The Transformation of Virginia: 1740-1790. By Rhys Isaac. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, c. 1982. Pp. xxxii+451).

            Founded at Jamestown in 1607, Virginia is the oldest English in North America and was for a time one of the most socially ordered.  And yet, it also provided some of the most passionate leaders for the American Revolution, a transformational event on the continent.  Rhys Isaac examines this shift from a rigid colonial structure that prized order and hierarchy towards the Revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric and action in his classic The Transformation of Virginia.  Isaac targets the Great Awakening, with its influences from the northern colonies as well as Virginia itself, with generating this transformation.

            Isaac begins his narrative in 1740, looking at the strict hierarchical structure of colonial Virginia.  He cites the passage of the Tobacco Act of 1730 with confirming the high position of the gentry, and waits the additional decade to show the established political class.  In this Virginia, class matters, and class is determined by land holdings.  Every aspect of colonial life is built upon reminders of hierarchy.  While quite distinct, these societal layers regularly interacted with one another, but only in ways that reinforced the hierarchy.  Various colonial institutions, such as the Church, the court, or the militia, provided avenues for interaction while establishing an individual’s place in society.  Isaac also looks at the importance of church attendance to colonial society.  Church meetings, though, were not wholly religious.  Instead, they served to reinforce colonial hierarchy by mixing the sacred and secular.  Sunday mornings became an opportunity for Virginians to conduct business both before and after services, creating further impetus for attendance beyond piety.  Card games, horse-racing, dances and other social activities encouraged competition, and created further hierarchy amongst men as they vied for wealth, prestige and the hearts of women.

            The first signs of change came in the 1740s, as members of the community began skipping church services and reading religious tracts on their own.  In addition to losing their status as centers of the community, Anglican parsons began to worry about what they saw as growing anti-intellectualism amongst these essentially “self-churched” (my word) individuals.  The clergy began to turn to England for aid, seeking legal remedies to force church attendance.  These efforts only served to deepen growing divisions between the clergy and dissenting Virginians.  Though initially only Presbyterians exploited these divisions, eventually the more radical Baptists and Methodists followed in the 1760s and 1770s.  These new sects had little use for the old hierarchical ways, and became popular under yeoman farmers outside of the Tidewater aristocracy, and even proselytized amongst slaves.  Attempts by upper class Anglicans to repress these religious movements only further entrenched new churches.  These dissenters became more and more distrusting of colonial and British authority, and Isaac argues this made the arguments of revolution more persuasive to them.  Even if they did not self-identify with these dissenting branches, some Virginians such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison began to look beyond the established church for ways of unifying society.  Isaac also highlights the extemporaneous preaching style of Baptists and Methodists, which he finds influential in the development of rhetoric on liberty, and in particular on the style of Patrick Henry.  Perhaps the best piece of evidence on this point is the lack of written record for Henry’s speeches, as he gave many of them in that extemporaneous style.

            By 1790, with the Revolution having culminated in the establishment of Constitutional government (the executive branch of which was lead by Washington, another Virginian), Isaac lays out a Virginia quite different from one half a century earlier.  He uses Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom as an end point, as it secured the place of the new churches alongside the Anglican (now Episcopal) church, and replaced them all with a republican ethos to bound society together.  As an important addendum, Isaac includes “A Discourse on the Method,” explaining his construction of his new cultural history style.  Preferring to use a more observational anthropology approach, Isaac explains his varied use of sources to construct an image of society that he cannot physically view.  Isaac’s study of colonial Virginia provides an intriguing view of this cultural history style, and demonstrates both the presence and impact of the colonial period’s Great Awakening.

Texas Christian University                                                                                                                                                                                      Keith Altavilla


Rhys Isaac. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. xxxii + 451 pp.

     Virginia, the oldest and largest colony in the South, endured enormous cultural upheaval during the eighteenth century. In The Transformation of Virginia: 1740-1790, Rhys Isaac uses cultural anthropology and ethnography “to review in social-cultural context the double revolution in religious and political thought and feeling that took place in the second half of the eighteenth century”(5). The book is divided into three sections, which contain brief entries analyzing the community structure of the colony, the revolutions that occurred in the colony’s concept of religion, and the consequences of the experience. Isaac closes his study with an overview of his methodology, explaining the concepts and techniques of cultural anthropology. The Transformation of Virginia investigates the impact of a religious dispute between the established Anglican Church and a dissenting evangelical movement, comprised of various Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist reformers. The opening chapters of the book contain a detailed description of daily life and social events in Colonial Virginia, noting the importance of a patriarchal social structure that maintained stability in the midst of the instability of a frontier settlement dependent upon the uncertainties of tobacco cultivation for survival. The ruling elite, comprised of landed gentry in the Tidewater areas, presided over the lower class whites residing in isolated settlements in Southwestern and Piedmont Virginia. Isaac demonstrates the unifying role of such community institutions as church, court, and militia, and how the intellectual reconstruction of this establishment impacted the American Revolution. Isaac uses numerous primary sources in his investigation, including newspaper accounts, diaries, and surviving court and church records. He describes the purpose of his reinterpretation as “to review in social-cultural context the double revolution in religious and political thought and feeling that took place in the second half of the eighteenth century”(5). 

     The religious dispute that occurred during the 1770s greatly impacted the political debates of the era. The ecclesiastical revolutionaries challenged the traditional domination of the landed elite and established authority of the Church of England by allowing common men to become ministers by consent of the laity rather than relying upon the approval of a presiding bishop, which fostered the birth of republicanism. Lower class Virginians were no more willing to pay taxes to support a state-supervised church they considered to be corrupt than they were willing to pay the controversial revenue taxes imposed by Parliament. The doctrinal laxity that weakened the Anglican influence created a clerical power vacuum that was filled with denominations that did not respect social standing or aristocratic lineage, and even went so far as to convert and conduct worship services with slaves. Although the evangelical movement of the First Great Awakening endured harsh and at times violent repression by the conservative upper class, the movement continued to grow in spite of the determined efforts of Anglican authorities.

     It is interesting to note that the evangelical style of preaching, rather than more formal classical oratory, is what influenced Patrick Henry’s passionate style of political speech, although Henry himself remained an Anglican throughout his life. Isaac ends his study with an examination of Thomas Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Freedom of Religion” (284) in 1786, which formally recognized religious toleration in Virginia and ended the legal battles between the evangelicals and the Anglican Church. This law became so influential in the American understanding of church and state that Jefferson requested it to be inscribed on his tombstone with only two other of his accomplishments, the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia. In the end, The Transformation of Virginia is a unique and thought-provoking account of the dramatic social struggles that ultimately created the United States of America. 

Stephen Nathaniel Dossman


Rhys Isaac. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. xxxii + 451 pp.

In The Transformation of Virginia Isaac asserts that the rise of popular evangelism undermined the hegemony of the gentry in colonial Virginia, thus bringing about a critical cultural transformation. Applying a cultural anthropological approach he presents Virginia as a society in turmoil on the eve of the Revolution. This turmoil, he argues, came from the evangelicals, who upset the prevailing system of patriarchy.

In the 1740s the Presbyterians came to Virginia, followed by the more radicals Baptists and Methodists in the 1760s and 1770s. While the upper class remained solidly Anglican, converts from the yeoman class flocked to these new sects. Revivalistic religions changed their lives radically, creating what Isaac calls an “evangelical counterculture.” (164) These converts formed new religious communities and with them new patterns of behavior. They adopted plain dress, considered fellow church members equals, and attacked special privileges accorded to the Anglican church. In fact, according to Isaac, these evangelical Christians rejected almost every aspect of the dominant gentry’s culture. Some of the more extreme revivalists, particularly among the Baptists, even questioned slavery.

The rise of such a fervent attack on the establishment surprised and horrified the gentry. “An intense struggle for allegiance,” Isaac explains, “had developed in the Virginia countryside during the decade before the Revolution.” (161) In 1771 the Baptists swept the colony “almost by storm.” (219) In a final desperate attempt to restore popular allegiance, the gentry threw themselves into the patriot cause. The political and religious revolutions temporarily overlapped, allowing the gentry an opportunity to reestablish their position of control. Isaac contends that the patriot ideology appealed to the Virginia gentry “partly because it served as a defensive response to the open rejection of deference that was increasingly manifested in the spread of evangelicalism.” (265)

The book is divided into three sections. In the first, “Traditional Ways of Life,” Isaac describes eighteenth century Virginia as a society where all whites belonged to one community, and both civil and religious authority bound everyone to a recognition of his proper role.. He discusses the landscape, the people, civil and religious institutions and the patriarchal structure of authority and presents the argument that the arrangement of the physical world – building and landscapes – mirrored and reinforced this patriarchy. The second section, “Movements and Events,” presents vignettes from Virginia history to illustrate the rise of this “counterculture” of evangelical Christianity and the role that it played in breaking down the traditional social structure of the tidewater. The final section, “Afterview,” presents examples of the difference in the way Virginian’s experienced their world after this social change.

Isaac’s argument is not entirely persuasive. Using the language of cultural anthropology, Isaac conceives a society that is “not primarily a material entity,” but as “a product profoundly shaped by the images the participants have of their own and others’ performances.” (234) With this philosophical basis Isaac seems to exaggerate the importance of symbol and ritual. Certainly his focus on evangelical Christianity minimizes economic and political factors which had a significant impact on colonial Virginia. He seems to polarize Virginia society to an unrealistic extent, and the vignettes he chooses to focus on seem to be a case of selective evidence. While his reconstruction is of great interest, there is far more to the social, economic, cultural and political processes in 18th century Virginia than this work indicates.

Ed Townes

The Transformation of Virginia. 1740-1790. By Rhys Isaac. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1982. Pp. 451, ISBN 0-393-95693-8).

The religious fervor of the First Great Awakening shook the roots of colonial society and altered forever the class structure of the budding American democracy. Rhys Isaac in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Transformation of Virginia, traces the origins of those religious and cultural forces and details how they altered Virginia colonial society. The book is divided into three sections. The first explores the way of life and learning that existed before the Great Awakening disrupted the established order. The second analyses the stress of change as the yeoman farmers and ordinary people challenged the traditional structure and relates the response of the oligarchy to disorder and the threat to their privileges. The final chapters discuss the new social order that evolved from the religious and political upheaval.

Early colonial Virginia was a patriarchal society based on tobacco, corn and money. Power was institutionalized in the ownership of land and slaves. The society was a replica of rural England transported to the New World where one was either a master or a servant with little room for a middle-class. A well-ordered society could only exist when everyone knew his place and kept in that place. The Anglican Church, the established and only church was a pillar of that order. The church, by law, dominated the religious life of the Virginia countryside with attendance and tithing mandatory for all.

In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, forces beyond the control of the ruling class transformed the structure of colonial Virginia. Scotch-Irish and German immigrants to flow in a continuous stream from the embarkation port of Philadelphia, westward toward the Allegheny Mountains, and trickled southward down the Shenandoah Valley into the Piedmont region of North Carolina. These new immigrants brought their own religious beliefs--a simple but rigid code that rejected the domination and rituals of the Episcopal Church. The Presbyterians became the preponderant population of western Virginia. The poorer classes embraced the more emotional Baptist doctrine rejecting educated priests for lay and itinerant preachers. The established church was an integral part of the fabric of colonial Virginia society and its system of authority. As attendance at Anglican services and the financial support for clergymen began to decrease, churches stood empty and the pastors penniless. The established order tried in vain to stop the tide of change but were helpless with their own internal divisions and jealous recriminations.

The author uses the diaries of Landon Carter, a prominent Virginia landowner and member of the ruling class throughout the book to document the social codes and values of Virginia society. Carter was proud, arrogant, intolerant, determined to maintain his status, and unhesitating in his assertion of his superior rights above is poorer neighbors. He demanded all the rights of the newer democratic society but rebelled when the local parson and neighboring small landowners demanded the same rights.

Several episodes delineate the forces arrayed in this struggle. The confrontation between evangelicalism and the traditional order began in 1740 with the Hanover Awakenings but entered its fiercest and most bitter phase as the Seperatist Baptist moved into the longer settled parts of Virginia after 1765. In 1743 a number of ordinary people led by Samuel Morris, a bricklayer, began reading religious tracts and attending their own services in Hanover County. They organized as the “New Side” Presbyterian Church and, despite protests by Anglican ministers, gained unofficial tolerance. A few years later the grand jury indicted several “New Side” preachers and the governor issued a stiff proclamation against “all itinerant preachers,” nothing came from those attempts at repression.

Though official attempts to restrict the Presbyterians seem to have been abandoned after 1759, the Baptists had to face yet more intense harassment until the revolutionary Declaration of Rights in 1776. The conversion experience was at the heart of the popular evangelical movement. Conversion followed by radical reform of conduct led to the denunciation of “sin” such as drunkenness and gambling. A longing for redemption and expatiation of guilt dominated the new religions. The ruling class did not tolerate the denunciation from the pulpit of individuals and events, usually members of their own class for their gambling, drunken ways. Landon Carter is one who reacted violently to such denunciations and flogged an offending minister. As colonial defiance of English laws and a general crisis of authority escalated the rise of the Separate Baptist became particularly alarming.

In the aftermath of the Great Awakening, the new American constitution separated church and state and guaranteed freedom of religion to all. Beginning in the first decades of the nineteenth century, the strict code of conduct and lay preaching of the Baptist gave way to the camp meetings and revivals of the Methodist church. This movement became known as the Great Revival or Second Great Awakening. Arthur Schlesinger noted the recurrent cycles of American history, including fifty year cycle of religious fervor. Rhys Isaacs has taken the first of those great upheavals and documented its effect on colonial society. The language throughout the book is exquisite--fluid and poetical at times. The documentation is extensive. The structure and flow of the book is compelling. Isaacs has taken the dry subject of religion and society and made it flow with a raging torrent of words and insights.

Watson Arnold