Devereux Jarratt, The Life of the Reverend Devereux Jarratt (1806).


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Devereux Jarratt (1733-1801) was the son of a common (not wealthy) white family in Virginia (his father was a caprenter). Jarratt eventually became a "New Light" convert and a Presbyterian minister. His autobiographical account reveals the social order of Virginia plantation society in the first half of the eighteenth century, as well as the conflicts provoked by new religious and social sensibilities that the Great Awakening encouraged.]


[Description of social conditions in his childhood (ca. 1740s).]

. . . Our food was altogether the produce of the farm, or plantation, except a little sugar, which was rarely used; and our raiment was altogether my mother's manufacture, except our hats and shoes, the latter of which we never put on, but in the winter season. We made no use of tea or coffee for breakfast, or at any other time; nor did I know a single family that made any use of them. Meat, bread and milk was the ordinary food of all my acquaintance. I suppose the richer sort might make use of those and other luxuries, but to such people I had no access. We were accustomed to look upon, what were called gentle folks, as beings of a superior order. For my part, I was quite shy of them, and kept off at a humble distance. A periwig, in those days, was a distinguishing badge of gentle folk and when I saw a man riding the road, near our house, with a wig on, it would so alarm my fears, and give me such a disagreeable feeling, that, I dare say, I would run off, as for my life. Such ideas of the difference between gentle and simple, were, I believe, universal among all of my rank and age. But I have lived to see, a vast alteration, in this respect, and the contrary extreme prevail. . . .

[The impact of his "New Birth"]

. . . Thus furnished, I determined on a visit to my friends in New Kent. My brothers, whom I dearly loved, still lived there, whom I had not seen for a long time, and I believe I was equally beloved by them.

I made the visit, and was received with the utmost cordiality. My brothers and their wives, and all the black people on the plantation, seemed overjoyed at my coming. The pleasure of seeing each other was mutual, and our congratulations are not easily described. Nothing was thought too good for me, which their houses afforded, and they wished to entertain me, in the most agreeable mariner. It was in the season of autumn, when the cellars, in that quarter, were generally stored with good, sound cider. These were set open with great liberality. But, by the bye, this was no great temptation, as you know I am not very fond of spirituous liquors. But they knew I had been very fond of company and merriment, and wished to entertain me with frolic and dance. This proposal I rejected, and told them my reason for so doing. This was a disappointment they did not expect, and they soon discovered there was a great alteration in me, and that my mind was turned to religion. This, I suppose, might put some damp on their spirits, though they allowed that all people ought to be better than they were --but they thought I had overshot the mark, and carried matters quite too far. "We all ought to be good, say they, but sure there can be no harm in innocent mirth, such as dancing, drinking and making merry, &c." I doubt not, but I told them the views I had of such things, and also what I had discovered of my own guilt and danger, and what my determinations were. I talked to them, as well as I knew how, for their profit --but to no good effect. I visited other relations also, and discoursed with them on religious concerns. In a word, I stood fast about five days. But through the influence of my brethren, and their stratagems to take me in, I was insensibly, and at unawares, drawn from my integrity, in the course of one week. . . .

[His early ministry.]

I was in my 31st year, when I took upon me the pastoral charge of some thousands of souls, in the county of Dinwiddie, and parish of Bath. An awful charge! Who is sufficient for these things?

Several ministers had been my predecessors, in the parish; and though there had been no settled pastor, for about nine months, prior to my induction, yet the churches had been constantly supplied by two of the neighboring clergy. But, notwithstanding all this, I found the principles of the gospel-the nature and condition of man-the plan of salvation through Christ -and the nature and necessity of spiritual regeneration,) as little known and thought of, as if the people had never a church or heard a sermon in their lives. Yet, as it appeared, they thought themselves a wise and understanding people, and as religious, as was necessary, or their Maker required them to be. Such being the state of things, every well informed mind will readily conceive, in a measure, the difficulties I had to encounter. I had to encounter gross ignorance of divine things, combined with conceited wisdom and moral rectitude. I had also to engage with strong prejudices, occasioned by their high opinion of the great learning and accomplishments of their former ministers. From these, I suppose, they had heard little else but morality, and smooth harrangues, in no wise calculated to disturb their carnal repose, or awaken any one to a sense of guilt and danger. . . . My doctrine was strange and wonderful to them; and their language, one to another, was to this effect: "We have had many ministers, and have heard many, before this man, but we never heard any thing, till now, of conversion, the new birth, &c. -- we never heard that men are so totally lost and helpless, that they could not save themselves, by their own power and good deeds; -if our good works will not save us, what will? We never heard any of our ministers say any thing against civil mirth, such as dancing, &c. nay, they rather encouraged the people in them; for we have seen parson such a one, and parson such another, at these mirthful places, as merry as any of the company. This new man of ours brings strange things to our ears." . . .

This language was chiefly among the upper and middle classes, and I have found, to my grief, that the fortification, erected from materials taken from the examples and preaching of their former ministers, was one of the strongest holds I had to demolish. When I have urged the necessity of observing this, or abstaining from that, I was often confronted with a, Why did not other ministers tell us so and so? Were they not as learned as you?-Under this covert, many lay secure, and to this day, they screen themselves behind it.

At that time I stood alone, not knowing of one clergyman, in Virginia, like minded with myself; yea, I was opposed, and reproached, by the clergy-called an enthusiast, fanatic, visionary, dissenter, Presbyterian, madman, and what not;---yet was I so well convinced of the utility and importance of the truths I declared and the doctrines I preached, that no clamor, opposition, or reproach, could daunt my spirit, or move me from my purpose and manner of preaching, or induce me to give flattering titles to any man.


Source: The Life of the Reverend Devereux Jarratt . . . Written by Himself, . . . (Baltimore, 1806), 14, 43-44, 83-86.

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