Challenging Traditional Order

As the Virginia colony began to loosen its ties to Great Britain, a disparate culture formed. Virginia was no longer merely a clone of Britain but a revolutionary place of its own: a place where new ideas took root and old ones were questioned. While early eighteenth-century Virginia had adopted many aspects of British society, such as a powerful ruling elite and accompanying stratification, new social movements arose, especially Baptism during the First Great Awakening and an early attempt at women’s liberation. Baptism and women’s liberation in particular distinguished America from the other British colonies and would later define the U.S. as a country hospitable to those who seek change.


eighteenth-century rural baptist church

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-centuries, poorer farmers sought liberation from a society dominated by a prominent aristocracy. The gentry were characterized not only by their vanity and haughtiness but also by their deference to Britain and the Church. Evangelists perhaps rightfully saw the incongruity of a lavish lifestyle with devotion to Christ. Many religious dissenters had a revelatory experience in which they recognized their sinfulness. Such was the case of James Ireland. Ireland was a prominent man of “genteel origin” in Frederick County notable for his general conviviality and joyous dancing (Isaac 345). Since demonization of the gentry was common among dissenters, Ireland antagonizes a gentlemanly acquaintance as a “countenance….as bold and daring as satan himself” (Isaac 346). In contrast to the overbearingly proud gentry, the Baptists were typically almost monklike. The average Baptist was an emaciated figure clutching a Bible who farmed a small plot of land in the backcountry. The Baptist dissension was not only a revolutionary social movement but also the creation of a new social subset. The denunciation of “superfluous forms and Modes of Dressing” created a classless society of yeomen farmers who wished to escape the “gentry-oriented social world” (Isaac 353). The Baptists sought equality, which was far from present in a world dominated by the likes of the Byrds and the Carters. These simple people, on the other hand, referred to each other as ‘Brothers’ and wished to separate themselves from the trivial outside world of rank and primacy. Truly, these evangelical Baptists embodied many of the democratic ideals embraced by Americans today. While the preeminent families of Virginia were continually trying to rise in stature and authority by competing against their peers, Baptists were creating an egalitarian, supportive community of fellowship (Isaac 354). Perhaps if the competitive lifestyle of the Anglican gentry had become representative of the Colonies as a whole, America would have become very much reminiscent of eighteenth-century Great Britain. Luckily, however, groups such as the evangelical Baptists greatly valued the principles of democracy and a society by the common man for the common man, not by and for the aristocratic elite.


Lucy Parke Byrd, infamously oppressed by her husband, William

Another significant eighteenth-century movement was women’s liberation in the form of literature. Not long after it was customary for familial patriarchs to suppress their wives into complete and utter deference, revolutionary advice authors began advocating for women’s liberation from their constricting role as homemaker and subordinate to the husband. This new literature coincided with a sudden change in women’s roles in society. Fathers began to influence marriage less and less as women saw their lives as “largely the consequence of [their] own choices….not merely as a product of the power of others” (Kerrison 32). Female heroines were relatively unforeseen characters in literature until the eighteenth-century, when they embodied the wits, self-righteousness, and pride that all women began to strive for in spite of the supposed male authority. These female heroines were the idols of Betsey Ambler and Mildred Smith, two young Virginia sisters. To demonstrate the conflicting feminine ideals of the time, The Virginia Magazine gives the example of two completely different reactions to the same scandalous affair of Rachel Warrington that Ambler vividly described in her diary. Camilia Warrington, Rachel Warrington’s sister, was very angry that Rachel had quite possibly tarnished her own status, social standing, and marriage prospects, while Suzannah Riddell, her patron, warmly embraced her and stood by her despite the possibility of a lower social standing (Kerrison 40). Of course, status was entirely an invention of the upper class gentrymen as competition; undoubtedly Warrington was concerned about a marriage prospect’s image of her, now that it had been supposedly tarnished by her sister’s affair. Riddell, however, embraced the ideals of new feminine literature in which the woman is self-righteous and carefree as to how others perceive her. The eighteenth-century women’s movement further separated the vast majority of society from the Anglican virtues of competition and social standing imposed by the upper echelons and contributed to the perception of America as a place free from the trivial European class system.

The eighteenth century social movements of Baptism and women’s liberation were profoundly influential from pre-revolutionary society on. Baptism laid out the foundations of American society as an egalitarian democracy on the frontier, defiantly standing against the status-driven and Anglican gentry. The women’s liberation movement brought a more progressive stance to feminine virtues by presenting women not as servants to their husbands and fathers, but as passionate warriors of morality and equality between the sexes. Now America to-be was coming into its own as a place for those who seek change, and these movements certainly enlivened the colonial landscape as it became a place of great dynamism and disparity of thought.

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