Saturday, September 16

Samuel Davies

Though he lived only 37 years, Samuel Davies helped to shape American life and culture like few other men had even done before or since. Born in Newcastle County, Delaware, 1723, he was descended from sturdy Welsh stock on both sides of his family. His parents were both devout, but his mother especially exhibited an ardent piety. Indeed, years later Davies would say, “I am a son of prayer, like my namesake, Samuel the prophet, and my mother called me Samuel, because, she said, I have asked him of the Lord.”

When the Rev Samuel Blair opened his famous school at Fagg's Manor, Pennsylvania, Samuel Davies was put under him and there completed his formal education--both classical and theological. The slender frame of the young man was very weak when he completed his studies; however, he was licensed to preach by Newcastle Presbytery in 1746. The same year he married, and the following year was ordained an evangelist for the purpose of visiting vacant congregations in Virginia. Due to his inexperience, feeble health, and a fear he would dishonor the ministry, Davies was reluctant to go--but in obedience to Presbytery he set out.

Alas, shortly afterward, on this day in 1747, his wife and son died in a sudden and afflicting manner. The brief notice in his own Bible beside the wife's name says, “September 16, 1747, separated by death, and bereaved of an abortive son.” Grief broke his already weakened constitution, and his physical condition gave his friends great concern. In such a condition Davies was unwilling to receive a call to any congregation, but traveled from one vacant pulpit to another; his ministrations always being well received so that he received a number of earnest calls for his pastoral services. Among them was one from Hanover County, Virginia, signed by heads of about 150 families and delivered personally by one of their elders.

After many entreaties he finally accepted their call and sudden blessing was poured out upon the region. He had a remarkable vision for church planting--and he set out immediately to implement it as far and as wide as he could. At first there were five meeting houses in which he preached, and then seven in six counties, and later as many as fourteen separate meeting places over which Davies had charge. Some of these were more than 30 miles from one another.

Like Whitefield and Wesley, he read while riding on horseback from one charge to another, being all alone in that vast wilderness. The meeting house closest to where Davies lived, was a plain wooden building in Hanover County capable of holding 500 people. Amazingly, the building was too small for the multitudes that assembled--including large numbers of African-American slaves and freedmen. So great and steady was the progress of the church in that region that under his leadership the first presbytery in Virginia was organized in 1755 with five ministers, all younger disciples of Davies.

Hanover became the mother Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in the South--and became the seedbed of fervor for independence in the coming conflict with Britain. As Patrick Henry, a congregant in one of the churches established by Davies, later said, “Were it not for him, America freedom would have been still-born. In the Gospel he preached, the energy he displayed, and the courage he lived day by day, he modeled the true American temper.”


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Brother George – thanks for the post on Reverend Davies; one of my heroes! The Reverend Samuel Davies was also known as “the Apostle of Virginia.” Just south of my home here in the Shenandoah Valley, the Lexington Presbytery inherited a rich heritage from Hanover and Davies—that of teaching African-Americans to read so they could be evangelized and converted to Christ. According to one scholar, “No white person in colonial America was as successful as Davies in stimulating literacy among slaves in the South.” Davies’s purpose in teaching blacks to read was more than utilitarian. “Davies as a Presbyterian believed that the attainment of true religion by anyone, bond or free, black or white, required extensive knowledge that came from not only hearing the word of God but also reading it.”
Davies’s work among blacks “was the first sustained and successful program by a white clergyman in the South to stimulate large numbers of Africans and African Americans to read in English.” Davies, unlike many of his colonial contemporaries believed in the “full humanity of the African people.” In a 1757 sermon to slave owners, he proclaimed: “His immortality gives him a kind of infinite value. Let him be white or black, bond or free, a native or a foreigner, it is of no moment in this view: he is to live forever!” Davies laid the responsibility for the slaves’ condition squarely at the feet of their masters: “Your Negroes may be ignorant and stupid as to divine things not for want of capacity, but for want of instruction; not through perverseness, but through your negligence. . . . They are generally as capable of instruction, as the white people.” Davies’s comments regarding slaves being “capable of instruction as the white people” put him at odds with many whites, particularly Northern slave traders and Southern slave holders.
So successful were his efforts that James Davenport noted them in a letter to Jonathan Edwards, telling “of a remarkable work of conviction and conversion among whites and negroes, at Hanover in Virginia, under the ministry of Mr. Davies.” One hundred years later, Davies’s mantle of success among blacks would pass to a little known college professor and Presbyterian deacon—Thomas J. Jackson—the future “Stonewall.” Richard G. Williams, Jr., Author, Stonewall Jackson ~ The Black Man’s Friend Cumberland House, 2006.
(For a thorough treatment of Davies’s efforts, see Jeffrey H. Richards, “Samuel Davies and the Transatlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy in Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 111, no. 4, 2003).

Mike Southerland said...

Dr. Grant:

Thank you for posting this excellent article on Samuel Davies. Though I knew of him before 2007, I learned more about this great preacher during Vision Forum's Jamestown 400 contest. My seventh child, Samuel Davies Southerland was born on October 29, 2007.

Mike Southerland