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Sarah Osborn's World

Sarah Osborn's World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America

Catherine A. Brekus
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 448
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  • Book Info
    Sarah Osborn's World
    Book Description:

    In 1743, sitting quietly with pen in hand, Sarah Osborn pondered how to tell the story of her life, how to make sense of both her spiritual awakening and the sudden destitution of her family. Remarkably, the memoir she created that year survives today, as do more than two thousand additional pages she composed over the following three decades.Sarah Osborn's Worldis the first book to mine this remarkable woman's prolific personal and spiritual record. Catherine Brekus recovers the largely forgotten story of Sarah Osborn's life as one of the most charismatic female religious leaders of her time, while also connecting her captivating story to the rising evangelical movement in eighteenth-century America.

    A schoolteacher in Rhode Island, a wife, and a mother, Sarah Osborn led a remarkable revival in the 1760s that brought hundreds of people, including many slaves, to her house each week. Her extensive written record-encompassing issues ranging from the desire to be "born again" to a suspicion of capitalism-provides a unique vantage point from which to view the emergence of evangelicalism. Brekus sets Sarah Osborn's experience in the context of her revivalist era and expands our understanding of the birth of the evangelical movement-a movement that transformed Protestantism in the decades before the American Revolution.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18832-5
    Subjects: History, Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    What can the story of an eighteenth-century woman’s life tell us about the rise of evangelical Christianity in America?

    This is a book about Sarah Osborn, a woman born three centuries ago, and the strange yet familiar world in which she lived. Strange, because she rejected many of the axioms about human goodness, freedom, and self-determination that Americans today take for granted. Familiar, because she belonged to the first generation of evangelicals in America, and she helped create a dynamic new religious movement that has flourished in our modern world. Her passionate language of sin, repentance, and conversion still reverberates...

  5. Part i: A Memoir, 1743

    • Chapter 1 Never Despair
      (pp. 15-32)

      1743. Revivals are the talk of every tea table, sewing circle, and tavern in New England. George Whitefield, the young evangelist famous for his crossed eyes and honeyed tongue, preaches to thousands of people up and down the eastern seaboard, leaving many in tears. James Davenport, another young evangelist, protests against the “idolatry” of material things by stripping off his breeches and throwing them into a bonfire, leading to speculation that his “wild, frantic, and extravagant” behavior might be the result of a mental breakdown. After several Massachusetts ministers complain about “disorderly Tumultsandindecent Behaviors,” others insist that “there has...

    • Chapter 2 The Name of Christ
      (pp. 33-58)

      The most ignorant and vile of all creatures. Enmity. The lake that burns with fire and brimstone. Corruptions. These were some of the images that came to Sarah’s mind when she remembered her life as a child.

      There were many ways that Sarah could have begun the story of her childhood. Besides recording the basic facts that would have appeared in the church register, including her date of birth and her parents’ names, she could have tried to articulate her earliest, most vivid memories of growing up. Reaching back in time, she must have been able to salvage many memories,...

    • Chapter 3 An Afflicted Low Condition
      (pp. 59-92)

      As Sarah Osborn continued to write her memoir, she put aside her childhood recollections in order to focus on the tumultuous years of her adolescence and early adulthood. From her vantage point in 1743 she could look back at a long string of trials that had tested her faith, and as she tried to make sense of the past she had to confront the difficult question of suffering. She remembered soaring moments of communion with God (moments that had lifted her out of “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart,” to borrow an image from Yeats), but also...

    • Chapter 4 Amazing Grace
      (pp. 93-134)

      In the last section of her memoir, Sarah Osborn explained that the story of her life was worth sharing only because of what it revealed about divine grace. She had written about her childhood sinfulness and her sufferings because they had prepared her for the greatest moment of her life: her rebirth in Christ.

      Sarah’s conversion was not like Saint Paul’s on the road to Damascus or Augustine’s in the garden of Milan. She did not suddenly hear God’s voice calling her to repent or suddenly become a new self in Christ. Her conversion had not been that dramatic—or...

  6. Part ii: Diaries and Letters, 1744–1796

    • Chapter 5 The Lord Gave, and the Lord Hath Taken Away, 1744
      (pp. 137-169)

      Sarah Osborn wrote these painful words on September 22, 1744, eight days after the death of her son, Samuel. He had died just a month before his twelfth birthday.

      As always, Sarah turned to writing in order to make sense of what seemed incomprehensible. Although it was several days before she could bear to put her thoughts on paper, she seemed to hope that the orderly act of arranging her experiences on a page would help her see God’s hand in her life. When she sat down to write, a quill in her hand and an inkbottle at her side,...

    • Chapter 6 No Imaginary Thing, 1753–1755
      (pp. 170-190)

      In June 1753 Sarah wrote an encouraging letter to a friend in the midst of a spiritual crisis. In the nine years since Samuel’s death she had tried to channel her grief into helping others to seek salvation, determined not to let anyone else die without Christ. Counseling her friend not to despair, she promised that “a GOD of boundless Perfections” would never “forsake the Soul that puts its Trust in him.”

      Two years later Thomas Prince arranged for Sarah Osborn’s letter to be published anonymously in Boston under the titleThe Nature, Certainty and Evidence of True Christianity. We...

    • Chapter 7 Pinching Poverty, 1756–1758
      (pp. 191-216)

      “Our Expense is unavoidably Greater than our income.” “This week we knew not what to do for food.” “Let us not ungratefully … complain of Poverty but cheerfully rely on the stores of the Providence without coveting stores of our own.” “Lord, pity me.”² Sentences like these punctuate almost everything Sarah Osborn wrote between 1756 and 1758, the opening years of the Seven Years’ War.

      The war pitted two of the world’s great powers, France and England, against each other in a battle over who would control America’s vast economic resources. Most of the fighting took place in Canada, the...

    • Chapter 8 Love Thy Neighbor, 1759–1763
      (pp. 217-247)

      Sarah wrote these words in the midst of the Seven Years’ War, a time of devastation in Newport. The war was in its fifth grueling year, and every day brought terrible news of battles lost, soldiers wounded, and loved ones killed. As food supplies dwindled and prices rose, many families were left destitute. The almshouse was filled with widows and orphans who lacked food, clothing, and a safe place to sleep.

      Sarah spent many sleepless nights worrying about whether she and Henry would fall into bankruptcy again, but even though she could barely pay their rent, she was determined to...

    • Chapter 9 Jordan Overflowing, 1765–1774
      (pp. 248-288)

      1765. It is a cold Sunday night in the middle of winter. Candles and firelight illuminate Sarah Osborn’s house, casting a glow onto the street. More than seventy slaves and free blacks sit quietly in her kitchen as she reads the Bible to them. With few chairs in the house, most of them sit shoulder to shoulder on the floor while she perches above them on a stool, pausing occasionally to emphasize that the Bible was written for each and every one of them. Though she has difficulty walking and standing because of her advancing illness, she has never felt more...

    • Chapter 10 The Latter Days, 1775–1787
      (pp. 289-315)

      Sarah Osborn dictated this letter to Joseph Fish in 1780, too ill to write it with her own hand. The Revolutionary War was still raging, but the British had left Newport after occupying the city for three years, and Sarah was finally able to communicate freely with the outside world. Remembering the worst days of the fighting, she reassured Fish that God had watched over her, and whether she lived or died she knew that she belonged to him. God was in control of everything: even the bullets that had left many dead.

      For years Sarah had prayed that the...

    • Chapter 11 The Open Vision, 1796
      (pp. 316-336)

      August 1796. Sarah Osborn lies in her room, her breathing labored, and listens to a friend read the Bible aloud. In her eighty-two years she has often dreamed about dying and going to heaven, but now she knows that the time is near. Weak, swollen with edema, and out of breath, she seems to be suffering from congestive heart failure, a condition often linked to rheumatoid arthritis. Soon, she tells her friends, she will be “going home.”²

      Sarah has imagined heaven so many times that it is as real to her as the four walls of her room. At the...

  7. Epilogue: A Protestant Saint
    (pp. 337-344)

    Protestants have never believed in saints in the same way Catholics do. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin condemned the Catholic belief in saints as idolatry, insisting that only God was worthy of veneration. Even the holiest people in history could not intercede with God or perform miracles after death. All God’s chosen people were “saints,” members of God’s heavenly kingdom.

    But when the Reverend Levi Hart, one of Sarah Osborn’s most generous supporters, heard the news of her death in August 1796, he wrote a letter to Samuel Hopkins asking whether it were possible for the...

  8. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 345-348)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 349-414)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 415-418)
  11. Index
    (pp. 419-432)