Fithian was the eldest son of Joseph Fithian and Hannah Vickers Fithian and was born on December 29, 1747, near the town of Greenwich in Cumberland County, New Jersey. Fithian experienced a religious conversion in 1766 and the following year began attending Enoch Green’s Presbyterian academy in the neighboring village of Deerfield. He enrolled in the junior class at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University) at Princeton in 1770 and studied under John Witherspoon, the college’s president and a prominent clergyman. Other students at the time were, Aaron Burr, and Philip Freneau, all of whom later had prominent roles in the politics of the new United States. Fithian received his degree in September 1772 and continued preparing for the ministry at the family home.
A diarist for much of his life, Fithian is known best for the journal he kept in Virginia from October 1773 to October 1774 while working as a tutor for Robert Carter III at his Westmoreland County mansion,Nomony Hall (as Carter nearly always wrote its name, although it is usually spelled “Nomini” or “Nominy”). Fithian’s detailed account of plantation life in Virginia on the eve of the Revolution has become a classic source. The diary offers insights into everyday life on Carter’s plantation and is especially revealing for what it says about slavery, religion, family life, education,, and intellectual life. It also reveals much about the social differences between eighteenth-century Virginia culture and that of the mid-Atlantic communities where Fithian was raised.
with the Carters. As an ambitious and well-educated young man, Fithian spent long periods of time in Carter’s impressive library, reading everything from Greek and Latin literature to the latest gentleman’s magazines from London. He told his successor as tutor that his Princeton education allowed him to “come, & go, & converse, & keep company” in the wealthy and influential family as if he had been a gentleman worth £10,000. Fithian was appalled by the way Carter and his fellow plantation owners treated their slaves. He also never quite adjusted to the brief Anglican sermons and the habits of Virginia planters who conducted business on Sundays. Fithian’s bouts with homesickness were so severe that he declined to stay with the Carters so that he might return home to his friends and family in New Jersey.
Following his return to New Jersey, Fithian took part in and may have organized the burning of a cargo of tea near Greenwich on December 22, 1774. The Presbyterian church licensed him as a minister that same month, and he later received an honorary master’s from Princeton. The church assigned Fithian to a missionary tour of the Pennsylvania and Virginia backcountry. Between May 1775 and February 1776 he preached to Scots-Irish Presbyterian congregations along the Susquehanna River and in the Shenandoah Valley. His trips took Fithian as far north as present-day Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and as far south as Natural Bridge in Virginia. A published journal of his travels provides a revealing look at the people and culture of the western frontier at the start of the American Revolution. On a brief trip home, on October 25, 1775, he married Elizabeth Beatty at the church in Deerfield, New Jersey. They had no children. Fithian almost immediately resumed his itinerant ministry. He received several invitations from struggling congregations to remain and be their permanent minister, but homesickness and his love for his wife led to him decline the offers.
Fithian received an appointment in June 1776 as chaplain of a battalion of New Jersey infantry. He wrote his will on July 2 before leaving home. Fithian ministered to soldiers at the Battles of Long Island in August and Harlem Heights in September before contracting the dysentery that killed him. His diary includes vivid descriptions of the battles and provides insight into the life of a Revolutionary War chaplain. Early in the autumn, an artist in New York made a chalk sketch of him, depicting a serious young man. Fithian died in an army camp near Fort Washington, New York, on October 8, 1776, and was buried the following day in an unidentifiable grave near the fort. A memorial stone to him and his family was later erected in the burial yard of the Greenwich Presbyterian Church in Greenwich, New Jersey.