A Brief Review of
Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America
Reviewed by Douglas Connelly
I have read a lot of early American church history since my days in seminary and some of my most-revered mentors come from the era of the Great Awakening – George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and Francis Asbury. But I can’t ever remember reading a word about Sarah Osborn until I picked up this excellent book. The author, Catherine Brekus, is an academic (who teaches American religious history at the University of Chicago), but she tells Sarah Osborn’s story in a compelling, embracing style that draws the reader along and into every detail she explores. The book is more than just the biography of a remarkable woman; it is the story of the broader evangelical movement in early America told through the experience of a remarkable Christian.
Sarah Osborn was born in England in 1714, but she came to the American colonies in 1723. She and her parents eventually settled in Newport, Rhode Island in 1730. The young Sarah was a strong-willed woman who defied her parents by marrying a sailor at the age of seventeen. Within a year of that marriage, her husband perished at sea and she was left to care for her newborn son alone. Osborn was raised in a strict (even harsh) Congregationalist home, but she did not come to the place of personal faith until 1737, after listening to a resounding sermon from her pastor, Nathaniel Clap, on the lost condition of all humanity. Her deeper commitment to Christ and to holy living came a few years later as George Whitefield and Gilbert Tennent arrived in Newport at the height of the Great Awakening. From that time forward, Osborn devoted her life to visiting the sick, evangelizing her neighbors, and eventually writing down her experiences with the Lord in small composition books she made herself.
Sarah Osborn left a large body of writings, including a memoir, ten volumes of diaries, and dozens of letters. Unfortunately, only 2,000 of an estimated 15,000 original pages have survived. The rest were lost over the years since her death. Osborn wrote in a flowing, almost raw style, disregarding the rules of punctuation or spelling. But her writings also express the depths and heights of her encounters with God: “Surely my heart reacht forth in burning desire after the blessed jesus oh how I was ravisht with his Love” (quoted in Brekus, p. 93).
Osborn’s life was not just one ecstasy after another, however. She faced more than her share of grief and sorrow. Her eleven-year-old son died in her arms, her second husband made a poor investment and lost their money, the family lived in poverty for years, and her physical ailments at times were almost debilitating. At the same time, Osborn experienced abundant evidence of God’s blessing to her and through her. In the mid-1760s a revival swept Newport that centered around prayer meetings held at her home. As many as five hundred people over the course of a week would crowd into her house, many of them slaves and free blacks.
When Sarah Osborn died in 1796, she left her manuscript writings to her pastor, Samuel Hopkins. He published her memoirs in 1799, but over the years Osborn’s voice fell silent. Catherine Brekus’ book gives her fresh expression in our century. Dr. Brekus is working toward the publication of Sarah Osborn’s writings. Hopefully, the evangelical movement will listen again to this powerfully spiritual woman and will be drawn closer to the Christ she loved so much.
Douglas Connelly is the senior pastor of Parkside Community Church in Sterling Heights, Michigan, and is the author of The Bible for Blockheads(Zondervan).