Readers Respond to the Way of Improvement Leads Home

Maria, a reader who came to a book talk at the David Library of the American Revolution, writes:

What a pleasure to learn about this small segment of the world. In my opinion, your book is definitely best-seller material. Your writing style is magnificent! The research you did and the way you presented it was a page-turner. I can’t wait for the next one. I think your book is really for a far-reaching audience and not just for history buffs. Most history books have to be read a segment at a time but yours is so uplifting, inspiring and necessary for modern society. It actually made me suffer with the “nostalgia” disease you were talking about in the book.

Dr. Jonathan Den Hartog, an early American history professor in Minnesota who recently taught The Way of Improvement Leads Home writes:

I teach at a 4-year liberal arts college with a religious background in Minnesota. One of my recurring duties is teaching the “U.S. History to 1877” survey. These survey classes usually have 20-30 students. This semester, the class is 25 students strong. Most of the students are freshmen and sophomores.

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 published The 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.

I devoted an entire 100-minute class to discussing the book. We had no difficulties in filling this time. Students responded very well to the book, and conversation flowed well. In fact, it was probably one of the most memorable and lively conversations we’ve had all semester.

Several topics really engaged students:
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.”

….the book was a success. A good endorsement of the book came from a student who is also taking my “American Religious History” class. He observed the book could profitably have been used for either class. I think he’s right. I could also see the book working well in a “Colonial America,” “Atlantic Worlds,” “American Revolution,” or “American Intellectual History” class. The book is definitely accessible to undergraduates of all levels, so I would strongly recommend that professors looking for course adoptions strongly consider The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

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