When the Way of Improvement Can’t Lead Home: A Brief Review of Tara Westover’s *Educated*

Educated Tara Westover

Sometimes the way of improvement leads home. It did for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth-century son of New Jersey farmers who got an education at Princeton and spent the rest of his short life wrestling with what that meant for his relationship with friends and family in his “beloved Cohansey.”  Fithian eventually returned home, but since he died in the American Revolution we will never know how long he would have stayed.

Wendell Berry left home to become a writer.  He eventually returned to Port Royal, Kentucky and never left.  The conservative writer Rod Dreher went back to LouisianaBruce Springsteen came back to New Jersey.

Sometimes the way of improvement does not lead home, but the newly educated traveler finds ways to stay connected and deal with the psychological and emotional challenges that come with displacement.  Richard Rodriguez’s education led him away from home on a variety of levels, but he spent the rest of his career writing about his family and his “hunger for memory.”  Sarah Smolinksy, the fictional character in Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, got educated and left the tyranny of her father’s immigrant Jewish household in New York City.  Yet she figured out a small way to honor her father and sustain a relationship with him, even inviting him to live with her.

But sometimes the way of improvement can’t lead home.  When Frederick Douglass learned how to read he was exposed to a world of abolitionism and anti-slavery that he never knew existed.  Education led to liberation. (This is why we call it “liberal arts education”). There would be no going back to the tyranny of slavery.

We see all three of these models in Educated, Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up among fundamentalist Mormons on a mountain in Idaho.  Westover had no formal schooling, but managed to educate herself well enough to score a 28 on the ACT and win a scholarship to Brigham Young University.

At first, Westover never imagined that her education would take her somewhere beyond the mountain.  She came home every summer and seems to have fully expected a return to her family.  But education changes a person.  Sarah learned that she was becoming something different–something very unlike her physically abusive older brother, her spiritually abusive father (in this sense, her story is most similar to Smolinsky in Bread Givers), and her mother who rejected science and medicine in favor of “essential oils.”

Through the study of psychology Westover learned that her father and brother might be bipolar.  Through her study of history she learned that her father’s conspiracy theories were built on a very shaky historical foundation.  With the help of roommates, boyfriends, and a Mormon bishop in Provo, she learned that doctors and medicine are good things.  With the help of BYU history professor Paul Kerry (a professor who once showed me around Oxford University), she encountered a world of ideas and learning that she never knew existed.  Kerry, with the help of Cambridge historian Jonathan Steinberg, convinced her that she belonged in this world.

Westover not only survived in this world, but she thrived in it.  She won numerous academic awards at BYU, including a Gates Fellowship to Cambridge.  Her way of improvement led her to a visiting fellowship at Harvard and a Ph.D in history from Cambridge.

Yet the longing of home–of family, of place, of roots–continued to pull her back to the mountain. She spent long months during her doctoral program in a state of depression as she came to grips with how education was uprooting her.  When she to tried to bring light to the dark sides of her childhood, address the tyranny, abuse, and superstition that took place everyday on the mountain, and somehow try to bring the fruits of her liberal learning to the place she loved, her family ostracized her.  The way of improvement could not lead home.  There would be no rural Enlightenment.

Westover’s story is a common one, but rarely do we see the tension between “the way of improvement” and “home” play out in such stark contrasts.

Return to Greenwich!

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Yesterday I returned to Greenwich, NJ, the hometown of eighteenth-century diarist Phililp Vickers Fithian and site of the Greenwich Tea Burning.  I had not been to the area since April 2017 when I gave a eulogy for my good friend Jonathan Wood.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time in this 17th-century village in southwestern New Jersey.   During the research for my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: The Rural Enlightenment in Early America I got to know many of the men and women associated with the Cumberland County Historical Society.  Greenwich will always be a special place.

When the good folks at the Lummis Library in Greenwich invited me to speak about the Greenwich Tea Burning as part of their Spring lecture series, I jumped at the chance.  When time permits amid other projects, I have been plugging away on a book manuscript tentatively titled “The Greenwich Tea Burning: History and Memory in American Town.”  The book is about half done at the moment, but I still have a lot more research to do in order to complete it.  Longtime readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog are familiar with this project and some might even remember The Greenwich Tea Burning Project.

So yesterday afternoon, Super Bowl Sunday, I drove down to Greenwich to present some of my work on this project.  (I got home to catch the last three quarters of a pretty uneventful game).  A great crowd turned out for the lecture and many encouraged me to press-on with my work on the memory of the tea-burning in this 17th-century Delaware Valley town.

Thanks for everyone who made this such a great event, especially Joe Mathews and Brittany Ingersoll.

 

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Liberal Arts on the Farm

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The teachers who attend the Gilder-Lehrman Princeton seminar on colonial America read The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  One teacher took the assignment very seriously.

Back in 2003 I coined the phrase “rural Enlightenment” in an article in The Journal of American History.  Five years later, I defined this phrase more fully in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (now available at Amazon at 68% off with free shipping). In this article and book I tried to show that “rural Enlightenment” was not an oxymoron in eighteenth-century America.  I traced Fithian’s attempt to pursue an intellectual life amid the rural confines of his southern New Jersey home.  Fithian managed to combine the pursuit of an educated life in the midst of harvesting grain, making apple cider, and building sluices along the Cohansey River.

Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Samford University history professor Anthony Minnema reflects on the relationship between Christian colleges, the liberal arts, and farm work.  He asks: “If perhaps we’ve too long looked at the liberal arts as coffee shops and quads, what about the farm?”  Here is a taste of his post:

Work colleges and programs come in many shapes and sizes, but all offer discounted or even no tuition in exchange for a commitment of 10-15 hours of work per week. The exchange of work for tuition would go a long way to address the perception of elitism. The need to create work opportunities for these students also led these colleges to create majors in agricultural science and sustainability before these programs became popular, which undermines the accusation that LACs are impractical and divorced from the working world. The more successful work colleges, such as Berea College and College of the Ozarks, emphasize their working environment as a recruitment tool and describe themselves as a place to learn and work. A quick perusal of statistics indicates that work colleges enjoy near-parity of men and women (45-55), likely because the rhetoric of a work program and the majors that sustain it have historically been more appealing to men. More speculatively, I suspect that the work-program creates a sense of ownership for students and alumni that most LACs’ advancement offices would envy, since it changes the narrative of the ask from “Please continue giving to the college on top of your debt” to “How much was this education worth to you?” The donor base of the Christian liberal arts college (to say nothing of the corporate world), which tends more toward conservative values, might donate gladly to an institution that requires some or all of its students to work.

How might a work program interact with the liberal arts and Christian mission of a college? The relationship to both is surprisingly close. All colleges within the Work College Consortium describe themselves as “liberal arts colleges” and many retain a Great Books program. (Indeed, students might be more apt to discuss virtue ethics if they’ve just come in from a morning of work.) All but one of the work colleges I found possess a Christian history or tradition and still use the language of Christian service in their mission statements. Several couch their sustainability efforts in terms of stewardship. Thus, the work program might help Christian LACs make good on their claims to be places that foster faith, learning, and service.

So how to create the Christian liberal arts work college from scratch? What I would like to see exists as a two-year program in California at Deep Springs College. It’s a very small program (20-30 students) that boasts an impressive track record for its graduates according to a 2017 Economist article. It emphasizes rigorous liberal arts with a work college component, and until recently was open only to men, but lacks the faith component.

Read the entire piece here.  Interesting.

When Your Doctoral Adviser Sends You a Random Note

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I got this e-mail today:

I have been meaning to write to you since the end of term. In teaching the American Enlightenment this spring — for the first time as a lecture course — I had occasion to re-read THE WAY OF IMPROVEMENT. Obviously I remembered it was a very good book, but I had forgotten just how good it was. To be able to put together so sophisticated a reading of Fithian and to write it in a way that undergraduates both got it and enjoyed makes it still a major achievement.

Best, 

Ned

Writing Accessible History

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Maybe if one of my books sold 350,000 copies I would not need to do this

Last summer a group of K-8 history teachers urged me to write a popular biography of Philip Vickers Fithian.  Here is what I wrote back then:

I am always amazed when I talk to people who develop strong emotional connections to the characters in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I did not expect the book to be a tearjerker. The title is long and technical.  It is published by a university press.  Most bookstores do not carry it.  When my first royalty check arrived, I spent it all on Christmas presents. When the second royalty check arrived, I spent it all on a nice dinner for my family.  Today I can still splurge for dinner with the annual check, assuming that the meal is eaten at Arby’s.

But since the book first appeared in 2008, a few dozen people have told me that they cried at the end.  This week at the Princeton Seminar, five teachers mentioned that the final chapter brought them to tears.

Philip Vickers Fithian’s story does have an emotional ending, but I am still surprised that a book about the Enlightenment in America resonates with readers in this way.

Last week several K-8 history teachers (and at least one school librarian) attending the Princeton Seminar strongly encouraged me to write a biography of Philip for the young adult nonfiction market.  I am taking their advice seriously.  I don’t know very much about this market, but I want to learn more.  After listening to these teachers, and thinking about this a bit more myself, I think that teenagers might find Philip’s story interesting for what it teaches us about everyday life in colonial America, the early years of the American Revolution, love and courtship, education, self-improvement, and life on the frontier.

Stay tuned.  And if you have any advice I would love to hear it.

I thought about this possible project again after I read Elizabeth Elliott’s AHA Today post: “Experiments in Writing History.”  Here is a taste:

Laura Kamoie still receives periodic royalty statements for a book she published over a decade ago—an economic history of the early American Tayloe family, based on her PhD dissertation from the College of William and Mary. She knows that, to date, it has sold 773 copies, an ordinary showing for a first book that might be assigned in a university class once in a while. As for the next work she lists under the publications section of her CV? That one has sold over 350,000 copies. 

The wildly successful America’s First Daughter (2016) is not an academic history but a work of historical fiction. Using “the exact same research process as I did for my dissertation,” Kamoie, along with co-author Stephanie Dray, wrote a novel from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter Patsy. Headlining the jam-packed AHA18 session “Historians Writing Historical Fiction,” Kamoie talked about the ways she finds writing academic history and writing historical fiction similar, arguing that “both attempt to link known facts and try to shape them into some kind of a narrative. Both make historical contributions, and both are meant to generate curiosity about the past.”

Read the entire piece here.

A Nice Intro to the Early American Book Trade

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PVF read Francis Brooke in the south Jersey countryside

When I was writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I spent a lot of time reading scholarship on the book trade in early America.  I was trying to trace the print infrastructure that brought ideas into the southern New Jersey hinterland at the time of the American Revolution.

Elaina Frulla‘s piece at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog reminded me of my work on the book that eventually gave birth to this blog.  Drawing on some of the best scholarship in the field, Frulla identifies “four major methods for distribution and sale of books in early America.  They are:

Bookstores

Libraries

Academic libraries

Book agents and “hawkers.”

This is a great piece for graduate students or those new to the field.  Read it all here.

My Boston Trinity Academy Chapel Talk on Rural America

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Get the context here.  I gave this short chapel talk to the faculty and students of Boston Trinity Academy on January 16, 2018–JF

I am so pleased to be back at Boston Trinity Academy. (BTA)  I continue to reflect fondly on my last visit in May 2014 when I had the honor of serving as your commencement speaker.  It is great to see old friends and I have already made some new ones.

Students: please know how privileged you are to be at this place.  BTA is a school committed to the integration of Christian faith and learning at the highest level.  There are few places like this in the country.  Cherish your education here.  Thank God for it every day.  And be attentive to God’s voice so that you can obtain the wisdom necessary to know what you should do with this great gift you are receiving.

I am also excited for all of you as you spend your J-Term exploring the culture of rural America.  I wrote my first book about rural America.  It focused on a young man living in the 1760s and 1770s.  His name was Philip Vickers Fithian.  Philip left rural America, went to college at Princeton, and served his country during the Revolutionary War. But he never forgot the people from the rural community who raised him and taught him how to love God and others.  Philip’s path of education and self-improvement always seemed to lead him home.  So, needless to say, the topic you are studying this week is near and dear to my heart and I look forward to working with you today– the first day of your journey.

The countryside.  The frontier.  The hinterland.  The backcountry.  Whatever you want to call it—rural America played a powerful role in our understanding of who we are as Americans.  One of my favorite rural novels is Willa Cather’s My Antonia (if you haven’t read it, you should!).  I teach it at Messiah College in a course I offer on the history of immigrant America.  In this novel we meet a young man named Jim Burden.  He grew up on the East Coast, but after both his parents died he was sent to Nebraska to live with his grandparents.  As Jim gets a first glimpse of the Great Plains he says: “There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Several days later he adds: “Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough shaggy red grass, most of it as tall as I.”

As he stands in the Nebraska fields, Jim starts to consider his own smallness: “Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out…  that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” Jim Burden teaches us that rural America—with its pristine meadows and vast expanses of land—can have a humbling effect on those who experience it.  The rural writer Kathleen Norris, in her introduction to the edition of My Antonia I use in class, writes that Jim is “obliterated by the landscape.”

Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence may have related to the fictional experience of Jim Burden.  “Those who labour in the earth,” Jefferson wrote, “are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”  Jefferson wanted to build the United States around the character traits that he saw in the ordinary farmer.  He used the word “yeoman”—a common term for a landholder—to describe this kind of farmer.

Throughout American history farmers have been committed to local places, to living lives in community and to the importance of family.   They understood the dignity of hard work.  They were often portrayed as healthy and strong.  They were people of faith—the kind of faith needed to place complete trust in a God who controls the weather.  They were patient folk who knew how to wait on the Lord.

At the same time, farmers were independent–the kind of people needed to sustain a nation founded upon freedom.  In other words, they were not dependent on others—such as manufacturers and bank owners–to survive.  They were not defiled by the corruption and self-interest of cities—urban centers filled with workers who were at the mercy of factory owners. Jefferson envisioned a country filled with landowners who would spread out across the continent.  Manufacturing and urbanization did not play a major role in his vision.  These things were part of the vision of his political rival Alexander Hamilton.

Jefferson’s rural vision for America died after the Civil War.  It gave way to industry and railroads and factories and markets.  If Jefferson were alive today he would probably be appalled by how dependent we are on food processed by big companies.  He would not be happy that we pursue the American dream by going into debt to credit card companies and mortgage firms and banks. (This, despite the fact that Jefferson spent most of his adult life in debt).

Indeed, we don’t live the kind of independent lives Jefferson envisioned.  We trade the patience of the farmer for immediate gratification.   We want it all—and we want it now.  But the American rural dweller,–the farmer–teaches us to slow down and listen.  To endure.  To trust God for our most pressing needs.  Maybe even to suffer—as many farmers did when the weather did not cooperate.  Farmers understood (and understand) that that suffering produces perseverance.  They understood that perseverance produces character. They understood that character leads to hope (Romans 5:4)

There is a lot to commend in this vision of America.  But it also easy to get nostalgic about it.  The warm and fuzzy feeling we get when we read about Jim Burden or study Thomas Jefferson’s America can blind us to another side— a dark side—of the history of rural life.  Maybe you have heard of this term, “nostalgia.”  I think of it as a sort of homesickness for a time in the past when everything was wonderful or when we at least thought that everything was wonderful.   But nostalgia is an inherently selfish way of thinking about the past because it often fails to see how other people—people who are not like us—lived through the same era and did not think it was so great.

With this in mind, as we gather on the day after Martin Luther King Jr. birthday, we would be remiss, and historically irresponsible, if we did not think about this other side of rural America.  After all, for most of American history the countryside was the home of forced labor camps—white people called them plantations—where millions of enslaved Africans and their families cultivated the land. Abraham Lincoln described slavery in his First Inaugural Address as “250 years of unrequited toil.” The whip of the slaveholder drove the Southern cotton economy and contributed to the success of Northern manufacturing and industry.  The growth of American power went hand in hand with the growth of slavery.  The rise of American capitalism would be impossible without the labor of the enslaved.

Slavery ended officially in 1865, but the enslaved—now called freedmen—had a hard time escaping rural America.  Many of them returned to the fields as sharecroppers—a system of work that could be just as degrading as slavery. And they also came face-to-face with white rural Americans who were not happy that they were free.  For the next century these white Americans in the South would do everything in their power to deny African Americans the liberties they were entitled to.

Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement knew this history of rural America very well.  But they refused to let the past have its way with them. They fought to bend the trajectory of America’s future toward justice.  By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, many African-Americans had left rural life in search of opportunities beyond the cotton plantations of the South.  They traveled to northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and St. Louis.  They came to work in the factories of Buffalo, Boston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis.  Even those who stayed in the South left the farm for cities like Greensboro, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, Alabama; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee.  Ironically, it was in cities like these where Martin Luther King Jr. fought against the racism born in the fields of rural America.

Today about 10% of African-Americans live in rural areas.  This makes rural America largely the domain of poor white men and women who do not have the financial resources to get out. They often live alongside immigrant laborers—most from Central America—who do farm work for the big corporations that now control most of American agriculture.

As the urban population of America grows, the rural communities of the United States lose about 30,000 people per year. Donald Trump was right when he described a rural America of  “rusted-out factories” scattered “like tombstones across the landscape.” Once-thriving town-centers in rural communities are now filled with closed storefronts.  People in rural America have limited access to doctors and are now more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than people living in the cities and the suburbs.  Suicide rates in rural areas are double that in urban areas.  People are living in despair.  Access to a good education is becoming more and more difficult.  If you want to get a glimpse of rural America’s decline in places like Kentucky and Ohio I encourage you to pick-up a copy of J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis.  I re-read some of it on the plane on the way here.  It explains a lot about why so many rural Americans saw Donald Trump as their savior in 2016.

So what happened to Jefferson’s vision of a country built upon yeoman farmers?  Does Jim Burden’s Nebraska still exist?  What has the long legacy of slavery and racism done to rural places?  These, I hope, will be the questions you will try to answer this week.

As I close, let me suggest that your task in making sense of rural America must be guided by the practice of at least three virtues essential to any kind of educational endeavor:

The first is empathy.  For many of you here in Boston, “rural America” might as well be a foreign country.  Empathy will be your passport for entry into this strange land.  This is going to take some discipline on your part.  You will need to walk in the shoes of those who live in rural America.  Your mind must be open to the experiences of the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit these places.  As historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, to practice empathy means you must make every effort to “understand their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, [and] their perceptions of the world.” I challenge you to see life on their terms, not yours.  Pray about this.  Ask God to open your eyes and ears to people who are different.  This, after all, is what school is all about.  The Latin word for education literally means to “lead outward”—to grow personally by encountering others.

This kind of empathy will ultimately lead to a second virtue:  humility.  Like Jim Burden, who felt overwhelmed and small from staring into the Nebraska sky, your experience with people who are different should make you realize that you are part of something much larger than this moment, this particular place, and this particular time.  As an individual, you are important.  You are a child of God.  That gives you a dignity that no one can take away.  But at the same time, it’s not all about you!  To take a deep dive into another culture or another part of the world, or even another part of the United States, is to realize that God’s human creation is much more diverse, much larger and wonderful, than the tiny little slice of the world that you experience here in Boston or through the screen on your cell phone.   Pray for humility this week.  Whenever we study people who are different we see the awesomeness of God’s glorious creation.  This kind of encounter should humble us.  If it doesn’t, the problem is not with the rural Americans you will be studying this week.  The problem is with you!

Third, welcome the stranger.  During J-Term you will be meeting people who live in rural America.  You will also encounter the voices of rural America visiting your classroom in the form of historical documents and pieces of literature and videos and online sources.  Listen to these voices.  Make them feel at home in your classrooms. Make them your guests.  I know that sounds kind of strange, but unless you show hospitality to the texts you read and the people you encounter—even in a virtual or imagined way—you cheat yourself and are rejecting an opportunity to learn.

So I wish you well in this educational and intellectual journey for which you are about to embark.  Remember that Boston Trinity Academy is a place where your teachers love you.  And because they love you they want to encourage you to love the Lord with your minds.  And for that we can say “thanks be to God.”

My Piece on the Greenwich Tea Burning at the Omohundro Institute Blog

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Check out my piece on the Greenwich Tea Burning at Uncommon Sense, the blog of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.  The post accompanies “The Politics of Tea,” episode 160 of Ben Franklin’s World and part of the Doing History 2: To the Revolution! series.  Learn more here.

A taste:

In 1772, Philip Vickers Fithian, a twenty-four year old graduating senior at the College of New Jersey at Princeton, delivered his commencement disputation on the topic, “political jealousy is a laudable passion.” The disputation echoed the words of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s Cato’s Letters. It distinguished between “domestic and ecclesiastical jealousies,” which were harmful to the kind of Christian morality essential to sustaining a republican government, and “political” jealousy, which Fithian described as “rational, uniform, and necessary.” The truly “jealous” citizen kept a careful and virtuous watch on his government leaders to guard against vice and corruption. Political jealousy served as a unifying force. Fithian said that it had the “natural tendency” to “unite people” around interests closely associated with the preservation of a political community. Two years later, Fithian would witness political jealousy in action among the patriots of his hometown, the small hamlet of Greenwich, New Jersey.

Greenwich is located on the Cohansey River about six miles from the Delaware Bay. In the eighteenth century it served as an official British customs port, albeit not a very busy one. Sometime in the second week of December 1774 a brig—local lore identifies it as the Greyhound—docked at John Shepherd’s river landing. It carried East Indian tea. Fithian, who had just spent a year working as a tutor on Robert Carter III’s Nomini Hall plantation on the Northern Neck of Virginia, was in town when the Greyhound arrived. He knew that these were not ordinary times and the Greyhound, because of its cargo, was no ordinary ship.

Read the rest here.

Happy Anniversary Philip and Betsy!

298ce-fithiancover2Darryl Hart just called my attention to today’s post in “This Day in Presbyterian History.”  On this day in 1775, Philip Vickers Fithian married Elizabeth “Betsy” Beatty.   Anyone who has read The Way of Improvement Leads Home knows that Philip and Betsy had a rather tumultuous courtship.

Here is a taste of the entry:

An opportunity for further service interrupted this formal schooling. He was asked and encouraged by John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, to became a tutor of the large family of Robert Carter the Third in Virginia. Hesitant to go at first, he finally decided to take the opportunity and traveled south to this new ministry.

Chief also in his thoughts at this time was a young lady back home, the daughter of Rev. Charles Beatty, Elizabeth Beatty. His attempts of devotion and love toward her was met with silence or opposition. Even when he proposed to her, she rejected his proposal. All during the one year of tutorship, he wrote often to her.

Upon returning to New Jersey, he was licensed to preach the gospel. His ministry involved preaching to the vacant pulpits of Southern New Jersey. After a while, he transferred to the Donegal Presbytery in Pennsylvania, and was sent on two tours to western Pennsylvania and Virginia. In the middle of these tours, on this day, October 25, 1775, he was united in marriage with his long term sweetheart, Elizabeth Beatty.

Read the entire entry here.

Big Patriotism vs. Small Patriotism

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I resonated with Bonnie Kristian‘s attempt to understand American patriotism in the context of this whole NFL-American flag mess.  She uses Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to describe a “small patriotism”–something akin to hobbit Frodo’s love of the Shire.

Here is a taste:

Small patriotism is the love of home because it is home. It is the comfort of familiarity, the sigh of relief we give on completing a long journey, however pleasant. Big patriotism is all abstract ideals and national mythology, easily bent to fit any political agenda. It is centered on the state, not the people, and certainly not any concrete community in which we are thoroughly engaged.

Small patriotism loves one’s neighborhood for one’s home, and one’s city because it holds the neighborhood, and one’s state, region, and country as the city’s host. Big patriotism is a top-down phenomenon, anchored in the self-declared glory of government and the idolatrous liturgies of civil religion. When small patriotism thinks of America, it conjures an image of some local vista and the people who populate it. Big patriotism pictures the hulking forms of federal monuments and the grim grandeur of war.

Small patriotism is particular, but never competitive. Its love of what is good about our place never needs to falsely exalt that good into best. “Once you have realized that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why, good luck to them and let them have it,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. This sort of patriotism “produces a good attitude towards foreigners,” he noted, for “[h]ow can I love my home without coming to realize that other men, no less rightly, love theirs?” Their love in no way detracts from mine, for we are not in competition. Neither wants to conform the other to its image, for it is the difference that makes each home beloved. Conquest is unnecessary and unwelcome.

Read the entire piece here.

I think Kristian’s “small patriotism” is what we have witnessed recently in places like Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the rest of the Caribbean in the wake of hurricane season.  It is the kind of home-love that we see in Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership.  It is the kind of “faithful presence” that James Davison Hunter writes about in To Change the World.  It is the kind of patriotism that I wrote about in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  Here is a small taste:

The writer Wallace Stegner once said that ‘no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had a poet.’ Philip Vickers Fithian was Cohansey’s poet.  He was a patriot in the classical Greek sense of the word–a lover of his terra patria, his native land (p.10).

Should Philip Vickers Fithian Make His Debut in a Young Adult Nonfiction Book?

62a78-fithian2bbookI am always amazed when I talk to people who develop strong emotional connections to the characters in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I did not expect the book to be a tearjerker. The title is long and technical.  It is published by a university press.  Most bookstores do not carry it.  When my first royalty check arrived, I spent it all on Christmas presents. When the second royalty check arrived, I spent it all on a nice dinner for my family.  Today I can still splurge for dinner with the annual check, assuming that the meal is eaten at Arby’s.

But since the book first appeared in 2008, a few dozen people have told me that they cried at the end.  This week at the Princeton Seminar, five teachers mentioned that the final chapter brought them to tears.

Philip Vickers Fithian’s story does have an emotional ending, but I am still surprised that a book about the Enlightenment in America resonates with readers in this way.

Last week several K-8 history teachers (and at least one school librarian) attending the Princeton Seminar strongly encouraged me to write a biography of Philip for the young adult nonfiction market.  I am taking their advice seriously.  I don’t know very much about this market, but I want to learn more.  After listening to these teachers, and thinking about this a bit more myself, I think that teenagers might find Philip’s story interesting for what it teaches us about everyday life in colonial America, the early years of the American Revolution, love and courtship, education, self-improvement, and life on the frontier.

Stay tuned.  And if you have any advice I would love to hear it.

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 6

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Very happy teachers!! Gilder Lehrman “Princeton Seminar” participants enjoying their last day on campus

The 2017 Princeton Seminar on the “Colonial Era” wrapped-up yesterday.

The day began with lectures on the “Enlightenment in America” and the “First Great Awakening.”  The Enlightenment lecture focused largely on the lives of Philip Vickers Fithian and Benjamin Franklin.  The teachers read my The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America and spent a lot of time on Wednesday touring Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia with historian George Boudreau.

The First Great Awakening lecture focused on George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Chauncy, Gilbert Tennent, James Davenport, and the legacy of evangelicalism as it relates to American oratory, American religion, the transatlantic world, and colonial education.

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My attempt at drawing a primitive graph illustrating the spike in church membership during the First Great Awakening

After lunch we wrapped things up with a lecture titled “From Colonials to Provincials: The American Colonies on the Eve of the American Revolution.”  This lecture is adapted from Ned Landsman’s From Colonial to Provinicals: American Thought and Culture, 1680-1760, but I also take it in a few different directions.  In this lecture I try to get the teachers to understand the Anglicization of the British colonies and the sense of British nationalism pervading the colonies at the end of the French and Indian War.

During the rest of the afternoon the teachers met together to discuss the lessons plans they designed during the seminar:

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Throughout the week I wanted the teachers to think about British colonial America on its own terms, rather than through the grid of the American Revolution.  We tried to imagine what the story of the colonies might look like if the Revolution had never happened.  Those who took this exercise seriously began to move from a Whiggish, civics-based view of the era, to an approach defined by the “unnatural” act of historical thinking.  This is not easy for most teachers and I appreciated their efforts to reorient their thinking and their lesson plans in this way.

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Another Princeton Seminar is in the books. It was a great week of teaching, learning, and collaboration with 35 K-8 teachers from around the country.  Special thanks to Nate McAlister, my partner-in-crime, master teacher, heart and soul of the Princeton Seminar, and an all-around great guy.  I couldn’t do it without him. Nate is a history machine! Next week he will be in Mount Vernon doing research on George Washington and Native Americans. I also want to thank the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History for giving me the honor to lead this seminar.

And I am also happy to announce that the Gilder Lehrman has informed me that we will be back again next year!  Stay tuned for more details.

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.

 

Who is Henry Marie Brackenridge?

 

HM_Brackenridge_1901Chief Justice John Roberts quoted a Brackenridge speech in the Trinity Lutheran v. Comer majority opinion.

Here is a taste of Ann E. Marimow’s piece at The Washington Post:

The lawmaker Roberts cited was H.M. Brackenridge, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates and leading supporter of what was known as the “Jew Bill” — a measure to remove the state’s requirement that elected officials swear to “a belief in the Christian religion.”

The brief excerpt from Brackenridge’s lengthy speech came at the end of the 15-page majority opinion in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. The high court found that a preschool operated by a Missouri church should have been eligible for state funding just like other non-religious charitable organizations.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Mo., brought the case after the Missouri government excluded the church from a grant program that pays to resurface playgrounds because the state said it could not provide financial assistance directly to a church. In the 7-2 decision, Roberts quoted Brackenridge before concluding that the exclusion of the church “solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

The son of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court judge, Brackenridge is hardly a household name in Maryland’s political history having served just two terms representing Baltimore. Much of his career was spent in other states, including stints as a judge in Louisiana and Florida, and as a U.S. congressman from Pennsylvania in 1840.

Brackenridge’s 1819 speech was part of broader effort to get rid of a measure that prevented Jews from holding office. Many states in the early nineteenth-century had religious qualifications for office.

According to the Maryland State Archives, Brackenridge argued that Maryland’s requirement violated the First Amendment of the Constitution that at the time only applied to the federal government. The so-called Jew Bill did not pass during Brackenridge’s tenure, when there were only about 150 Jewish people in Maryland. Jews were unable to hold elected office in Maryland until 1826, said Emily Oland Squires, director of research, education and outreach at the Maryland State Archives.

Read the entire piece here.

It is also worth noting here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home that H.M. Brackenridge is the son of Henry Hugh Brackenridge, a Princeton classmate of Philip Vickers Fithian.

Who Cares About the Weather?

eacac-fithian2bbookYesterday I read Sarah Grossman‘s interesting post at Process blog about the Smithsonian Meteorological Project (1849-1870).  According to Grossman, the project “was the first weather data collection effort in the United States that brought together a national coalition of volunteer observers based around the pursuit of citizen science.”

Learn more here.

Grossman’s piece reminded me of what I said about the weather in my first book.  While I was working on The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I had to make a decision about what to do with the many, many references to the weather in Fithian’s diaries.  Anyone who reads early American diaries knows that it was a common practice to say something about the weather at the beginning of each entry.   Sometimes a reference to the weather (“clear” or “cold”) is the only thing mentioned in a given diary entry.

One option was to just ignore these references and treat them as unimportant trivia.  But the more I read the diary the more I became convinced that I could not do this.  Fithian’s references to the weather told me something about his world and the way understood his place within it.

This is what eventually made it into the book:

As Philip moved through the agricultural seasons his thoughts were often preoccupied with the weather.  This was yet another sign of his intimate knowledge of the Cohansey landscape he called home.  It is common for people to begin their farm diaries with references to current weather conditions.  It is even more common for historians who study diaries to ignore these references, skimming over such apparently unimportant jottings on their way to the “real lives” of their subjects.  This is unfortunate for it misses a vital dimension of what actually defined “real life” in places such as eighteenth-century Cohansey.  Philip obsessed about the weather.  He did not start his journal entries with notes on the weather because such remarks represented proper form or provided an adequate preamble to the day’s more important events.  Philip wrote about the weather because his family and neighbors were at its mercy: “We know not what a Day may bring forth.”  The weather, more than anything else, provides our best insight into the limits of an eighteenth-century agricultural life.  No degree of human initiative could tame it.  Few technological improvements could ease the anxiety that it brought to farmers.

When winter refused to yield to spring, the cold weather could lay waste to the Fithian’s orchard.  Philip described consecutive days of frost in late April 1766 and thought they would certainly “kill all our peaches.”  The summer’s tempests “of rain, wind and thunder,” arriving to Cohansey from the southwest, wreaked havoc on the Fithian’s fields, “blowing down the Flax, Wheat, & Corn very much.”  At other times the rain inundated the fields to such an extent that Philip was able to “track an Ox or a Cow” across them.  Cohansey farmers never watched the weather more closely than during the harvest season.  Philip often devoted an entire journal entry to an hour-by-hour chronicling of a particular day’s weather patterns: ‘cloudy this morning”; about nine or ten o’clock it broke away so that the sun shone”; about noon it rained again in showers”; at 3’oclock there came a thunder gust from the west, and rained excessively hard”; a while in the evening it cleared very pleasant.”  The unpredictable weather during the 1766 harvest season brought great anxiety to Cohansey farmers.  When the rains came as consistently as they did during this particular summer, the Fithians were given only a small window of time to harvest their crops.  Philip had never seen Cohansey farmers so apprehensive.  “From this time to next Wednesday,” he wrote, “will be the most hurrying and engaging time for harvest Men that perhaps ever was known; on account of the later rains.”

While these concerns were certainly real, they were made less frightening by the power of the Presbyterian God.  During times like the summer of 1766, Philip placed his hope for a successful harvest in the hands of a God who knew what was best for the farmers of Cohansey and worked all things together for the good of those who loved Him.  During times of uncertainty Philip did not turn to superstitions or the wisdom of man-made almanacs but instead did his best to rest in God’s care for his family.  In 1766 the God who controlled the weather looked favorably on the people of Cohansey.  “When the descending rains seemed to threaten us with entire desolation,” Philip reflected, “God is pleased to withhold the Showers.”  Though God could have chosen not to save the Cohansey harvest, this time around He elected to answer the prayers of His people.  The only response was thankfulness, a virtue that was not lost on any of God’s creation in Cohansey.  Even the “beasts & birds,” Philip proclaimed with appreciation, “express a sense of their joy and gratitude, for the plentiful provision, by their chearfulness and merryment.”

At other times, however, unfavorable weather patterns could be interpreted as signs of God’s judgment.  In the summer of 1769 Coahsney suffered through a particularly difficult drought…

If you have read this far, you can find out what happened on p.31. 🙂

A Eulogy for Jonathan Wood: Historian, Christian, Friend

BroadThis morning I had the opportunity to eulogize my friend Jonathan Wood.  Several of you in attendance this morning asked for a copy of my remarks.  I have included them below. (Parts of this eulogy were drawn from an earlier blog post commemorating Jonathan’s death.)

Eulogy, Jonathan Wood, April 29, 2017, Old Broad Street Presbyterian Church, Bridgeton, New Jersey.

On my first real “research trip” as a history graduate student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I spent some time at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. As I perused the card catalog in the Department of Special Collections I came across a reference to the diary and writings of Philip Vickers Fithian.  I knew the name.  I had read part of the diary he had written in 1773 while serving as a tutor on a tobacco plantation in Virginia’s Northern Neck.  But I had no idea that there was so much more to learn about this seemingly obscure character in the annals of American history.  I also had no idea that I would spend the next twelve years—years raising a young family with my wife, and starting a career as a college professor—trying to understand this 18th-century man and his place in the ever-changing world of revolutionary America.

I  finished the dissertation and eventually published a biography of Fithian titled The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  It was the story of man who lived in two worlds. On the one hand, Philip was an educated gentleman.  He loved to travel (although, unlike Jonathan Wood, he never made it to Germany or Japan or Africa). He loved to learn new things (he was, after all, the graduate of an Ivy League institution–just like Jonathan). He read great books. And he loved to have deep and meaningful conversations about ideas that mattered.  All of these attributes made him a cosmopolitan–a citizen of the world.

On the other hand, Philip was a man committed to his Presbyterian faith—a faith that was nurtured in the soil of what he always referred to as his “beloved Cohansey.” Philip had a deep connection to his homeland.  He knew the rhythms of everyday life in this place. He understood its history and was eager to tell others about it. When he answered his country’s call to serve in the American Revolution he did so gladly, as both a citizen of a new nation built on the radical ideas of liberty and natural rights and as proud inhabitant of a local place—the small communities of Cumberland County nestled along the Cohansey River that he knew so well.

At an early stage in my research someone mentioned that I needed to talk to Jonathan Wood, one of the officers of the Cumberland County Historical Society in Greenwich.  I was born and raised in Morris County, New Jersey, but, to be honest, I had to check the map to see where Cumberland County was located, as I had never been to this part of the state.  I corresponded with Jonathan for several months before finally driving to Greenwich to meet him. I recall it was a crisp Fall weekday in 1996.  I was there to pick his brain about local history.  Jonathan, as always, was ever-gracious.  We got in his Buick and he drove me around town, telling me about his career as a history teacher in Millville, his family history (Jonathan always made it clear that he was NOT from the Wood family that founded WAWA convenience stores), and, of course, the history of what I was soon realizing was also his “belov-ed Cohansey.”

We hit it off immediately.  Jonathan was passionate about his work as a historian.  He quoted passages from Fithian’s diary at the drop of a hat. He told me about trips he took to Virginia and New England where he tried to learn more about Fithian and some of the earliest seventeenth-century settlers of Greenwich, Bridgeton, and the surrounding townships.

I think he saw me as a kindred spirit.  There were very few people in Jonathan’s life able to talk about Fithian and local Presbyterian history at such a deep level. As we said goodbye at the end of that day I noticed that tears were filling his eyes.  At the time I didn’t understand why he was so emotional. After all, he was just showing around a visiting graduate student in search of a dissertation topic. But as I got to know Jonathan I realized that he saw the potential of a friendship that I did not yet see.  And I am glad he did.

We stayed in touch. At least once a month during this period I would go to the mailbox to find a manila envelope, usually bursting at the seams, filled with materials that he thought might be useful to my book project.  I continued to make visits to Greenwich as a way of reinvigorating my passion for the project.  I always looked forward to running my latest ideas past Jonathan. We continued to walk the grounds of his “beloved Cohansey.” He knew the historical value of such a practice and how important it was for making sense of the lost early American world that we were both trying to uncover and explain.  Eventually I began to see this place through his eyes. And as I began to see this place through his eyes, I began to simultaneously see this place through the eyes of Philip Vickers Fithian.  Jonathan taught me well.

After The Way of Improvement Leads Home appeared in 2008, Jonathan started sending me reviews of the book in the form of hand-written letters.  He liked the book, but he also thought that there were a few small dimensions of Fithian’s life that I got wrong.  I always pushed back at his constructive criticism.  He rarely backed down.  Jonathan relished in the give-and-take of historical conversation.

Whenever I returned to Greenwich he always insisted that I stay with him at his home in Millville.  We stayed up late into the evening most nights talking about American history, Cumberland County history, our shared Christian faith, and the many books stacked-up next to his reading chair.   He would always have a hand-written list of things that he needed to talk with me about, and sometimes lecture me about.  He filled the guestroom with early American history books from his personal collection. In the morning he would cook us breakfast before we headed off to the Lummis Library for the day.

I remember during one visit Jonathan told me about a book he was reading called Amish Grace. It was the story of the 2006 shooting in a one room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. (Perhaps some of you remember this).  The focus of the book was the power of forgiveness.  Jonathan was greatly moved by the story of the way the people of the Amish community, as a practical way of exercising their Christian faith, offered forgiveness to the shooter who took five of their children that day.  I remember talking about the incident with Jonathan and at one point in the conversation he paused for about 30 seconds. His mind had clearly drifted away in a moment of reflection.  After this period of silence he turned to me, looked me straight in the eye, pointed to the cover of the book, and said “John, now that is true Christianity.”

I stayed in touch sporadically with Jonathan over the years and made several more visits to Greenwich, often bringing students to help with research. I chronicled some of that history in the blog post that has been circulating. I know some of you have read it.

I had not seen Jonathan in several years when I learned of his passing.  I did not know he had been sick.  It is one of my great regrets that I did not get a chance to say goodbye.  I did not know him as well as most others in this room today, but his friendship toward me, and the things he taught me about how to be a Christian and a historian, I continue to take with me in my work.

Jonathan Wood was a gentleman, a man of deep faith, and, at least from my point of view, the heart and soul of the local history community here in his beloved Cohansey.  If you are part of that community I hope that you see the magnitude of what you have lost.  Today we celebrate one of your wise men.  Jonathan was a seemingly endless source of wisdom who has challenged you, in a quiet and humble way, to see that society cannot move forward without first looking back.  We need more of this kind of thinking.

I am sure Jonathan is absolutely thrilled that we are in Old Broad Street Church today. This is the place where his passion for his Lord met his passion for local religious history. Actually, I am a little bit jealous of him right now.  He is probably watching this service with his good friends Ebenezer Elmer, Jonathan Elmer, Judge Lucius Q.C. Elmer, Rev. William Ramsey, Rev. Enoch Green, Rev. Andrew Hunter, Andrew Hunter Jr., Elizabeth Beatty, and the rest of the eighteenth-century Cohansey Presbyterians—the people he spent most of life getting to know. Right now he is having the kind of reunion that historians dream about.  And I have no doubt he has already had multiple meals with Philip Vickers Fithian.  I can almost picture him leaning over the table, grilling Fithian with questions and getting the answers he has been long awaiting.

Jonathan Wood’s way of improvement has finally led him home.

Rest in peace my good friend.

The Way of Improvement Leads Home at 60% Off

eacac-fithian2bbookFor whatever reason, Amazon is now selling the paperback version of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008, pb 2009) for $9.96.  That is a 60% discount.  As many of you know, this was my first book.  Of the five books I have written or edited, it remains my favorite.

And here is a a taste of Lauren Winner‘s review of the book at Books & Culture:

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…”

…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.

I tweeted the Amazon price drop yesterday and got some great responses:

Thanks!  Needless to say I am thrilled the book is getting attention again.  (And no, I am not related to any of these people). 🙂

Jonathan Wood, RIP

Wood

Jonathan Wood in October 2016 doing what he loved.–talking about Presbyterian history at the Old Stone Church in Fairfield, Cumberland County, New Jersey

In the acknowledgements of my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I wrote: “Jonathan Wood of the Cumberland County Historical Society first introduced me to Philip Vickers Fithian’s homeland.  I enjoyed discussing Fithian with Jonathan during our driving tours of Cohansey and lunches in Dutch Neck Village.”

This small statement does not do justice to all Jonathan Wood taught me. Nor does it do justice to a friendship that lasted well beyond the publication of The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Jonathan Wood, who passed away last night after a three-month battle with illness, taught me almost everything I know about the life of Philip Vickers Fithian, the history of Presbyterians in New Jersey, and the history of Cumberland County, New Jersey.

After graduating from Penn State and completing an M.A. in history at the University of Pennsylvania, Jonathan taught history for decades at Millville (NJ) High School.  I did not meet him until after he retired from teaching.  I was writing a dissertation on early New Jersey history. The history of Cumberland County, a county with settlements that predated William Penn’s founding of Pennsylvania, featured prominently in my work.

At an early stage in my research someone mentioned that I needed to get to know Jonathan Wood, an officer of the Cumberland County Historical Society.(CCHS). I corresponded with Jonathan for several months in 1996 before I drove to the town of Greenwich to spend a day with him and pick his brain about local history.  Shortly after I arrived we hopped in Jonathan’s Buick and he drove me around town, pointing out virtually every historic site related to Fithian, the American Revolution, and the Presbyterian community in the region.

We hit it off immediately.  Jonathan was passionate about his work as a historian.  He regularly quoted passages from Fithian’s diary.  He told me about trips he took to Virginia and New England where he tried to learn more about Fithian and some of the earliest seventeenth-century settlers of Greenwich and the surrounding townships.

I think he saw me as a kindred spirit.  There were very few people in Jonathan’s life able to talk about Fithian and local Presbyterian history at such a deep level.  As we said goodbye at the end of the day I noticed that tears were filling his eyes.  At the time I didn’t understand why he was so emotional. After all, he was just showing around a visiting graduate student. But as I got to know Jonathan I was able to understand just what this visit had meant to him.  He saw the potential of a friendship that I did not yet see.  And I am glad he did.

We stayed in touch.  After I had read all the materials I needed to examine in the Lummis Library I continued to make visits to Greenwich as a way of reinvigorating my passion for the project.  I always looked forward to running my latest ideas past Jonathan. We always walked the grounds of the place that Fithian called “Cohansey” (this was the part of the county situated along the Cohansey River. Jonathan was one of the only people I met who still used the term).  Jonathan knew the historical value of such a practice.  As we walked and talked (and sometimes drove) I would try to get Jonathan to think about Fithian and his relationship to what I was now calling the “rural Enlightenment.” He was skeptical at first, but eventually came around to the idea.

After The Way of Improvement Leads Home appeared in 2008 Jonathan started sending me reviews of the book in the form of hand-written letters.  He liked the book, but he also thought that there were dimensions of Fithian’s life that I got wrong.  I always pushed back at his constructive criticism.  He rarely backed down.  Jonathan relished in the give-and-take of historical conversation.  He once told me it reminded him of a graduate seminar he took at Penn with historian Richard Dunn.  (Jonathan got a big smile on his face whenever I reminded him that Dunn was my academic grandfather. My dissertation adviser at Stony Brook, Ned Landsman, studied with the esteemed early Americanist in the 1970s).

Whenever I returned to Greenwich for a book talk or lecture Jonathan always insisted that I stay with him at his home in Millville.  I recall staying-up late into the evening most nights talking about American history, Cumberland County history, and the many history books stacked-up next to his reading chair.  He always filled the guestroom where I was staying with early American history books from his personal library.  In the morning he would cook us breakfast before we headed off to the library for the day.

Thanks to Jonathan, I became captivated with the story of Greenwich and its history.  At the center of Greenwich history is an event known as the “Greenwich Tea Burning.”  In December 1774, about a year after the so-called “Boston Tea Party,” a ship filled with East India tea docked at Greenwich and local Presbyterian patriots confiscated the load and burned it in the center of town.  Philip Vickers Fithian may have been involved in this act of protest.  A monument to the event stands on the town’s “Ye Greate Street.”

It seemed to me that the story of the Greenwich Tea Burning might make a great study of how a local community remembered and commemorated its past.  I landed a grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to fund a research project on the town’s history and gathered together students and former students into something we called “The Greenwich Tea Burning Project.”  The grant allowed us to spend a week or so in the summer conducting research in Greenwich.

I always got the impression that Jonathan was a bit overwhelmed when I showed up with three or four students to do research on the history of Greenwich and collect oral histories of some of the residents of the town.  The Lummis Library was small and he worried that we might get in the way of other patrons and researchers. Sometimes he would set-up a big work table for us on the second floor of the library, an area that was not open to the public.

But I also think Jonathan was always excited about our visits.  He was thrilled that I was so interested in the place where he had spent most of his life.  He liked to talk to the students (including my own daughter Allyson) about the history of the region and provide them with tours of the area.  I’d like to think that our visits kept him young and hopeful.

One of the highlights of our Greenwich Tea Burning Project visits was a Wednesday evening trip to the boardwalk at Ocean City, New Jersey.  This was Jonathan’s idea.  He thought the students needed a break after a long day in the library.  Jonathan could not get enough of Ocean City.  He talked about this Jersey Shore town with a child-like giddiness.  After he retired he would spend a week or two there every September. Jonathan really enjoyed seeing one of his favorite vacation destinations through the eyes of the students as we walked the boards and ate ice cream and pizza.

Eventually the funding ran out on the Greenwich Tea Burning Project.  The students on my team went on to bigger and better things and I got distracted by other book projects.  (I would like to return to it one day.  The book is actually almost finished!  I am envisioning it as a work of public history and memory.  And when I do finish it it will be dedicated to Jonathan).  I had not seen Jonathan in several years when his friend Joe Mathews wrote this morning to tell me of his passing.  I felt an overwhelming urge to write this post.

Jonathan Wood was a gentleman, a Christian, and the heart and soul of local history in this little corner of southern New Jersey.  Today I mourn with his family and friends.  I hope the Cumberland County history community recognizes the magnitude of this loss.

I am sure Jonathan is in heaven right now talking with Philip Vickers Fithian and getting all of his questions answered.

Rest in peace my good friend.  Rest in peace.

Here are some pics I dug up:

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I almost certain we are talking about Cohansey or Philip Vickers Fithian here

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Another one of Jonathan’s favorite places: the Ocean City boardwalk

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My daughter Allyson,  the junior member of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project, delivering some Kohr’s orange-cream custard to us.

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Jonathan (in the back) waxing eloquent on something related to American history as Katie Garland of the Greenwich Tea Burning team does her research

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Outside the Lummis Library during the 100th anniversary celebration of the erection of the Greenwich Tea Burning monument

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Jonathan Wood with the Greenwich Tea Burning team inside the historic Greenwich Quaker Meetinghouse

“Political Jealousy is a Laudable Passion”

eacac-fithian2bbookI was watching the news last night and remembered this passage (p.142) from my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

Philip reached maturity in this patriotic culture.  He was taught at Princeton that it was appropriate to exercise the passions in the defense of liberty.  In his 1772 commencement disputation he echoed the words of the eighteenth-century political tract of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters, by defending the notion that “political jealousy is a laudable passion.” His speech distinguished between “domestic and ecclesiastical jealousies,” which were harmful, and “political jealousy,” which was “rational & uniform & necessary.”  As Philip had learned all too well through his courtship with Elizabeth Beatty, “jealousy” was normally a dangerous “disease” that could blight friendships and lead to “suspicions” among acquaintances.  However, when channeled in the right direction, it was also a useful passion.  The truly “jealous” citizen kept a careful and virtuous watch on his government leaders to guard against vice and corruption.  Political jealousy served as a unifying force–a common political ideology of resistance grounded in a common morality–that held a community togehter in times of strife and preserved societal order.  Philip said that it had a “natural tendency” to “unite people” around interests that were closely associated with the preservation of the nation.”