Sarah Miller and Her Secret Turmoil

           When Samuel Miller married Sarah Sergeant, he didn’t know the extent of her pain. Emotional anguish and religious skepticism were not a proper topic of discussion. At least, that’s what her mother had taught her. She had told her doubting was normal, and “especially that [Sarah] should avoid making it a subject of conversation, or even of thought, as much as possible.”[1]

            And that’s what Sarah did. “I took her advice and began a violent struggle,” she wrote, “which continued many years afterwards, and so far succeeded, as to enable me to put on the appearance of peace, when all was panic within.”[2]

A Longstanding Battle

            In a detailed autobiographical confession, written to her husband six years after their wedding, Sarah explained she had been constitutionally “prone to melancholy.” To aggravate this tendency, a host of deep-seated religious doubts crowded her mind.

            Before doubt, there was indifference – youthful disinterest in a formal religious instruction. “The peculiar doctrines of the gospel, as a system, had never been presented to my mind and formed no part of the education which was given me,” she wrote. “The Bible I read at school as children generally do, and in the same unprofitable manner, without retaining in my mind, or having my heart engaged in any truth contained in it.”[3]

            Her father, Jonathan Dickinson Sergeant, attorney general of Pennsylvania, was conservative but not particularly religious. The family kept weekly church attendance and Sarah’s mother pointed her children to God’s providential intervention – both habits Sarah came to appreciate later in life.

            But her mother died in 1787. Two years later, Jonathan Sergeant remarried and sent 11-year old Sarah to boarding school – the first in a series of schools where she was exposed to “the sentiments and practices of the world.”[4] It could have happened in any school, but she found it particularly so in boarding schools “where children are constantly together.”[5] She mentioned being influenced by the new ideals of the French Revolution.

            These new “sentiments” shook her weak religious convictions. The violent epidemic of yellow fever in 1793 unmasked her religion for what it was: “a superstitious dependence on the Bible.” She turned to it automatically, but “read it formally, and felt as if there was a righteousness in the mere perusal. It was certainly not the seeking to which the promise ‘ye shall find’ is annexed. And it remained a sealed book to me.”[6]

            She had a similar reaction to her father’s death the same year. She worried about his eternal state, but “found relief only in hoping that he had been prepared for this change in some manner by his later works.”[7] It was years later when she shifted her hope to God’s mercy, taking his good works as evidence –not means – “of a better preparation.”

Addiction and Depression

            Sarah’s best friend “M.” was an avid reader of theistic works. “She seemed to have become herself persuaded that the Bible was her worst enemy,” Sarah wrote, “and seized with eagerness, and read with avidity, every plausible work which had a tendency to weaken, or subvert, its influence.”[8]

            Sarah followed suite, “more for neglect of thinking, and the desire of being thought of having an independent spirit, than from knowledge or inquiry.”[9] In reality, she was mostly interested in having fun, whether at the theatre or at parties. She loved fashionable clothes and became addicted to card-playing (she didn’t call it gambling, because the amount of money she bet was just enough to keep the game interesting). The habit was particularly deceiving when it happened at home, with relatives, in a seemingly innocent environment.

            “Three of four nights every week were employed at the fascinating table; and hour after hour passed away, each one finding us more unwilling to leave it. It was becoming quite indispensable to my comfort. Every evening not thus employed was vacant and tedious.”[10]

            Finally, “conscience imperiously said, ‘This is a ruinous consumer of time.’”[11] She prayed and made a resolution to stop, only to break that promise a few months later.

            Breaking her resolution had a devastating effect on her spirits. “I lost all dependence on my own resolutions, since I had failed in my engagements to him who was my only resource against myself.”[12]

            This loss of self-confidence caused fun and games to lose their appeal, although she kept them up, this time not “for gratification, but for relief.” Even the Bible gave her no comfort, in spite of frequent attempts to read it.

            “As long as you pore over the Bible so, you will be miserable,”[13] M. warned her. Sarah remembered a neighbor whose signs of mental illness were attributed to the influence of Methodists on her life, and wondered if M. was right. She mentions laudanum (a tincture of opium which was popular at that time), and her quick discovery that it increased rather than relieve her distress.

Marriage

            Around this time – the lowest point in her life – a friend and student of her father began to visit her. He was twice her age, and owned considerable wealth. He was obviously pursuing marriage, even if he had not yet made a formal proposal.

            She had no feeling for him, but wondered if married life could offer her some relief. She thought of charitable activities she could pursue as a married woman – something to give meaning to her life. She didn’t give much thought to his religious beliefs, even if he was reading some of the same books M. was promoting.

            Before this man could act on his feelings, Samuel Miller made a similar round of visits to Sarah’s home. He was curious to meet her, after overhearing a tribute to her virtues. She was, to all who knew her, a kind and pious woman. Since Miller proposed marriage before the other man, Sarah felt free to accept.

            Miller was from a different world: a minister, professor, and author, he offered her something unlike anything she had experienced before. “Instead of the riches of this world, the Word of Life was presented in every form that could heal a wounded spirit such as mine,”[14] she wrote.

            This didn’t mean instant healing. Five years after her wedding, she was still experiencing feelings of despair. In fact, they “increased in bitterness.” She often went to bed praying that she might not get up again. She envisioned herself performing “some horrid act.” “The bare idea almost drove me to desperation and, after rising a little above the suggestion, the thought of such a possession again reduced me to agony,”[15] she wrote.

            Eventually, however, the gospel worked in her heart, and she came to see her mental and emotional confusion as a preparation “for that strong hope which, notwithstanding all my sins and my infirmities, I now cherish.”[16]

Slow but Sure

            Anticipating her husband’s surprise at her long and silent anguish, Sarah explained her reticence to speak. Besides her blind trust in her mother’s instructions, she feared the possible stigma. “I was afraid that the result of my agitations would be insanity, and was sure that if my state of mind were known I would already be considered as an insane woman, and become a spectacle.”[17]

            Her spiritual progress was gradual – learning to distinguish between “a legal and a childlike fear” of God and to place her confidence on Christ instead of human beings took time. “How to believe the gospel was the question,” she wrote. “I have sometime of late been inclined to doubt my hope, because my exercises did not reach the popular standard, but I am directed to the fountain for relief, and always find it there.”[18]

            Sarah wrote this confession in 1807, after a break-through in the previous spring. If Samuel had been unaware of her mental distress, in 1802 he knew her faith was still struggling. But he was confident. “A variety of appearances inspire me with hope that the time is not distant when she will be able to unite with her husband in the hopes and joys, as well as the duties, connected with membership in the Redeemer’s kingdom,”[19] he wrote in his diary.

            Forty-five years later, he could attest to the fulfilment of his expectations. “She is better qualified than many ministers to instruct the inquiring and to answer the perplexed and anxious. Hundreds of times I profited by her remarks on my sermons, and other public performances, more than by the remarks of any other human being.”[20] Her progress had been slow but sure.

            Besides raising nine children (they had ten, but one died in infancy), Sarah kept busy with the charitable work she had dreamt of doing. She was particularly active in the field of education, convinced as she was that a gospel-filled environment would have spared her from much pain. She died in 1861, eleven years after her husband, leaving her candid story[21] as a testimony to God’s faithfulness and mercy.



[1] Samuel Miller, The Life of Samuel Miller, D.D., L.L.D., 2 vols., Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen, and Haffelfinger, 1869, 1.163

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 1.150

[4] Ibid., 1.151

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 1.153

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 1.154

[9] Ibid., 1.155

[10] Ibid., 1.156

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 1.159

[13] Ibid., 1.160

[14] Ibid., 1.162

[15] Ibid., 1.164.

[16] Ibid., 1.163

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 1.165.

[19] Ibid., 1.169

[20] Ibid., 2.496

[21] Sarah’s autobiographical writing is preserved in the above quoted biography her son Samuel wrote of his father.

 

Simonetta Carr

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