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A riveting account of a double revolution in early America,
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This review is from: The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia) (Paperback)
Eighteenth-century Virginian gentry had established a society, complete with imported styles and articles of British dress and life, which set them a part from commoners, but, which never quite equaled life in England. Within 50 years, more egalitarian religious upsurges and a political revolution challenged the great-family society and altered its social functioning. Rhys Isaac's The Transformation of Virginia ,1740-1790, chronicles and analyzes the legal, religious, and cultural battles for societal control between members of the Virginian plantation elites and those popularizing forces that, in the end, dislodged many of the institutions--minus slavery--that reinforced exclusive dominance within in eighteenth-century Virginia.
The indispensable contribution of The Transformation of Virginia is its suggestion of a "double revolution in religious and political thought and feeling" (5). The work begins with a discussion of the gentry dominating all levels of society. Middlings and members of the lower class deferred to more elite members of society. The first part of the book introduces the reader to natural and physical structures of the elites' dominance. The great house, the county courthouse, and the church, served as emblems of plantation power. The great men conducted business at each of these brick structures that endorsed their control.
The Anglican Church reinforced for the deferential system and provided a hallowed venue to display the social hierarchy. Isaac calls upon the physical construction and layout of church structures as evidence of their support for the gentry's control. The rich talked business before church; they processed into and recessed out of church while others gazed from their seats; and they sat in special seating, while the Anglican liturgy "asserted the hierarchical nature of things" (64). The Anglican system gave local vestrymen power over clergy, who came from outside, and it empowered them to regulate parish life. Clashes between clergy and vestries and confrontations between Anglicans and Presbyterians over preachers' licenses led to legislatives battles and anticlericism in the 1740s and 1750s.
The New Light Separatist Baptists descended upon Virginia in the 1760s from New England. They brought with them an austere lifestyle, and offered commoners "a close, supportive, and orderly community" (164). When describing the beginnings of Baptist life in Virginia, Isaac employs terms like "respect," "equality," "fellowship," and "faith," in contrast to descriptions of Anglican Virginia with words like with "formal distance," "hierarchy," and "ranked". Not only were Baptist members "poor and unlearned," and in some cases slaves, but the ministers who started these groups were often "men of little learning". The Virginia Baptists and their leadership possessed similarities in class and education levels with post-Revolutionary Baptists and other denominations who would later use what Nathan O. Hatch's The Democratization of American Christianity terms "religious populism" to spread Christianity across America. Despite the gentry's attacks of being "poor and illiterate," the Baptists' effectiveness to draw to themselves all sections of society, including some gentry, threatened the traditional community structure. Isaac underscores that "the cohesive brotherhood of the Baptists must be understood as an explicit rejection of the formalism of traditional community organization" (166).
The rise of the Baptist popularity in Virginia coincided with a general crisis of British authority throughout the American colonies, particularly highlighted by colonial responses to the Stamp Act of 1765. The Methodist movement took hold in Virginia during the 1770s at the climax of patriot fervor. The religious and political movements shared similarities in gaining support: "the use of popular assemblies for arousing collective emotions and for intensifying the involvement of plain folk" (264). A major distinction, however, existed. "Where evangelism began as a rejection and inversion of customary practices, the patriot movement initially tended toward a revitalization of ancient forms of community" (265). During this revolutionary period, Virginian gentry, who had long viewed themselves as models of England, found themselves impelled to defy British authority by popular forces from within communities they once dominated.
Isaac's book is a brilliant account of how religious dissenters and political patriots changed the social landscape and structures within eighteenth-century colony Virginia. However, these promoters of religious equality and political liberty could not break the bonds Virginian slavery. Antislavery movements increased following the Revolution; yet, "republicanism worked to formalize a deep division by excluding the slaves to whom its membership and its promises did not extend" (321).
Despite the book's at times awkward and disjointed flow--the result of tying together collected essays published as a monograph--The Transformation of Virginia provides the scholar, undergraduate, and general reader a riveting display of changes that occurred during fifty crucial years in the life of the Commonwealth--and the nation.