The Forgotten Woman of Evangelical History
"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 the book, yet Brekus adds deep and sensitive readings of sermons, devotional literature, prescriptive literature, Osborn's favorite Scripture texts, theology, philosophy, other religious narratives, and a wide variety of social history documents. The result is a master class in historical method.
All of these sources together serve to situate Osborn in her world, as Brekus telescopes in and out from one woman's experiences to broader trends. Chapter three, for example, places Osborn's youthful thoughts of suicide, the birth of her son, and the early death of her first husband in the context of early 18th-century notions of anger, suffering, and Providence. In chapter eight, Osborn acts as a giver and receiver of charity amid both the French and Indian War and the formulation of "disinterested benevolence" as the signal exercise of Christian virtue. Sometimes these larger stories help Brekus interpret the notes Osborn left behind. At other times, Osborn's story complicates received narratives. Only very rarely does an excursion into supplemental sources on, say, childbirth customs or the local prison system feel extraneous.
The development that most interests Brekus is the shift from Puritanism to early republican evangelicalism, and she identifies several contributing forces. Increasing consumer choice, along with the adoption of representative government, made strict belief in predestination harder to hold, so evangelicals softened their inherited Calvinism. (The fastest-growing 19th-century evangelical churches, Baptist and Methodist, dispensed with predestination entirely.) Humanitarianism, a movement that elevated human happiness as the chief pursuit of individuals and societies, pushed evangelicals to explain suffering as a means to a better end, rather than the righteous but inscrutable judgment of God.