The following letters are taken from the writings of Sarah Osborn, an evangelical woman who lived in Newport, Rhode Island, during the eighteenth century. Osborn was a published author, a rarity for early American women, and she became well known during her life for leading a religious revival at her house during the 1760s and 1770s. In many ways she was an extraordinary person. But she was also poor and female, two characteristics that are rarely associated with the makers of history, and in the decades after her death she was gradually forgotten.
Reading Sarah Osborn’s writings can help us come to a deeper understanding of the changes that took place in eighteenth-century America, including the spread of Enlightenment ideas, the rise of humanitarianism, the emergence of antislavery sentiment, the expansion of women’s religious authority, the advent of the American Revolution, and most important to her, the rise of the evangelical movement. All of these transformations took place because of the agency of men and women, most of them now forgotten, who dreamed of creating a different world. When we remember Osborn, we remember that historical change always emerges out of the hopes, fears, and strivings of ordinary people.
February 9, 1752, Sabbath evening
Ah, Lord, how deceitful do I find my heart to be. How often have I thought I desired nothing more of this world’s goods, but just daily food and raiment and wherewith to render to everyone their due. Yea, I have once and again told thee so. And thou hast in thy good providence granted me all that I asked of thee; yea, thou hast given me to the utmost of what I then desired. And now, ere I am aware, I find myself busy in providing for futurities, want to lay up a little of this and a little for that. And from thence, I begin to want a great deal, to provide for sickness and old age, and whatnot.
Lord, I am afraid of this worldly mindedness. I know not where it will end. O, I pray thee, subdue it by thy grace, or all my strivings against it will be ineffectual. O, do I begin to lay up a treasure here? Then I fear my heart will be here also. Lord, I dread being glued down to the things of time and sense. I pray thee, give me no unsanctified prosperity, but sanctify my fancy, and let not my vain imaginations carry my heart off from God and bury it in this world. O, for some discoveries of eternal things. That this vain, empty world, with all its enjoyments, may shrink into nothing compared with that more durable substance, that one thing needful: an interest in the blessed Jesus. O Lord, help me more and more to lay up all my good in God so that it may overbalance the sweetness and bitterness of all creatures.
Lord, I would not ungratefully forget to thank thee for the care of thy good providence in so providing the comforts and conveniencies of life for me. But O, I deprecate having these as my portion. This is not the portion I have chosen, O no, but thyself, thy Christ, and the sanctifying influence of thy blessed Spirit, that I may be enabled to live to thy glory here and to all eternity. O, grant these desires; give me this portion, I beseech thee, for Jesus’s sake.
July 12, 1753
O, what a clog is this poor crazy body. How much time must be bestowed on it in sleep to make it in any measure active in the service of God. If ’tis denied the refreshment it requires that way, it utterly refuses to afford me any assistance and hangs as a dead weight to bear down my spirits. Its ails and complaints are almost all that can be attended, and I am unfit for everything. O blessed be God, I shall ere long shake off this clog. And then, my soul, thou shalt be forever active; then thou mayest fly swift to execute his commands; adore, gaze, praise, exult, and triumph! And drink in as much of God as thou canst hold. There is no weariness in thy Father’s house: no, there the weary are at rest. Then the full end of thy first and second creation shall be answered, even to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
O my God, I bless thee for these hopes of glory, but O, make me active even here. Let the influence of thy Spirit and grace be lively and strong, and it shall animate even this lump of clay and make it at least for a season forget its infirmities. O, be with me and assist me in duty this day, I pray thee, for Jesus’s sake.
July 15, 1753, Sabbath evening
I have this day been admitted to wait on God in his house and at his table, and there, blessed be God, had my heart enlarged. I trust sacramental graces was really drawn forth into exercise, and I was enabled to say “my beloved is mine and I am his.” Sin as the procuring cause of my dear Redeemer’s sufferings appeared exceeding bitter. Assisted in pleading for its utter destruction by the blood of Christ, which was shed for the remission of sin, and in pleading for strengthening and quickening grace. Adored the wisdom and goodness of God in appointing such an ordinance, and I, who so long ago deserved to have had the cup of trembling put into my hand, should be brought to drink of the cup of divine consolation, even the blood of the Son of God. Was satisfied I was an invited guest and came there in obedience to my dear Redeemer’s command, to do this in remembrance of him. Was persuaded he had answered all the demands of justice in my room and stead; had drunk the very dregs of the cup of divine indignation that I might be free in him; had cast over me the wedding garment, even his own spotless righteousness, that the shame of my nakedness might not appear, nor I be found speechless when he came in to view the guest. Neither was I, blessed be God, but was bid welcome there.
O, amazing grace. O, astonishing love and condescension! There, there, I solemnly renewed my choice and dedications, and solemnly resolved, by grace assisting, to follow hard after God, to be for him and for no other. I rejoiced to think how I was going from ordinance to ordinance, and from strength to strength, and should ere long arrive where there is no need of ordinances. O! What a feast have I had today—a feast of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.
And now, my soul, remember the vows of God are upon thee. I fly to thee for strength to live answerable to these solemn transactions betwixt thee and me. O, hold me fast by the bonds of thy Spirit and grace, and then I will perform my vows; then I will hold thee fast and will not let thee go. O blessed Jesus, stand by me and strengthen me, and I will clasp the arms of my faith around thee. I will obey thee with my whole soul and body, which are thine own. O, how sweet to tell thee they are thine own, and Lord I repeat it: they are thine own forever to all intents and purposes. Therefore possess them. O, accept them and use them as most consists with thy glory, and all is well, infinitely well.
But Lord, remember, I promise thee nothing at all in my own strength. No, no, I will not, I dare not, for if thou leavest me I shall surely leave thee, turn apostate or do everything that’s dreadful. O, keep me from temptation. Keep me from sin. Carry on thy own work in opposition to earth and hell. O adored be thy name. Thy power is infinite. If thou wilt work, none can let, and thou art faithful, too.
Therefore by grace I will rely upon thee for everything I want, for I am thine and thou art mine,
From Sarah Osborn’s Collected Writings by Catherine Brekus, published by Yale University Press in 2017. Reproduced by permission.
Catherine A. Brekus is Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School. She lives in Auburndale, MA.