Osborn, Sarah

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Born 22 February 1714, London, England; died 2 August 1796, Newport, Rhode Island

Daughter of Benjamin and Susanna Haggar; married Samuel Wheaton, 1731 (died); Henry Osborn, 1742; children: one

Sarah Osborn emigrated to America with her family in 1722. They first settled in Boston, Massachusetts, and later moved to Newport, Rhode Island, where Osborn spent the remainder of her life. In Newport, she met and married a seaman, who was lost at sea in November 1733. Osborn cared for their child alone, sometimes through great hardships, until she remarried.

Osborn was admitted to the Congregationalist church in Newport in 1737, an event of great significance to a Puritan in the early part of the 18th century. Her spiritual autobiography, The Nature, Certainty, and Evidence of True Christianity (1755), was evidently written in retrospect over a 10-year period from 1743 to 1753. It was originally couched in terms of a letter from one friend to another "in great Concern of Soul." This 15-page work reappeared in later editions and reprints in 1793, and apparently was expanded by or with the help of her minister, Samuel Hopkins, as Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn (1799). The Life was meant as an example of piety for a younger generation.

Osborn's work is characterized by foreshadowings of the sentimental, moralistic fiction of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The work is replete with tear-stained emotion and signs of her sensibility. Osborn's moments of doubt are linked to hysterics and excessive agitation. She relates how she could neither eat nor sleep for a week after Satan had suggested to her that the state of her soul was hopeless. Typically, Osborn weeps when asking her minister for church admittance, a change from the austere intellectualizing of earlier spiritual autobiographies by New England women.

Osborn's writing evidences a notable stylistic as well as contextual change from earlier spiritual autobiographies. In her conscious attempt to tell a life story, she increases the cast of characters to include not only the self, the savior, and the devil, but also family, friends, ministers, and various incidental personages.

She includes a variety of incidents and events to carry the story forward; thus, while the narrative still focuses on her saving experience, it is broadened to contain plot, action, and dialogue. There is even an echo of the English novel of sentiment.

Osborn shows an ambitious desire to create a lengthy, complex story. As such, her memoirs have importance. Although the content often appears unexceptional or repetitive to the modern reader, it stands out as an early attempt by a woman writer to use available, socially acceptable materials to fabricate a readable and entertaining story.


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