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

Brekus, Catherine A. Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

University of Minnesota religious historian Kirsten Fischer originally followed in the footsteps of other historians who had written about Elihu Palmer as the “most outspoken campaigner for deism in the new United States.”[1] Yet, she realized that some of Palmer’s writings failed to support the “deist notion of a transcendent Creator God.”[2] She went back to what Palmer had studied in order to trace his ideas to their sources and concluded that he was actually promoting a vitalist cosmology, which contributed to the “most radically iconoclastic and egalitarian ideas available in the new republic.”[3]  Her July 2016 article, “Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion in the Early Republic,” reexamines Palmer’s writings in order to help elucidate the “full spectrum of ideas that shaped the debates over religion, democracy, and the direction the new nation [took].”[4] She asks, “why should we care now about Palmer’s vitalist proselytizing when it remained a minority view, failed to start a lasting movement in America, and has been largely overlooked ever since?”[5] What can a book that focuses on a such a narrow piece of religious history and that seems to have little relevance to the current state of the world offer us? Fischer’s inquiry can be extrapolated to not only ponder the current state of religious history in general, but this week’s primary reading in particular.

On one level, Catherine A. Brekus’ Sarah Osborn’s World is a biography of an obscure eighteenth-century Rhode Island schoolteacher who narrates her struggles and triumphs through personal writings. Brekus examined Sarah’s diaries and letters that were written between 1743 and her death in 1796 to uncover how she tried to make sense of her life. In these writings, Sarah reflected upon losing her only son at the age of 11, her ongoing poverty, and the role she played as an outspoken religious leader in her community at a time when women were not allowed to preach. Yet, Brekus goes far beyond Sarah’s struggles by connecting them to key developments in eighteenth century America, which both encompassed the nascent stages of evangelical Christianity and the tenets of modern society. She asserts that “it is clear that the movement [evangelicalism] emerged in response to momentous changes in politics, economics, intellectual life, science, and technology that laid the foundations for our modern world.”[6]

Brekus offers a complex analysis about the ways Sarah’s faith and lived religion helped her find and make meaning in her life. She presented Sarah’s insights concerning slavery and discussed some of the problems with her neighbors Sarah faced due to the large interracial and interdenominational meetings she held. But Sarah’s popularity continued to grow because people were drawn to her “because of her steadfast faith in the midst of suffering.”[7] Sarah’s spiritual convictions awarded her agency to affect her community and to be a part of a religious movement that continues to reverberate today.

This work challenges current scholarship that places evangelical Christianity at odds with Enlightenment thought. Brekus explains that neither evangelicalism nor the Enlightenment was a “single, coherent movement;” rather, they each interacted and developed in tandem as a response to momentous societal conditions and changes such as the rise of merchant capitalism, slavery, technological advances, the consumer revolution, the American Revolution, and expanding personal freedom.[8] She asserts that “evangelicalism was a heart-centered, experiential, individualistic, and evangelistic form of Protestantism that was intertwined with the rise of the modern world.”[9] But the question about the importance of religion to the study of early American history remains.

During a 2013 Juntocast (podcast), several academics, Kenneth Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers, discussed different aspects of religion in early America, recent historiographical developments, and pedagogical practices.[10] They agreed that religion is central to all types of histories. Hattem suggested that people today fail to understand how important religion was to those living during the seventeenth and eighteen centuries, “not in a theological way, but in a cultural way.”[11] He mentioned that there is currently a turn away from the secular narrative towards the role of religion within Enlightenment thought. He added that the problem with much of the current history is that religion has been treated as an isolated topic, which is the opposite of how he thinks it should be approached.[12]

Rogers noted that three key changes can be seen in the historiography of early American history over the past twenty years, which can be attributed to the great strengthening of the history of evangelicalism: focus on what Rogers termed as the “democratization thesis,” lived religion, and race.[13] He claimed that recent history of evangelicalism has affected all history focused on this time period and has successfully united all three of these main topics. Of particular importance has been recent scholarship’s attentiveness to the transformative power of evangelical conversion.[14]

Based on the assessments of Juntocast’s academics and Kirsten Fischer’s example, Sarah Osborn’s World seems to model the best types of scholarship being done in early American history today.

[1] Kirsten Fischer, “On (Finally) Seeing What’s Right in Front of You When It’s Not What You Expected,” Uncommon Sense – The Blog, December 2, 2015, accessed October 14, 2016, http://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/on-finally-seeing-whats-right-in-front-of-you-when-its-not-what-you-expected/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kirsten Fischer, “Vitalism in America: Elihu Palmer’s Radical Religion in the Early Republic,” William & Mary Quarterly 73, no. 3 (July 2016): 507.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 506.

[6] Catherine A. Brekus, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 7.

[7] Ibid., 254.

[8] Ibid., 7-8.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Kenneth Owens, Michael Hattern, and Roy Rogers, host, “A Podcast on Early American History : Ep. 4: Religion in Early America,” The JuntoCast, 2013, accessed October 14, 2016, http://thejuntocast.libsyn.com/ep-4-religion-in-early-america.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Rogers explains that “the social control” thesis argues that the “always-rising middle-class used evangelicalism to solidify their social, economic, and political position through evangelicalism’s promotion of market-friendly values, thrift, delayed gratification, temperance, etc. This middle-class evangelical benevolent empire, over time, sought to impose its values upon the classes both above and below on the antebellum social ladder.” On the flipside, the “democratization thesis” reverses the logic of arguing, that “evangelicalization was a liberating process, not a reactionary one.” Roy Rogers, “After Democratization?,” The Junto, 2013, accessed October 16, 2016, https://earlyamericanists.com/2013/03/14/after-democratization/.

[14] Owens, Hattern, and Rogers,

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