In the World and Of It: Sarah Osborn’s Story

Christians are called to be “in the world, but not of it.” I’ve heard this maxim repeated often since I became active in my faith, and have often preached variations of it. In John 17:16-18, one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Jesus prays to the Father about his disciples who are both “not of this world’ and “sent into the world.” But anyone who has tried to live as one who is “in but not of the world” knows that such a statement is a grand oversimplification.

I’m currently reading Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, for a class I’m taking at Pittsburgh Seminary. Sarah Osborn was a woman who lived in Rhode Island from 1714 to 1796, during the age of the First and Second Great Awakenings. As Catherine Brekus’ biographical work shows, this woman of exemplary Puritan and evangelical faith lived in a way that reveals many of the cultural trends of her age. To play on the book’s title, though Sarah wanted to live as much as possible for God’s glory alone, she was very much of the world of eighteenth century New England.

Rather than simply recounting the narrative of Sarah Osborn’s life, Brekus adds copious amounts of historical information, providing a deeper sense of context on a range of factors that influenced Osborn. A reader learns of the Church’s endorsement of slavery, the culture’s customary ways of disciplining children, and the growing market economy of the Colonies. Because Sarah’s story is one of faith, we learn about the rivalry between Congregationalists and Anglicans, as well as the variety of religious reactions to “Enlightenment” thought.

In this complex world, Osborn displayed both a deep suspicion of her surroundings and an unwitting participation in early evangelicalism’s accommodation to and endorsement of Enlightenment values of experience and individualism. For example, Osborn cared deeply about the poor in her city, and desired to provide for them in ways comparable to, or even surpassing, the generosity of secular “humanitarians.’ As Brekus explains, “When the word humanitarian was coined in the nineteenth century, it was virtually an antonym to evangelical: a humanitarian was a religious skeptic (perhaps even an atheist) who viewed happiness as the greatest good” (Kindle Ed. Loc. 4316). Concern for the poor among evangelicals like Osborn at the time was indeed new, and replaced a Puritan and Calvinist assumption that the poor were simply destined to be poor. Often giving to others at great personal sacrifice, Osborn challenged that notion. But this action on Osborn’s part was just as much reflective of her culture’s increasing concern for individual welfare and happiness as it was of her faith.

In another example of her rooted-ness in her historical context, even her humanitarian concerns did not make Osborn question the validity of slavery. For many years, Osborn possessed a slave boy named Bobey. Though Osborn befriended and even attended church with Bobey’s mother, Osborn even considered selling Bobey at a time of significant financial need. She decided not to do so out of fear that Bobey’s new master might not lead Bobey into faith in Christ. As Brekus explains, “Even though [Osborn] did not object to the buying and selling of slaves, nothing was more important than Bobey’s soul” (Kindle Ed. Loc. 4792). More than three hundred years later, such logic seems unbelievable, but such thoughts were tenable in eighteenth century New England.

These examples show the influence that Osborn’s surroundings had upon her. But Osborn was also an active agent in shaping her culture as well. Osborn left her mark on the world, partly through personal evangelism and witness and partly through her writings.  In fact, we might celebrate her writing as work that paved the way for other women to make an impact on the Church and the world.  Osborn was one of few women published in her day, and the fact that her tract The Nature, Certainty, and Evidence of True Christianity was first published anonymously indicates how rare publication of women’s writings were then. But she was at an early stage in the development of a religious movement that would eventually give women a much more significant voice in the Church. As Brekus comments, “Evangelicals were theological conservatives who believed that women had been created subordinate to men, but they also gave women a new vocabulary of individual experience to justify their authority and leadership” (Kindle Ed. Loc. 3635). Osborn was one to embrace that new vocabulary, and to use it to express her faith in powerful ways.

From the vantage point of twenty-first century Christians, Osborn’s record is mixed. Her story is a step toward a more egalitarian understanding of the place of women in both the Church and the world. But she also kept a slave. She was a product of her culture, but also someone who acted intentionally in ways that shaped her culture. All this matters for us today because: (1) Like Osborn, we are living in a world where the trends of our culture shape us more than we realize. (2) Some of the assumptions we take for granted may seem unbelievable to generations that follow us. (3) The Church’s response to the issues of our day will inevitably be shaped by those very assumptions, whether we are aware of them or not. 

If we are serious about being “in the world but not of it,” we’ll need to look closely at the unspoken assumptions behind what we mean by of the world. Where do those assumptions actually come from? Are they essential to the Gospel and the mission of the Church? Why do we embrace some cultural trends without batting an eye, and resist others with great vehemence? Perhaps as we start to look carefully at ourselves in our own historical contexts, we may discover some surprising insights about where we stand.  May those insights help us live more faithfully in this world which we’re also of.

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