Evangelical True Self-Love in the Writings of Sarah Osborn

Historians have long posited that eighteenth-century American evangelicals repudiated the self and self-love in stark opposition to the emergence of enlightened and liberal advancements at midcentury. This is despite how a positive vision of self-love had long occupied an important place for many theologians – especially for Augustinian puritans. This shift towards identifying self-love as an artifact of the Enlightenment, however, stems from Max Weber’s and Perry Miller’s famous thesis that Calvinist theology presaged the arrival of merchant capitalism and the new economic self. This, in turn, led historians Richard L. Bushman, Albert O. Hirschman, and Pierre Force to argue that religious self-love collapsed into enlightened and ultimately economic self-interest by the end of the eighteenth century. This argument, which is baked into the historiography of early American evangelicalism (i.e., E. Brooks Holifield and Catherine Brekus), has unfortunately led to the occlusion of seeing how evangelicals extended a positive vision of self-love as part of their model of Christian spirituality. This paper argues that Sarah Osborn (1714-1796), the Newport divine, extended what may be called evangelical true self-love in her writings. It is true that she embraced a robust form of self-resignation. But for her there was something to be gained in emptying herself of the things of the world for God’s glory. As her spiritual forebears, Isaac Watts, Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, and Samuel Hopkins, had already begun to define it in the 1740s and 50s, evangelicals could value the delight they have in resigning themselves to God’s will. Such a value, which allowed them to savor holy affection in the human heart, functioned to fix and strengthen union and communion with God. And not only this, the promotion of this spiritual happiness as much greater than material gratifications gave evangelicals a model for navigating an increasingly acquisitive world. Evangelical true self-love, as an extension ultimately of Augustinian eudaimonism, is a lost dimension of evangelicalism that is worth recovering.