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Jonathan M. Yeager

Sarah Osborn's World

An in-depth view of early American evangelicalism.

Without a doubt, Jonathan Edwards has received more attention from scholars than any other figure in the era of early American evangelicalism. Thousands of journal articles, dissertations, and books have been written on him, and there is no end in sight. But in the last ten years some outstanding monographs have appeared on lesser-known, but important, American evangelicals, including the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Richard Allen; the indefatigable Methodist leader, Francis Asbury; the itinerant missionary, David Brainerd; the black patriot, Lemuel Haynes; and, most recently, the poet Phillis Wheatley. These biographies highlight the pervasive breadth of early evangelicalism in America. In Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, Catherine Brekus sorts through a mountain of manuscripts and secondary sources to produce a fascinating study of an evangelical woman who has largely gone unnoticed by scholars. Brekus intends to use Sarah Osborn's life to illuminate the cultural context of the broader evangelical movement in early America.

Some of the details of Sarah's life are painful to read because of the severity of the personal, physical, and financial trials that she endured. Born in England in 1714, she moved to Boston in 1723, eventually settling with her parents in Newport, Rhode Island in 1730. Strong-willed at times, Sarah defied her parents by marrying a sailor named Samuel Wheaten in 1731 at the age of seventeen. Wheaten perished at sea within a year of their marriage, leaving Sarah to care for their newborn son alone. While raised as a strict Congregationalist, she did not embrace Christianity until experiencing conversion in January 1737 after listening to Nathaniel Clap, the pastor of the First Congregational Church at Newport, deliver a thundering sermon on humanity's inherent sinfulness. Her initial feelings of comfort after renouncing her sinful ways and turning to Christ, however, turned to doubt about the state of her soul when George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent arrived at Newport in the early 1740s to stoke the fires of the Great Awakening. Reminded of her worldly habits of playing cards, gossiping, and dancing, she wondered if she was truly one of the elect. But after receiving spiritual counsel from Tennent, she renewed her commitment to God and became heavily involved in church life, visiting the sick, evangelizing, and leading a women's society that met weekly for prayer and Bible study.

In the spring of 1742, at the age of twenty-eight, Sarah agreed to marry a fifty-seven-year-old tailor named Henry Osborn, a widower with three boys of his own. She believed that one of the benefits of her second marriage would be financial stability. But within months of her wedding, Henry made a poor investment, resulting in bankruptcy for the newly formed family. For some unknown reason, Henry hardly worked in the years following his bankruptcy. Sarah became the primary breadwinner, earning a living as a schoolteacher and performing household chores for other families. Despite her relentless work ethic, the Osborns were often just one step away from financial devastation.

In the years following her second marriage, Sarah faced hardships that sometimes challenged her faith. In 1744, her's only son died, one month before his twelfth birthday. Trying to make sense of this sorrowful event, she concluded that her beloved son had been taken so that she would place a greater reliance on God to sustain her needs. By 1760, all of the Osborn children had passed away, including Sarah's three stepsons, the last of which was killed on the battlefield during the French and Indian War. Even though she struggled to feed herself, Sarah gave what little time, effort, and money she had left to her neighbors and, especially, to Henry's grandchildren, who were living in squalor, seemingly neglected by their indigent mother. Adding to her difficulties, Sarah experienced chronic physical pain throughout her life, which Brekus attributes to rheumatoid arthritis or possibly multiple sclerosis.

Remarkably, in the midst of her busy schedule, Sarah began hosting a prayer meeting in the mid-1760s. At first the gathering was for free and enslaved blacks, soon she opened it to practically anyone who wanted to attend, regardless of race or denominational ties. At its peak in 1767, Sarah estimated that over 500 people gathered at her weekly meetings, though not on the same day. The welcome that blacks received at the Osborn household, however, was marred by Sarah's unhesitating support for the slave trade that thrived at Newport. She even owned a slave boy, Bobey, and was shocked when his mother protested Sarah's intention to sell him. Nevertheless, some while after Samuel Hopkins' arrival as the pastor of the First Congregational Church in 1770, Sarah began to question the ethics of owning other human beings.

Although she enjoyed a period of remission from her physical ailments in the 1760s, Sarah's infirmities returned with a vengeance in the 1770s. But rather than complain, she decided that her pain was ordained by God, and thus somehow good for her overall spiritual maturity. Perhaps because of their poverty and age, the Osborns remained in Newport during the British occupation of the city, from the start of the War of Independence until October 1779, during which time Henry died in 1778 at the ripe old age of ninety-three. Sarah lived for nearly two more decades, dying quietly in her room on August 2, 1796.

The most remarkable feature of Sarah Osborn's World is its rich filling in of the context of Sarah's life. Brekus casually footnotes an astonishing array of sources on a variety of topics, examining not only Sarah Osborn's manuscripts but also letters from other 18th-century evangelicals. Also figuring in the narrative are ministers such as Benjamin Colman, Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Fish, Samson Occom, Thomas Prince, Gilbert Tennent, Eleazar Wheelock, and George Whitefield; and contemporary women like Sarah Prince Gill, Hannah Heaton, Phillis Wheatley, and her best friend Susanna Anthony. We hear as well from prominent non-evangelicals, such as the enlightened thinkers David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, and Voltaire. The result is an eloquently written, extraordinarily deep contextual portrayal of life in the 18th century that will surely capture the attention of lay readers and scholars alike.

Following the work of David Bebbington and others, Brekus takes great pains to argue that Sarah Osborn and other early evangelicals were profoundly shaped by the intellectual currents of the day. While Brekus is careful to distinguish evangelicals from religious skeptics such as Benjamin Franklin and the French philosophes, she is adamant that Osborn and other Christians participated in a moderate form of the Enlightenment that was molded by the empiricism of John Locke and the science of Isaac Newton. Brekus further argues that "Evangelicals absorbed other aspects of Enlightenment thought as well—including its faith in human progress, its humanitarian ideals, its emphasis on the affections, and its individualism—but always within their own distinctive stamp." The extent to which evangelicals adopted Enlightenment ideas is a subject of ongoing scholarly discussion and debate, to which Brekus' nuanced argument makes a substantial contribution.

Finally, Brekus should be thanked for introducing us to the previously obscure Sarah Osborn. While we often hear from and about Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, et al., the integral role that women played in the burgeoning evangelical movement is too often ignored or treated only is passing.

Jonathan M. Yeager is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His first book, Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine, was published last year with Oxford University Press, and he is currently finishing an anthology with Oxford entitled Early Evangelicalism: A Reader.

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