“Simply One of the Best Books I Have Read on the Life of an American Evangelical”

Thomas Kidd—author of The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution—writes:

People love biographies, and I am regularly asked to recommend good ones during the lead-up to Christmas. One of the most frustrating things about the bookselling business is that there is no necessary correlation between the prominent placement of books at the bookstore, or the review of them in newspapers and magazines, and the enduring quality of those books. True, bestselling books are often very well written (lively prose is the specialty of the trade press), but from a historical perspective, they often lack substance or new research.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in biographies of America’s Founders.  Don’t get me wrong: there are popular biographies of the Founders, including ones written by non-academic historians, that are terrific. . . .

But some popular writers simply become biography factories, churning out a new one on some well-known figure every year (or more), just in time for Christmas, often repackaging old myths and inaccuracies. Those sorts of books are readily available at Barnes and Noble and your airport’s bookstore, too.

So, as a public service announcement, here are five biographies I heartily recommend for your Christmas list. I have limited myself to religious biographies . . .  written by scholars, but ones which speak to a more general audience. I am focusing here on books that will not be at the “front of the store” (or perhaps not in the store at all) this Christmas, either because they are not new, or because they were not published by a major trade press.

You can read his Top 5 List here.

In particular, notice his commendation of Catherine Brekus’s Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America (Yale University Press).

A brand-new biography of Osborn, perhaps the most influential woman in America’s First Great Awakening. In my jacket endorsement of the book, I said ”This will become the best biography we have on a female evangelical in colonial America, following naturally from Brekus’s earlier book on women preachers in early America. But I would also recommend this as simply one of the best books I have read on the life of an American evangelical, female or male.”

Here are a couple of other glowing endorsements for this new book:

Sarah Osborn’s World reflects unusually industrious research, profound historical insight, and extraordinary human empathy. It offers a superb depiction of the long and complex life of a woman who was at the heart of eighteenth-century American evangelical history. The remarkable character of that life is matched by the remarkable success of this book.

—Mark A. Noll

Sarah Osborn’s World is written beautifully and reads like a novel. The beginning undergraduate or non-historian will turn the pages with delight, but the academic specialist will long ponder the significance of this book for his or her own work. The life of Sarah Osborn is not only narrated splendidly on its own terms but also carefully placed to illuminate a wide range of scholarly discussions of religion and culture in which Brekus is well-informed. There is no better biographical study of an eighteenth-century religious woman.

—Bruce Hindmarsh