Brekus, Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America.
Historian Catherine Brekus begins Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America with a vivid tableau: Sarah Osborn, sitting at her desk in her Newport, Rhode Island home, pen in hand, wondering how to begin writing her memoir. It is 1743, and Osborn is not yet thirty. It will be fifteen years before she starts a boarding school and twenty years until she begins holding prayer meetings in her home that draw hundreds. Religious revivalism is "the talk of every tea table" (15), with preachers like George Whitefield reducing thousands to tears, calling them to repent of their sins. Meanwhile, Enlightenment ideas were challenging traditional Christian understandings of the soul, the mind, authority, and social hierarchies, while the merchant capitalist economy invited the residents of cosmopolitan Newport to imagine themselves as free, acquisitive individuals.
How does one write a memoir in such a milieu? How can one make sure --as Sarah surely would have wanted to make sure--that such an account gives glory to God and provides religious edification to others, rather than being an exercise in vanity? In this respect, Brekus' opening image is inspired. For not unlike Sarah Osborn at her writing desk, eighteenth-century American evangelicalism had set out to give an account of the human self, but was struggling to find the right words to do so. And while "freedom," "choice," and "self-interest" may have been increasingly attractive watchwords for others, the terms were deeply ambivalent for evangelicals. If such notions could move people immediately to repent of their sins, have a personal experience of God's love, and surrender to Christ, so much the better. Yet evangelicals saw that these values might just as easily lead one to believe oneself free from God's authority and live only to maximize one's own comfort. How, then, to construct an understanding of individual identity that encourages the former but guards against the latter?
Brekus never lets these questions drop out of the reader's view entirely, even though the events of Sarah Osborn's life are fascinating in their own right. Born in England in 1714, the young Sarah settled with her parents in Newport, Rhode Island in 1730. At age seventeen, against her parents' wishes, she married a sailor named Samuel Wheaten, who died less than a year later, leaving his wife, Sarah, with a newborn son. In 1737, during a sermon by Nathaniel Clap, the young widow Sarah was overcome with sorrow for her sins. Those sins would likely strike us as mere peccadilloes today--being too vain, failing to obey her parents as a child--but the religious culture of Osborn's world devoted a lot of attention to human depravity. Having repented, she resolved to turn to Christ--a commitment she would subsequently doubt, and then renew under the counsel of Gilbert Tennent. In 1742 she married Henry Osborn, a widower, and once again encountered misfortune within a few months of marriage. Henry lost a huge sum in a bad investment, and the family--which included Henry's children as well as Sarah and her son--was now bankrupt.
Sarah Osborn earned money for her household by, among other things, opening a boarding school in 1758. When the idea first occurred to Osborn, she agonized over whether she ought to do so. For one thing, many evangelicals believed that poverty might be visited upon a person by God for their own betterment. Ought one interfere with something that may have been meant to teach patience? For another, Osborn was concerned that running a boarding school might interfere with her spiritual life. Finally, there was a certain worry about being successful in market terms. As Brekus explains, "On both sides of the Atlantic, evangelicals worried that commercial success had led to a decline in religious faith" (207). Improving one's lot by taking initiative and setting up a business would have been a fraught proposition for Sarah Osborn, the same woman who once rejoiced at being filled with a spirit of "self-abhorrence" (209). Brekus notes, though, that neither evangelicals in general nor Osborn in particular were opposed to a market economy per se. What they could not abide was "the model of selfhood that formed the bedrock of the emerging capitalist order," a model that "depended on a commitment to the values of acquisitive individualism, benevolent self-interest, and free choices" (213).
Ultimately, though, Osborn needed to support her household. She placed an announcement in the Newport Mercury, offering instruction in "Reading, Writing, Plain Work, Embroidering, Tent Stitch, Samplers, &c. on reasonable Terms" (206). In the years that followed she developed a reputation as a kind and pious teacher. She agonized over increasing tuition lest doing so deprive any of her pupils of the instruction their souls needed. Despite this compassionate stance toward tuition charges, Osborn meanwhile used corporal punishment for decades, believing that nothing was more important than the child's salvation. Yet her journal entries reveal that the severity of her discipline frightened Osborn herself. Eventually, and with profound shame, she abandoned the practice after reading Cotton Mather's complaint that beating children was abominable.
Brekus does not spend much time discussing Osborn's pedagogy or her place in the history of education specifically. This is no shortcoming on the book's part, however. One of the most important aspects of Osborn's life--the prayer meetings she hosted in her home--did not begin until the mid 1760% and Brekus rightly devotes a great deal of attention to those. Attendees included free and enslaved blacks as well as whites, men and women, and Christians of different denominational affiliations. Eventually hundreds of people a week were showing up in her home. Osborn respected social boundaries, even as she crossed them, by having different groups meet on different days of the week: Baptist men on Mondays, blacks on Tuesdays, etc. In deference to social hierarchies, Osborn also refrained from praying aloud in front of adult white men.
Needless to say, historians interested in race, gender, and socioeconomic class in early America will find much of value here, all of it conveyed in Brekus' eloquent prose. Historians of American religion will appreciate Brekus' exhaustive research, thick descriptions, and attention to context. The book likewise offers much to scholars interested in modernity and identity, although at least one well-known work--Charles Taylor's Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity--is only referenced in passing, which is surprising, considering how canonical Taylor's work is for historians of modern subjectivity. No matter one's research specialty, though, the book is a delightful and important introduction to a figure few have studied.
Phillips Theological Seminary
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|Title Annotation:||Catherine A. Brekus|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2013|
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