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REL 319 -- Eighteenth Century Theology:
Jonathan Edwards and American Puritanism

A Biography of Samuel Davies *

by Bob Artinian

Samuel Davies was born to David and Martha Davis on November 3, 1723, in Delaware. Born into a family of Welsh Baptists, Davies came as an answer to the prayers of his mother, and, as a result of vows which she made to God, was dedicated to the ministry. Since his mother eventually parted company with the Baptist church and came to embrace Presbyterianism, Davies (being in the midst of the religious pluralism of the middle colonies) was eventually sent to the 'New Light Presbyterian'** academy of Samuel Blair, called, Fogg's Manor, located in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It was at this New Light college that the young Samuel Davies was equipped with all of the human tools he would later use to fashion out sculptured sermons as a faithful preacher of God's Word. Davies was trained in all of the eighteenth century basics: ancient languages (i.e. Latin, Greek, Hebrew, etc.), classical literature, theology, natural philosophy, grammar, composition, logic, arithmetic, geography, geometry, and ontology (Pilcher 9-10). It was perhaps here that Davies learned his oratorical skills from studying the examples given by classical orators. There is no doubt that he learned much concerning oratory from sitting under the preaching of Samuel Blair; for Blair was a man to whom Davies would later say there was no superior in this discipline (Pilcher 12).

Interestingly enough, Davies' education at this school was not funded by his parents, for he had been born into a poor family. Instead, and in providential fulfillment of the vow that Samuel's mother could not herself fulfill, God raised up a congregation (to whom one of Davies' future teachers, William Robinson, once preached) who offered to pay for the education of this young aspiring minister with the hopes that the young minister, having been taught to preach by the faithful preacher whom they had heard (i.e. by William Robinson), would later be sent to them as a permanent preacher. So, for about five years (1741-46) Davies was able to attend this log college on account of the donations contributed by a dissenting Presbyterian congregation in Hanover County, Virginia.

In the spring of 1746, Davies finished his studies at Samuel Blair's New Light Presbyterian academy. Although his mind was thoroughly equipped for that which did lie ahead, his health had grown much worse during his time of intense study. Although the nature of Davies' particular affliction is never clearly mentioned, it was described as including "hectic fever" and "delirious" periods (Gibbons qtd. in Pilcher 16). Indeed, so serious was this affliction that Davies (beginning in his teenage years and lasting until the end of his life) often considered himself to be on the brink of death; in fact, this illness would be a cause of his death at the young age of 37.

On July 30 of 1746, Davies was ordained by the New Castle Presbytery (New Light Presbyterian) to preach for the usual probation period of six months. Three months later, on October 23, 1746, he married his first wife, Sara Kilpatrick, who died less than a year after their marriage (Pilcher 12-13). In February of 1747, after completing the probation period, Davies was ordained by the New Light Presbytery as an 'evangelist' to all of congregations that did not have a regular minister in the Virginia. However, the congregation in Hanover County was the core of the New Light movement in Virginia; therefore, Davies was sent especially to the congregation in Hanover County.

In order to view Davies' situation in the proper context, one must remember that, at this time (1746), Virginia was a royal colony of England that had already declared Anglicanism as its established religion. Although there were people in the colony who were not Anglican, such 'dissenters' (i.e. anyone who was not Anglican) were not particularly liked, especially not dissenting evangelists. For when one already has an established religion, one does not feel the need for evangelism of any kind. In fact, before Davies' permanent arrival in 1748, the colony contained no permanent New Light preachers; this fact illustrates Anglicanism's general dislike toward the Great Awakening and its message New Light during Davies' time in Virginia. Although there were people inside and outside of the Anglican church that were dissatisfied with Anglicanism, there was great tension between those who wanted more dissenting congregations with New Light preachers (New Light Presbyterians and other dissenters) and those who wanted no dissenting congregations and no New Light evangelism (Anglican clergy, the government, and Old Light Presbyterians ). It was in this context that Davies went to Hanover to preach for about a month. It was a place where the dissenters against the established church (the Anglican church) were both vocal against and often restricted by the reigning government. Doubting his ability to handle the politics involved, Davies visited this turbulent area for a brief time (Pilcher 14).

Included in the government's opposition to the dissenters of Hanover County were ordinances forbidding the hearing of itinerant preachers (Pilcher 14). However, Davies' charitable modesty, coupled with his soundness of mind, won both the Anglican governor to open up the previously condemned meeting house (Pilcher 14). Much of the success Samuel Davies achieved in the thoroughly Anglican Virginia of his time was due to his tolerance of the Anglican denomination. In general, Davies thought that a pacific pulpit disposition toward the Anglican religion was important. Although he had some differences with Anglican theology, he desired to use his "Influence [in the pulpit] rather to enlarge their Charity, than enflame a bigoted zeal against these Things" (Davies qtd. in Pilcher 15). Davies, like other 'evangelical' preachers of his time, was concerned more with the "the widespread inattention to religion" (Pilcher 15) that persisted in many colonials before the Great Awakening (Gewehr 3), and which he may have thought to have existed in Hanover. However, during the month spent in Hanover, Davies' Gospel preaching was extremely well-received. After this brief stay, Samuel returned home to New Castle, Pennsylvania, with a request from the Hanover congregation to the Presbytery for his "permanent services" (Pilcher 15). However, with his health still declining, and with his heart still grieving the loss of his wife, Davies went through what he would later call "a year under melancholy and consumptive languishments, expecting death" (Davies qtd. in Pilcher 15). Therefore, it was on account of his health that Davies was unable to become a full-time minister of any congregation; yet, he did remain (for about two years) as a traveling evangelist in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland, doing most of his preaching in Maryland where his former teacher, William Robinson, was involved in a revival. Davies, now about 23 years old, was being recognized by many to be such a captivating preacher that 'calls' from various congregations abounded; these, too, were thankfully denied on the basis of his frail health. So, Davies went on preaching by day and having his "hectic fever by night, ... to such a degree as to be sometimes delirious...." (Gibbons qtd. in Pilcher 16).

In the spring of 1748, Davies health began to greatly improve. Upon this improvement, Davies considered all of the 'calls' he had received and decided to go to Hanover, the congregation that had recently sent him an application signed by more than one hundred family heads in the county (Pilcher 15-16). So, at the age of 24, Samuel Davies set out (along with his parents and dear friend, John Rodgers) to the congregation of dissenters whose necessity to be connected with their distant Presbytery outweighed that of those already so close (geographically) and so attached (Pilcher 17). With the licensing of John Rodgers as his temporary assistant, Davies went to his congregation, having been fully licensed by the Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Gooch of Virginia, in great doubt of his own abilities and in fear that his inexperience could have detrimental effects upon his listeners. Nevertheless, the young Davies embarked on his mission to the Presbyterian dissenters in 1748.

Stepping onto the scene of Anglican Virginia in 1748, it is necessary for us modern readers to understand the context of Davies' time, and the history of his theological and oratorical lineage. The first emergence of the Great Awakening in America was made through Theodorus Frelinghuysen, who preached the 'New Light' gospel to Dutch Reformed congregations in New Jersey. This 'New Light' gospel (so-called because of its emphasis on New Birth) was soon assimilated into nearby Presbyterian congregations by 1725, and moved still father into the Presbyterians in Pennsylvania. This Presbyterian preacher (Gilbert Tennent) began to spread the New Light gospel (as articulated by Frelinghuysen) to his congregation in 1727, a congregation that had grown weary of the formalism and lack of religious fervor that prevailed in both the laity and clergy of their day (Pilcher 20-21). Gilbert Tennent, having been educated at his father's (William Tennent) famous school, was there at the same time as Samuel Blair, Davies' future teacher. Thus, Davies came from the theological lineage of New Light preachers of the Great Awakening. As is well known, the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740's (involving men like Jonathan Edwards in 1734, and Samuel Blair in 1739) was most especially effected through the New Light preaching of George Whitefield, who began his first tour in 1739. However (and most importantly for our purposes), this Great Awakening brought "internal disunion and eventual disruption" to American Presbyterianism. American Presbyterians of the time were essentially divided into two groups: New Light Presbyterians and Old Light Presbyterians. The former group consisted of Presbyterians who felt that the doctrines of the Great Awakening (e.g. new birth, personal piety, experiential religion, holiness, etc.) were necessary for proper worship; while the latter clung more hesitantly to the traditional creeds, practices, and polity, seeing the Great Awakening (and all that went with it) as unnecessary and riddled with 'emotionalism.' In this same way, Presbyterianism in Virginia was divided into the 'Old Lights' (Scotch-Irish Presbyterians who came in 1730s) and the 'New Lights' (the dissenters in and about Hanover County). The New Light congregation began when Anglican dissenters, lead by Samuel Morris, began meeting on Sunday's discussing theological issues they found the Anglican church failing to address. Using whatever religious books they could obtain (one of which being Luther's commentary on Galatians), these dissenters continued to meet in Morris' house for Scripture reading, prayer, and the singing of spiritual songs. Soon after this, they were pronounced 'Presbyterians' by Governor Gooch, and were acknowledged to be "part of the established church of the realm" (Pilcher 27-29). Seeing themselves as Presbyterians, they sent to the Presbyteries of New Brunswick and New Castle (both New Light Presbyteries) in order to receive a minister. The Presbyteries temporarily sent William Robinson, Davies teacher-to-be, who, having been heard by hundreds of dissenters, left the Hanover Presbyterian congregation (still meeting in Mr. Morris' home) in order (Pilcher 29-30). Numbers increased dramatically, and five meeting houses were built. Upon this influx, the church asked the Presbytery for a permanent pastor; however, they could only continue to send temporary pastors, beginning a process which would last for a number of years. After John Roan preached at the Hanover congregation in 1744 and 1745, railing upon the local Anglican ministers, and inciting his hearers to do the same, Governor Gooch cracked down on all dissenting congregations and brought serious indictments against Roan and others (these charges were later dropped). Thereafter, Governor Gooch issued a decree that required all dissenting preachers to be first examined and licensed by the government and banned all verbal attacks on Anglicans from dissenting pulpits. Thus, the congregations went for years without a permanent pastor. Finally, the Presbytery sent them Samuel Davies in 1748.

It is also necessary for us to pause, momentarily, in order to better understand Davies as a New Light, gospel preacher; for that was his primary calling. When heard by modern ears, Davies may sometimes sound a bit 'ecumenical' in his approach to denominational and doctrinal matters; for he clearly states that his desire was not to see people become Presbyterians, or Baptists, or Anglicans, but Christians. However, anyone who would take the time to read his sermons would discover that Davies was certainly not doctrinally indifferent. Indeed, when placed in comparison to others his time, he was quite a bit more accepting of other denominations, so long as they preached the true gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, it is readily admitted that Samuel Davies showed himself to be relatively unconcerned with the specific doctrinal disputes of his time when asked for an official statement on such matters (Pilcher 57-59); however, when one reads his sermons one finds a preacher proclaiming the gospel in soundness of doctrine--the gospel of pure, sovereign grace. It was his zealous preaching of this gospel message that was said to either equal, or exceed, that of his contemporaries in eloquence, power, and persuasion (Pilcher 68). During his visit in England and Scotland, Davies preached over sixty sermons that would produce his international acclaim as one of America's most oratorically skilled and zealous ministers (Pilcher 69). It should also be noted that Davies preached to people who had left the church of England because of doctrinal reasons, not over concerns about the method of worship (Pilcher 57). Yet, Davies claimed to always preach "the generous truths of catholic Christianity ... the good doctrines of the Church of England, of the Reformation, and to say all in a word, of the Bible;" regardless of the nature of his audience (Davies qtd. in Pilcher 57).

It was Davies' sermons that were to alone contain the rich content of his vibrant theology. It was a theology that was 'real' to Davies, and one which he had been given the grace to make real to others. Fixated upon the helplessness of sinful man and the abundant willingness of Almighty God to give grace to these fallen creatures, Davies stayed always on the themes of life and death, emphasizing the sweet goodness of warm life to God in Jesus Christ over the grim terror and hopeless that lies within the cold souls of those who know only death. Using the rather 'real' analogy pictured by the fickle state of his own sickly body, Davies called the attention of his listeners to the transience of the present life, exhorting them to live in the diligence of faith, always recognizing that man is "[a] creature treading every moment on the slippery brink of the grave..." (Davies qtd. in Pilcher 71). Davies himself lamented his having "very little, true religion" (Davies qtd. in Pilcher 71), while he stressed holy living, emphasizing that intentional self-inspection was necessary in order to avoid the dangerous assumption that mere outward manifestations (of holiness) were certain indicators an inward reality. Instead, Davies (as many others) stressed the need to have true desire for God embedded deeply in the heart. This, in Davies' theology, was the essence of true religion (Pilcher 72-75).

Davies' sermons were usually messages of encouragement, and were always drawn from theological truths. Revolving always around the themes of repentance unto salvation, he began with a relatively substantial introduction to his subject, moved on to a smooth and rapid exposition of the Scripture presented, and closed with a brief, and often searching, conclusion (Pilcher 78-79). His disposition when behind the pulpit was always vigorous in delivery, yet solemn in personal humility; sometimes pacific (e.g. when preaching on God's love), yet at other times quite forceful (e.g. when preaching on God's justice). However, he always kept himself in an elegant, controlled, and stately manner (Pilcher 80-81). As an orator, Davies' artful delivery was held to be an ideal toward which his predecessors would aspire, with later preachers (and some secular orators) using his sermons as teaching models. In fact, the 'Revolutionary,' Patrick Henry, who himself sat under Davies' preaching regularly, ascribed much of his knowledge concerning proper oratory to the example set by Samuel Davies (Pilcher 82-83).

In time of Samuel Davies, which was a time that saw many religious revivals (some probably genuine, and some probably counterfeit), there was much talk among clergy concerning 'emotionalism'--sometimes negative criticism, and sometimes boundless praise. Davies basically considered 'emotionalism' a rather unimportant element of revival; but he did advocate a "middle-of-the-road" sort of position. For it must be kept in mind that Davies' sermons were known to put many in tears, even inciting "bodily response" (Pilcher 59-60). When pushed on the issue by anti-Awakening Old Lights, Davies would say that although extreme emotional response was not necessary, "it might be desirable" (Pilcher 60). Therefore, Davies encouraged other ministers to "strike a balance between 'the wild reveries of enthusiasm,' which characterized the more impetuous New Lights, and 'the droaning Heaviness and serene Stupidity' of the Old Light Presbyterians and Anglicans" (Davies qtd. in Pilcher 62). Of more concern to Davies as a preacher, was that he and his fellow preachers would have a "vigorous and affectionate [delivery]... expressive of the deep Impressions [that] the tremendous Things [which] we speak make upon our own Hearts" (Davies qt. in Pilcher 62). Although it shall be readily admitted that he was not at all the profound theological writer that the great Jonathan Edwards was, it may be fairly said that Samuel Davies, as a eighteenth century preacher, was at least the equal, or perhaps the superior of the greatest preachers of his time--men who were themselves the greatest preachers that America has ever heard (Pilcher 85).

From 1748-1760, Davies carried on his 12-year ministry in Virginia. Once in Virginia, Davies quickly remarried, taking Jane Holt, daughter of a prominent Williamsburg family. The couple had six children, five of whom lived to maturity. Davies preached in licensed meeting houses in Hanover County, and evangelized in other counties of Virginia and Carolina. It was during this 12-year ministry that Davies became a prolific poet and hymn-writer; these writing abilities would be later recognized during his trip to England, when Davies would become more involved in the publishing his own work.

Indeed, one of the greatest of Davies' effects upon the religious and cultural landscape of colonial Virginia was the part he played in extending of the Toleration Act of 1689 to the Presbyterian dissenters of Virginia. Although Davies gained some acceptance from the Governor of Virginia and the government at large, that same government still was not especially pleased with the dissenters. Since Davies had to obtain a license to preach at every given pulpit, the Council (that governed Virginia) had the ability to revoke any particular license at any time, and was considering a partial revocation of his ability to preach in Virginia. In addition to these looming concerns, the Council actively denied him license to preach at any more pulpits than he had already obtained license, and revoked the license granted him to preach in a certain county (Pilcher 120). However, in light of all of the legal problems with which Davies himself had to be concerned, his major concern was for the future of dissenting denominations in the Old Dominion, which was a matter that Davies viewed to hinge on the interpretation of the English Toleration Act of 1689. The Anglican government of Virginia, being under the crown, had declared that the Uniformity Act of 1662 had been extended to Virginia, and, by this, justified their actions in banning the free worship of dissenters in Virginia (i.e. any Christian or group of Christians that was not Anglican, Baptist and Presbyterian in particular). So, while appearing before the Council in 1750 to obtain preaching licenses for three more meeting houses, Davies presented his argument. Knowing that Attorney General Peyton Randolph had previously declared the English Toleration of 1689 to be of no effect in Virginia, Davies argued that if the Uniformity Act had been extended to Virginia (which the government used to justify its restrictions upon dissenting worship), then the Toleration Act had been extended to Virginia (under which restrictions upon dissenters is not justified); and, on these grounds, one would have to agree that the dissenters in Virginia should be free to worship without restriction. On the other hand, if one would grant that the Uniformity Act was in effect in Virginia, then one would also be obligated to grant that the Toleration Act was as well; yet, this would also mean that the dissenters should be free to worship. Either way it the issue was viewed, it was clear that the dissenters should have been be free to worship. Although Davies seemed to have won the argument, he did not win completely. For, even in England, the Toleration Act did not allow for a minister to preach at several different meeting houses (which was what Davies and all of the New Light movement wished to do in Virginia); instead, the Act (in England) allowed for the licensing of specific dissenting preachers to specific dissenting pulpits. Therefore, the same would hold true in Virginia, which meant that neither Davies nor any other dissenting preacher had the right to preach at any old pulpit that requested his presence. Indeed, this 'loop-hole' would pose great problems for the further evangelization that this New Light Presbyterian had in mind for the Virginian frontier--a country full of dissatisfied Anglicans that would later constitute a large part of the Southern Great Awakening. After much continued debate put forth in order to obtain more licenses to preach at more places, Davies would resolve, as a last resort, to take his petition to England in 1753 (Pilcher 119-134).

Arriving in London with Gilbert Tennent on Christmas Day of 1753, Davies continued to plead his case for toleration, but, primarily, went about preaching, gaining respect for the New Light cause in order to raise money for the College of New Jersey (of which he would someday become president). The two preachers went throughout England and Scotland preaching the New Light message, and it was as a result of this trip that Samuel Davies was granted the international acclaim of being one of America's most powerfully moving gospel preachers. After about fourteen months abroad it became clear to Davies that the battle for the religious toleration of the dissenters would have to be fought in Virginia, rather than in England (Pilcher 151). However, while working to bolster the cause of the College of New Jersey, Davies became more firm about the need to have an educated clergy, and returned home with a great desire to continue to do work for the College of New Jersey (Pilcher 135-157).

In the middle of 1755, Davies would return home to Virginia where war had already begun; with the cause of the dissenters resting upon the outcome of this war, Davies took up his oratorical might in order to muster together sufficient warriors for the dissenting cause (Pilcher 134). Upon his return home Davies rejoiced to discover that, as a result of the war, the Virginian government had removed its previous restrictions upon the dissenters (whom the government now saw as great allies, in opposition to the French and the Native Americans), and had allowed for New Light Presbyterian preachers to pour into the Old Dominion. Finding five active and permanent New Light preachers in the colony, Davies immediately began to organize a Presbytery, which was the next "logical and necessary step" (Pilcher 159). Through the Synod of New York, "[t]he new Hanover Presbytery was established at Pole Green Church in Hanover County on December 3, 1755, and Davies was immediately chosen moderator" (Pilcher 159). Upon its establishment, congregations from all over Virginia sent to the local Hanover Presbytery to obtain the services of Samuel Davies for their own congregation. On top of these requests there abounded so many more that "this frontier ministry became a centre of evangelistic work which extended into South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee" (Briggs qtd. in Pilcher 160); "[i]n fact, the Hanover Presbytery, the oldest in the South, is generally regarded as the mother Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in that region" (Pilcher 160). A period of revivals in Virginia followed Davies' return in 1755, wherein George Whitefield came through the district once more. Although the revivals and the spread of Presbyterianism continued well after Davies left Virginia, none of his predecessors would ever equal him in popularity; for Davies' open-air sermons were reported to have drawn over a thousand listeners (Pilcher 161). It would soon be very difficult for the Virginian preacher to move on and away from the peculiar people in whose midst he had spent so much energy laboring, and to whom his pastor's heart was so attached; nevertheless, change was on the way.

Beginning the closing chapter of his short life, Davies left the Virginia colony in 1759 to assume the presidency of the College of New Jersey. As president of the College, Davies' most notable accomplishments are to be found more in the area of improvement than in that of renovation. First, he improved the library, which he saw to be of the utmost importance to any institution of education. Second (and most necessary of all of the improvements), Davies required the students to take examinations in order to progress from one grade to the next, thus repairing perhaps the most lacking area prior to his presidency. Third, Davies "required the members of the senior class to deliver monthly orations on subjects of their own choosing" in order to prepare them for "composition and public speaking"--perhaps Davies' most favorite discipline (Pilcher 179-181); this stress on oratory turned commencement into a day more full of speeches than we moderns could imagine. In addition to his labors as president, Davies was also the regular preacher of the Presbyterian church at Princeton, his first time as the shepherd of one flock. As would be expected, large crowds came to hear the Virginian preacher (Pilcher 181-183).

After going one last time to visit Hanover in 1760, Davies returned to his work as president of the College of New Jersey and preacher to the Presbyterians of Princeton. Working late into the nights, Davies' health continued to deteriorate. The previous president of the College, who also died while in office, preached a message on Jeremiah 27:16 ("Thus saith the Lord, This year thou shalt die") on the day of his death. Dismissing the superstitious interpretations of that event offered by many of the time, Davies delivered a sermon on the same portion of Scripture about two weeks before he himself would die. After contracting "a severe cold for which he was improperly bled, Samuel Davies died a few weeks later on February 4, 1741 (Pilcher 185).

In conclusion, the life of Samuel Davies appears most remarkable when its accomplishments are considered within the time in which he was allotted to labor (Pilcher 186). As a composer, his sermons were unsurpassed in eloquence, even by men twice his age; his hymns establish him as America's first hymn-writer; and, in addition, his poems were widely published. As a preacher, his oratorical might equaled, if not exceeded, the best pulpit orators with which both America and Great Britain have ever been blessed; all of this accomplishment in oration can be shown without even mentioning his marked effects upon the "Southern secular oratory of the Revolution" (Pilcher 187). As a simple Christian man, his compassion and love extended well into educating African slaves in Virginia and into ministering to the needs of the Native Americans--all of this being said on top of the fact that he also cared for a wife and five children. As a religious and social reformer, he stands out as the most valiant warrior for religious tolerance in Virginia, whose foundational labor was used to usher in the Southern Great Awakening. Finally, and, no doubt, most gloriously of all, as a true proclaimer of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, Samuel Davies was a poor, earthen vessel who delighted in God, and through whom God, for His own glory, has been pleased to draw many other repentant sinners to Himself.


* The present author gratefully acknowledges his dependence upon the sources found in the bibliography that follows the paper proper. As shall be clearly observed by the studious reader, the present author has relied almost entirely upon George Pilcher's splendid biography on the life of Samuel Davies, entitled, Samuel Davies: Apostle of Dissent in Colonial Virginia, (Knoxville: University of Tenn. Press, 1971).

** This title, 'New Light Presbyterian,' refers to a certain Presbytery which had been formed by Samuel Blair and several others in 1741. This New Presbytery seems to have emerged when the aforesaid men left the "Old Light" Presbytery of New Castle; however, the records of such details, like many which surround the life of Samuel Davies, are scarce and rather sketchy (Pilcher 12-13). The term 'New Light' is obviously borrowed as a general term placed on the Great Awakening's earlier disciples in the colonies (Howison, qtd. in Pilcher 21).

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