2009 New Jersey Council of the Humanities Honor Book

2009 Book of the Year, New Jersey Studies Academic Alliance

Those of us who have read John’s earlier study The Way of Improvement Leads Home – a book, I confess, that I dearly love – it is, in fact, one of my favorite history books of the last decade – those of us who have read The Way of Improvement Leads Home know already that John is one of those rare historians who can actually write for history buffs, for armchair history readers, readers like my father, who prides himself on having read Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy three times.  Historians of other times and places – the Ming dynasty; colonial Africa – are not lucky in the way American historians are lucky.    --Lauren Winner, Duke Divinity School, comments at Cushwa Center Seminar in American Religion at the University of Notre Dame

"John Fea has given readers . . . a gift in this delightful biography of diarist Philip Fithian. . . . Fea has captured a multifaceted world that teachers of American history should rush to share with their students." --Dallett Hemphill, author of Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America

Many historians of Revolutionary American have plundered the diaries of Philip Vickers Fithian, but until now no one has satisfactorily told the life story of this great diarist. John Fea's insightful book does just that--and yet more. By showing how Fithian pursued the values of a cosmopolitan Enlightenment, in concert with the values of Presbyterian Christianity and American patriotism, his study reveals much about an enduring American tradition." --Mark Noll, University of Notre Dame.
In this absorbing and elegantly written biography, John Fea explores the conflict between Fithian's deep connections to Cohansey and the Enlightenment...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...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...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... 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. --Lauren Winner, Duke Divinity School (Books and Culture)
John Fea’s biography of Phillip Vickers Fithian is a rare book, one that will appeal both to academic historians specializing in early America and to those whose interest in the field and in history is more casual...If the press brings out a moderately priced paperback edition of this book, I will assign it in my early American history classes, where, paired with Franklin’s Autobiography, it will provide students with some insight into the origins of American culture...In sum, with this charming, nicely written, and thoroughly researched biography of an engaging colonial character, John Fea has provided readers of early American history with a gift to be treasured.   --Russell Menard, History: A Review of New Books

"...leaves the reader wanting even more...this is a good book, well worth reading. It offers a new perspective on rural America in the colonial period. It should be read by historians of New Jersey and elsewhere. With its clear thesis and chapter ending summaries, it will be accessible for undergraduates and a more general audience as well."  --Maxine Lurie, Seton Hall University (H-Net Reviews)

...Fea takes the grand abstractions of the Enlightenment, conversion, patriotism, and republicanism and shrinks them to human scale, showing how they shaped the life of an individual whose name was never in revolutionary headlines. The real success of Fea's book is in getting these two historiographies to speak to each other, by linking Fithian's social experience to his mental world to show how they built the texture of his daily life ...Fea is right about the potential utility of his book; it should be a wonderfully teachable volume in undergraduate classrooms... --Will Mackintosh, University of Michigan (Journal of the Early  American Republic).

The strength of this book is that it succeeds in what it sets out to do; in so intimately linking ideas and behavior, Fea has put a memorable human face on the abstractions of the age...this is an engaging study of a life fully lived even its brevity, a life through which the ideals and fears of the Enlightenment can be witnessed anew.--Rixey Ruffin, Journal of American History

John Fea has written an excellent cultural biography of Philip Vickers Fithian's relatively short but interesting life...Fea emphasizes how Fithian repeatedly balanced those centripetal forces of friends and family while attempting to achieve reason and universality. ...The Way of Improvement Leads Home successfully mixes the particular with the universal, just like the story of Philip Vickers Fithian.--David Jaffee, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.

In the first-ever published biography of Fithian, John Fea delves into a trove of previously ignored manuscript material to produce a searching portrayal of Fithian’s personal history that also offers a sustained meditation on the interplay of the transatlantic “republic of letters” and the local concerns of revolutionary-era ...He deserves congratulations for producing a work that brings to life the Enlightenment in an accessible way that captures the significance of Protestant theology and eighteenth century moral philosophy in the lives of ordinary British Americans, while making an engaging case for their continuing relevance to today’s students. Yet the book’s potential as a teaching tool should not be allowed to obscure its scholarly contributions...In coining the term “rural enlightenment,” Fea brings us a portrait of eighteenth-century British Americans deeply connected to the land they lived and worked on, strongly tied to local communities through bonds of faith, yet yearning after the latest in Enlightenment theory and philosophy.  -Nicole Eustace, New York University in the American Historical Review.

I thought that Philip Vickers Fithian was an insufferable prig well before page 168, where John Fea informs us that Fithian‘s twentieth-century editors described him as such. Nevertheless, this erudite biography of such a judgmental epigone is an illuminating work of intellectual history that also has much to say about the Enlightenment, eighteenth-century education, rural life, Presbyterianism, and the American Revolution. Yet discussing Fea‘s considerable accomplishments exposes Fithian for the pompous ass he surely was. -Andrew Shankman, Rutgers University-Camden.
In John Fea's biography of Fithian, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, the author introduces complexity to Fithian's understanding of the church in Virginia and, more importantly, introduces readers to the intellectual world of mid- to late eighteenth-century Presbyterianism. Fithian's relationship to the Church of England...Fea paints a vivid portrait of the intellectual world of mid-eighteenth-century colonial American Presbyterianism, one that highlights the tensions between the modern world and Christianity (and the deep roots of the Christian faith among both the American people and their understanding of the world) and between rural life and the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment. The Way of Improvement Leads Home deserves a wide readership and should find a place on the reading lists of many undergraduate and graduate classes in early American history. 
--Edward L. Bond in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

There is not much to criticize here, as Fea's narrative is an easy read and makes for a pleasant experience, but the lack of a bibliography weakens the utility of the book for secondary teachers and community college instructors for use in their courses. Nevertheless, Fea succeeds in giving his readers keen insight into the life and mind of a diarist who left to Americans and the world a record of what it was like to live as a Christian amid the Enlightenment and the revolution. --James S. Baugess in The History Teacher.

John Fea's well-crafted and readable biography of the diarist Philip Vickers Fithian shows how metropolitan culture from Paris and London tricked down to seemingly isolated rural colonists in the years before the American Revolution. --Marcus Gallo in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies

Thanks to Fea's careful study, the Presbyterian who called Cohansey home becomes one of our "best windows into the way the Enlightenment in America was lived" (215). Author Fea, who teaches at a college geographically close to the Upper Susquehanna Valley where Fithian traveled and preached in mid-1775, writes of his subject with eloquence, insight, and obvious affection (he refers to Fithian by his first name throughout the book). The book is well documented, with 35 pages of finely printed endnotes, and is illustrated. One of the most fascinating illustrations is a chalk drawing of Fithian, apparently drawn toward the end of his life. The sketch is disconcerting, revealing a young man with intense, wide-open eyes and determined, pursed lips. It is the face of someone accustomed to living with unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, loyalties.--Kerry Walters, Gettysburg College, in Church History

John Fea's monograph is good scholarship, the kind of empirical, fine-grained analysis that the history profession teaches and values. But it is more than that...Fea does not just use Fithian's diaries to learn about the man and his time, especially tensions between his provincial loyalties to his home in rural New Jersey and his ambition to discover, enjoy, and make his way in a wider cosmopolitan world. Fea also is drawn to Fithian's example and wants us to learn from Fithian's experiences...(Fea) has shown the rootedness of Fithian's Enlightenment (any enlightenment, I think, not just Fithian's). These roots are local, personal, and emotional, and enlightenment is all the richer for them, especially when cosmopolitans are aware of their own provincialism and finitude. --Will Katerberg, Calvin College, in Fides et Historia

Fea's biography opens up a world of reality about 18th Century Presbyterians -- their social classes, their social ambitions, their love lives and Fithian's was one of note, their reading habits, their theological world, and how they worked that faith out in the context of the American Revolution. Fea's theological perception impressed me in his penetrating summary of Fithian's conversion experience and Fithian's experience is prototypical for what is often called "God's caress," the Puritan religious experience...For those of us who like American history and, in particular, like to read about the theological or religious dimension of that history, Fea's virtual biography of the theological and intellectual development of Fithian is a powerful way to enter into that history. --Scot McKnight, North Park University, at Jesus Creed.