To prepare for his ordination examination, Philip Fithian (1746-1776) was asked to prepare a sermon on the “Nature of Regeneration” and an exegetical study “that shall prove by plain & full Arguments that the Torments of the Damned will be Eternal.” Fithian, well-known to American historians but completely unknown to me until I read John Fea’s meticuloiusly-researched and very readable new book (The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (Early American Studies)
), is a fascinating person.
Who is your favorite early American? early American preacher or theologian? Why?
Fea’s biography opens up a world of reality about 18th Century Presbyterians — their social classes, their social ambitions, their love lives and Fithian’s was one of note, their reading habits, their theological world, and how they worked that faith out in the context of the American Revolution.
Fea’s theological perception impressed me in his penetrating summary of Fithian’s conversion experience and Fithian’s experience is prototypical for what is often called “God’s caress,” the Puritan religious experience. Fundamentally, conversion is coming to terms with a massive contrast: the utter holiness of God (and wrath) and one’s personal depravity overcome graciously through the atoning death of Christ.
For those of us who like American history and, in particular, like to read about the theological or religious dimension of that history, Fea’s virtual biography of the theological and intellectual development of Fithian is a powerful way to enter into that history. As a tutor to Robert Carter, in Virginia, Fithian both experienced and criticized the practice of slavery and came to terms with the Anglican faith.
Another major issue: Fea’s contribution to Fithian studies to see him as part of the “rural enlightenment.” This part of his book, showing as it does that Fithian brought into this thinking the Enlightenment hope for self-improvement through the formation of intellectual societies and into a cultured sensibility, reminded me of some great Romans who were intellectuals and farmers (Cicero). At the heart of Philip Fithian’s struggle in life was coming to terms with his rural, Presbyterian roots and his Princeton, educated social and intellectual elite dreams.
And all of this in the spirit of revolution (against England)! Fea demonstrates the Fithian pulled together the New Moral philosophy, Presbyterian ethics, and (classical, humanistic) republican political thought. In short, he was all for freedom and he became a chaplain. His commitment to the American Revolution also ended his life. He died of dyssentery during the Battle of New York.