The Most Important Day in the Life of Philip Vickers Fithian

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March 31, 1766, was the most important day in Philip Vickers Fithian’s life. It was a Monday, and Philip was still reflecting on the sermons that Rev. Simon Williams had preached the day before.

Thus John Fea begins chapter 2 (“A Presbyterian Conversion”) of The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (2008). Rev. Williams had preached the day before on Psalm 24 and John 17, and these sermons made a deep impression upon the young man whose journal is noted by historians today for its valuable insights into the culture and religious practices of colonial New Jersey and Virginia.

Since that January, Fithian had come under increasing conviction of sin and his need of a Savior. The last day of March proved for him to be a “spiritual breakthrough” (Fea, p. 55).

His journal entry for the day begins with a customary report on the weather:

This morning is calm pleasant and clear, before noon the Wind rose at north-north-east and is very pleasant; in the after-noon the Wind came West moderately.

Then we note the following poetic lines:

Degenerate minds, in many error lost; 
May combat heaven & impious triumphs boast, 
But while my veins feel annimating fires, 
And vital air, this breathing breast inspires; 
Grateful to Heaven, I'll stretch a pious wing; 
And sing his praise, who gives one power to sing.

Although we know that Fithian tried his hand at poetry (his “Valentine” poem, written for Miss Priscilla Carter, for example, is well-known). these particular lines are in fact taken from the ending of a 1712 epic poem titled “Creation” by Sir Richard Blackmore. Fea tells us that at the time Fithian “was dwelling in Greenwich [New Jersey], but he inhabited two distinctly cultural worlds. He cut ‘hoop-poles’ in the morning and returned to his room in the evening to read Sir Richard Blackmore’s poetry” (p. 59). These verses clearly stood out to Fithian at a very crucial moment in his life.

Finally, we take note of Fithian’s acceptance of Christ as his Savior.

He that upon the loving request of 
God and Christ, made to them by the 
mouth of Ministers, having commission 
to that effect, hath embraced the offers 
of perpetual reconciliation through 
Christ, and doth purpose by Gods grace,
as a reconciled person, to strive against 
sin, and to serve God, to the uttermost of 
his power; constantly; may be assumd'
to have righteousness, and eternal life 
given to him for the obedience of Christ 
imputed to him; as it is sure that Christ 
was condemned, and put to death for 
the sins of the redeemed, imputed to him.

But I, upon the loving request of God, 
and Christ, made to me, by the mouth of 
his ministers, have embraced the offers 
of perpetual reconciliation through 
Christ; and do purpose by Gods grace, 
a reconciled person, to strive against 
sin, and to serve God with all my power 
constantly, therefore I may be assure 
to have righteousness, and eternal life 

Although these words are quoted by Fea, what is not discussed in the book is the fact that they are also an almost verbatim quote - this time from The Sum of Saving Knowledge (1652), a succinct presentation of the gospel jointly authored by Scottish Covenanters James Durham and David Dickson, and often printed along with the official and unofficial Westminster Standards. The significance of this quote is that Fithian took note of the prescribed manner in the Presbyterian tradition of a sinner embracing the promises of the gospel. In the words of Durham and Dickson:

Hence may a weak believer strengthen his faith, by reasoning from this ground after this manner:

He that, upon the loving request of God and Christ, made to him by the mouth of his Ministers, (having commission to that effect,) hath embraced the offer of perpetual reconciliation through Christ, and doth purpose, by God's grace, as a reconciled person, to strive against sin, and to serve God to his power constantly, may be as sure to have righteousness and eternal life given to him, for the obedience of Christ imputed to him, as it is sure that Christ was condemned and put to death for the sins of the redeemed imputed to him.

But I (may the weak believer say) upon the loving request of God and Christ, made to me by the mouth of his Ministers, have embraced the offer of perpetual reconciliation through Christ, and do purpose by God's grace, as a reconciled person to strive against sin, and to serve God to my power constantly.

Therefore I may be as sure to have righteousness and eternal life given to me, for the obedience of Christ imputed to me, as it is sure that Christ was condemned and put to death for the sins of the redeemed imputed to him.

In this manner, Fithian expressed privately in his journal how his soul closed with Christ. “Shortly after he ‘embraced the offers of perpetual reconciliation with Christ,’ Philip started to write less about God’s plan of redemption and more about the necessary disciplines that were essential to living a Christian life” (Fea, p. 55). Fithian would go on to graduate from the College of New Jersey (Princeton), and serve as an ordained Presbyterian minister, missionary, chaplain and tutor before illness took his life at the age of 28.

It is always fascinating to read a journal, especially the diaries of saints who have gone before. In this case, taking a close look at such a pivotal moment in the short life of this colonial Presbyterian minister reveals important influences on his life and the direction that it would soon take. It was indeed “the most important day” of his brief life on this earth.