I always assign several monographs, to introduce students to in-depth historical description and to expose them to academic historical writing. I am very choosy in selecting these monographs. For an introductory class, I prefer monographs that are well-written, engaging, and deal more with individual people than amorphous social developments. When I learned that John had just publishedThe Way of Improvement Leads Home, I decided to give it a try with the class. The book definitely meets my criteria. I was much impressed with the way it works as a contextual biography. Although focused on Philip Vickers Fithian, the book sets him in intellectual, political, and religious contexts to create a thick description of the late colonial and revolutionary periods.
1. The relationship of Philip and Betsy. They found those sections very well-written, and the characters were dramatically alive to the students. The prevailing sentiment was not to understand why Philip kept after Betsy for so long (or why she ultimately yielded). Although the students wanted to read contemporary dating practices into the 18th century, the book provided an excellent foil to show how courtship expectations and practices differed dramatically 200 years ago. It provided a “teachable moment” about historical change.
2. The intersection of Presbyterianism and republicanism in the Revolution. This allowed us to discuss again how Protestantism intersected with political ideology in promoting the American Revolution. We are simultaneously reading Marsden, Noll, and Hatch’s Search for Christian America, so the material in Way of Improvement helped deepen and extend our conversation.
3. The “rural enlightenment.” Having already discussed “Enlightenments in America,” these passages allowed us to see how enlightened cosmopolitanism might intersect with local settings like Cohansey, New Jersey. One student was particularly enthralled with the idea of “exhorting societies.”