In a Presbyterian meeting house in Hanover County, Virginia, a bright young boy listened intently to the preacher, trying his best to absorb every word. He had too. For he knew that his mother and older sister would quiz him on the sermon during the carriage ride home. That boy would grow up to be the eloquent American patriot Patrick Henry, who would credit that influential preacher for much of his oratorical skill, as well as his view of liberty. That preacher was Samuel Davies, acclaimed as “the outstanding preacher of Colonial America” and “the animating soul of the whole dissenting interest in Virginia and North Carolina” (Sweet, 65).
In the struggle for religious liberty in the American colonies, two Welshmen stand out: Roger Williams in New England (see Ninnau July-August 2015) and Samuel Davies in Virginia and North Carolina.
Samuel Davies was born November 3, 1723, to David and Martha Davies, Welsh Baptists of New Castle County, Delaware. The Davieses were deeply religious, and Martha named her son after the prophet Samuel with the hope that he would enter the ministry. Yet when Samuel was of age, the Davieses lacked the finances for a university education, so they sent him to be tutored by the Rev. Samuel Blair in Blair’s academy in Faggs Manor, Pennsylvania. Blair’s institution was one of several disparagingly dubbed “log colleges.” The first so-called Log College was founded in 1735 by the Rev. William Tennent to educate his younger sons and other promising young men for the ministry, one of whom was Samuel Blair. After Blair assumed a pastorate in Chester County, Pennsylvania, he opened an academy similar to Tennent’s. Samuel Davies was to be his most renowned graduate and leader of The Great Awakening in the Southern Colonies, particularly in Virginia.
The Anglican Church had held official status in Virginia since its founding, receiving tax support from the colonial legislature. Dissenting religious groups were tolerated, but their right to formal worship was effectively denied. In 1743, the colonial legislature of Virginia licensed Presbyterian “reading rooms” in Polegreen and three communities in and around Hanover County. Samuel Davies was commissioned as an evangelist to Virginia in February of 1747, and at age twenty-three he set out for the South with his bride of four months, Sarah (Kirkpatrick). Davies was determined to minister to folk of any denomination, preaching in dissenting communities and evangelizing wherever the opportunity arose.
In September of 1747, tragedy struck: Sarah Davies died in childbirth only a month before their first anniversary. The loss hit Samuel so hard that he began to believe that he, too, always of frail health, might not have long to live. That thought drove Davies to redouble his evangelistic efforts. By 1748, Davies had set up his base of ministry in Hanover County, Virginia. In October of that year, he married Jane Holt from a prominent Williamsburg family. They would have six children together, one dying at birth.
In the 1740’s, Davies was the only revivalistic – “New-light” or “New Side” – Presbyterian preacher in the county. There were, however, a few traditional – “Old Side” – Presbyterians, who presented little threat to the Established Church. Davies was determined to avoid conflict with the Established Church clergy, so his sermons were free of rancorous rhetoric or attacks on other denominations. He focused, instead, on careful exposition of Scripture and clear presentation of the Gospel. The strategy worked, much to the chagrin of the same Established clergy Davies had studiously avoided attacking. In 1752, Commissary William Dawson wrote the following to the Bishop of London:
The Dissenters were but an inconsiderable number before the late arrival of certain teachers from the northern colonies. . . . But since Mr. Davies has been allowed to officiate in so many places . . . there has been a great defection from our religious assemblies. The generality of his followers, I believe, were born and bred in our communion. (Cited in Sweet, 66)
Davies would eventually establish seven Presbyterian congregations in five counties and win greater religious freedom for dissenters of all denominations. Through his legal astuteness, he was able to secure in Virginia the application of England’s Toleration Act of 1689. His advocacy of the principles of the “free-born mind” or “liberty of conscience,” after the model of Roger Williams, eventually led to the establishment, after Davies’ death, of Virginia’s Declaration of Religious Rights (1776) and Statute for Religious Freedom (1786).
Few colonialists, especially in the South, questioned the propriety of that “peculiar institution” of slavery, nor did Samuel Davies oppose it. He did, however, conduct a vigorous and extensive ministry to the slave population. Unlike the Baptist and Methodist missionaries who focused on a personal experience of salvation alone, Davies insisted that slaves be taught to read since an understanding and application of the Bible was essential to the Christian life. Davies himself estimated that he had ministered to over a thousand African slaves and had baptized hundreds. African converts were admitted into his congregations and were permitted to preach. He even wrote specific hymns for African ministry. The Negro spiritual, “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian in My Heart,” is believed to have been inspired, if not composed, by Samuel Davies.
In 1753, Davies accompanied fellow Presbyterian minister Gilbert Tennent on an eleven-month fundraising tour of England and Scotland on behalf of the College of New Jersey, an outgrowth of Tennent’s Log College, during which Davies preached sixty-three times. The mission raised six thousand pounds, including a large contribution from the grandson of Oliver Cromwell.
In 1759, Davies was offered the presidency of the College of New Jersey (which became Princeton University in 1898), succeeding Jonathan Edwards, who had died after only six weeks in office. At first Davies demurred, believing someone else more qualified, but he eventually accepted. Davies’s own tenure was also to be short. He died on February 4, 1761, at the age of 37.
Few American ministers have had as much impact on the formation of the yet-to-be-founded United States of America as Samuel Davies. Davies influenced not only the eloquence, but also the principles of the noted orator and patriot Patrick Henry. Davies’ fight for religious liberty in the middle and southern colonies, formed the groundwork for the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
As for Davies’ spiritual contribution, historian William Sweet sums it up well:
“Among the many prolific eighteenth-century preachers, few if any can be read more profitably today than Samuel Davies.” (Sweet, 70)
Sweet, William Warren. Revivalism in America. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1965.
First published in Ninnau, Sept-Oct 2016. Copyright 2016 by Thomas L. Jones.