A rigorous examination of the unsettling life and writing of a deeply pious woman in mid-18th-century America.
In looking closely at the life of this colonial evangelical woman and rare published author, Brekus (American Religious History/Univ. of Chicago; The Religious History of American Women, 2007, etc.) presents an illuminating window into early American religious sects and how deeply engrained they were in the everyday lives of all people. Osborn, born in 1714 to strict Congregationalist parents who settled in Newport, R.I., was one of the first women who published in America and was allowed to teach her Christian experience—a loaded Enlightenment word meaning what she came to know strictly firsthand. Having defied her parents at age 17 to run off with a sailor, widowed soon after with a baby and returning as the prodigal to her hometown, Osborn nearly joined the Anglicans before her mother guilt tripped her into returning to the fold. Then she had a born-again experience and resolved to write about it for the benefit of others. A deeply personal relationship with God and an urge to spread the gospel characterized the so-called revivalists emerging from the more strict reformist faiths that had seen the early founding of America. The evangelicals that Osborn gravitated toward at Rev. Nathaniel Clap’s First Church in Newport believed strongly in good works, human goodness and free will, although they were also extremely self-abasing. Her memoir was published, with the implicit approval of male church elders, as a way of preaching the Gospel, leading to popular prayer meetings at her home that included slaves. Brekus’ thorough work reveals by degrees how Osborn’s excruciatingly heartfelt faith was also responding to cataclysmic changes taking place in colonial life, ushering in what we now call capitalism, individualism and humanitarianism.
Authoritative, accessible study of Osborn’s rare early work by an expert scholar of her writing and time.