Thomas Kidd Reviews "Sarah Osborn’s World"

Check out Thomas Kidd’s review of Catherine Brekus’s book Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America.  This book has been getting a lot of attention lately based on its narrative style and its analysis of eighteenth-century evangelicalism from the perspective of a woman.  I have had a copy of this book on my shelf for a month or so and I hope to get to it soon.  You may recall that we included it in our recent “Winter Book Suggestions” series.

Here is a taste of Kidd’s review at The Gospel Coalition:

Harvard’s Ann Braude once wrote that “women’s history is American religious history.” For debated reasons, women have formed the majority within almost all American religious movements, including evangelical Christianity. 

Yet in the study of church history, women remain largely in the background, if not altogether silent. Some of this neglect originates with the difficulty of documenting the religious lives of American women. Pastors and theologians—mostly men—have been the most likely to leave published records behind, and especially in the colonial and Revolutionary eras, sources from women are few and far between. 

Some neglect of women’s voices has persisted, however, even when we do have sources. In 2006, I published an article on the reportedly miraculous healing of Mercy Wheeler of Plainfield, Connecticut, during the First Great Awakening. Although her healing narrative was printed repeatedly from the 1740s to the early 19th century, I could hardly find references to her experience in any histories, scholarly or otherwise.   

Sarah Osborn represents an even more glaring omission in the literature on American evangelicalism, one now addressed by Catherine Brekus’s remarkable Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America. Osborn was one of the most influential evangelicals in 18th-century America, and she left a vast body of sources, including a memoir, ten volumes of diaries, and scores of letters. (Sadly, only 2,000 of an estimated 15,000 manuscript pages of her writings survive, the others somehow lost over the centuries since her death.) Yet aside from some scholarly articles, Osborn has languished in obscurity until now. (Brekus, associate professor in religions and the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School is also preparing to publish an edition of Osborn’s writings.) Brekus not only introduces us to Osborn’s personal story but also deftly places it in a frame of 18th-century history, showing how Osborn interacted with slavery, the Enlightenment, emerging capitalism, and other developments associated with “modernity.”