Writing while walking

Linwood House

Linwood House, Valparaiso University

If you are writer you may be able to relate to this passage from Stephen Backhouse’s Kiergkegaard: A Single Life:

Lengthy walks around Copenhagen were part of the authorial process, because it was on the city streets that Soren “put everything into its final form.” Soren “wrote” while walking. The hiking stage was only the first part of the process. The second stage occurred when he got home, where he would be observed by his servant, Anders Westergaard, standing at his desk, hat still on head and umbrella tucked under arm, furiously scribbling down with his hands the words he had already written on foot.

Does anyone do this? I do it all the time. Some of my best ideas come while walking around the neighborhood. If I get stuck on a writing project I put on my sneakers and start to roam outside. If it is raining, I walk around the house talking to myself.

valpo-house

268 McIntyre Court, Valparaiso, Indiana

In fact, I came-up with the phrase “the way of improvement leads home” on such a walk. It was Fall 2000 and I needed to get home from my Valparaiso University office in the Linwood House. My mind was still racing from a productive day of work as I started my walk to the house we were renting on McIntire Court. I was trying to come up with a phrase to describe the tension between Philip Vickers Fithian’s homesickness and his desire to lead a life of Enlightenment ambition. The phrase “the way of improvement leads home” hit me as I was crossing Chapel Drive and stepping onto the McIntire Court sidewalk. I will never forget the spot.

 

Wilfred McClay on Historical Monuments

Kosciukso

Whether you agree or disagree with him, Wilfred McClay is always thoughtful. If I see his byline at First Things or another conservative outlet, I will always read the article. As one of America’s best conservative historians (not a historian of conservatism, a historian who is politically and intellectually conservative), and a winner of the prestigious Merle Curti Award, he plays an important role in public discourse.

I always learn something from Bill, as I did last Fall when we spent a couple of hours chatting in the Chattanooga airport.  (We talked about a lot of things as we waited for our flights–mostly small talk– but I distinctly remember his suggestion that we should think of the word “evangelical” more as an adjective [as in “evangelical Christian”] than a noun. I am still thinking that one over). I remember when Bill visited Messiah College in 2003 to deliver our American Democracy Lecture and, as a member of the board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, gave us some tips about how to get funding for our Center for Public Humanities. (We eventually landed an NEH grant to create the Center). I have long considered him a mentor and he has always been supportive of my career.

I am a bit embarrassed that I had to preface this post in this way, but I felt it was necessary because I am guessing a lot of people who read this blog are going to be upset with his recent piece at First Things, a short reflection on what is happening right now with American monuments.  Some may also get upset about my thoughts at the end of the post.

A taste:

But I think the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order. University administrators are all too willing to side with those who suppress free inquiry, and routinely cave to protestors rather than defend even the most fundamental tenets of academic freedom. 

The pulling down of statues, as a form of symbolic murder, is congruent with the silencing of dissenting opinion, so prevalent a feature of campus life today. In my own academic field of history, it is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective.

Those caught up in the moral frenzy of the moment ought to think twice, and more than twice, about jettisoning figures of the past who do not measure up perfectly to the standards of the present—a present, moreover, for which those past figures cannot reasonably be held responsible. For one thing, as the Scriptures warn us, the measure you use is the measure you will receive. Those who expect moral perfection of others can expect no mercy for themselves, either from their posterity or from the rebukes of their own inflamed consciences. 

But there is a deeper reason. It is part of what it means to be a civilized human being—it is in fact an essential feature of civilization itself—to recognize the partiality of all human achievement, and to cherish it and sustain it no less for that partiality. 

Read the entire piece here.

There is a lot to agree with in McClay’s analysis. I think McClay’s thoughts on Jefferson and his monuments echo the ideas I am hearing from Annette Gordon-Reed, Manisha Sinha, and Sean Wilentz.

Let’s also remember that McClay is writing in a Christian magazine. If we take Christianity seriously, we must reckon with McClay’s suggestion (I am not sure how he can know this for sure) that those who tear down monuments are motivated by “pure and unmitigated hate.” It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

McClay’s remarks about the white privilege enjoyed by the middle-class, suburban, college-educated students engaged in some of the violence is also on the mark. There seems to be white privilege on both sides of our current conversation on race in America. I wish these young people would be more thoughtful.

Finally, McClay writes, “In my own academic field of history, it [the tearing down of monuments] is entirely of a piece with the weaponizing of history, in which the past is regarded as nothing more than a malleable background for the concerns of the present, and not as an independent source of wisdom or insight or perspective. Here I think McClay is half-right.

As I argued in Why Study History, we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. It is reprehensible. Anyone who reads this blog knows where I stand on this, so I ask you to think about my words here as part of my larger body of work.

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Yet, I also believe that historians can and must use the past, and especially historical thinking, to speak to the present. I tried to do this in Believe Me. As I have said before, I have never understood Believe Me to be part of the same historical genre as The Way of Improvement Leads Home, The Bible Cause, Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? (to an extent), or the book on the American Revolution that I am currently writing. But there are times when historians must speak to current events by teaching us how we got to a particular moment in the present. And once they understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique. This, of course, may require getting political. As I recently told a friend, I have spent much of my career trying to understand conservative evangelicals. My critique is rooted in over two decades of historical work.

And finally, let’s talk about “law and order.” As I argued in Believe Me, it is hard to understand this phrase without thinking about racial unrest in America. Nixon used it as a dog-whistle to win votes among white voters. Trump uses it in the same way. And let’s recall that the tearing down of monuments, riots in the streets, and destruction of property are as as old as the American republic.

McClay gives us a lot to think about here. When does government intervene to stop the destruction of property? How much is too much? Where do we draw the line between law and order on the one hand, and racial injustice on the other?

One of the best ways to do this, I have found, is to think historically. The years leading-up to the American Revolution were very violent. After the revolution, when the Whiskey rebels rose-up in Western Pennsylvania, George Washington sent out the army to crush the rebellion. Martin Luther King Jr. protested peacefully. Other American reformers, like John Brown, did not. There debates between law and order on the one hand, and American protest on the other, are not new. Go listen to the Hamilton soundtrack or watch it next week on Disney+.

And what should Christians think? Was the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor in December 1773 justified? Is destruction of someone else’s property ever right? What about pouring hot tar on peoples’ skin, covering them with feathers, and parading them through the streets? What about our moral responsibility as the church to speak truth to power and disobey unjust laws–codes that are out of harmony with the moral law for God?  Sometimes these questions do not have easy answers. But are we even asking them?

The Way of Improvement: From Cohansey to Dakota

Fithian BookMy friend Eric Miller, a history and humanities professor at Geneva College, just completed an independent study on “History in Place” with his student Mary Burgreen, a junior humanities major from Mississippi (currently riding out COVID-19 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania). One of the books they read together was The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in America

Eric recently shared one of Mary’s essays and it is posted here with Mary’s permission. The essay brings The Way of Improvement Leads Home into conversation with the works of agrarian writer Kathleen Norris. Enjoy! –JF

The Way of Improvement

In a conversation I recently had with a friend through FaceTime, I asked, “How many times can I live the same day over again?” As I offered my complaint against the new, restrictive way of life we are confined to in the form of a cynical question, the rigorous schedule Philip Vickers Fithian adhered to during his studies at Princeton came to mind. I felt nearly guilty for allowing my routines go unappreciated. After all, the Benedictine monks, like Philip, followed consistent schedules, including times for prayers and study as laid out in their Rule. Surely, there must be merit in the simplicity and discipline of living according to habitual routines, as great intellectuals and saints have done for centuries. Yet, unlike the enlightened Princeton scholars and the contemplative monks, our routinely structured days are missing crucial pieces, one of utmost importance being a sense of community.

Though Philip heartily sought after education as a means for his personal progress, his intellectual betterment could not be separated from his sense of community, which included, as John Fea writes, “conversation, friendship, and family life.” It was not enough to submit one’s self toward “a universal love for the human race,” an ideal not possible without “face-to-face encounters with actual people inhabiting real places.” Just as the Republic of Letters—”the personal correspondence between men of ideas”—proved to be powerless without the presence of “the local” to act as “the anchor [for] the modern and revolutionary self,” Philip’s life revealed the inability to isolate the particulars found within community, such as personal relationships, human contact, or the interconnectedness of diverse social groups, from the progress strived after through the abstract and elitist ideals of the Enlightenment. In similar fashion, the Rule informed monastics of seemingly minute matters pertaining to food, dress, or daily work, prompting them, as Kathleen Norris notes in The Cloister Walk, “to be more mindful of the little things, even as it reminded [them] of the big picture.” As both Philip’s internal struggles and the slow-paced monastic life indicate, there are ordinary and necessary facets of daily life that fortify the ideals by which we live.Dakota

And just as Philip’s academic routine was not detached from his tangible, local associations, the rhythms of the life he lived on his family farm, which preceded his conscious journey on his way of improvement, were dictated by the particulars of his place, specifically the weather. Philip attentively recorded the weather because it “provided an adequate preamble to the day’s most important events.” The day’s forecast determined the people’s schedule. By affecting the agricultural community, the seasons acted as a foundation for the larger Cohansey social structure.

Similarly, though in a more intentional manner, the Benedictine monastics believed in the necessity of grounding their way of life by displaying what Norris in Dakota calls a “commitment to a particular community and place.” This Benedictine “vow of stability” is imbued with the personal surrender to the reality of a place, whatever its conditions may be. Here may be a key difference between Philip and the monastics — the Benedictines consciously chose to make a vow to their place, while Philip wrestled with his level of commitment to his place, a struggle which continued until his untimely death.

Like Philip, we may not have made this vow of purposeful commitment to our place, especially not to the places we find ourselves confined to. Rather than commit ourselves to the reality of our circumstances, we, like Philip while residing back in Cohansey as a recent university graduate, romanticize our conditions, making ourselves believe we have submitted to the slow-paced life where we might finally conquer time. It’s hard not to romanticize when books can be read from an antique desk set under a raindrop splattered window, while birds make conversations in trees that sway in the chilled breeze. Yet, the prospect of troublesome leaking pipes, of distant coughs that muffle the irritated muttering about masks, crushes the romance of it all. Heeding the advice Kathleen Norris was given, we all must use the “awareness of death as a tool”. That is the consequence of having an intimacy with the particulars of place—our being reminded of the reality of limitations. Through the connection to his place, Philip was first taught by the unpredictable weather patterns to accept the expectation of life’s limits. Later, he was confronted with these limits by the death of his parents. As Fea writes, “Death and ambition have little in common. . . mourning always awakens one to the fact that life has its limits.”

As the usual means of modern self-improvement have come to a blinding halt, we feel ourselves beginning to scramble to continue our own way of improvement even in the face of uncharted limitations. The way of improvement leads home, as Fea concludes, but where exactly does this leave us? Though at home, we find that it is no Cohansey, structured with an intricate, interconnected social web comprised of people committed to their particular place. In fact, our places do not resemble Cohansey at all. It might be argued that we are largely a placeless people, made up of generations of uprooted individuals discreetly searching for a home to feel affection for. The Benedictine wisdom recorded by Norris says, “If you take us somewhere else, we lose our character, our history, our souls.” Place, for both Fithian and Norris, is defined by its history, which is formed by the continuity of the stories composed by its particulars—the monotonous weather records, the long-sustained friendships. This history is not time merely passed but stories kept and turned into traditions, into a form of habit. In the face of global uncertainty, it is providential that we are forced to pay attention to the most minuscule of particulars so that perhaps we may better understand that we truly “know not what a Day may bring forth.”

An Afternoon at Fort Roberdeau with the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania

Roberdeau 4

What? You’ve never heard of Fort Roberdeau?  Here is some info from Wikipedia:

Fort Roberdeau, also known as The Lead Mine Fort, is a historic fort located in Tyrone Township outside Altoona, Pennsylvania. It was built in 1778, during the American Revolution and was occupied until 1780. Initial efforts were made in 1939-41 to reconstruct the fort by concerned local agencies with support from the National Youth Administration. The stockade was finally reconstructed as a Bicentennial project in 1975-76.

The original fort was built of horizontal logs with a bastion at each corner. The fort was originally erected by General Daniel Roberdeau to protect local lead mining activities from the Native Americans and Tories.[3] The fort is open to the public as a historic site, administered and owned by Blair County.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.[1]

The site consists of the reconstructed fort and its structures (officers’ quarters, storehouse, barracksblacksmith shop, lead miner’s cabin, powder magazine, and lead smelter), a restored barn (1859) which serves as visitor center, a restored farmhouse (ca. 1860), a sinkhole, a trail system, and a log house (2012) built in the style of an original frontier house. The site is open May 1 through October 31.

I was at the fort yesterday to speak to the members of the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania.  If you live in the central Pennsylvania area and are interested in learning more about the American Revolution, I encourage you to attend one of meetings of the round table.  This is a fast-growing and vibrant group of revolutionary-era history buffs.

On the request of Mark DeVecchis, the round table president, I spoke on Philip Vickers Fithian and the American Revolution.  Of course the talk was based on my 2008 book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  It was good to revisit the themes of the this book:

 

I want to thank Mark DeVecchis and Glenn Nelson, Director of Fort Roberdeau, for their hospitality during our visit.  We hope to return soon.

Here are some pics:

Roberdeau 1

Roberdeau 2

Ethan Walter was the youngest attendee of the event. It was a pleasure to inscribe his book with the words “Keep Studying History!”

Roberdeau 3

With Mark DeVechis (L), president of the American Revolution Round Table of Central Pennsylvania and Glenn Nelson, director of Fort Roberdeau

Out of the Zoo: “A Perfect Fit”

Kalamazoo to mechan

Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie talks about matters familiar to the readers of this blog. 🙂  –JF

I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same small town near Kalamazoo, Michigan. For 18 years I lived in the same old white farmhouse, climbing the same trees and sledding down the same steep hill in my backyard. For thirteen years I went to the same school district, graduating with many of the kids that were in my kindergarten class. My family switched churches a few times while I was growing up, but I was always surrounded by the same community of believers that helped raise, support and mentor my triplet siblings and I from the day we were born to the day we moved off to college. “It takes a village,” my Mom would always say. 

You can probably imagine that leaving my “village” and moving nine hours away to Messiah wasn’t easy. During my first few months at school I constantly caught myself thinking about home, sometimes to the point that it was hard to focus on schoolwork. As time passed it got easier, and I got used to life away from my family and friends back in Michigan. I learned to talk  about my feelings instead of bottling them up inside, and more importantly to trust the Lord when I was struggling. Even so, homesickness remained a familiar affliction for quite some time.

Homesickness was also a familiar feeling for Philip Vickers Fithian, the eighteenth century protagonist of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. This past week my “Age of Hamilton” class read Professor Fea’s essay that inspired the book. We read about Fithian’s life–his upbringing in rural New Jersey, the education he received at Princeton and his experience tutoring in Virginia, as well as his return to Cohansey. In class we compared his coming-of-age story with Alexander Hamilton’s, and discussed their shared desire to rise up and better themselves. However we also learned that Fithian, unlike Hamilton, was constantly burdened by homesickness–whether he was studying at Princeton, tutoring in Virginia, or performing duties elsewhere. While I am not a student at Princeton, nor do I live in the 1700s, I did find Fithian’s story to be strikingly similar to my own.

As historians, our task is to step into the shoes of the people we study–to empathize with their struggles and see the world through their eyes. Sometimes this proves a more difficult task than we expect. We get discouraged and find ourselves, like Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, trying to jam our toes into glass slippers that are far too small. Or perhaps more frequently the shoes fit, but we find them uncomfortable or unfashionable and toss them aside.

Other times though, the historical narrative makes this an easy task. Instead of laboriously trying to squeeze our feet into a pair of slippers, we find they’re a perfect fit. When I read Professor Fea’s essay on Fithian, I felt like I could have been reading an excerpt from my own biography.  I read about how Fithian missed “hearing good Mr. Hunter preach,” (478) and was reminded of how hard it was for me to be away from home last Easter. Fithian wrote about missing Elizabeth Beatty and I thought about my own long distance relationship that began a few months after moving to school. Fithian would set aside his studies to look out the window towards home, just like I would swipe through old pictures from Michigan when I felt homesick. When I read about Fithian, I knew exactly what he was going through. I found it easier to step into his shoes not because I’m academically skilled or an expert historian, but because I’ve worn them myself.

From Princeton to Williamsburg!

TWOILH at Williamsburg

In 1773, a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey at Princeton from the southern New Jersey town of Greenwich went to Virginia to teach the children of a wealthy plantation owner.

The tutor was Philip Vickers Fithian.  The planter was Robert Carter III.  Carter’s plantation was called Nomini Hall, but he also had a house in Williamsburg.

I wrote about Fithian’s experience in my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: The Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  The teachers in my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America read the book during their week in Princeton.

So perhaps it is fitting that some alums from the Princeton Seminar traveled, like Fithian, to Williamsburg this week.  And look what they found on sale in the Colonial Williamsburg bookstore!

Thanks for sharing Jamie, Jen, and Tracy!

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.

What Makes Your Book Valuable?

Fea books

How do authors measure the success of their books?  Rachel Toor asks this question in a very interesting piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Given my history in publishing, people often ask me for help with their book projects. One of the first things I ask them: What is your goal? What do you want to achieve by publishing the book?

“Getting it out there in the world” is too vague. With publishing, as in many aspects of life, specific is better and more attainable.

It requires hard thinking to make a list of what success will look like for you, but my advice is to do this exercise before the book is published, or even as you start work on the manuscript. Some things will be within your control. Others you can only hope for. If, on that list, you have items that are not measurable in terms of sales or money, I say that’s OK. You get to define what success looks like for you.

Read the entire piece here.

So how do I measure the success of my books?  It depends on the book:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home:   I wrote this to establish myself as an early American historian.  I thus published it with a respectable university press. I hope it makes some small contribution to our understanding of the Enlightenment in America.  In that sense, I think it has been a success.  But, much to my surprise, the story of Philip Vickers Fithian seems to captivate people.  Dozens of people tell me that they cried at the end of the book.  K-12 teachers have pushed me to write a grade-school edition of Fithian’s life.  So, in this case, the book has been successful for reasons I did not expect when I wrote it.

Confessing History:  I edited this book with close friends Jay Green and Eric Miller.  The fact that we were able to work on this book together makes it a success in my mind.  But I also hope the book has established me as a scholar writing out of a particular tradition.  In this sense, it has been successful.  I think we are asking our readers–Christian undergraduates and graduate students, Christian faculty members, and students of historiography–to join us in a conversation about the relationship between Christian faith and the historian’s vocation.

Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?:  This book was written for a popular audience. I think it has been successful for two reasons.  First, it has brought historical thinking to a much-politicized debate on American identity.  Second, it has provided college professors who are interested in this debate with a text to assign to their students.

Why Study History?  I measure the success of this book by how often it is assigned in history survey courses, introduction to history courses, and historiography or methods courses.  I am encouraged by how many college and high school history departments are using it.

The Bible Cause:   In terms of sales, this has been my most unsuccessful book. Institutional histories are tough to sell.  The value of the book is its modest contribution to American religious history.  It will sit on library shelves and I hope it will be consulted whenever a scholar’s work intersects with the history of the Bible in America.

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:  This book will be successful if it: 1). Gets my fellow evangelicals to think differently about their support for Donald Trump.  2). Helps anti-Trump evangelicals to dialogue with their pro-Trump friends.  3).  Helps the larger community of scholars, journalists, politicos, and pundits understand why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.   So far I think the book has been successful on points 2 and 3.  Has it been successful as it relates to point 1?  Only time will tell.

Liberal Arts on the Farm

b1651-fithian2bmark2bup

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 Did Evangelicals Start Talking About Family Values?

QuakersOver at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz of Asbury University argues that “family values” is a relatively knew idea in American evangelicalism.   Here is a taste:

“Turning hearts toward home”—a phrase Dr. James Dobson has repeated so often over the last four decades that it sounds like scripture. It’s hard to believe now, but his unrelenting focus on the family would have been viewed as heretical by evangelicals a century and a half ago.

Indeed, revivalistic religion in the eighteenth century often tore families apart. As Christine Heyrman writes, “For those to whom Canaan’s language long remained an unintelligible tongue, the conversion of beloved relatives could lead to enduring emotional estrangement. Transformed by their newfound zeal, dutiful sons and daughters, affectionate siblings and spouses . . . [could become] remorseless, relentless, seemingly heartless in dealing with loved ones.”

The instinct to de-emphasize family continued in the nineteenth century. Methodist evangelist Phoebe Palmer suffered the death of two young children, and she interpreted these tragedies as divine discipline. “After my loved ones were snatched away,” she wrote in her journal in 1831, “I saw that I had concentrated my time and attentions far too exclusively, to the neglect of the religious activities demanded. Though painfully, learned, yet I trust the lesson has been fully apprehended. From henceforth, Jesus must and shall have the uppermost seat in my heart.” Palmer’s heart was sanctified at the moment it turned away from home.

Ironically, the nurture of family was first a mainline value. As historian Margaret Bendroth shows in her terrific book, Growing Up Protestant: Parents, Children and Mainline Churches (2002), white middle-class Protestants in the 1860s advocated for regular family devotions, recitations of the catechism, Bible memory, and careful attention to children’s dress and diet. Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell wrote, “Dress your child for Christ if you will have him a Christian; bring everything, in the training, even of his body, to this one final aim, and it will be strange, if the Christian body you give him does not contain a Christian soul.”

Read the entire piece here.

I am not sure how Swartz is defining “evangelical” or “family values,” but certainly the seventeenth-century Puritans were quite concerned with family.  The nuclear family was part of their “values” system.  Or at least that is what Edmund Morgan taught us decades ago.

I would also argue, along with Barry Levy, that the modern middle-class family as we know it today had its roots in the Quakers of Pennsylvania.  As far as I know, Levy’s interpretation has not been challenged since he first published Quakers and the American Family in 1988.

And if a whole generation of women historians is correct, the Second Great Awakening had something to do with women’s role in preserving the family, preparing citizens of the republic, and the cultivating the domestic hearth.

As I argued in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment, the real threat to eighteenth-century “family values” was mobility, ambition, and education.

When Your Doctoral Adviser Sends You a Random Note

eacac-fithian2bbook

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

Jersey ShoreOct2009 014

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

lady

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.

Do You Tell Your Class To Buy Your Book?

Why Study History CoverThe Chronicle of Higher Education is conducting a survey.  Take it here.

Here is how I answered the questions:

Instructors, have you assigned material you have written as required classroom reading? Did you recommend students purchase that material?

Yes.  I have assigned articles and books.  The articles, of course, are available for free in the campus library or via JSTOR.  I assign The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America to my Gilder-Lehrman seminar on colonial America, but I have never assigned it in a class at Messiah College.  Why?  Because the book covers both the late colonial period and the coming of the American Revolution and I usually cover these topics in two different upper-division courses (“Colonial America” and “The Age of the American Revolution”).  I have never assigned Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?Confessing History, or The Bible Cause.  But I have assigned Why Study History?  I actually wrote that book with my “Introduction to History” class in mind.  I have used it every Fall Semester since 2013, the year it was released.

Did you have any misgivings about assigning your work as course material? If so, what were they?

Not really,. but I find that students are not as comfortable discussing the text when they know it is my work.

Did you provide the material free of charge to students? Or did you do anything else to make up the difference to them?

Students pay full price for Why Study History?

Does/did your institution have rules about when an instructor may assign their own work? If so, how did you handle them?

No, not that I am aware of.

How Can Anyone Hate Wendell Berry?

Berry

How can you hate this man? 🙂

Allen T. Stanton, a United Methodist pastor, hates the agrarian writer Wendell Berry.  Here is a taste of his piece at Faith & Leadership:

On the surface, my town was a picturesque embodiment of Berry’s community. But there’s another part of the story. The local textile mill closed in the 1990s. Ever since a massive flood in 1999, residential streets have sat empty, their houses demolished and never rebuilt after FEMA buyouts.

When I was in high school, tobacco farmers would leave their crops to die in the fields because it was cheaper to let a crop go to waste than to harvest it and not be able to sell it. When Walmart came to town, our small grocery store was forced to close.

My small rural town could also be suffocating. No one expected my dreams to expand beyond the 2 square miles it occupied. Whenever I talked about living in other places, someone would remark, “Oh, you’ll grow out of that. You’ll end up here, like everyone else did.”

My freshman year of college, I was surrounded by people from elite prep schools. During orientation, one dorm mate said, “You went to a poor rural school; I went to one of the best prep schools in the nation. How are we both at the same college?”

It was insulting, and I became desperate to prove that I belonged. I worked to drop, or at least soften, my thick Southern accent. Each assignment became a competition, and not just about the grade. I wanted to show that I could do the work faster, more efficiently and with less apparent effort than my classmates.

“Rural” became something to escape.

Read the rest here.

I love Berry, but I think this is a fair assessment.  Sometimes you need a way of improvement before return home.  (By the way, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is now selling for 77% off).

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

Neighborhood

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.