Osborn, Sarah Haggar Wheaten (1714-1796)
Sarah Haggar Wheaten Osborn (1714-1796)
Teacher, religious leader, writer
Vocation. Sarah Haggar was born in London on 22 February 1714 to Benjamin and Susanna Guyse Haggar. Her family immigrated to New England in 1722 and settled permanently in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1729. When she was eighteen years old, Sarah married Samuel Wheaten, who died at sea two years later, leaving her with an infant son. Sarah took over a neighbor’s school in order to earn a living. In 1737 she joined the First Congregational Church in Newport and became an active member. She was profoundly affected by the revivals during the Great Awakening in 1740 and 1741, especially by the preaching of George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent. In 1742 Sarah married Henry Osborn, a widower with three children. But soon after their marriage her husband’s business failed, and his health declined. Sarah had to go back to teaching school to support the family despite criticism from some people in her community that her teaching took her away from family responsibilities. By the middle of the 1760s the Osborn home was a center of education and spiritual guidance for Newport’s poor people. By 1766, during a revival, more than 300 people came to one or more of her weekly meetings, and by January 1767 that number had increased to 525 men and women, blacks and whites. She was the first woman to be a leader at such a revival. Osborn also considered writing to be part of her vocation. She tracked her spiritual journey in fifty diaries and penned many letters and other miscellaneous writings. The diaries are filled with her own religious reflections as well as commentaries on theological writings, such as Jonathan Edwards’s Treatise concerning Religious Affections (1746) and Joseph Alleine’s An Alarm to the Unconverted’ (1672).
Schools. Osborn’s schools struggled financially, and the family had to take in boarders in order to make enough money. On 5 December 1758 she placed an advertisement in the Newport Mercury: “Sarah Osborn, School-mistress in Newport, proposes to keep a boarding school. Any person desirous of sending children, may be accommodated, and have them instructed in reading, writing, plain work, embroidering, tent stitch, samplers, &c. on reasonable terms.” The following May she confessed to her friend the Reverend Joseph Fish of Stonington, Connecticut, that her family was surviving as a result of the income from boarders. In her teaching Osborn was influenced by her minister, Nathaniel Clap, who believed that servants, blacks, and the poor should be educated. Osborn’s school, which reached a total enrollment of seventy students, contained not only boys and girls from well-established Newport families but also blacks and children of the poor, whose mothers sometimes paid tuition by washing, ironing, and sewing for the Osborns.
Societies. One of the outcomes of her spiritual transformation at the time of the Great Awakening was her desire to help organize and lead a female society whose members would gather to support each other in their spiritual growth. At their weekly meetings in Osborn’s home they read the Bible and other religious literature, prayed and meditated, and conversed about religious concerns. These women, many of them unmarried, were among the most faithful attendees of her various evening meetings. One of the members of the society was Susanna Anthony, who became Osborn’s close friend and correspondent and the apparent inspiration for one of Osborn’s letters that were published anonymously in 1755 as The Nature, Certainty, and Evidence of True Christianity. Osborn founded other societies. One, called the Ethiopian Society, met at her house on Tuesday evenings, and another group of forty-two slaves met on Sunday night. To the latter, neighborhood boys and girls also stopped by for singing and reading, sometimes making the total number of visitors about seventy. The blacks who came to her meetings were among the most faithful. They had no opportunities for formal schooling and therefore referred to her gatherings on Sunday night as their school. The spiritual activity encouraged them to learn to read. However, Osborn was careful not to disrupt community relations and allowed the black servants to attend her Sunday meeting only under certain conditions: they had to obey their masters and mistresses; they had to go home immediately after the meeting; and they could not bring her presents.
Criticism. Many women, especially single women, kept small schools to earn their livings. Nevertheless, Osborn was criticized for assuming the roles of teacher and spiritual leader. She was participating in activities that were beyond what she as a woman was supposed to be doing; she was, as she said, “Moving beyond My Line.” In particular she was criticized for hosting the men and older boys who came to her weekly meetings, and she was even ostracized for the Sunday evenings she spent with the black slaves. In response she remarked, “O the bitters that lurk under the most splendid appearances.” Even her friend and correspondent Fish advised her to curtail her activities, arguing that her work with blacks would threaten the social hierarchy, that others (men) were better suited to this work, and that she needed to concentrate her energy more on feminine interests, such as needlework. But her commitment to her work and her conviction that she was fulfilling God’s purpose made her resolute in her vocation.
Samuel Hopkins, Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn (Worcester, Mass.: Leonard Worcester, 1799);
Sheryl A. Kujawa, “The Great Awakening of Sarah Osborn and the Female Society of the First Congregational Church in Newport,” Newport History, 65 (1994): 133-153;
Kujawa, “Religion, Education, and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Rhode Island: Sarah Haggar Wheaten Osborn, 1714-1796,” Rhode Island History, 52 (1994): 35-47;
Mary Beth Norton, “My Resting Reaping Times”: Sarah Osborn’s Defense of Her ‘Unfeminine’ Activities, 1767,” Signs : Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 2 (1976): 515-529.