The Way of Improvement Leads to a Website and Blog



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Paul Harvey

Our contributing editor John Fea has set up a blog and website for his book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Phillip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. Here's the description of the book from the website:

The Way of Improvement Leads Home traces the short but fascinating life of Philip Vickers Fithian, one of the most prolific diarists in early America. Born to Presbyterian grain-growers in rural New Jersey, he was never quite satisfied with the agricultural life he seemed destined to inherit. Fithian longed for something more—to improve himself in a revolutionary world that was making upward mobility possible. While Fithian is best known for the diary that he wrote in 1773-74 while working as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter, this first full biography moves beyond his experience in the Old Dominion to examine his inner life, his experience in the early American backcountry, his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty, and his role as a Revolutionary War chaplain.

From the villages of New Jersey, Fithian was able to participate indirectly in the eighteenth-century republic of letters—a transatlantic intellectual community sustained through sociability, print, and the pursuit of mutual improvement. The republic of letters was above all else a rational republic, with little tolerance for those unable to rid themselves of parochial passions. Participation required a commitment to self-improvement that demanded a belief in the Enlightenment values of human potential and social progress. Although Fithian was deeply committed to these values, he constantly struggled to reconcile his quest for a cosmopolitan life with his love of home. As John Fea argues, it was the people, the religious culture, and the very landscape of his "native sod" that continued to hold Fithian's affections and enabled him to live a life worthy of a man of letters.


Here is some more information on John's article in the Journal of American History a few years back, which previewed the book:

In conjunction with an
article I published about Fithian in 2003, the Journal of American History put hundreds of pages of Fithian's writings on-line. The site, which is part of the journal's "Teaching the JAH" feature, includes the article and study questions suitable for the high school and undergraduate classroom. I will try to get a link to these writings on the book website soon.

And here's a preview of John's thoughts on the question on the relationship of the Great Awakening to the American Revolution, as well as the question of the "evangelical synthesis" in American history:

Some of my thoughts here, which I hope to develop a bit more later at "Religion and American History," deal with the idea, popular among many historians, that the First Great Awakening, the great evangelical religious revival of the 1740s, had something to do with the coming of the American Revolution. I do not address this question directly in
The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but I do imply that the enthusiasm and revival evangelicalism of the Great Awakening had little effect on the way Presbyterians such as Philip Vickers Fithian understood the Revolution. In fact, I suggest in the book that it was actually the reaction against the Great Awakening that had the most profound influence on the Presbyterian response to the American Revolution. (And this Presbyterian response was significant. Remember that George III called the American Revolution a "Presbyterian rebellion.").

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