John Wesley Honors College

2013 Aldersgate Prize Recepient Catherine Brekus


Brekus pic

Author Catherine A. Brekus

An Interview with Lydia Flynn, John Wesley Scholar, Class of 2016

In 2013, the John Wesley Honors College awarded the second annual Aldersgate Prize to Catherine A. Brekus, then of the University of Chicago Divinity School and starting in fall 2014 of Harvard Divinity School, for her work in Sarah Osborn’s World. Summing up the consensus of the selection committee, one member noted: “Brekus, with deep human sympathy, illuminates a world of spiritual awakening that is at once quite different from, and yet in deep continuity with, our own experiences and trials. The scholarship in Sarah Osborn’s World is meticulous, the range and depth of the research authoritative, and the result is a powerful reading experience such as is unusual in a bench-mark academic work” (from the initial press release).

Brekus accepted her award at the 2014 Celebration of Scholarship Luncheon and was interviewed the same day by Lydia Flynn, a rising junior and international relations major.

Why have the thousands of pages of writings Sarah Osborn left behind been largely ignored for so long—is it a result of societal priorities, difficulty in finding the records, or a combination of factors?

[Osborn’s] manuscripts ended up in various different archives, mostly in New England, but also some in a historical society in Pennsylvania. I think what happened, although I don’t completely know, is that after her death, her friends passed her writings around as devotional readings… One of the diaries has a couple of names on it where somebody wrote on it like it was a book. First was a minister from Newport whom she never knew. He was a minister of that church after she died, and he took some to a new church in Massachusetts. Then he seems to have given some to a woman in that church, so his name is on them and her name is on them. It’s a very complicated story which I haven’t entirely been able to trace.

As for the question of why people didn’t use them earlier, they were somewhat difficult to find. There’s a group of them at Newport Historical Society, which is not part of the National Union Catalog. In other words, you had to physically be in that building and look in their catalog to see that they owned something called Sarah Osborn’s manuscripts. I think that’s part of it, but I also think that the field of American religious history has changed a lot since the 1970s and the 1980s and that there has been a real recovery of the history of evangelicalism since then…The whole field has shifted; historians are always interested in explaining current phenomena, and so there’s been a huge amount of scholarship on evangelicals. I think part of the reason she looks interesting to me and to other scholars is that she speaks to contemporary concerns and to past ones.

One of the things that was a little discouraging is that other historians who had at least mentioned her weren’t interested in the religious dimensions of her writings at all. If you read these documents, it’s hard to imagine how you couldn’t be because that’s pretty much all she writes about… She shows up in other scholars’ writings in other ways to satisfy other kinds of scholarly interests. Ultimately, I think it’s a combination: her manuscripts were not very accessible, they’re scattered everywhere so it took me a long time to piece together what existed, and I think it was hard for scholars to know what to do with her.

You wrote that Sarah was shaped by identifiable influences of the period and community in which she lived. How has this understanding impacted your writing of the book and your view of your own life?

This is something I talk to students about a lot. It’s much easier to look back at somebody hundreds of years ago and identify the historical forces at work on that person. It’s much harder to see the forces influencing us, but working on this book has made me very aware of the way contemporary discourses shape me. There are certain assumptions that I take for granted, but Osborn herself never would have thought in the same way. She accepted the monarchy as a positive good until the revolution; she accepted slavery for a good part of her life; she accepted poverty as being God’s will. All of those attitudes and beliefs were given to her, and she eventually did question some of them, but it was hard to question them because she grew up thinking that way.

When I think about my own life and my own assumptions, I sometimes stand back and ask myself why I do believe those things. I think the more disturbing element of this is that it’s so easy to look back at her, for example, and to see that slavery was evil and that she was complicit in it. It’s less easy for us to see what social structures we are complicit in, what evils we are not addressing…This is something the study of history does more generally. It destabilizes our sense of what’s most important and what we can take for granted. It makes us ask questions about who we are and…how we could be different. I have a colleague who has a wonderful response for people who ask him why he became a historian. He says, “I thought the world was a very strange place and I wanted to know how it got that way.” And that’s really what a lot of it is about.

To what extent was learning to understand Sarah’s frame of mind through your research comparable to learning a new language by immersion?

That’s a wonderful analogy because I did spend quite a bit of time reading Sarah Osborn before I started to identify what I would call keywords—words that were really important to her and had a lot of different meanings embedded in them. One of those words was experience. This was a key moment for me in research…I didn’t know what I was going to do with these diaries, but I was trying to figure out how to connect her life to larger changes going on. The word experience was just so important to her, and it was a really important word in the 18th century in general. When people invoked experience in that century, they were really making claims to a way of knowing.

Being attuned to words like that helped me connect her to larger currents of thought. British Enlightenment thinkers were especially enamored with the word experience. Unlike some more radical Enlightenment thinkers who focused on pure reason, philosophers like Locke said we attain knowledge through first-hand experience. When I started seeing that word so much in her diaries and memoirs—and it’s all over other evangelicals’ writings as well—I started thinking about what it was doing there. One of the arguments I make in the book is that evangelicalism emerges in dialogue with certain aspects of the Enlightenment, and the focus on experience ended up being a huge issue…Seeing it in Sarah Osborn’s writings again made me want to understand where it was coming from.Book-pic-Catherine-Brekus1

There was also a translation of terms that I thought I understood. Words change valences, and they mean different things at different times. Evangelical for her was not a noun, but an adjective, and so the way evangelicals end up being called evangelicals is that there was a tendency for individuals like Sarah to describe their religion as an evangelical faith or piety. The name just stuck.  There was a certain degree of translation not only with vocabulary, but with ideas. Her framework seemed very foreign to me in some ways, but also very familiar. Her questions, I think, are our questions. They remained really potent questions for over 200 years.

How much work is being done by men in studying early American women in religion? Do you think female historians are more inclined to write about figures like Sarah than male historians?

There’s been a major shift in the field of history more generally since the late 1960s and early 1970s. We talk about the rise of social history…This is the era in which women’s history and black history emerged, but it’s also the era in which historians began writing about ordinary white men…So there’s been a kind of larger shift toward a history of non-elites. I think there’s also a more sophisticated understanding of how change happens, namely that historical change emerges not only from the top down, but also from the bottom up. Sarah Osborn is not well-known. Jonathan Edwards is hugely known, but I think we can’t understand figures like Edwards…without understanding the ordinary people who made them into leaders. Edwards clearly was articulating ideas and presenting answers to problems that were more widely shared, and unless we look to the experiences of ordinary people, we don’t know why those problems were felt or why certain leaders became leaders.

That’s a broad framing answer to your question, but I think women’s history still tends to be mostly written by women. I think male historians are increasingly sensitive to including women’s stories in their classes and highlighting women’s voices even if they’re not doing research on women, but it’s slow. I’ve written a lot about the difficulty of integrating women into narratives of American history more generally, but also narratives of American religious history…This is part of what the Sarah Osborn book is—highlighting the experience of a woman and trying to show that you get a unique and valuable vantage point on the rise of evangelicalism by looking at it through her eyes. Especially in the history of American religion, we have a sense…that church membership roles have been dominated by women. The fact that American religious history has often been told as the story of a small group of male leaders really makes no sense because it doesn’t get at the fundamental questions… I also think there’s been a tendency even among women’s historians, not surprisingly, to write about the famous women like Harriet Beecher Stow or Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Those are the women we can say most concretely made something happen. I think women’s history has also had some of the issues of the larger field; it’s easier to tell the story of America through the leaders. I’m hopeful about the field, and I’m hopeful that their stories will be more integrated into the field, but it’s one book at a time.

Are there ways in which you believe evangelical churches today have lost memory of the women who shaped their past?

I think that not only evangelicals, but all Christian traditions are still in the process of recovering the histories of women. Women’s history is still relatively new, and there are some traditions in which we know very little…I do think that it really does make a difference for contemporary Christians to have a sense of who came before them. Hearing their reflections and understanding their struggles can shed light on our own problems and questions. My experience with Sarah Osborn has been that there are many ways in which her answers are not mine, but I feel that it has really deepened my understanding of women in the Christian tradition to hear her reflecting on her life. I’m hoping that communities of Christian women create reading groups and find ways to recover those stories for themselves. I hope they reclaim and recover that history because my own sense from teaching, and not surprisingly most of the students who take my Women in Religion course are female, become aware that their lives stand in a longer trajectory. I get to see them to figure out when certain assumptions about womanhood were crafted and where their assumptions came from. I hope that women’s history will have a thriving life in religious communities and not just the academy, but I think it’s been more academic until now.

How did studying Sarah’s faith tradition impact you, and how did your traditions intertwine?

I’m not an evangelical; I’m Catholic. I come from a family of religious seekers on my father’s side, so it’s sort of funny that I ended up studying religion. I didn’t think about religion as an academic category until graduate school, but when I think back, it makes sense. My family tree has Catholics from Ireland on one side and Lutherans, Episcopalians, and a Christian Scientist on the other. My mother is Catholic and my father was Episcopalian, so when they met in college, it was really in issue. This was going to be an interfaith marriage… This is all background to my very strong interest and commitment to ecumenical dialogue. My research and my teaching is on a wide variety of Christianities.

I hope Sarah Osborn, who despised Catholics, is laughing, because there’s something humorous about the fact that her manuscripts waited for so long for someone to be interested in them, and who comes a long but a Catholic academic woman in the 20th century… Actually, the biggest differences aren’t about Protestantism and Catholicism, but about her Calvinism. She thought everything that happened was God’s will, and I’m a free will person… I felt that I needed the most empathy there, trying to put myself in her position. The experience of reading her words and thinking with her was really moving because she had such a deep faith, and that’s what I really resonated with…She has a chronic illness, she loses her only child, and she’s poor throughout her life, yet when she writes about her experiences, she’s absolutely determined to see signs of God’s goodness even in the most awful situations. I don’t mean this in a naïve way. She was wrestling with the reality of her suffering, but she was trying not to let it overwhelm her. That’s something I will always take with me from the experience of working with her.

I chose as the title for the first chapter a piece from her memoir where she tries to explain why she’s telling her story. She says she wants to teach others to “trust in God and never despair of His mercy.” So I called the first chapter “Never Despair,” and I think that’s a wonderful message. It’s certainly something that I believed before I started reading her, but I found that spending those years with her really deepened my appreciation for that part of the tradition—the part the stares in the face of suffering and evil and recognizes that this is not the full story. The part that Sarah wouldn’t like is that I really know now that I’m not a Calvinist… In my dialogues with her, she has tried very hard to convince me… In some ways, I think I have a stronger sense of my own core convictions after spending time with her. I also have a deep appreciation for hers, and even though I’m joking about Calvinism, it was deeply meaningful for her. Spending that time for her made me recognize why people take such comfort from Calvinist understandings of Providence and God… At the same time that I’m more clear that I’m not a Calvinist, I understand better why some people are.

What challenges do you see facing young women today considering graduate school and doctoral work? What advice would you give these women?

This is a great question and a huge question. I’m doing a lot of work at the University of Chicago right now on a number of committees on diversity issues. There are some issues that are affecting all graduate students, such as the shrinking of doctoral programs and the declining number of jobs. This is very alarming, and I think it’s a very difficult time to go to graduate school. People shouldn’t go in debt because you don’t know what’s going to happen on the other side. I think it’s demoralizing for people to see how difficult it is to get into graduate school, even with wonderful records. On the other side, it can be difficult to find jobs.

The graduate school model and the tenure track model are inherited from a time when most graduate students and professors were men. I think women have a particular set of issues that cause difficulties along the way. Of course they want to have children. They want to have a family and a full human life. Graduate programs are only starting to catch up to that in terms of giving women maternity leave or making sure their stipends don’t go away… I think there are difficulties for women because the structures are still trying catch up with women’s experiences.  Many women are starting families early on in the tenure track. Most places now do have some kind of one-year “stop the clock” program for tenure, but anybody who’s had a child can tell you that’s not going to make up for the amount of time that you lose.  I think there’s incredible pressure on young women with families on the tenure track. They want to spend time with their children, but at the same time, tenure committees are asking for books and articles. But again, I do think things are getting better. There are enough women now in senior positions who remember what it was like and who are empathetic, wanting to change things.