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Sweeney’s Booknotes: Sarah Osborn’s Collected Writings

Catherine A. Brekus, ed., Sarah Osborn’s Collected Writings (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

BrekusThis lightly annotated edition of selected Osborn manuscripts arrives as a companion to the highly-acclaimed monograph on Osborn Brekus published back in 2013, which we reviewed here.

Brekus, who teaches at Harvard, is a specialist in the religious lives of women in early America. And Osborn (1714-1796) is one of the few colonial American women–religious or otherwise–whose writings were preserved. More than 2,000 pages of her manuscripts survive (out of nearly 15,000 Osborn penned altogether), in addition to a book published anonymously by Osborn (with the help of a local clergyman) and material by Osborn published shortly after she died (by two of her admirers). Several other scholars have treated Osborn before, but only now is she receiving the attention she deserves, thanks in large part to Brekus.

Born in London to a Congregationalist tanner and his wife, Osborn moved to Newport, Rhode Island 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. She remarried several years later (1742), but this time to a widower with three boys of his own, Henry Osborn, a tailor, who was more than twice her age.

Sarah worked as a teacher, the mistress of a boarding school, and 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, speaking to hundreds every week in her crowded living room.

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 Edwards’ “New Divinity,” divisively, in town. (Ezra Stiles served the Second Church till 1776, gently opposing Hopkins’ views.) And when Sarah and Susanna (known as “Susa”) passed away, he published their memoirs, canonizing them for later evangelicals.

The present volume includes the full text of Osborn’s memoir, more than 20 of her letters, and parts of her diary. Brekus has transcribed most of these manuscripts herself, but has also used material from two older works: Samuel Hopkins, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn (1799), from which Brekus has taken extracts from Osborn’s diaries; and Elizabeth West Hopkins, ed., Familiar Letters, Written by Mrs. Sarah Osborn and Miss Susanna Anthony (1807), from which Brekus has taken correspondence.

Anyone interested in women in the history of Christianity, Edwards’ vast importance in the lives of lay people, or eighteenth-century history will cherish this collection.