- Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America by Catherine A. Brekus
Sarah Osborn was a woman of limited education, frail health, and precarious status who, like other evangelical Christians of her day, stole moments from toils of everyday life to reflect on God’s purposes in herself and the world. Yet for all her ordinariness, Catherine Brekus’s sensitive portrait of this colonial Rhode Islander will change the way historians understand the rise of evangelicalism in eighteenth-century America. Drawing from an exceptional trove of diaries and letters, Brekus shows how the emotionalism, Providentialism, and individualism of Osborn’s faith echoed the empiricism, humanitarianism, and rationality of the Enlightenment. The result is not only a captivating, fully-dimensioned female figure to cast alongside Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield but also a window into what evangelical Christianity meant to ordinary people swept up in the currents of merchant capitalism, technological change, the consumer revolution, and expanding freedom.
Osborn believed that God’s purposes in human suffering, although mysterious, always furthered human happiness; she knew that humans were sinful by nature, but that the message of divine grace could radically transform individuals; and despite the terror posed by eternal damnation, she was confident that the lowliest sinners could find peace in a salvation made known by their emotions. This evangelical faith, Breckus shows, diverged from that of the Puritans in its softened doctrines of conversion and free will, its missionary orientation, and its optimistic striving for thisworldly improvement. She argues that these innovations reflected a receptive, albeit guarded posture toward Enlightenment notions of empiricism, progress, self-determination, and humanitarianism. [End Page 804]
This interpretation raises important questions about the diffusion of Enlightenment ideas. Breckus’s deft handling of Osborn’s writings makes clear that she trusted in personal experience and was dedicated to transforming herself and others. The author also shows the Enlightenment’s religious impact in notions of free will, empiricism, and benevolence among educated clergymen. Yet more provocatively, Breckus puts Osborn at the center of these theological developments, inferring that Enlightenment ideas filtered down to ordinary congregants through sermons, books, and everyday conversation. Breckus’s thorough contextualization and dissection of Osborn’s writings, however, do not dispel the possibility that some of her religious beliefs owed less to the Enlightenment than to a separate, bottom-up response to rising merchant capitalism, changing patterns of consumption, and expanding freedoms—the very contexts Breckus so carefully elucidates. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that evangelicalism and the Enlightenment were running on parallel tracks, both propelled by the forces of modernity.
Yet if the main argument of Sarah Osborn’s World lacks a smoking gun, the book is no less insightful for its pairing of evangelicalism and the Enlightenment. By privileging experience over received wisdom, both movements unwittingly enabled women and other marginalized people to claim authority. Osborn’s life mapped the outer boundaries of that egalitarian impulse. Just as she was careful to couch her growing ministry within the bounds of feminine humility and domesticity, she was also reluctant to free her own slave, a fellow Christian (although she eventually did). Brekus shows how the leveling and humanitarian aspects of early evangelicalism, as with the Enlightenment, were often thwarted by social and ideological constraints.
Brekus manages to convey the historical scope of evangelicalism, the Enlightenment, and changing economic and political circumstances through the life of a relatively unremarkable woman at the edge of the western world. To Osborn, the vast tides of history were dwarfed by personal successes and struggles that she understood in divinely dramatic terms. Yet those struggles, and how she made sense of them, reflected her changing world. After this book, it is historians of American religion who must grapple with the meaning of Osborn’s life.