts hit their peak during the mid-1760s when she supervised a startling revival from her home. “The numbers who crossed Sarah Osborn’s threshold each week were astonishing,” writes Brekus. “During the summer of 1766 more than 500 people crowded into her house every week, including almost 140 on Sunday nights alone. . . . By January 1767, 525 people were coming to her house every week, including at least 70 Africans. Remarkably, more than 5 percent of Newport’s black population passed through her doors every Sunday evening” (pp. 254, 260).

Even after this revival, Osborn’s ministry continued and exerted striking influence in Newport and beyond. Osborn’s women’s group, in fact, took the lead in the appointment of Edwards’ student, Samuel Hopkins, to the pastorate of their church in 1770. (This happened behind the scenes. Only men in the church could vote. But the ladies in Sarah’s charge persuaded their husbands of Hopkins’ merits over much initial skepticism.)

Hopkins and Osborn grew close. Hopkins assumed primary leadership of most of Osborn’s meetings. But as he did, he consulted her and other women for help (most significantly Susanna Anthony, a close friend of Osborn and supporter of Hopkins’ ministry). Hopkins persuaded many women to oppose the slave trade—no mean feat in a seaport town that found this trade extremely lucrative. He pushed the New Divinity, divisively, in town. (Ezra Stiles served the Second Church untill 1776, gently opposing Hopkins’ views.) And when Sarah and Susanna (known as “Susa”) passed away, he published their memoirs, canonizing them for later evangelicals.

Brekus’s research is based largely on Sarah’s own writings: her memoir, ten volumes of her diaries, over a hundred letters, and a short tract, The Nature, Certainty, and Evidence of True Christianity (1755). But it has also involved extensive use of Hopkins’ Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn; Elizabeth West Hopkins’ Familiar Letters, Written by Mrs. Sarah Osborn and Miss Susanna Anthony; and a cache of other primary materials: diaries, conversion accounts, sermons, church records, periodicals, treatises, etc. What a treasure.

This book is a great read. It whets my appetite for the volume of Osborn’s diaries that Brekus is now editing for Yale University Press.