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.

The First Book Published in Kentucky was by a Presbyterian Minister - Adam Rankin

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The first book printed in the State of Kentucky (which became a state in 1792) was published on January 1, 1793 by a Pennsylvania-born (March 24, 1755) Presbyterian minister, Adam Rankin. It is titled, A Process of the Transilvania Presbytery, which refers to the presbytery covering the territory of Kentucky within the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, established in 1786. Adam Rankin had been charged with several offenses which involved worship and doctrinal differences between him and others. This book is his account of the matter.

Rankin, Adam, A Process in the Transilvania Presbytery Title Page.jpg

In this interesting work, Rankin fired the first literary salvo in his controversy with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), specifically, the Transilvania (Transylvania) Presbytery of Kentucky, of which he was a member. The controversy led to the further publishing of 1) A Narrative of Mr. Adam Rankin's Trial by the Transylvania Presbytery (1793); and 2) Adam Rankin’s A Reply to a Narrative of Mr. Adam Rankin's Trial (1794). Here, in A Process, he lays out the particular charges that were leveled against him, along with his defense. Additional sections of the book set forth his reasons for separating from the PCUSA (he later joined the Associate Reformed Church); a digest of his positions on matters of controversy at that time between the PCUSA and the ARC, including the free offer of the gospel, terms of communion, national covenanting, marriage licenses and more; followed by “A Appendix on a late performance of the Rev. Mr. John Black of Marsh Creek, Pennsylvania,” in which Rankin sets forth satirically a “Modern Creed” which lays out the arguments of the opposition, largely regarding the place of the Psalms in worship.

One of the major issues between Rankin and the Transylvania Presbytery was his conviction that the Psalms of David alone were to be sung in public worship, to the exclusion of Isaac Watts’ imitations. A Process, in fact, constitutes one of the earliest published American defenses of exclusive psalmody. Following the January 1, 1793 publication of A Process, we have at Log College Press also a February 7, 1793 letter of encouragement from ARC minister Robert Annan to Rankin touching on this very issue.

Rankin is famous in church history for possessing difficult temperament. Here is an opportunity to read his own words in the heat of controversy to see for yourself how he expressed himself. Also available at LCP is his Dialogues, Pleasant and Interesting, Upon the All-Important Question in Church Government, What are the Legitimate Terms of Admission to Visible Church Communion? (1819). John Wilson Townsend, Kentucky in American Letters, 1784-1912, Vol. 1, p. 18 (1913), says: “His Dialogues …, is really his most important publication, but it has been greatly overlooked in the recent rush among Kentucky historical writers to list A Process as the first book published in Kentucky.”

Controversy followed Rankin even in the ARC in the form of a dispute with Robert Hamilton Bishop, which resulted in church discipline for both men. Eventually, Rankin left the ARC too, bidding his Lexington, Kentucky congregation farewell with plans to travel to Jerusalem. He died on the way in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 25, 1827. James Brown Scouller, A Manual of the United Presbyterian Church of North America, 1751-1881, pp. 493-494, writes:

There can be no question that Mr. Rankin was “encompassed with infirmities,” that he was sensitive, a little jealous, impulsive and strong of will, so that he soon put himself on the defensive, and always with his face to the foe, and he had the misfortune of living at a time when ecclesiastical things did not always run smoothly. On the other hand it is just as certain that he was loyal to the truth and valorous in its defence, however faulty his methods. He was of unquestioned piety, and commanded the full confidence of those among whom he lived. He possessed unusual eloquence and power in the pulpit, and often moved a whole congregation to tears.

Shedd on the love of God towards all men as men

In the context of an effort to revise the Westminster Confession of Faith, William Greenough Thayer Shedd argued in 1893 that the Confession already addressed some of the concerns that had been raised. One had to do with the question of the general love of God towards all men.

It is strenuously contended that the Standards contain no declaration of the love of God towards all men, but limit it to the elect; that they make no universal offer of salvation, but confine it to a part of mankind.

The following declaration is found in Confession ii. 1. "There is but one only living and true God, who is most loving, gracious, merciful, long suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, the rewarder of them that diligently seek him." Of whom speaketh the Confession this? of the God of the elect only? or of the God of every man? Is he the God of the elect only? Is he not also of the non-elect? Is this description of the gracious nature and attributes of God intended to be restricted to a part of mankind? Is not God as thus delineated the Creator and Father of every man without exception? Can it be supposed that the authors of this statement meant to be understood to say that God is not such a being for all men, but only for some? If this section does not teach the unlimited love and compassion of God towards all men as men, as his creatures, it teaches nothing.
(Shedd, Calvinism: Pure and Mixed - A Defence of the Westminster Standards, pp. 24-25)

A Children's Sermon by Samuel Davies

Samuel Davies once preached a sermon to youth in 1758 (260 years ago) titled Little Children Invited to Jesus Christ (reprinted by the American Tract Society in 1826). It was an argument not to delay but to come to Jesus, and to embrace him by faith.

In this sermon, Davies clarifies what he means by “coming to Christ” (based on this text: “But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little Children to come unto me, and forbid them not: For of such is the Kingdom of God,” Mark 10:14). The truths he lays out in this sermon are timeless and applicable to all, young or old.

You have a right, and that it is your duty, to Come to Jesus. Therefore, oh! come to him: come to him this very day, without delay.

But here, I hope, you start a very proper question, "What is it to come to Christ? or in what sense are we to understand this phrase, as it may be applied to us now, since he is removed from our world?"

Coming to Christ, in my text, did indeed mean a bodily motion to him: and this was practicable, while he tabernacled in flesh among men. But even then, it signified much more. It signified coming to him as a divine teacher, to receive instruction; as a Saviour, to obtain eternal life; and as the only Mediator, through whom guilty sinners might have access to God. It signified a motion of soul towards him, Correspondent to the bodily motion of coming: a motion of the desires, a flight of tender affections towards him. In this view it is still practicable to come to Christ; and it is our duty in these latter days, as much as it was theirs who were his contemporaries upon earth. It is in this view, I now urge it upon you: and in this view, it includes: the following particulars.

1. A clear conviction of sin; of sin in heart, in word, and in practice; of sin against knowledge; against alluring mercies and fatherly corrections; of sin against all the strongest incitements to duty. Without such a conviction of sin, it is impossible that you should fly to him as a Saviour: for he "came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

2. An affecting sense of danger, upon the account of sin. You cannot fly to him as a Saviour, till you see your extreme need of salvation; and you cannot see your need of salvation, till you are sensible of your danger; sensible that you are every moment liable to everlasting condemnation, and have no title at all to the divine favour.

3. A humbling sense of your own inability to save yourselves by the merit of your own best endeavours. I do not mean, that you should neglect your best endeavours; or that you should not exert your utmost strength in every good work, and in the earnest use of all the means of grace: for you never will come to Christ, till you are brought to this. But I mean, that while you are doing your utmost, you must be sensible, that you do not deserve any favour at all from God on that account, and that you neither can, nor do make any atonement for your sins by all your good works; but that God may justly condemn you notwithstanding. Till you are sensible of this, you will weary yourselves in vain, in idle self righteous efforts to perform the work which Jesus came into the world to perform, and which he alone was able to do; I mean, to make atonement for your sin, and to work out a righteousness to recommend you to God. It is an eternal truth, that you will never come to Christ as a Saviour, till you are deeply sensible there is no salvation in any other; and particularly that you are not able to save yourselves.

4. An affecting conviction, that Jesus Christ is a glorious, all sufficient and willing Saviour: that his righteousness is perfect, equal to all the demands of the divine law, and sufficient to make satisfaction for all our sins, and procure for us all the blessings of the divine favour; that he is able and willing to "save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him;" and that he is freely offered in the Gospel to all that will accept him, however unworthy, and however great their sins. Indeed it is an eternal truth, that though multitudes perish, it is not for want of a Saviour. There is a Saviour all sufficient, and perfectly willing; and this you must be convinced of before you can come to him.

5. An entire dependence upon his merits alone for acceptance with God. Sensible that you have no merit of your own; on which to depend; and sensible also that Jesus is a sure foundation, on which you may safely venture your eternal all, you must cast all your dependence and fix your entire trust on him. You will as it were hang about him, as the only support for your sinking soul, and plead his righteousness as the only ground of your acceptance with God. This is so unnatural to a proud self-confident sinner, that you must be brought very low indeed, thoroughly mortified and self-emptied, before you will submit to it.

6. A cheerful subjection to him as your ruler; and a voluntary surrender of yourselves to his service. If you come to him at all, it will be as poor penitent rebels, returning to duty with, shame and sorrow, and fully determined never to depart from it more. To embrace Christ as a Saviour, and yet not submit to him as our ruler; to trust in his righteousness, and in the mean time disobey his authority; this is the greatest absurdity, and utterly inconsistent with the wise constitution of the Gospel.

And now, my dear young friends, I hope even your tender minds have some idea what it is to come to Christ. And therefore, when I exhort you to it, you know what I mean. Come then, come to Jesus.

Christ is More Willing to Save

The Puritans used to say that Christ was more willing to save, than sinners are willing to be saved by Him. "I may say that Jesus Christ is more willing to save sinners, than sinners are to be saved by him!" (William Bridge, "Evangelical Repentance" in Works, Vol. 4, pp. 434-435). "We should trust our salvation on Jesus Christ, not only as on him only that can save, and that is able to save perfectly; but as on him that hath more good-will to save, than we can have willingness to be saved by him. None had ever been saved by him, none had ever been brought to heaven, unless Christ had had more willingness to bring them thither, than they had to be led thither by him" (Robert Traill, Sermon 3 in "Sixteen Sermons on the Lord's Prayers" in Works, Vol. 2, p. 46). 

Southern Presbyterian "worthy" (see John M. Wells, Southern Presbyterian Worthies, for an excellent biographical sketch) Givens Brown Strickler concurs, as we can see in a powerful sermon titled "Christ's Willingness to Save." Taking John 6:37 for his text ("And him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out"), expounds the Scriptural truth that men too often fail to appreciate the willingness of Christ to save sinners, and how a right understanding of this point is crucial to the invitations He gives to come unto Him and be saved, that is, what we call the free offer of the gospel. 

One evidence that they do not fully appreciate the willingness of Christ to save is found in the fact that they imagine that they are more willing in the great matter than He is. They imagine, many of them, that they are perfectly willing to be saved; to be delivered from the presence and the power and the guilt and all the consequences of their sins, and that the only reason why they have not already been thus delivered is that Christ has not been willing to interpose in their behalf. But if they saw His willingness as it is revealed in His word, they would see that they could hardly labour under a more unfortunate and mischievous misapprehension than when they imagine that their willingness here exceeds His.

Now, because men do not properly appreciate His willingness to save, and because it is not appreciated by Christians as it should be, your attention is called to this text. You observe that it not only asserts His willingness to save, but asserts it in the most emphatic way: "Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out."

Strickler also calls our attention to the invitations of Christ to sinners to come to Him and be saved. 

Do you want an invitation so comprehensive that you may be sure that you are embraced in its wide compass? There are a number in the Scriptures, as for instance, "The Spirit and the Bride say come, and let him that heareth say come, and let him that is athirst come; and whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely." Can you conceive of an invitation that would more certainly include you than that invitation does, if you desire to be saved? Why, if you had an invitation addressed to your own name and to your present place of residence, you could not be so certain that it was intended for you as you may be that that invitation is intended for you, for while there may have been no one of your name in the past living just where you now do, there might be such a one in the future, and, therefore, you could not be sure but that the invitation might be intended for him instead of yourself; but when the invitation is to "whosoever is willing," and you are conscious that you are willing, you know that it is your privilege to accept it. Richard Baxter, it is said, thanked God that the invitations of the Scriptures were not addressed to Richard Baxter, for he did not know how many Richard Baxters there were in the world; and, therefore, they might be intended for some other Richard Baxter instead of for himself; but he rejoiced that they were addressed to "whosoever is willing," for he was conscious that he was willing, and therefore was sure that it was his privilege to embrace them. The invitations, then, are a strong proof of Christ's willingness to save.

Christ is indeed willing to save reluctant sinners. Strickler lays out many demonstrations of this fact. Let this be an encouragement to sinners, who typically over-estimate their own willingness to come to the Savior and under-estimate the Savior's willingness to embrace sinners. to avail themselves of the grace of God in Christ Jesus - there will never be a better, and a more sincere and willing, offer of salvation.