Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America
Reviewed by Carol Sue Humphrey, History, Oklahoma Baptist University
In Sarah Osborn’s World, Catherine Brekus presents readers with an excellent biography of an influential woman who is not often discussed in history books. Using Osborn’s memoir and letters, Brekus provides a good understanding of Osborn and the world in which she lived. Brekus also uses Osborn and her experiences to reflect changes in religion that occurred in America in the eighteenth century. The book thus provides a good discussion of the overall world of eighteenth-century America through the eyes and actions of one person.
The first part of the book revolves around Osborn’s personal memoir. Written in 1743, Osborn’s memoir discussed her life and her faith through her childhood into adulthood. Osborn had been keeping a personal diary for years, but she decided to write a more organized account that could potentially be helpful to readers who were seeking God’s guidance and direction. Much of Osborn’s inspiration came from the religious revivals of the Great Awakening that spread throughout America. Having struggled for years to find faith and direction, Osborn believed that she had finally found the path she should follow in her life.
In her memoir, Osborn discusses the many challenges and trials that she had faced that tested her faith. Although difficult to deal with, she looked back at all of these challenges as God’s efforts to make her more faithful and holy. Throughout her childhood and teen years, Sarah had constant conflicts with her parents. The situation got so bad that she contemplated suicide. Discussing this time in her memoir, Sarah thanked God for saving her. Among the other challenges discussed in her memoir that Osborn faced as she grew older were ongoing illness and loss of loved ones (particularly her first husband Samuel who died at sea). In each case, she thanked God for using such events to strengthen her faith.
The second part of the book revolves around Osborn’s surviving diaries and letters written from 1744 to 1796. Although many of Osborne’s writings no longer survive, Brekus found enough to provide a good sense of Osborn’s life and challenges in the latter half of her life. Osborn lost her only son in 1744, a great loss with which she struggled as she tried to see God’s will in this event. Osborn and her second husband Henry experienced poverty because of financial losses that made life difficult. Further challenges came during the French and Indian War because the town in which they lived (Newport, Rhode Island) suffered greatly during the conflict. Although Sarah faced financial difficulties, she also tried to help her suffering neighbors as much as possible because that was what God wanted His people to do. Sarah’s writings indicated that she believed that God would take care of her if she continued to carry out His word in her own actions.
Following the French and Indian War, Osborn began to hold prayer meetings in her home for women, children, and African-Americans. The result was a revival and Osborn considered the results a sign of God’s love and blessings. But she also faced much criticism for holding these meetings, because it was considered totally inappropriate and unacceptable for women to lead religious meetings. Her efforts to reach out to African-Americans particularly produced criticism because many people feared that she was hoping to undermine slavery through her efforts. This was not true, because Sarah did not come to oppose slavery until late in life. She believed that it was important to try and lead all to God’s grace, no matter who they were or where they were from.
Osborn’s changing attitude about slavery reflected her change in outlook related to many aspects of life. Increasingly, Osborn believed that individuals played important roles in society, particularly in the spread of Christianity. Her changing attitudes show the impact not only of the Great Awakening but also of the Enlightenment. As Osborn became more evangelical in her religious outlook and beliefs, she increasingly emphasized the important role of the individual in the spread of Christianity. She reflected this growing emphasis in her own actions as she worked hard to reach out to people around her in an effort to encourage their own faith. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual action and the importance of experience as evidence of change came to influence many people affected by the Great Awakening and Osborn is a good example of this impact. She used the challenges of her life as evidence of God’s guidance to a better personal faith and urged others to do the same. Thus, Osborn called on people to seek God’s blessings through an increased focus on direct individual experience, an interesting combination of the ideas of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment.
Brekus’s primary success in this book is to remind readers of the important impact Sarah Osborn had on the people around her and the role she played as a female religious leader in the male-dominated world of eighteenth-century America. This alone would make the book an important contribution. But Brekus’s discussion of the life of Sarah Osborn through her writings also provides an excellent introduction to the changes produced in eighteenth-century America by the interaction of ideas growing out of the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment. These two events are often studied separately so the interaction of ideas produced by them is not always seen. Brekus seeks to overcome that separation by showing that religious people such as Osborn were impacted by both outlooks even if they were not directly aware of that impact. Osborn’s life is inspiring in many ways and shows the changing ideas that came out of the events of the 1700s. Brekus thus uses the life and writings of one important individual to open the door to a better understanding of the interaction of ideas between the Great Awakening and the Enlightenment that drastically changed America and set the stage for later developments.