Vexing motherhood and interracial intimacy in Sarah Osborn's spiritual diary

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Date: Winter 2012
From: Early American Literature(Vol. 47, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of North Carolina Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 11,388 words
Lexile Measure: 1520L

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On Thursday, December 3,1761, Phillis, an enslaved black resident of Newport, Rhode Island, received distressing news. That afternoon, with the approval of her master, Timothy Allen, she attended a meeting of the First Congregational Church's female society. As usual, the meeting took place in the humble home of Sarah Osborn, a devout white schoolmistress who owned Phillis's seventeen-year-old son, Bobey. During those meetings, Phillis likely welcomed the occasional reports she had of Bobey, who worked and lived miles away in Berkley, Massachusetts, (1) as he had since he was ten when the Osborns decided to loan him to a relative. Unfortunately, what she heard that day was unwelcome: Sarah Osborn wanted to sell Bobey.

The following morning, enclosed within the solitary confines of her closet while her home was yet quiet, Osborn brooded on Phillis's reaction in her spiritual diary) Writing about the specificities of her spiritual life had been an integral part of her worship for twenty years and, as a conscientious evangelical woman, she treated her state of grace as a matter-of-fact and constant consideration. However, this particular day, she unexpectedly refers to quotidian details and records, "[A] Pleasant afternoon with dear friends of the society[.] [G]od assisted in Prayer and all was well till I askt the opinion of Philliss about our selling of bobey which contrary to my expectation vext her" (190). She then quickly turns to defending her plans; she notes that Bobey is a burden on the household as they "Have not business for Him," a statement supported by her decision ten years before to loan him to her former brother-in-law in Berkley. Now that Bobey is a young man, she suggests, such distance no longer seems responsible as he may become "unsteady or quite spoilt" or even "go ... to sea" unless he has the direct supervision and care that a moral master who both resides with and owns him would provide (190-91). Her presentation of the situation implies that she is acting benevolently and virtuously. When Phillis becomes "vext," Osborn censures Phillis for letting her "fondness" and "anger" overcome her "reason" (191), a critique that insinuates Phillis is being excessive and inappropriate. Concerned, she closes the entry with prayers for Phillis and the situation.

The next day, Osborn awakens and again follows her routine of prayer and writing. This morning, though, the seeming confidence with which she concluded the preceding entry has been shaken. No longer able to puzzle calmly over Phillis's lack of "reason" and resign the conflict to God, she instead feels the first pangs of an agonizing spiritual crisis. She confesses that she cannot "[l]eave thinking of this affair" (Diary 192). She then laments, "[A]ll this Morning is gone and I cant get nigh [to God] in any wise" (193). She worries that she is unprepared for taking communion the next day because she has "a roveing Heart cold affections worldly thots" (193). Her mind consumed by the conflict, she strives to approach God but instead experiences a sense...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A286718519