Sarah Miller and Her Secret Turmoil

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.”

 

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]

Read More