Sarah Prince and Esther Burr: "tenderness," 1754-1758


Esther Edwards Burr. Artist unknown. c. 1750-1760, Oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery

In his study of the protestant temperament in early America, historian Philip Greven discusses the "extraordinarily close and intimate friendship between Sarah Prince and Esther Edwards Burr, sustained in correspondence and by the journals each kept and occasionally exchanged with each other.[1]

Sarah Prince Gill, daughter of influential Boston minister Thomas Prince, kept a spiritual diary for 21 years and maintained a friendship with Esther Edwards Burr, daughter of colonial America’s famed theologian Jonathan Edwards.

In the life of Sarah Prince the emotional nourishment provided from an intense relationship with her woman friend, and from her relationship with her own father, was not, apparently, to be found in marriage to a male. Neither did Esther Burr, wife of Aaron Burr, apparently enjoy such a close and equal relation with any male as she enjoyed with Sarah Prince. 

In 1754 Esther Burr writes to Sarah Prince: 

I esteem you one of the best, and in some respects nearer than any Sister I have. I have not one Sister I can write so freely to as to you the Sister of my heart. 

In 1755 Esther Burr writes to Sarah Prince:

As you Say, I believe tis true that I love you too much, that is I am too fond of you, but I cant esteem and value [you] too greatly, that is Certtain -- Consider my friend how rare a thing tis to meet with Such a . . . friend as I have in my Fidelia.

Esther Burr often chastises Sarah Prince for evading marriage, first to one man, then another. In 1756, after hearing of another of Sarah Prince's matrimonial escapes, Esther Burr writes to Prince (who is then in her mid-twenties):

I am almost too vexed to write -- I wonder in the name of honesty what business you had to run away time after time when you knew he was a coming -- you may repent it when it is too late for I dont know of Such another Match . . . .

In 1757 Esther Burr confides in a journal-letter addressed to Sarah Prince that she has had a "smart combat" with a young minister named Ewing. He had criticized a woman friend of Burr's for being "full of talk about Friendship & Society & Such Stuff." He "did not think women knew what Friendship was, they were hardly capable of anything so cool and rational as friendship." Burr disagreed strongly with Ewing, reporting that she "retorted Several Severe things upon him before he had time to Speak again," and for an hour "I talked him quite Silent."[2]

When Esther Burr dies in April 1759, Sarah Prince mourns "the Beloved of my heart, my dearest Friend." She writes in her diary that Esther's death is the heaviest affliction next to the Death of My dear sister Mercy I ever met with." She adds:

My whole Prospects in this World are now changed. My whole dependence for comfort in this World gone. -- She was dear to me as the apple of my Eye -- she knew and felt all my Griefs. She laid out herself for my good and was ever assiduously studying it. The God of Nature had furnished her with all that I desir'd in a Friend -- her Natural Powers were Superior to most Women, her knowledge was extensive of Men and Things, her Accomplishments fine -- her Prudence forethought and Sagacity wonderful -- her Modesty rare -- In Friendly Qualities none Exceeded her -- She was made for a refin'd Friend. How faithful? How Sincere? How Open hearted? How Tender how careful how disinterested -- And she was mine! 0 the tenderness which tied our hearts! o the comfort I have Enjoy'd in her for almost 7 years.[3] 

Sarah Prince's intense emotional intimacy with her father is also documented in her diary. In September, 1758, when he is dying, Sarah calls him "the very Dearest and Best of all my Finite Comforts."[4]

Finally, five months after her father's death, Sarah Prince agrees to marry. In the rest of her diary, says Greven, she mourns that "intense and intimate closeness with God" she had felt during her father's and Esther Burr's lifetimes. "Without a father, without her Sisters, withour her dearest and most intimate friend," Greven writes "she had no emotional sustenance." Marriage did not provide her with a sense of being loved.[5]

Referring to Burr and Prince, in a discussion of "Sisterhood" in the 1800s, historian Nancy Cott concludes that the two women

"considered their ties of friendship as important, as if not more important than, their other ties."[6] Burr conceived of her relation with Prince, and of friendship between women, says Cott, as "symbiotic and mutually intensifying." Burr often refers in her journal to the theme of friendship, and her and Prince's actual intimacy and their exchange of journals, says Cott, "steadied [Burr] in difficult and lonely circumstances. " Burr writes that "the spirit of, & relish for, true friendship" are "God-like." Such "friendship," Burr adds, "does not belong to the world."This "true friendshipis first kindled by .. a Spark from Heaven."[7] While Esther Burr deeply loved her husband, says Cott, and expected a married pair to sustain the "nearest and dearest Relation," she also thought a husband was the "head & Governor" of his wife. A relation of equality was possible, stresses Cott, only between women.[8] 



1  Philip Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America (New York, Random House, 1st edition January 1978).

2  Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press 1st edition May 1977), 168-69.

3  Greven, 135.

4  Greven, 136.

5  Greven, 137.

6  Cott, 169.

7  Cott, 170.

8  Cott, 172.