"What can the story of an eighteenth-century woman's life tell us about the rise of evangelical Christianity in America?" When University of Chicago historian Catherine Brekus raises this question at the opening of Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press), you know that her answer will be "a lot." Nonetheless, it's astonishing just how much Brekus is able to reveal about Osborn, 18th-century America, and the origins of evangelicalism—especially in light of the disparate and challenging sources she had to work with.
Osborn (not to be confused with Salem Witch Trial victim Sarah Osborne, who lived a century earlier) was born in London in 1714. Her family moved to New England in 1722 and settled in bustling Newport, Rhode Island, in 1729. Her remarkable life there forms the through-line of the book, as Brekus dramatically narrates her fraught relationships, aching poverty, spiritual struggles, evolving attitudes, and controversial leadership of a revival in the 1760s. Celebrated as a near-saint upon her death in 1796, Osborn was subsequently disregarded as "an anachronism, a relic of an evangelical past that few wanted to remember." Her God was too stern, her view of suffering too stoic for the progress-oriented evangelicals of the 19th century and beyond.
Brekus pieced Osborn's life story together from a 1743 memoir, ten diaries, an anonymously published tract, and hundreds of letters. Some of these had been published previously, but Brekus also spent countless hours with manuscripts, parsing Osborn's nonstandard grammar and scrutinizing her crowded handwriting with a magnifying glass. This work alone justifies ...1