- A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia
Lauren F. Winner's ambitious new work attempts to redraw the historiographic landscape of colonial Virginia's Anglican past. Strategically placing her book between competing historical interpretations of the established church as either hegemonically functionalist or as penitently pious, Winner argues that Anglican elites seamlessly blended the sacred and secular into "a cheerful and comfortable faith"—a religious worldview simultaneously at peace with both sincere devotion and the hegemonic secular aspirations of a slave-owning oligarchy. Importantly, Winner argues that elite Virginians demonstrated this worldly-wise yet deeply spiritual faith, most often within the confines of their homes. Her emphasis on elite domestic spirituality permits Winner to utilize a wide range of material evidence. A silver bowl intended to cool wine glasses but also used to baptize members of the Mason family, a satin baptismal gown, two pieces of religiously inspired needlework, elegantly bound prayer books, recipes for food served in liturgical seasons, articles of [End Page 851] mourning attire, and genealogical lists in family Bibles are all used to suggest the vitality of elite Virginians' home-bound piety.
Although Winner describes eighteenth-century Anglicanism as a "religion at ease with the world" and attempts to highlight the blending of devotional and secular life in colonial Virginia, she devotes much of the book to describing Anglican domestic "lived religion" as intensely devout (pp. 2, 15). Indeed, the Anglicans she describes were more spiritual than worldly; these were Christians who prayed with fervor, aspired to personify biblical heroes of the faith, and firmly believed in the doctrines of their church. Although elite parishioners may have modified the prescriptive messages of their ministers to suit their social positions—especially with reference to their preference for having baptisms and burials conducted in their homes rather than in churches—they, nevertheless, wholeheartedly embraced most of their church's teachings. Although Winner describes deviance from Anglicanism—manifested by evangelicals and slaves—she does not describe deviance within Anglicanism. There is no indication in her work that some Anglicans, particularly those of the middling sort not addressed in her work, may have been less than enthusiastic devotees of even a "cheerful and comfortable faith." There is little room in Winner's book for the snoozing and inattentive parishioners that were perennial features of Virginia church services.
Despite its monolithic and monochromatic view of Anglican piety, Winner's work makes some important interventions into the field of early American religious studies. Through a creative emphasis on material culture, Winner makes a poignant case for the religious piety of some Virginia women. For example, in deconstructing the religiously themed needlework of two Virginia girls, Winner extrapolates the religious messages—obedience and virtue—that presumably preoccupied the minds of their creators. Yet, the reader is left questioning whether Winner's interpretations of material objects—as universal harbingers of intense domestic piety—are the only way that such objects were understood by their original owners or creators.
Winner's depiction of Anglicanism as both worldly-wise and especially pious does not succeed in redrawing the historiographical landscape of Anglicanism in colonial Virginia. Even in a faith attuned to the world, multivalent parochial responses—ranging from the sacred devotion she describes to the secular disinterest she ignores—undoubtedly existed. Nevertheless, Winner's book is an important, if incomplete, addition to studies of material culture, lived religion, and the established church in colonial Virginia. [End Page 852]