March 4, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 11

current issue
archive / search

    [catherine brekus], by perry paegelow  
    Catherine Brekus

    Professor Brekus researches women who evangelized before 1830s

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    Studying 19th-century female preachers has made Catherine Brekus realize that contemporary struggles over women’s religious authority and leadership reach deep into the American past.

    Brekus, Assistant Professor in the Divinity School and author of Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845, will expand upon the research in her first book as she writes about the life of Sarah Hagger Wheaton Osborn, an evangelical woman whose devotional diary offers a glimpse into her inner struggles and the religious, cultural and economic dimensions of 18th-century Rhode Island.

    This month, the Association of Theological Schools named Brekus the third professor at Chicago to become a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology. The fellowship will allow Brekus to delve into Hagger’s life, which so far, she has found fraught with struggles.

    “Part of being a historian is letting the evidence take you where you don’t want to go,” said Brekus, who has taught at the University since 1993. Her current project occasionally has that effect. “There are times when I do not know if I want to be inside this woman’s head,” Brekus said.

    At age 19, Sarah Hagger married a sailor. A year later, she became a widow with an infant son, and despite her work as a teacher and seamstress, they lived in poverty. Years later, she married Henry Osborn, a tailor with three sons.

    Shortly after they married, the once-successful tradesman had a mental and physical breakdown that rendered him unable to work. This time, Sarah Osborn had to support herself and a family of five.

    Brekus, who studied history and literature at Harvard University as an undergraduate and who received a doctorate in American studies from Yale University, began writing Strangers and Pilgrims as her doctoral dissertation.

    Brekus’s interest in studying these religious women was piqued by the memoir of a 19th-century preacher named Nancy Towle. One of Brekus’s Yale professors, John Butler, found the memoir and shared it with her.

    “I could not stop reading it,” Brekus said. “She felt she had this call––traveling as an itinerant across the United States and Europe. It flew in the face of everything that I had known about 19th-century women. She changed all my preconceptions about 19th-century women.”

    Brekus explained that many historians claim women’s rights activist Fanny Wright and antislavery activists Sarah and Angelina Grimke were the first women to speak publicly to large audiences of men and women. “I had assumed few, if any women had spoken in public before the great social reform movements of the 1830s and 1840s,” she said.

    But Towle’s writings proved that earlier women had traveled across the country preaching to thousands of men and women. Brekus said this practice of preaching at camp and revival meetings violated the codes of what historians have called “the cult of domesticity.”

    “In theory, ‘respectable’ women were supposed to remain in their own ‘separate sphere,’ but female preachers refused to see the public as a ‘masculine’ space. Like many other historians in the past 10 years, I realized that the concept of ‘separate spheres’ was more rhetorical than real,” said Brekus. She said she was also surprised to read how many men supported these women’s right to preach.

    Strangers and Pilgrims, which won the Frank D. and Elizabeth S. Brewer Prize from the American Society of Church History when it was still in manuscript form, lists 122 female preachers and exhorters in America from 1740 until 1845.

    “They’re not radicals, but they’re not entirely conservatives,” Brekus said. “I think that’s what makes them interesting. They are products of their own times, and they live in a different world,” said Brekus. “‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,’ someone once said.”

    Presently, Brekus plans to work with the Divinity School’s new Martin E. Marty Center to share her research with both academic and popular audiences.