Papers from Hillsdale College
REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

Samuel Davies: A Biography

by Amy Anderson

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel!
Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

-- I Samuel 3:10

The prayers of David and Martha Davies were answered when their son entered the world on November 3, 1723. Just as the Biblical figure Hannah had prayed fervently for a son, so had the Davies, and for that reason he was appropriately given the name Samuel.{1} Like his namesake, Samuel answered God's call at a young age and his fruitful ministry bore witness to God's providence and annointing. Continually battling the poor health that plagued him, he became known as "the greatest pulpit orator of his generation."{2} Davies, humble, zealous, pious, dignified, and courteous, represents the `great' of the Great Awakening. Although Samuel's early death at the age of 37 abrubtly ended a flourishing career, he was among the first to minister to slaves, proved to be an accomplished poet and hymnwriter, and established himself as a noteworthy orator.

Samuel grew up in the Baptist church, but his denominational loyalties shifted when his mother became a Presbyterian. He studied under Presbyterian itinerant Reverend William Robinson, until attending Samuel Blair's "log college" (New Light Academy) in Pennsylvania to prepare himself for the ministry at the age of fifteen.{3} By 1746, Samuel had completed his studies and was licensed to preach in July. Later that year, Samuel married Sarah Kirkpatrick. Unfortunately, their marriage was short-lived because Sarah died just before the couple's first anniversary. Also in 1747, before Sarah's untimely death, Samuel was ordained as an evangelist. The following year he married Jane Holt. Their marriage was happy, and between the years of 1749 and 1757, they had six children-one of whom died at birth.

Until 1748, Davies preferred an itinerant lifestyle over having his own church. Yet as time went on, he had a change of heart and found an application from one church in particular that interested him. In the wake of his wife's death and ongoing sickness, he answered the call to a church in Hanover County, Virginia. Davies' mentor, William Robinson, had played a significant role in initiating revival in the middle colonies and these new converts were looking for full-time ministers; hence, the petition to Davies. Davies stayed at the church at Hanover from 1748 to 1759, except for a 14 month absence he spent traveling with Gilbert Tennent to the British Isles for the purpose of raising money to benefit the newly established College of New Jersey (1753).

In Virginia, Anglican dissenters were condescended to, and in some measure were forced to endure persecution. They were brought before the General Court for such atrocities as "holding forbidden assemblies and preaching without a license."{4} Shortly after his arrival to Hanover, Davies came to be "regarded as the advocate and defender of their (the dissenters) civil rights and liberties."{5} His young age withstanding, Davies had a tremendous effect on the situation in Virginia. The establishment of more than one strong Presbyterian congregation paid tribute to his efforts. Further, he was influential in persuading the colonial government to tolerate the Dissenters.{6} The people were encouraged by his character as well as his work and the tremendous success that resulted. For these reasons, one historian referred to Davies as "the champion of moderation and religious toleration in Virginia."{7}

During his 12-year ministry, Davies wrote several hymns as well as poems. He often composed hymns correlating with his sermon or as preparation for Communion. The significance of Davies' hymnwriting rests on the fact that most churches practiced exclusive psalmody, and in fact, revolted against this introduction of hymns into the worship service.{8} While many of Davies' poems were private, some were read to large congregations. He wrote poetry in meditation, in order "to preach and teach, as well as to express himself."{9} Around 90 of Davies' over 100 poems have survived{10} and 16 of his hymns were published by Dr. Gibbons in "Hymns adapted to Divine Worship" (1769).{11}

Davies is also noted for his work among the slaves. Mark Noll described Davies as "always eager to invite converted blacks to share in regular church observances." Davies is quoted, saying "what little success I have lately had, has been chiefly among the extremes of Gentlemen and Negroes. Indeed, God has been remarkably working among the latter."{12} Another historian reported that Davies had about 300 blacks who regularly attended his services. Davies believed that in order for the blacks to be Christianized, they had to educated, so he took on this task himself.{13}

Davies invested 14 months of his time into the College of New Jersey when he travelled with Gilbert Tennent to New England to raise funds for the college. This preaching tour was successful in that sufficient money was raised, and Davies had opportunity to spread the Gospel and meet many fellow believers. Financial strain was only one of the college's problems. The college's next obstacle was to find a president. President Burr died in 1757, and shortly thereafter, his successor Jonathan Edwards passed away (January, 1758). The Board of Trustees chose Samuel Davies to succeed the great Edwards, but Davies initially refused the offer for three reasons. First, he was reluctant to give up his post in Hanover. Secondly, he was under the impression that some members of the Board preferred the Reverend Samuel Finley. And third, he appealed to the Presbytery for a final decision, who requested that he remain in Virginia.{14} The Board of Trustees, however, was determined to have Davies, and again petitioned him to come. Eventually, Davies accepted the application. In July of 1759, Davies departed from his congregation in Virginia, and moved to New Jersey.

Samuel's two year presidency was cut short by his death; but in the brief time he was there, much was accomplished. Among his achievements, "the standard for a bachelor's degree was raised and the requirements for admission were strengthened."{15} In addition, Davies required seniors to refine their oratory by giving monthly speeches on topics of their own choosing. He also invested a considerable amount of time on plans to improve the college's library.

Samuel Davies strongly believed that God's providence was overwhelmingly evident in his own life. George Pilcher described Davies' conviction: "Samuel Davies was convinced that God had pulled him from death's door to send him on his three-hundred-mile errand into the wilderness of Virginia."{16} Despite sickness and fatigue, Davies committed himself fully to the ministry, which God richly blessed.

The story of Samuel's education also demonstrates the hand of God once again in Davies' life. When Davies' tutor, William Robinson went to Hanover County to preach, the congregations were so impressed by his message and style, they insisted on giving him money. Over and over he refused their gift, but the people remained persistent. Their determination paid off, and they and Robinson reached a compromise. He took the money, but on the condition that it would be given to Davies that he might continue his education at the "log college." This monetary gift relieved financial strain and allowed Davies "to devote himself fully to his studies."{17}

Samuel Davies lived only 37 years, but in his short life he accomplished a great deal. In his work among the Dissenters and slaves, he provides an example of one who is entirely dedicated to his God. In his life, the hand of God is clearly manifest. God provided a path and made his will clear, and Samuel Davies willingly followed. One historian concluded, "A model preacher and intellectual leader, Davies has been remembered for his skill as an orator, his academic leadership...and as a champion of religious freedom."{18}


1. Pilcher, George William. Samuel Davies: Apostle of Dissent in Colonial Virginia. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971, p. 4-5.
2. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: C. Scribner & Sons, 1928-58, p.102
3. Pilcher, p. 6-8
4. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: C. Scribner & Sons, 1928-58, p. 102
5. Ibid.
6. The Blackwell Dictionary of Evangelical Biography: 1720-1860, Vol. 1 A-J. ed. Donald M. Lewis. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995. 298
7. Pilcher. p. 55
8. Ibid. p. 51-52
9. Ibid. p. 43
10. Ibid. p. 47
11. Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology, Setting Forth the Origin of Christian Hymns of all Ages and Nations, Together with Biographical and Critical Notices of their Authors and Translators. London: J. Murray, 1892. 280-281.
12. Noll, Mark A. A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1992. p. 106-107.
13. Geweher, Wesley M. The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790. Duke Univ. Press, 1930. p. 235-236.
14. Pilcher, p. 171-172
15. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: C. Scribner & Sons, 1928-58, p. 102
16. Pilcher, p.vii
17. Ibid, p. 9
18. Dictionary of Christianity in America. ed. Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1990.

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Last updated: 20 March 1998