Cultivating Piety: The Religious World of Joseph Price

By John Fea
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVII, Number 3 - Summer 2011

Carpenters Nathan Lewis and Joseph Price built the Lower Merion Academy in 1812–1813, for which they received $5,700. Located in Bala Cynwyd, the building is still used for educational purposes.

Joseph Price (1752–1828) was a carpenter, coffin-maker, sawmill operator, innkeeper, turnpike supervisor, and farmer who lived in Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County. His daily activities were governed, like most ordinary men living in the early American republic, by the relentless regularity of the agricultural calendar and the market economy. Price's economic activities, recorded roughly every day of the year between 1789 and 1828 in the tiny spaces of his diary, offer one of the best pictures of life in southeastern Pennsylvania during the four decades following the American Revolution.

At first glance, one would be hardpressed to describe Price's diary as religious. It mostly includes entries about building houses, harvesting wheat, and conducting business. Yet it was in the midst of performing these daily tasks that Price cultivated personal piety and forged a religious identity. He was a fourth-generation Pennsylvania Quaker who, by all accounts, was a leader in the local meeting. By interspersing spiritual and religious reflections with his writing about business affairs, his diary provides a remarkable glimpse into the way religion was lived at the time. Too often historians of the American religious experience - and, by extension, the Pennsylvania religious experience - focus on the institutional dimensions of religion: houses of worship, the clergy, and congregations and schools. While such an approach is certainly important, so are the manifestations of religious life tucked away in diaries such as Price's. For many ordinary people, the sacred was practiced and cultivated in the midst of the profane.

As a coffin-maker, Price was a regular fixture at funeral ceremonies throughout Lower Merion and several of the surrounding townships. He conducted business with people suffering intense emotional pain and suffering. This part of his vocation meant that he spent much time thinking, reflecting, and listening to sermons about death. He could not help but be moved by these experiences. After hearing a funeral sermon given by a Dutch minister in May 1804, Price was so "affected" by the message that it "made the tears flow." The presence of death often led him to reflect on his own mortality, forcing him to return to the pages of his diary and chide himself for not doing a better job preparing his soul for eternity.

Such religious and spiritual reformation was cultivated through hearing the host of preachers and visiting Friends who passed through Lower Merion, but it could also take place among the mundane tasks of Price's rural life. In March 1809, one of his horses pinned him against a fence and dropped him to the ground with a swift kick. Price was not seriously injured, but the incident prompted him to turn to his diary in thankfulness to God. "I feel very thankful," he wrote, "for it seemed as If there was an intervention of Providence as to stop the horse so sudden when it was going at Such a rate..."

Sometimes Price's economic activities hindered his spiritual life. He was keenly aware of this tension between work and faith and sensed it to be a problem worthy of an occasional diary entry. In April 1798, he was so busy with paperwork that he did not attend Quaker meeting. Price was clearly disappointed in himself for letting business get in the way of his pursuit of God: "I wish to... not Let my mind be elated with the vanities of this world..." Price was also a concerned citizen actively involved in local politics and seems to have had a propensity for engaging in heated political debates with his neighbors. On one occasion, after such a "quarrel," Price returned home and wrote, "I [am] Somewhat depressed at my worldly Concerns and on my Everlasting prospects, I hope [through] our Savior Jesus Christ that I may Reform."

Although the rhythms of Price's life were dictated by the agricultural calendar and the deaths of those who lived in his community, his religious life was also influenced by the annual reminders of his birth. It was quite common for Quaker diarists to use birthdays to examine the state of their souls and Price was no exception. His birthday journal entries are consistently negative. "My Birth day & not reformed, a poor sinner," he wrote on his fortieth birthday, "the Lord help me & Enable me to work out my many transgressions by humiliation & prayer, the Lord keep me Righteous." Thirteen years later little had changed. "Still poor & not Reformed, I hope to Mend," he confessed. The seasons of life and the seasons of agriculture both provided opportunities for spiritual growth and religious self-examination.

Price's diary, which he began at the age of thirty, contains references to moral principles imposed on him by his Quaker religion.

Price took his family responsibilities seriously. His role as a father provided yet another opportunity to cultivate piety in his life. Price's diary reveals a deep affection for his children and an abiding concern for their spiritual welfare. After witnessing a friend who had grown ill from drinking, he implored God to "protect my Little one's from this Abominable Evil & Everything that is any wise Contrary to [your] will." He prayed for strength to "be Exemplary before them, & so Order that I may bring them up in the paths of Religious & Virtue that they may Glorify thy Great Name." On another occasion, he asked forgiveness in the pages of his journal for addressing his daughter with a "rash expression." After reading William Penn's No Cross, No Crown, in 1817, Price wrote, "I felt meek & humble & Condemned that I have not Been more Careful that I not keep my Children to the one thing needful to adore their Maker."

As the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission observes "William Penn's Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity" as its annual theme during 2011 and we spend the year reflecting on Pennsylvania's religious heritage, it is important to remember that not all expressions of faith take place in formal religious settings. People work out their faith in a host of everyday circumstances and events that are not directly tied to institutional religion. Price's pursuit of faith, like the faith pursuits of so many other diary writers in early America, happened as he performed his duties as a carpenter, farmer, businessman, citizen, and father. As his diary reminds us, Pennsylvania religious history is all around us. We just need to know where to look.

John Fea received his doctorate from Stony Brook University in 1999. He is chair of the history department at Messiah College, Grantham, and has written extensively for both scholarly and popular audiences. He is the author of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (2008) and Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction (2011). This is his third installment underscoring PHMC's 2011 theme, "William Penn's Legacy: Religious and Spiritual Diversity."

The editor thanks Gerald A. Francis, president of the Lower Merion Historical Society, Bala Cynwyd, for graciously providing images illustrating this feature. To learn more about the society's library, archives, and programs, visit www.lowermerionhistory.org