Presbyterians in Love

Letter to Beatty

The first letter that Fithian wrote to Elizabeth Beatty, dated July 15, 1770. From the Fithian Papers, Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Courtesy of the Princeton University Library. 

I am glad to learn that Commonplace: The Journal of Early American History and Life is re-running my 2008 piece “Presbyterians in Love” at its new website. I love the subtitle they chose: “He was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion.”

I can’t I published that piece twelve years ago.

Here is a taste:

Can Presbyterians fall in love? Okay, everyone falls in love, but when people think of Presbyterians they normally conjure up images of stoic Protestants whose kids eat oatmeal and memorize the Westminster Confession of Faith. Reverend Maclean, the Montana minister and father figure played by Tom Skerritt in A River Runs Through It, comes to mind. Presbyterians don’t “fall” in love—they rationally, and with good sense, ease themselves into it.

This was my image of Presbyterians until I read the correspondence of Philip Vickers Fithian. Most early American historians know Philip Vickers Fithian. He was the uptight young Presbyterian who served a year (1773-1774) as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter, and wrote a magnificently detailed diary about his experience. For most of us, Fithian is valued for his skills as an observer. His journal offers one of our best glimpses into plantation life in the Old Dominion on the eve of the American Revolution.

But despite Fithian’s ubiquitous presence in the indexes and footnotes of contemporary works of Virginia scholarship, most of us know little more about him than the very barest facts: He was born in 1747 in the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich. He was the eldest son of Presbyterian farmers but left the agricultural life in 1770 to attend the College of New Jersey at Princeton. After college he worked for a year on Carter’s plantation and was ordained to the Presbyterian ministry. In 1776 he headed off to New York to serve as a chaplain with a New Jersey militia unit in the American War for Independence.

Such chronicling—the stuff of encyclopedia entries and biographical dictionaries—only scratches the surface of Philip’s life. It fails to acknowledge the inner man, the prolific writer who used words—letters and diary entries mostly—to make peace with the ideas that warred for his soul. Philip was a man of passion raised in a Presbyterian world of order. He came of age at a time when Presbyterians were rejecting the pious enthusiasm of the Great Awakening for a common-sense view of Christianity. And while Philip was clearly a student of this newer rational and moderate Protestantism, he remained unquestionably Presbyterian. For he was a man stretched between worlds: one of cautious belief, another of passion and sentiment; one of rational learning, another of devotion and deep emotion. His struggle to bring these worlds together is seen most clearly not in his well-known observations of plantation life but in his letters to the woman he loved—Elizabeth Beatty.

Philip first met Elizabeth “Betsy” Beatty in the spring of 1770 when she visited the southern New Jersey town of Deerfield to attend her sister Mary’s wedding to Enoch Green, the local Presbyterian minister. It may not have been love at first site, but it was close. Philip was enrolled in Green’s preparatory academy, and Betsy was the daughter of Charles Beatty, the minister of the Presbyterian church of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, and one of the colonies’ most respected clergymen.

Betsy was a new face in Deerfield, a fact that made her especially enchanting to the town’s young men. Philip had spent enough time with Betsy while she was visiting to begin a friendly correspondence with her. In his first letter, written shortly after she returned to Neshaminy, Philip wrote, “You can scarcely conceive . . . how melancholy, Spiritless, & forsaken you left Several when you left Deerfield!” He hoped for a prominent place “in this gloomy Row of the disappointed.” Since Betsy had departed Deerfield he could not “walk nor read, nor talk, nor ride, nor sleep, nor live, with any Stomach!” The “transient golden Minutes” they had spent together, he added, “only fully persuaded me how much real Happiness may be had in your Society.” Philip was smitten.

Betsy did not reply to this letter, and Philip’s obsession waned as he headed off to college in the fall of 1770. While he was there Philip had more than one opportunity to see Betsy again. He joined fellow classmates on weekend excursions to visit Charles Beatty’s church at Neshaminy, and it was during these visits that he made his first serious attempts to court Betsy. Though Philip and Betsy would spend much time together over the course of the next several years, the establishment of a correspondence was equally important to the development of their relationship. Betsy had given Philip permission to write her, a clear sign that she approved of his desire to move the friendship forward. By February 1772 he was signing his letters with the name “Philander” (“loving Friend”), an obvious indicator of his affection for his new correspondent.

Though much of Philip and Betsy’s courtship was conducted through letters, the exchange of sentiments usually flowed in only one direction. Perhaps Betsy did not like to write. Perhaps she preferred more intimate encounters or feared the lack of privacy inherent in letter writing. Or perhaps she did not want to encourage her suitor with a reply. Whatever the case, women generally did not write as much as men, especially when it came to love and courtship letters. In other words, Betsy may simply have been following the conventions of her day.

Read the rest here. Or get the entire story here:

Fithian Book



The New *Common-Place* is Here

Common Place

Here is the press release:

In the brand-new issue of Common-place, you’ll find a bounty of fresh and challenging ideas from both leading and rising historians. Carla Pestana’s revelations about maroon communities in colonial Jamaica offers a cautionary tale on the influence of “categorical thinking” on historians. In a rare rediscovery, Eric Gardner provides an analysis and full textual reproduction of the fiery and eloquent reconstruction lecture delivered in 1867 Philadelphia by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Exhibit design maven Richard Rabinowitz offers a ranging and challenging analysis of changing public expectations about history, and their implications for the training of future historians.

In Object Lessons, Paul Erickson probes Isaiah Thomas’s Paper Mill Account Book and inventory records to uncover an industrialist’s understanding of the materiality of texts. Matt White’s account of his important discovery in Charles Wilson Peale’s revolutionary war journal reminds us that no matter how accessible texts are in the digital world, there’s just no substitute for visiting the archive and viewing the original. 

Also in this edition of Common-place, Mary Kuhn tells the story of the extraordinary international popularity of an early 19th century novel about a man who falls deeply and passionately in love . . . with a flowering plant.  And Poet Terrance Hayes gives us the powerful and haunting poem “Taffeta,” which begins with the narrator talking to a t-shirt image of Frederick Douglass.
Turning to digital history, Liz Covart discusses the extraordinary public history potential of podcasting, using her successes creating the podcasts “Ben Franklin’s World” and “Doing History”. Will Fenton explores the potential and the potential confusion inherent in large-scale digital resource databases, offering the carefully-crafted introductory path to his website Digital Paxton as one guide to clarity.
You’ll also find reviews of new books on Cadwallader Colden, the African American festival Pinkster, the symbiotic relationship between American evangelicalism and New York City, and the roles played by regulated and deregulated meat markets in feeding the antebellum inhabitants of Gotham.

Finally, as the editorial term of co-editors Anna Mae Duane and Walter Woodward draws toward a close, there’s an important announcement from the American Antiquarian Society about the future, and possibly changing nature of Common-place itself.

It’s not just food for thought, but a banquet of thought-provoking ideas, all for you in the new edition of Common-place.
Common-place is co-edited by Anna Mae Duane and Walter W. Woodward at the University of Connecticut, and published by a partnership of the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Connecticut. It’s all ready for your computer, tablet, or mobile device right now at

Phillis Wheatley: “On Virtue”


Michael Monescalchi is a graduate student in English at Rutgers University.  Over at Common-place he reflects on Phillis Wheatley‘s poem “On Virtue” and her engagement with the theology of Jonathan Edwards.

Monescalchi writes: “Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can ‘guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul.”

Here is a taste of this piece:

In agreement with Edwards, Wheatley argues that Virtue is a divine and “sacred” quality (it is “array’d in glory from the orbs above”). Yet Wheatley additionally alludes to Edwards when she asks Virtue to “embrace” her soul and “guide [her] steps to endless life and bliss.” For in Freedom of the Will, Edwards also claims that one’s soul is capable of influencing the way one walks: “And God has so made and established the human nature . . . that the soul preferring or choosing such an immediate exertion or alteration of the body, such an alteration instantaneously follows. There is nothing else in the actings of my mind, that I am conscious of while I walk . . .” The reason that Edwards is conscious of nothing while he walks is because his newly converted soul has suspended “the actings of [his] mind.” By saying that his body only moves as a result of his soul’s and not his mind’s “preferring or choosing,” Edwards argues that when one undergoes a conversion experience and gives one’s self up to God, one no longer has complete control over one’s own body. Wheatley’s saying that her soul touched by Virtue can “guide [her] steps” is thus more than just a metaphor for God’s ability to change a converted person’s life: it is an acknowledgment of the immense power that God’s virtuous character can have over a person’s body and soul. 

This idea that one’s spiritual status is reflected in the way one walks recurs in black evangelical writing in the early-national period, most especially in Lemuel Haynes’s sermons. Like Edwards and Wheatley before him, Haynes, in his 1776 sermon on John 3:3, argues that a converted man “evidences by his holy walk that he has a regard for the honour of God.” Though she was not a minister, Wheatley was, like Haynes, deeply invested in Edwards’s theology and advanced his theory of conversion. Placing Wheatley’s “On Virtue” in dialogue with the writings of other evangelical ministers, black or white, is one of the many ways that scholars can begin to value Wheatley as a formidable theological thinker in the colonial era.

Read the entire piece here.


*Common-place* is Looking for a New Editor


Common-place, the online quarterly magazine of early American history and culture hosted at the American Antiquarian Society, is seeking a new editor or editors to guide this unique online resource of accessible, lively scholarship. This position is not a paid employee in the traditional sense. We are looking to partner with a university or college where the editor is employed. That institution supports the partnership by providing time, generally in the form of course relief for the editor (or editors) so that they can devote time to Common-place. We are also looking for this institution to supply an editorial assistant, either in the form of a paid employee or a graduate student.

The editor(s) of Common-place should have a record of writing and scholarly activity in a field consistent with the purview of Common-place (pre-1900 American history, literature, and culture as well as a Ph.D. or equivalent). The editor should also possess strong organizational and editorial skills and be comfortable working collaboratively with an excellent group of column editors. Perhaps most importantly, the editor must possess an interest in presenting American history to a broad public, and an instinct for how to do so in a compelling way.

In addition, the editor’s home institution would need to be understanding of the commitment involved in taking on the editorship, and be willing to support the editor in performing this work. We seek an institutional partner that is able to support the editor through release time from teaching; graduate research assistance; and other forms of support. Of particular interest is an institution with an interest in and capacity for work in public history and/or the digital humanities. A partnership with Common-place would provide ideal opportunities to give students hands-on experience in working with an established online venue for high-level humanities scholarship.

Interested candidates should contact James David Moran, Vice President for Programs and Outreach, American Antiquarian Society by phone at 508 471-2131 or by e-mail at

The New “Common-Place” is Here

Common Place

From the editors:

Common-place 16.2 Is Now Live!

A brand new edition of Common-place, the journal of early American history, is now laptop, tablet, and mobile phone ready for you at

In this issue, Hilary Wyss presents a moving account of the importance of letter writing in eighteenth century Native American communities as revealed through the digital archives of the Yale Indian Papers Project and Dartmouth’s Occom Circle collection. 

John Saillant details the largely unknown story of the generation of attacks by whites on Charleston’s black Methodists and their churches that preceded the much better known razing of an independent black meeting house attended by Denmark Vesey in 1822.

Jordan Stein, in an interesting reflection on the application of the trope “Black Lives Matter” to the study of early America, analyzes a 1760 broadsheet by the poet Jupiter Hammon to ask whether an overdetermined emphasis on enslavement obscures other essentially important aspects of early American black lives. 

Elsewhere in Common-place, there’s a roundtable discussion of the implications that follow from Common-place’s recent publication of Forest Leaves, the newly discovered work of abolitionist, suffragist, poet and author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. 

Konstantin Dierks demonstrates his use of GIS and a host of other data to literally map the surprisingly early development of American globalization. Christina Michelon provides a literally touching account of the history of Valentine’s cards. Pierre Gervais shows how one easily overlooked sentence in a Pennsylvania flour broker’s 1786 correspondence revealed a widespread, organized, and successful effort to manipulate and control access to early American regional markets. Cybele Gontar tells the story of the sole surviving broadside document marking the closing of the Port of New Orleans to American shipping by Spain in 1798. Poet Austin Segrest, a descendant of an Old South family, rediscovers, and then channels poetically, the memoirs of his New England Puritan forebear Roger Clapp. Finally, we raise a glass to Michelle Orihel, who tells us how she uses the eighteenth century ritual of toasting to bring the politics of the 1790s to life in her classroom.

I am sure we will be posting about individual articles here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned.

On the Importance of the Stamp Act Crisis

Stampe Act RepealThe new issue of Common-Place is here and it is featuring a very informative forum on the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act.  The forum features Danielle Skeehan, Benjamin Carp, Molly Perry, William Huntting Howell, and Eliga Gould.

Here is the introduction to the forum:

Ask the Author typically features an interview with the author of a newly published work. However, because this fall marks the 250th anniversary of the protests against the Stamp Act in Britain’s North American colonies, we would like to do something a little different. Rather than profile a new book, we offer instead a reexamination of a classic work: The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution, by Edmund S. and Helen M. Morgan, first published in 1953. Ask the Author invited a group of distinguished scholars of Revolutionary America to participate in a forum on the continuing importance of The Stamp Act Crisis and where study of the Stamp Act crisis may move in the future.

The New *Common-Place* is Here

Check out the new look at Common-Place: A Journal of Early American Life. The American Antiquarian Society and the University of Connecticut have done a really nice job updating the journal’s look. Congrats to Paul Erickson at the AAS and editors Anna Mae Duane and Walt Woodward at UCONN.

Here is a taste of what you can expect:
…Our new design is a result of a year-long process of community outreach and research, editorial input, and digital design and web development by the University of of Connecticut’s Department of Digital Media and Design. We hope you will be pleased with the results. The new site is designed to augment the journal’s unique role in early American scholarship by moving it to a new publishing platform that will better support its growth as a scholarly, pedagogical and digital resource…
Another goal which our new look–and the technology behind it–achieves is optimizing the reading experience across a range of computing devices. The responsive design and adaptive typography automatically measures the size and orientation of the reader’s screen and adjusts font size and line length to the reader’s device. This better assures comfortable reading across multiple device platforms, from desktops to smart phones.
The Common-place Homepage still features the table of contents of the latest issue, including feature articles in the upper left hand column and roundtables in the upper right hand column. Book reviews and your favorite Common-place columns, including Notes on the Text, Poetic Research, Ask the Author, and Tales from the Vault, are immediately below. All of our columns can also always be found from the main navigation at the top of ever page on the website.
Other highlights of the new website include an improved Web Library, powered by Zotero, an open-source reference manager…
Common-place is celebrated for its openness to unconventional content types and experimental texts. We maintain this commitment with the new site, which features a Projects page where you will find such Common-place projects as Just Teach OneJust Teach One Early African American Print, and more.Once the task of migrating Common-Place‘s extensive back catalog to the new site is complete, readers will have new tools for searching and sorting site content. In addition to the usual search box where one can enter custom queries, all articles, reviews, etc., will be tagged with relevant Library of Congress-derived subject headings. Once fully implemented, this system will enable readers interested in, “Native Americans/Indigenous Peoples,” for example, to quickly identify all relevant content–from Volume 1, No. 1 on to the current issue. In addition, readers will be able to sort by column type and issue number. In short, Common-place will become easier to search, easier to read and easier to share with students and colleagues.
Finally, at the bottom of every page in the footer, you will find info about the editorial team, information about how to contribute, author guidelines, and more.
This new edition is packed with good stuff.  Stay tuned.  

The New "Common-Place" is Here!

The new Common-Place is focused on religion and politics in early America and is edited by Amanda Porterfield.  It contains a star-studded lineup of early American historians: Chris Beneke, Ed Blum, Kate Engel, Maura Jane Farrelly, Kirsten Fischer, Linford Fisher, Seth Perry, Eric Schlereth, and others.

I will be feasted on this issue for some time! Stay tuned.