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Rev Philip Vickers Fithian

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Rev Philip Vickers Fithian

Birth
Greenwich, Cumberland County, New Jersey, USA
Death 8 Oct 1776 (aged 28)
Manhattan, New York County (Manhattan), New York, USA
Burial Greenwich, Cumberland County, New Jersey, USA
Memorial ID 155575197 View Source
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Fithian, Philip Vickers (1747–1776), Presbyterian minister and diarist in America, was born on 29 December 1747 in Greenwich, New Jersey, the first of seven children of Joseph Fithian (1724–1772), farmer, and his wife, Hannah, née Vickers (1728–1772). Philip was probably baptized in the Greenwich Presbyterian Church, and he remained a devoted Presbyterian throughout his life. He, unlike most eldest sons in this Philadelphia hinterland, chose a formal education over a life devoted to grain–livestock agriculture. From 1768 to 1769 he attended the academy of the Revd Enoch Green at the Presbyterian church in Deerfield, New Jersey. Green trained his pupils in the subjects necessary to matriculate at the College of New Jersey at Princeton. Fithian's education in Latin, Greek, mathematics, rhetoric, and logic allowed him, in 1770, to enter directly into the junior class at Princeton. At commencement in 1772 he defended the proposition ‘Political jealousy is a laudable passion’. Immediately following graduation Fithian began studying divinity and practical theology under the direction of Green in preparation for Presbyterian ordination.

In 1773, on the recommendation of the college president, John Witherspoon, Fithian spent two years working as a tutor at Nomini Hall, the Virginia plantation of Robert Carter III His journal of observations while living with the Carters and teaching their children has become a classic source for understanding early American plantation culture. Fithian participated in every aspect of life at Nomini Hall. He consumed the books in the family library, attended the Carters' many balls and social events, and was exposed to slavery, the system of labour that was essential to the success of Virginia's tobacco economy. All of these aspects are recorded in his journal, which provides one of the best accounts of eighteenth-century Virginian planter life from the perspective of a non-planter. Through his work as a domestic tutor, Fithian also commented on the reading and educational practices of the Carter family, gender relations within the home, as well as the relationship between a master and his slaves.

During the course of his stay in Virginia, Fithian continued to prepare for his ordination exam before Philadelphia presbytery. In 1774, upon his return to Greenwich to care for his brothers and sisters after his parents' untimely death two years earlier, he was licensed to preach. The presbytery assigned him to supply vacant pulpits in and around southern New Jersey. In the same year he joined a mob that burned several crates of British tea taken from the brig Greyhound docked on the Cohansey River at Greenwich. The Greenwich Tea Party, as it has been commonly called, was one of several tea burnings throughout the colonies in the wake of the famed Boston Tea Party in 1773. It was also one of the many activities of a patriotic circle of young Presbyterians who met regularly in this rural part of New Jersey to discuss matters of personal spirituality, public morality, and whig ideas. Fithian was a vital part of this group. His personal papers reveal a man deeply committed to evangelical Presbyterian faith, and a cosmopolitan and enlightened sense of sociability, reading, politics, and virtue.

In 1775, after he was informed that there were no available pulpits left in the bounds of the Philadelphia presbytery, Fithian transferred his preaching licence to the Donegal (Pennsylvania) presbytery. He was sent on two missionary tours to the scattered churches of western Pennsylvania and Virginia. Between tours, on 25 October 1775, he married Elizabeth Beatty (1752–1825), the sister-in-law of the Revd Enoch Green and his lifelong love. When hostilities broke out between Britain and the colonies, Fithian was appointed as a chaplain to General Nathaniel Heard's brigade of New Jersey militia, which had been assigned to reinforce the continental army in New York. Fithian accompanied the unit as it retreated across Long Island to New York city, and wrote regularly to his new bride describing the experience of war. Shortly after joining the army Fithian contracted ‘camp fever’, probably some form of dysentery, and died on 8 October 1776 near the Fort Washington (Manhattan) battlefield.

Although his life was cut short, Fithian's greatest contribution came through his comprehensive journal which, in addition to that kept at Nomini, he had previously maintained while at Greenwich (1765–6). His personal musings provide the historian with invaluable insights into religion, agriculture, labour, education, and everyday life in British America.


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