New Review of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

Edward L. Bond offers a nice review of The Way of Improvement Leads Home in the most recent number of the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.

Historians of colonial and revolutionary Virginia probably know Philip Vickers Fithian best through the published portion of his diaries, edited in the 1940s by Hunter Dickinson Farish. Indeed, Fithian’s criticisms of the Church of England found in his published diaries have been quoted frequently by several generations of historians who have found in Fithian’s words proof of the weakness and lack of sincere religiosity in Virginia’s established church. His description of the gentry entering church in a group after the service had already begun is well known, as is his characterization of Anglican sermons as “cool, spiritless harangue[s].”

In John Fea’s biography of Fithian, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, the author introduces complexity to Fithian’s understanding of the church in Virginia and, more importantly, introduces readers to the intellectual world of mid- to late eighteenth-century Presbyterianism. Fithian’s relationship to the Church of England, as Fea points out, was much more complex, and although Fithian’s brief one-year sojourn in Virginia takes up just one chapter of the book, historians will welcome this material. Fithian, in fact, accepted employment as a tutor for Robert Carter in part so that he could gain a “more perfect acquaintance with the … established church” (p. 111). Fea does a fine job of demonstrating the similarities shared by the Presbyterian and Anglican churches, especially how members of the two denominations after the Great Awakening shared a “similar Enlightenment-based moral philosophy” (p. 114). Fithian, Fea argues, occupied a middle ground of sorts theologically in Virginia. On the one hand, Fithian sympathized with Baptist preachers who attacked the colony’s toleration of gambling, dancing, and often lax church attendance. On the other hand, he sympathized with Anglicans who saw in the Baptists a tremendous threat to social order.

Relying on the vast number of unpublished diaries and letters written by Fithian, Fea illuminates the world of the Presbyterian Enlightenment that emanated from Princeton University in New Jersey. He outlines four tenets that helped define the movement: the Enlightenment was about self-improvement; enlightened individuals could use reason to successfully check their passions; a rational individual directed his passions away from local concerns and “toward a universal love of the human race” (p. 6); and, in America, the Enlightenment existed in compromise with the American peoples’ Christian faith, with Christian institutions, in fact, often supporting Fithian’s Enlightenment endeavors. The world Fea portrays was one of compromise and contradiction. The Bible, for example, lost its place as the single source of morality for Americans. According to Fea, morality, particularly for Fithian, emerged from a variety of sources, including the Bible, the Spectator, popular novels, and classical literature. Living in this world of compromise led to some significant contradictions for Fithian and other evangelical Christians as well. At the same time, Fithian pursued the Enlightenment yet rejected its contention that human history was heading toward a “secular Utopia” of human freedom rather than toward the return of Christ and the reign of his heavenly kingdom (p. 213).

Pursuing the self-improvement associated with the Enlightenment was not always easy for Fithian, who struggled to blend his love of his rural home with the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment. Nor did he find it easy to regulate his passions, and he struggled in this respect to be a rational, enlightened man throughout his life.

Fea paints a vivid portrait of the intellectual world of mid-eighteenth-century colonial American Presbyterianism, one that highlights the tensions between the modern world and Christianity (and the deep roots of the Christian faith among both the American people and their understanding of the world) and between rural life and the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment. The Way of Improvement Leads Home deserves a wide readership and should find a place on the reading lists of many undergraduate and graduate classes in early American history.