What Does “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” Mean?

eacac-fithian2bbookI get this question a lot.

I can’t answer it without talking about Philip Vickers Fithian.

Learn more about him (and learn some early American history in the process) at 60% off with free shipping.

Here is Lauren Winner’s review of The Way of Improvement Leads Home in Books & Culture:

Like everyone else who has written about colonial Virginia, I am guilty of what John Fea describes as using Philip Vickers Fithian’s journal as “window dressing for … studies of the plantation Chesapeake.” In 1773 and 1774, Fithian served as a tutor on one of the great Tidewater plantations, and the journal he kept that year has provided historians with insightful and charming anecdotes about the religious and social lives of Virginia’s élite.

But if his account of Virginia is the most widely read (and plundered) of Fithian’s journals, it was certainly not the only diary he kept. In 1766, he began two records: a journal devoted principally to assessing the state of his soul, and a journal in which he recorded the daily round of labor on his father’s farm. From then on, Fithian was never far from pen and paper. He was an astute diarist, and a faithful letter-writer, and the paper trail he left is the basis for Fea’s wonderful study of Fithian’s conversion, education, and coming of age.

Fithian was born in 1747 in a rural and intensely Presbyterian pocket of southwest New Jersey called Cohansey. He grew up in the church, and he experienced a powerful conversion in 1766. Always a lover of ideas and reading, after his conversion Fithian sensed a call to ministry, and knew that he needed more formal education. Convincing his father that this was a good idea took some work: Fithian argued that an education would be a means of self-improvement, through which he would become more virtuous and refined. In turn, an educated Fithian could contribute to the betterment of society as a whole. Fithian’s father finally relented, and Fithian enrolled first in a local academy run by Presbyterian cleric Enoch Green and then in the College of New Jersey (now Princeton).

In this absorbing and elegantly written biography, John Fea explores the conflict between Fithian’s deep connections to Cohansey and the Enlightenment principles of cosmopolitanism he learned in school. How did Fithian reconcile his obligations to and love of home, a specific place and specific people, with the universalizing claims of the Enlightenment, whose prophets taught that enlightened people privileged a loyalty to international community above parochial ties? “The need to reconcile the pursuit of Enlightenment ambition with a passion for home or a desire for God,” Fea suggests, “was perhaps the greatest moral problem facing the newly educated sons of British American farmers.”

This tension is shot through Fithian’s journals. He was always deeply attached to Cohansey. A third-generation Jerseyite, Fithian felt connected to the place through genealogy. He loved the landscape, how the apple and cherry trees bloomed in spring. He had close and abiding friendships with many of his neighbors, and he understood those friendships as seedbeds in which the virtuous life was nurtured.

Yet his education conspired to remove him from the place he loved. At the most general level, his book-learning elevated him to a social rank above most of his Cohansey compatriots. More specifically, in school he imbibed a principled cosmopolitanism that instructed him in obligations to the larger world. John Witherspoon, president of Princeton, taught his students that they possessed two kinds of affections: “particular” affections for local places and specific people, and the clearly superior “calm and deliberate good will to all.” Local affections had their place, but they were to be subordinated to universal attachments. An expansive love of “mankind” trumped even patriotism, the love of one’s particular country. “Philip would learn rather quickly at Princeton that it was far better to be a citizen of the world than a citizen of Cohansey,” Fea writes.

The tension between local attachments and cosmopolitan convictions presented itself over and over in Fithian’s life. After he graduated from Princeton, Fithian’s mentors encouraged him to take up the post of plantation tutor in Virginia. He seized the opportunity—and then was wracked by doubts about leaving his apple trees and his friends behind. During his stay in Virginia, Fithian experienced intense homesickness, which in the 18th century was considered a serious pathology; in one medical encyclopedia, a discussion of the causes and symptoms of homesickness was placed between the entries on “nymphomania” and “anorexia.”

Fithian’s ties to New Jersey were sufficiently strong that although his employers wanted him to stay on in Virginia, he returned north after a year. But the demands of enlightened service and parochial commitments came into conflict again in 1775. Fithian was now an ordained Presbyterian pastor, but there were no vacant pulpits in his presbytery. So the presbytery sent Fithian back south, to make a preaching tour in the Shenandoah. Once again, Fithian’s education and course of self-improvement were taking him far from home. And once again, he was homesick: “Much of my Heart teizes me about Home,” he wrote. “It hangs steadily there which Way soever I turn, so that my whole Train of thinking leans that Way also.” Fithian knew these were not the sentiments of an enlightened, educated pastor, but he couldn’t shake them.

Homesickness was not the only pesky passion that afflicted Fithian. He was also lovesick. His friendship with Elizabeth Beatty, whom he eventually married, was tempestuous, and in the grip of romantic longing, Fithian found himself gossiping, saying outlandish things to Betsy, and generally allowing his enlightened detachment to crumble in the face of decidedly particular longings for a sometimes coy and chimerical woman. Fea’s re-creation of Fithian and Beatty’s on-again, off-again connection will take its place among the finest accounts of early American courtship practices.

 Shortly after his tour in the Shenandoah, Fithian died while serving as a Revolutionary War chaplain. Fea cleverly reads in his death—a death in which particular attachments were deployed in the service of universal ideals—a kind of solution to the tension between local and cosmopolitan commitments. Fithian did not die in his beloved Cohansey, but he did die in the wartime service of a Cohansey regiment, with his oldest friends gathered around his deathbed. The ideological commitments that prompted him to serve as a chaplain included both a particular patriotism and a commitment to universal ideals that Fithian believed would help improve the lot of all people.

The Way of Improvement Leads Home, which shows how seismic philosophical upheaval profoundly shaped the life of an ordinary man far from the epicenter, is easily the most important study of early American Presbyterianism since Mark Noll’s Princeton and the Republic and Leigh Schmidt’s Holy Fairs. Perhaps Fea’s signal contribution is his nuanced reading of the relationship between the Enlightenment and Christianity. Fithian’s Enlightenment convictions and practices were inseparable from his Presbyterian convictions and practices: a shared commitment to Enlightenment values helped mend the rifts that had formed between Old Side and New Side Presbyterians during the Great Awakening, and by the mid-1760s, “evangelical Presbyterianism and the Enlightenment were hand-in-glove.” This embrace of the Enlightenment could be seen in Presbyterians’ concern with the moral ordering of the larger world, and their hope that people in the church and in broader society would regulate and temper their passions.

But if Fithian’s Christianity was less otherworldly than his grandfather’s, more concerned with how it could contribute to the betterment of society, he could not accept the logical conclusions of radical Enlightenment ideas. Fithian, writes Fea, “sought the Enlightenment with every ounce of his being and yet wholeheartedly rejected its most fundamental teachings about where human history was heading.” Occasionally Fea seems to be pushing his thesis a bit too hard, reifying “the Enlightenment,” as when he writes in his conclusion that, “as might be expected,” the “mutual accommodation” he so helpfully traces “diluted both the Enlightenment and Christianity” (emphasis added). From the very beginning, Christianity has maintained a dialectical tension between the “otherworldly” and the concerns of “this world,” and Fea’s account does not fully justify his claim that the deposit of the faith was necessarily “diluted” by Enlightenment influences.

Though firmly embedded in the particulars of the 18th century, the story Fea tells has resonance today. That is one of the many reasons I so love this book—Fithian’s problem is no less acute today for men and women whose education takes them geographically and imaginatively beyond their local communities. It is a problem I felt keenly in college, when I agonized about whether I could or would in some sense “go home again,” or whether what I was learning in college—both the book-learning and a kind of cosmopolitan aspiration—would somehow finally remove me from the place in which I grew up. (The admittedly sophomoric melodrama of my angst was only heightened by the fact that “home” was Asheville, North Carolina, home too of Thomas Wolfe, author of You Can’t Go Home Again.) I see the same problem today in some of my divinity school students, who wonder if what they are learning will somehow take them, geographically and intellectually, irreparably far from the congregations that named their call to ordained ministry. Here in the early 21st-century we may flatter our postmodern selves by imagining that we have moved beyond the Enlightenment, now ironically criticized for its parochialism. But the tensions between cosmopolitan aspirations and local commitments are with us still.