Readers primarily interested in the history of Christianity in late colonial America will find Fea’s analysis of orthodoxy and the Enlightenment especially interesting. Fea resists oversimplifying the occasionally compatible but usually uneasy relationship between the two. Because of the hold of Christianity on colonial culture, the Enlightenment never gained a secure foothold in the popular mind (although in the first fifty years of the young Republic, Enlightenment-inspired deism gave Christianity a run for its money). But the influence of the enlightened ethos on the Christian worldview was nevertheless profound, giving rise, as Fea writes, to “compromises between world citizenship and local attachments, and between Christianity and the modern age” that eventually culminated in the emergence of American civil religion (215, 214). Thanks to Fea’s careful study, the Presbyterian who called Cohansey home becomes one of our “best windows into the way the Enlightenment in America was lived” (215).
Author Fea, who teaches at a college geographically close to the Upper Susquehanna Valley where Fithian traveled and preached in mid-1775, writes of his subject with eloquence, insight, and obvious affection (he refers to Fithian by his first name throughout the book). The book is well documented, with 35 pages of finely printed endnotes, and is illustrated. One of the most fascinating illustrations is a chalk drawing of Fithian, apparently drawn toward the end of his life. The sketch is disconcerting, revealing a young man with intense, wide-open eyes and determined, pursed lips. It is the face of someone accustomed to living with unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, loyalties.