How Religious Revivals Gave Women a Voice in Colonial America
"Proper and upright did not mean passive and docile."
Sarah Wheaten knew most orthodox ministers felt the same way as Congregationalist clergyman Charles Chauncy, and she knew better than to speak in church—and to suffer the consequences of it. She had been told at least once by her minister Nathaniel Clap that the proper role for ladies in the house of the Lord was silence and solicitude of the gospel. She followed the edict and did not raise her voice in her worship, even as the great revival swept through mid-18th-century Rhode Island around her.
Though silent in her pew, Sarah did not otherwise keep quiet about her faith. With her friends she discussed God, prayed, and sang hymns to him, read the Bible and pondered and worried over what it took to be a good Christian. Since the arrival of Gilbert Tennent in Newport, she had given up her interest in popular music and dancing and avoided all gratuitous pleasures. She dressed modestly and cast aside the old Sarah who enjoyed fun and frivolity and instead embraced a life of piety that could prove what a good and faithful follower of Christ she was. She had found rebirth through him, so she figured she should let it show.
Proper and upright did not mean passive and docile, however. The new Sarah began to speak publicly about her thoughts on the divine creator and created a women’s gospel society in which she led Bible study and counseled those in need of spiritual guidance. With her “steady, prudent zeal and activity” she tried to inspire her group members with stories of the grace and beneficence of the Lord. For if she could find hope in God, anyone could.
Nothing came easy for Sarah. For many years, Sarah’s life seemed to resemble the story of Job. But while God ultimately rewarded that famous biblical figure, he rarely seemed to take pity on her or provide an earthly reward for her troubles. Yet she still persisted through the pain and grief.
When she was younger, she thought of suicide as a release from her star-crossed existence. She wrote regularly in her journal of her hatred of her sins and sometimes of herself. But by 1743, she had become reconciled to her struggles, and made it part of her philosophy. For it was strangely comforting to see God as the author of her misery: it made her a better Christian and in some way proved that the divine creator existed. As one writer summed up Sarah’s views, “If there was no divine providence in the world, but only fate or luck, then human life was sheer chaos, an abyss of meaninglessness that was even more frightening than hell. Either God controlled everything, including suffering, or there was no God.”
Sarah knew there was a God, for he continually brought her new obstacles to face and new burdens to shoulder. Even when the Lord showed her mercy, he did so in a curious way: “It pleased him to remove a dear friend by death, with whom I was very intimate.” The loss of her friend allowed her to find work through the widower, which enabled her to subsist for a while longer. God offered his providence through her sorrow, and she thanked him for it.
The year before, shopkeeper Henry Osborn had proposed to her. He promised relief from her financial woes and a measure of loyalty and affection. But she wasn’t convinced the pairing was a good idea. He was nearly thirty years older than her, he had three almost-grown children who were only a decade younger than she was, and she questioned whether she loved him.
She took comfort that he seemed like a decent Christian, but she still struggled over whether to say yes. Henry brought many potential pitfalls and few benefits other than companionship and perhaps economic security. Somehow, though, she felt God encouraging the union, and since she always trusted in his will, she took Henry’s hand in marriage and became Sarah Osborn.
Months later, the newly married couple were bankrupt. Henry’s money had disappeared in a failed shipbuilding investment, his savings vanished for unknown reasons, hers were seized by creditors, and he sold all the goods in his shop at cut-rate prices. Unable to pay their debts, the couple sunk into the mire of poverty—with four children in need of care. Worse, Henry was suddenly struck with physical infirmities and could not hold a job, so Sarah was once again forced to work as a schoolteacher to survive and to pay the family’s mounting bills, which sometimes seemed like an impossible task.
Once again cursed by fate, Sarah wondered how she could endure this as a proper Christian. She tried to understand God’s motive behind this latest grim turn of events, and the sins for which she was being punished. She blamed it on her pride.
She lived in a world where fine linens, expensive clothing, and rich imported goods from Europe had tempted the souls of many New Englanders. While she did not covet such things, God must have thought she could not be trusted with even the hope of material comfort, much less good health and happiness, so he never let her have it.
As she wrote, “I have often thought God has so ordered it throughout my days hitherto, that I should be in an afflicted, low condition, as to worldly circumstances, and inclined the hearts of others to relieve me in all my distress.” God had meant for her to be poor and for others to take pity on her, and she had to deal with it.
Despite all the misery God heaped upon her, she refused to take pity on herself, and redoubled her commitment to being a good Christian and proclaiming her faith publicly. By the end of the year she finished her memoir, having endured a lifetime’s worth of suffering despite only being 30 years old, and now wished for others to understand her struggle and what it meant. Just as “I have always reaped much benefit myself, by reading the lives and experiences of others,” so too would Newport and the world beyond come to know what it meant to be Sarah Osborn, and how she had profited in the eyes of God by the hardships he inflicted on her.
Women who were not Sarah Osborn struggled in colonial America and faced countless obstacles, too. They could not study for the ministry, they could not go to college or vote for the assembly, and they could not own property independently of their husbands. They had fewer rights than their eldest sons to their estate, and they received a fraction of the inheritance of their male siblings. Viewed by some quarters of society as “a more advanced child,” an adult woman had less power and fewer rights in the 18th century than she had in the previous one. As Sarah discovered, one of the few outlets a woman had was religion.
For most of the century, women dramatically outnumbered men in the pews. In one church in New London, Connecticut, where James Davenport had an influence, there were nearly three times as many women as men. Some parishes showed greater parity at the height of the revival, but for the most part the majority of congregants were women and nearly all the ministers were men. The few exceptions were in Quaker meetinghouses, where during quiet prayer a woman might be inspired to speak out and channel a divine message, but in other sects, women were told to keep silent and not interfere with the workings of the Holy Spirit.
Jonathan Edwards and other Congregationalist ministers saw some women, including his wife, as exemplary in their faith, but many other preachers did not, and blamed them for the world’s assorted ills. One English pamphlet condemned “lewd women that are no whores, and yet are ten times worse” because their devilish spirit derived from the very first sinner, Eve. And in a society where original sin had wide-ranging power over the minds of men, such a charge was a grave one—“as the world grew in years, so women grew in wickedness, each age being worse than the preceding.” Some churches had such a baleful view of women that they didn’t even allow them to read their stories of conversion aloud. For Sarah, the task was done by Reverend Clap.
Now that the revival had come, however, many women broke the silence. In New Light meetinghouses and outdoors in the fields, they raised their voices to praise the Lord. They shouted from the galleries, gave their testimony in the pews, and summoned the Holy Spirit in the streets. Daniel Rogers, acolyte of Whitefield, recognized the power of the revival for women as early as 1741, when during a spiritual meeting he saw how “the Spirit of God came down in an astonishing manner—two or three screamed out—it spread like fire.” Rogers came away so impressed by women’s testimony that he vigorously defended their exhorting and preaching the gospel, often in the face of hostile rebukes from other ministers.
The radical women of the New Birth did not stop there. Some found so much power in their conversions in Christ, they no longer feared reprisal from the clergymen who demanded their silence. They broke from their old churches and led splinter congregations. And when those congregations evolved into Separatist churches, they took major roles in their operation, and used their power as laypeople to hire ministers of the New Birth. As one writer put it, “evangelical religion offered women a faith that explicitly embraced feminine qualities. From its emotional rhetoric to its ecstatic conversions,” this new spirituality gave women the opportunity to find strength in the house of God that they had not known before.
The men in wigs and robes condemned them for it. Charles Chauncy and the Old Lights inveighed against female enthusiasts who should have known their place, while other ministers worried women would fall prey to lusty itinerants who would use them for their own pleasures, or that they would usurp men’s role in the church and the family. Such critics warned that if this happened, women would subject their husbands to unjust authority, and they would lose their status and be reduced to an effeminate role—as women became “queens for life.”
Even Jonathan Edwards, otherwise sympathetic to the revival, worried that “women and children might feel themselves inclined to break forth and scream aloud to great congregations, warning and exhorting the whole multitude, and to go forth and halloo and scream in the streets, or to leave the families they belong to, and go from house to house earnestly exhorting others.”
While Sarah Osborn had no interest in hallooing and screaming, she did become increasingly vocal in her faith. Through her women’s group, she drew listeners and followers for her thoughts on the gospel. She offered strength and even a hint of martyrdom to give them comfort through their trials and provided counsel to those who stood wracked by fear and guilt that they were on their way to hell. Offering herself as an example, she explained how salvation could be attained through suffering, and how God’s grace could arrive in unexpected ways.
This prompted a reaction from her neighbors. They questioned her surety that she had been picked by the Lord for redemption and dismissed her thoughts on religion as those of an ignorant pauper. Ultimately, they wanted her to cease her improvised ministry and to keep quiet as she had once done. But she refused, for she saw her struggles as proof of God’s power, and wrote, “Should I altogether hold my peace? . . . It appeared to me such a monstrous piece of ingratitude that it seemed as if the very stones might cry out against me.”
She acquired a reputation in Newport as an arrogant evangelical, someone so convinced of her righteousness that she impinged on the judgment of God. One minister even preached against her and other revivalists in church—one of the first times she was considered important enough to be the object of public derision, instead of pity. But she would not relent in her mission to tout the gospel as she knew it. She had suffered too much, and endured too many miseries, to turn back from her true calling and lose favor in the eyes of her creator. As she wrote defiantly in defense of her actions, “God must cease to be God if he damned me.”
Sarah’s religious study group attracted women drawn by her self-assurance, and who were in need of comfort from their fears and anxieties. One such example was Sarah’s friend Susanna Anthony, who, though a dozen years younger than Sarah and still a teenager, would remain her closest confidante over the decades. “Susa,” as Sarah called her, had suffered the loss of her sister and other traumas, and felt her torments multiplying and enveloping her.
Susa’s troubles began in earnest with the arrival in Newport of George Whitefield in 1740. Shortly after she saw the Itinerant in action, she experienced a great spiritual uplift, only to come crashing back down when Satan began to trouble her. The infernal beast taught her to despise herself and all she was, and she became consumed with paralyzing terror and self-hatred.
She wrote, “I believe a bloody inhuman butcher would have been more welcome to my tortured breast than a reprieve to a tortured criminal. For Satan began to persuade me that I was a devil incarnate.” The wicked one convinced her she was a mere plaything in God’s hands, her soul broken at his whim, and an example to others of his taste for revenge upon sinners.
These torments went on for months, as Susa saw herself as “one of the worst of monsters; and often wished that I might be annihilated” for her baleful thoughts and actions. When Gilbert Tennent arrived the following year, he made things worse. Now the visions of hell, and Gilbert’s vivid preaching of terrors, became more palpable and irresistible to Susa’s young heart. She contemplated suicide to avoid the suffering she had been forced to endure; she begged Christ for mercy, and sometimes received it, only to be thrown into distress again with new and more fearsome attacks of the beast.
The agony often became too much, and “through the violence of my distress, I wrung my hands, twisted every joint, and strained every nerve; biting my flesh; gnashing my teeth; throwing myself on the floor.” God eventually rescued her from such horrors, but Satan remained ever present and ready to strike.
Sarah Osborn had endured more hardship than Susa, but she took pity on her friend’s ravaged heart and did what she could to relieve her suffering. Others in Sarah’s study group also struggled between light and darkness and wondered if the Lord would ever offer them mercy from their troubles. Sarah could not answer such questions. She could only tell them of the grace of God and the promise of salvation, and the possibility their sins would be expiated by Christ’s loving sacrifice. She would become their teacher, their counselor, their confessor. Indeed, while Sarah may not have worn a pulpit gown or have earned a divinity degree, she did more to help her friends find God than any of their own ministers ever had.
From American Demagogue: The Great Awakening and the Rise and Fall of Populism. Used with the permission of the publisher, Pegasus Books. Copyright © 2019 by J.D. Dickey.