A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith

Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia

By Lauren F. Winner

Yale, 288pp., $45

So accustomed are we to pondering the rigorous, austere Christianity of the New England Puritans, or the evangelical tidal wave following the Great Awakening, that the religious identity of the first permanent English settlers in North America is often overlooked. In fact, they were Anglicans who arrived in Virginia a dozen years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, and they planted a culture of worship -- indeed, a culture -- very different from the world created by their New England brethren. Different and, by comparison with the Puritans, comparatively relaxed and understated in practice; but no less enduring for that.

 Lauren Winner’s fascinating study contends with two countervailing arguments. The first, posited in Rhys Isaac’s influential Pulitzer Prize-winning study The Transformation of Virginia (1982), is that the Established Church in Virginia was not so much a religious body as a social institution largely dedicated to upholding the aristocratic social order of the Commonwealth. The second is that, unlike the New England Puritans, the Virginia Anglicans were disinclined to commit their theological doctrines and disputes to writing, or even subject their beliefs to dispute at all; and so the evidence of religious life in Virginia is nowhere near so well documented as it is in Massachusetts. This has been taken, in the long run, to suggest that Christianity played little role in the life of the 17th and 18th century Virginia gentry -- or that what role it played was not especially religious.

Winner disputes this, and the evidence she marshals is both novel and intriguing. For while the written annals of Virginia Anglicanism may not be voluminous, there is considerable evidence of religious practice, even of something resembling piety, in the physical remains of colonial culture. Art, porcelain, needlework, furnishings, cookbooks, silver, baptismal gowns -- all point to an underlying religious sensibility that was very much a part of everyday life, and characteristically Anglican.

It might even be argued, and this may be Winner’s implicit point, that so pervasive were Anglican practices -- in household routines, in rites of passage, in communal tradition, in daily consultation with the Book of Common Prayer -- that they passed nearly unnoticed by chroniclers and scholars, but are no less important in understanding the transplanted English culture of Virginia. Or put another way: The Virginians were fully the equals of the New Englanders in devotion to their faith, but less self-conscious in application, less holier-than-thine. Moreover, unlike the Puritans, something resembling this hybrid Christianity survives, very nearly intact, among the Anglican faithful to this day.

It’s an endlessly interesting thesis, gently offered and gracefully written, with much physical and anecdotal evidence; and a window on the world of feudal America, at once remote and, in intriguing ways, still with us.