Sarah Osborn's Collected Writings

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Catherine A. Brekus
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , June
     448 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sarah Osborn (1714-1796) lived in Newport, Rhode Island, and was quietly prolific during her lifetime, writing thousands of pages in journals and letters that disclosed her understanding of her relationship with God and the providential care he extended to her. Sadly, most of Osborn’s writings have been lost, yet through the work of Catherine Brekus, her voice speaks again of the spiritual heights and depths she encountered throughout her daily life. In the follow up to her monograph Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press, 2017), Brekus brings us a freshly transcribed, organized, and edited collection of the currently available Osborn writings, spanning the years from 1742 to 1780. In her work studying the life and writings of Sarah Osborn, Brekus has consistently displayed great care and empathy for her historical subject. Here Brekus demonstrates such empathy by meticulously striving for readability, updating spelling and punctuation, and also for accessibility, by limiting footnotes, thereby honoring Osborn’s deep desire that her words might one day encourage others on their spiritual journey. Brekus does this without losing historical accuracy.

Sarah Osborn stands at the crossroads of many great historical paths. Writing as a poor, moderately educated, widowed woman, who befriended and evangelized Newport’s local slave population, Osborn offers a rarely heard voice concerning both common life and national events in early America. Yet,her perspective is faithfully evangelical, upholding the importance of scripture, conversion, and church membership. Though Osborn taught spiritual truth through both her written and spoken words (potentially subversive actions for an 18th century Congregationalist woman), she sought to do so only under the spiritual authority and headship of her male pastors. In this, Osborn exemplifies the growing impact of the Enlightenment on New England religious culture as experience increasingly served to establish an individual’s spiritual authority and right to speak.

Writing was dear to Osborn, and her faithfulness to the act demonstrates the literary culture which was soon to grow among New England evangelical women. Though both Puritan men and women had long been educated to read the Bible, the growing emphasis on writing as an act of Christian discipline by the Puritans’ evangelical descendants provided women with a skill previously understood to be primarily commercial. Osborn beautifully describes her passion for writing as a spiritual discipline with the words: “O, blessed be God, that I have been taught to write, since that is the means that God has made the most effectual of all other to fix my thoughts on eternal things. ’Tis in this way of musing that the fire burns; ’tis in this way I am prepared for the most solemn acts of secret devotion. If I first attempt to read, my thoughts will rove, except in reviewing past experiences. If I try to meditate, they will still flutter as a bird from bow to bow but fix on nothing. If I attempt to pray, ’tis not one time in ten (or scarce I believe) the year throughout that I can get near and wrestle with God, except I am this way prepared - that I seem to lie under (as is already wrote) a necessity to improve my pen if I will be at all lively in religion” (107).

Through Brekus’s work in Sarah Osborn’s Collected Writings, Osborn’s theological voice and vision are now more accessible for both academic study and religious devotion. Along with Sarah Osborn’s World, Brekus’s work ought to be required reading for any student not only of early American women’s history, but also for students of American religious history, intellectual history, literary history, and social history, who should not neglect this effort to recover such an important voice. Sarah Osborn, and Brekus’s work thereon, ought to become standard source material for the study of early America in order to understand the flourishing of American evangelicalism not only among New England’s elite, but also among New England’s disenfranchised and working classes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hannah Nation is an independent scholar in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Catherine A. Brekus is Charles Warren Professor of the History of Religion in America at Harvard Divinity School. She lives in Auburndale, MA.


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