Catherine Brekus - Sarah Osborn's World

When we think about the eighteenth-century transatlantic revivals known as the Great Awakening, we tend to think about names like George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and John Wesley. These important figures helped to shape the revivals and the evangelical movement through their preaching and theology in significant ways.

In Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2013; source: publisher), Catherine Brekus reminds us about other figures who shaped evangelicalism and its revivals, specifically women like Sarah Osborn. In fact, Osborn not only converted to an evangelical faith in the midst of the 1740s awakenings, exhibiting the effects of the revivals on laypeople on the ground, but led a notable revival herself based out of her house in Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1760s.

Brekus artfully uses Sarah’s story both to describe early American Christianity from a creative angle and to illustrate the broader contours of the evangelical movement in its nascent years. To do so, she discusses Sarah Osborn’s life and faith journey at the intersection of evangelicalism and the Enlightenment. And the reader finds an engaging narrative set alongside incisive analysis of the rise of evangelical Christianity.

To be sure, Brekus avoids simplistic definitions of the Enlightenment, rejecting the idea that it was a univocal movement. Instead, evangelicalism represents “a vector of modernity, a creative response to the transformations that were reshaping everyday life” (8). And Sarah Osborn’s story gives us a window into “why so many people in the eighteenth century were searching for a new kind of Christianity” in light of so many social shifts (7).

One of the most attractive aspects of this book is Brekus’s lucid, vibrant writing style, which brings Sarah Osborn and her world to life. It certainly helps that Sarah lived such a remarkable life. Near the end of her days, she summed up her life with these words: “My Life has been a Life of Wonders, but the greatest wonder is that I am out of Hell” (335). This statements captures the redemptive lens through which she viewed herself, but also highlights the ups and downs that she experienced.

Indeed, Osborn’s story touches on a number of common human themes: rebelliousness, despair, love, death, redemption, hope, gender, poverty, money, war, heaven, and the list goes on. Her story is one of tragedy—she had difficult parents, she lost her young husband to death at sea and her eleven-year-old son to disease, and she struggled all her life with poverty. Yet she also experienced great joys, from her conversion and joyful experience of God to the revival she led and its validation of her influence as a woman at a time when women lacked much authority.

Rather than a strict biography, though, Brekus connects the elements of her memoir, diaries, and letters with the religious and cultural milieu of her day. She shows us not just Sarah Osborn, but Sarah Osborn’s world, a world where evangelicalism took root and flourished. And in doing so, she helps us to understand evangelicalism itself.

This contextualization represents one of the most notable features of the volume. Throughout the book she traces the influence of writings by seventeenth-century Puritans like John Flavel and eighteenth-century pastors like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards on Osborn. And she also gains perspective on Osborn and early evangelicalism by comparing and contrasting her with influential thinkers in her day such as Voltaire. And she connects Sarah Osborn’s experiences with similar currents in the New England culture, such as showing how her religious fear of God mirrored that of others, including David Brainerd, Aaron Burr Sr., and Hannah Heaton. This approach to the book means, for example, that when she talks about the death of Sarah’s son, we see not only how Sarah handled it, but how various people in that time approached the issue of death.

One of the most scintillating discussions in the book is Brekus’s presentation of slavery. Through Sarah’s eyes we see how evangelicalism drove her to promote spiritual equality with blacks, while at the same time she fully accepted the institution of slavery. Yet we also see how Sarah gradually changed her view on slavery, in part through her dealings with the mother of her own slave as well as through the blacks who attended her prayer meetings. And finally, through the influence of Samuel Hopkins—one of Jonathan Edwards’ star students—she shifted to view slavery as a serious crime.

Another illuminating aspect of the book is Brekus’s contention that evangelicalism took on certain aspects of Enlightenment epistemology, particularly the drive for certainty and experiential evidence. While the desire for signs of God’s work is as old as Christianity itself, evangelicals’ heightened pursuit of evidence in the eighteenth century reflected a growing push for empirical proof. Thus, as Brekus notes, “by writing a memoir she had given her life a new religious meaning, and whenever she longed for tangible evidence of her salvation she would sit down to reread her story” (133). That “distinctly evangelical” story that found assurance to greater degrees than earlier Puritans was “the story of all those who belonged to the first generation of evangelicals in America” (133). In many ways, that desire for empirical proof of a work of God continues to mark evangelicals down to our own day.

With Brekus’s emphasis on setting Osborn in her world, one caution about contextualizing people should be noted. Readers could walk away thinking that any given individual’s view of the world can be fully explained by intellectual, social, cultural, and even religious movements. In other words, one may think that Sarah Osborn is completely and solely a product of her age. But for people like Osborn, elements outside of their milieu also influenced their development, in her case the Bible and the historic Christian faith. Overall, Brekus does a great job of presenting this tension between the historic and contemporary influences in her book, but the observation bears repeating to remind readers to hold onto that tension in their understanding of Osborn and others.

I was also struck by the way Brekus turned to modern psychology to explain Sarah’s emotions and analysis of her own experience. At times it seemed implied that in light of modern social science, Sarah’s spiritual explanations for her emotions in trials can be explained by psychology—that is, that Sarah got it wrong. Some readers may mistakenly take this implication in a direction that fails to do justice to Osborn in her world. That’s why Brekus still allowed Sarah to speak for herself. In fact, I think what Brekus really aimed to do in these cases was to show how different Sarah’s world is from ours. In that respect she succeeds exceedingly, and I think that is the best light in which to read these discussions.

Brekus’s volume is a first-rate piece of scholarship, brimming with footnotes that connect Osborn and her writings to a vast body of literature on religion in eighteenth-century America. And the images Brekus includes in her monograph—of people from the time, Sarah Osborn’s memoir, maps—complement her discussion nicely. I highly recommend this book and believe the reader will find benefit from reading it alongside Thomas Kidd’s The Great Awakening (Yale University Press, 2007), another excellent volume on evangelicalism in colonial America.

Sarah’s is a riveting story, and Brekus’s presentation of it does full justice to the drama of her life. And she does more. She shows us what eighteenth-century evangelicalism looked like on the ground through the twists and turns of Sarah’s story. Whoever picks up Sarah Osborn’s World will find historical treasures.


*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

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