Jonathan M. Yeager

Sarah Osborn's World

An in-depth view of early American evangelicalism.

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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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