Sarah Osborn's World: Substance with Style

Elesha Coffman

Because I was a journalist before I began grad school, I never thought I would have a problem writing prose that communicated with people. I worried (a lot) about amassing the knowledge and credibility to say something as an academic, but I expected the actual saying part to continue to come fairly naturally. By about my third semester of coursework, however, academic anxieties combined with primary- and secondary-source overload to choke everything I tried to compose. I had lost my voice.

I was reminded of that struggle as I read Catherine Brekus's remarkably fluid new book, Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America. An early entry in the Yale University Press "New Directions in Narrative History" series, this work suffers from no such scholarly laryngitis. Instead, it advances a strong argument in clear language with enough historical context to keep non-specialists engaged and enough drama to keep any reader turning the pages. Brekus makes this all look easy, a testament to the painstaking labor that doubtless stands behind the finished product.

In a nutshell, Brekus argues that evangelicalism evolved in the 18th century as a response to the Enlightenment and to both political and economic liberalization, becoming "a heart-centered, experiential, individualistic, and evangelistic form of Protestantism that was intertwined with the rise of the modern world" (11). The key word here is "experiential," for it ties the argument to the book's narrative: an account of the life and ministry of Sarah Osborn, leader of a Newport, Rhode Island, revival in the 1760s. Because the Enlightenment privileged experience as a source of illumination, Osborn, a poor, self-educated, and physically infirm woman could emerge as a spiritual leader, her ministry encouraged (and her writings published) by her famous minister, Samuel Hopkins. The Enlightenment and evangelical religion clashed on many points, but Osborn's career was made possible by their confluence.

This book possesses many, many strengths (I describe some in a longer review at Christianity Today), but for readers of this blog, the biggest lesson might lie in Brekus's deft handling of her material. Brekus pieced together Osborn's life from her memoir, diaries, and letters, a few dense and erratically punctuated pages of which are reproduced in the book. To flesh out Osborn's context, Brekus turned to sermons, theological and prescriptive literature, other women's writings, and secondary sources on topics ranging from the colonial economy to clinical depression. This is all solid, admirable historical work, but what's amazing is how well it works together in the text. Brekus fills in gaps in Osborn's record, or zooms in and out from individual narrative to bird's-eye view, without the awkward transitions that bedevil much academic prose. Even the tricky move of exploring a subject's mental state--Osborn contemplated suicide at least once and seemed, like many heirs of the Puritans, incapable of grieving--is navigated gracefully.

Brekus is only slightly less successful at weaving her historiographic interventions into the narrative. In addition to the central argument about Enlightenment and evangelicalism, Brekus sprinkles the book with smaller arguments about such things as 18th-century notions of childrearing ("they did not treat children as miniature adults who were expected to understand complicated theological ideas," p. 38) and the supposed anti-authoritarian nature of revivalism ("Although the laity could be contemptuous of ministers who disagreed with them, they still relied on popular religious leaders to validate their experiences," p. 122). These interventions typically begin with an allusion to what "historians have argued" previously, which is sufficient signal to the general reader that the next point is in some dispute, and Brekus is consciously asserting a new interpretation, or at least a minority opinion. In some of these instances, though, the nearest endnote lists the primary sources on which Brekus bases her interpretation but not the historical works with which she disagrees. I found these omissions irritating, and if Brekus hadn't so amply demonstrated her authority in other ways, I might have grown a tad suspicious.

The primary audiences for this book are scholars of the 18th century, of evangelicalism, and those eager to see how the convictions Brekus expressed in The Religious History of American Women play out in a book-length treatment. One hopes, along with Brekus, that Osborn "will appear in future books about the evangelical movement next to male leaders like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley" (xiii). Regardless of scholarly focus, though, anyone who aspires to write compellingly clear history would do well to begin each workday with a dose of this book. Its confident tone might help you establish your own.


Thanks for your insightful review both here and over at CT, Elesha.
John G. Turner said…
Thanks for this. I don't think there are enough superlatives for Brekus's book. I used it in my "Religion in America" class this semester, and my students both seemed to enjoy it and learn from it. I hope the book gains a wider audience among non-academic evangelicals (and others?) as well. I was very impressed by Brekus's ability to weave a larger argument into a biographical narrative.
Curtis J. Evans said…
Thanks, Elesha, for this helpful review. Although Catherine (hey, she's my colleague!) never loses sight of Osborn's personal life, especially with her insightful discussion about Osborn's memoir as a project in self-fashioning, I was especially intrigued by her analysis of the way evangelicals borrowed from or engaged with broader social and intellectual currents. There is really good stuff on individualism, "the" Enlightenment, humanitarianism, etc. On the latter, she makes the argument that evangelicals "sounded as fervent as humanitarians about creating a kinder, more compassionate world." Yet, unlike other humanitarians, who did not share their notions of sin and human fallenness, evangelicals developed their own distinctive notion of benevolence, one that gave primacy to saving souls and evangelism over against helping the suffering body or attempting to abolish suffering more generally. These instances of situating evangelicals in these broader currents, though in no way detracting from the remarkable work on the private and public dimensions of Sarah's life, and examining their distinctives, make this a really rich work. But I suppose I will stop here lest my laudatory comments seem too fawning for a colleague's work.
Paul Harvey said…
Definitely going on my fall syllabus -- thanks Elesha!
Christopher said…
I finished this a couple of months ago, and add my own praise to what you and others have said. It really is a remarkable book. Thanks for the review.

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