Samuel Davies (clergyman)

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Samuel Davies
President of Princeton University
In office
Preceded by Jonathan Edwards
Succeeded by Samuel Finley
Personal details
Born (1723-11-03)November 3, 1723
New Castle County, Delaware Colony
Died February 4, 1761(1761-02-04) (aged 37)
Princeton, Province of New Jersey
Spouse(s) Sarah Kilpatrick (1746–1747); Jane Holt (1748–1761)
Children Six
Profession Pastor, university president, poet, hymnist
Religion Christian, Presbyterian

Samuel Davies (November 3, 1723 – February 4, 1761)[1] was an evangelist and Presbyterian minister. Davies ministered in Hanover County from 1748-1759, followed by a term as the fourth President of Princeton University, then known as the College of New Jersey, from 1759 to 1761. One of the first non-Anglican preachers in Virginia, he was a strong advocate for religious freedom, and helped to institute significant religious reforms in the colony. Davies was also a prolific writer, authoring several hymns and publishing a book of poetry.

Early life[edit]

Davies was born in New Castle County, Delaware to David Davies and Martha Thomas Davies, Baptists of Welsh descent. Davies's mother eventually became a follower of presbyterian doctrine, which led to his earliest exposure to Calvinist theology.[1] A child of deeply religious parents, his mother named him after the prophet Samuel.[2] The Davieses could not afford to send their son to college, so they instead sent him to receive his early education under the tutelage of Rev. Samuel Blair at the academy he conducted in Faggs Manor, Pennsylvania.[3] Blair's son, also named Samuel, was a member of Princeton's graduating class of 1760, the final class over which Davies presided as school president. The younger Blair later became the second chaplain of the United States House of Representatives.[4]

Career in the ministry[edit]

Service in Virginia[edit]

Davies completed his studies with Blair, and was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of New Castle in 1746.[5] He joined the New Side synod of New York, and married Sarah Kirkpatrick on October 23, 1746, while he was preaching in Pennsylvania and Delaware. He was ordained as an evangelist to Virginia several months later, on February 17, 1747.[1] In Virginia he served religious dissenters to the Anglican Church in Hanover County, Virginia, working as pastor of four congregations which had been licensed by the Colonial government in 1743. He eventually led seven congregations in five counties, fulfilling his duties while suffering through frail health from tuberculosis.[5] In addition to his illness, he also suffered through the death of his wife Sarah from a miscarriage on September 15, 1747, shortly before their first anniversary.[1][2] The death of his wife led Davies to believe that he too, was near death, and therefore threw himself wholeheartedly into his preaching ministry. He eventually overcame his illness, but continued to preach enthusiastically. He returned to Virginia in May of 1748, and October 4, 1748, he married Jane Holt, a member of a prominent Williamsburg family. He fathered six children with Jane, including one child who died at birth.[1]

As the first non-Anglican minister licensed to preach in Virginia, Davies advanced the cause of religious and civil liberty in colonial Virginia. Davies' strong religious convictions led him to value the "freeborn mind" and the inalienable "liberty of conscience" that the established Anglican Church in Virginia often failed to respect in the days before independence. Davies was one of the main founders and first moderator of the Presbytery of Hanover, a group of all the Presbyterian ministers in Virginia and North Carolina, and was considered the leading voice of religious dissenters in the region.[5] By appealing to British law and notions of British liberty, Davies agitated in an agreeable and effective manner for greater religious tolerance and laid the groundwork for the ultimate separation of church and state in Virginia that was consummated by the Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. He served as the first minister at Providence Presbyterian Church in Louisa County, Virginia until 1759.[6]

Evangelism of slaves[edit]

Davies also spent his time in Virginia pioneering the literacy of the colony's slave population. Although he was not opposed to slavery, he felt that slaves were as equally deserving of direct access to the word of God as their masters.[1] He made the slave population a particular focus of his ministry, and there were several reports at the time of Davies converting African slaves at unusually high numbers.[7] Davies used the educational materials he received from his sponsors in Great Britain to provide instruction to slaves. He eventually baptized hundreds of slaves to Christianity, and they joined other members of the congregation at the communion table.[1] The congregations allowed slaves to preach in the Church. Davies estimated that he ministered to over a thousand black people during his time in Virginia.[8] A unique aspect of Davies's religious work among the slave population was his attempts at teaching them to read. Differing from Baptist and Methodist evangelists, who based conversion solely on an outpouring of the spirit, Davies believed that no one, regardless of race or social status, can have true religion without both hearing and reading the Word of God.[7]

President of Princeton[edit]

At the same time that Davies was starting his ministry in Virginia, six students began their studies in Elizabeth, N.J., at the College of New Jersey, which had been established in 1746 to educate "those of every Religious Denomination." In 1753 the trustees of the college persuaded Davies, whose work in Virginia had been favorably noted, to go to Great Britain to raise money for the fledgling school. The journey was at times harrowing, but Davies confided to his diary that "To be instrumental of laying a foundation of extensive benefit to mankind, not only in the present but in future generations, is a most animating prospect." In the end, Davies and a fellow Presbyterian minister, Gilbert Tennent, spent eleven months in Great Britain, with Davies preaching sixty times during their stay. Davies and Tennent were able to raise substantial support, mainly through church collections, enough to build Nassau Hall as the first permanent building on the new campus in Princeton. One significant donor was the grandson of Oliver Cromwell, who gave three guineas to support their efforts.[5] Davies and Tennent eventually raised a total of four thousand pounds on behalf of the College of New Jersey.[9]

After his return from Great Britain, Davies's prominence in Virginia grew during the French and Indian War as he implored men to do their part "to secure the inestimable blessings of liberty." Governor Dinwiddie declared Davies to be the colony's best recruiter.

In 1759, four years after he had returned from his trip to Great Britain on behalf of the College of New Jersey, the trustees of the college called on Davies again – this time to become the school's fourth president. Davies initially declined the position, thinking that one of the trustees, Samuel Finley, was better qualified.[5] The board of trustees eventually persuaded Davies to take the job, and he succeeded Jonathan Edwards, who died just six weeks after his inauguration. Davies's own term as president was also cut short when he died in 1761 at the age of 37. Finley succeeded Davies as the school's president,[5] and he was buried alongside his predecessor in Princeton Cemetery.

Death and final sermon[edit]

Davies is well known for preaching what turned out to be his own funeral sermon. The sermon, entitled "This Very Year You Shall Die!" was delivered at Princeton on New Year's Day, 1761, with the reference text being Jeremiah 28:16. In his sermon Davies states that "it is not only possible--but highly probable, that death may meet some of us within the compass of this year."[10] Almost prophetically, Davies died one month later from pneumonia, on February 4, 1761.[5]


Preacher and orator[edit]

Davies accomplished much despite his relatively short life, and lived the creed to which he exhorted the Princeton Class of 1760 in his baccalaureate address, which has been echoed by the presidents of Princeton throughout its history: "Whatever be your place, imbibe and cherish a public spirit. Serve your generation."[5] Samuel Davies was one of the major contributors to the Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals which eventually caused America to break away from the Church of England.[1] Davies' rhetorical gifts were renowned, and among the many people influenced by him was the orator Patrick Henry. Henry was taken to listen to many of Davies' sermons as a young boy, often reciting portions of them aloud at his mother's request. He would later claim that Davies had the "most profound influence" on him, and considered him to be the greatest speaker he had ever heard.

Davies took his preaching very seriously, and believed that sermons should be delivered "with a grave and affectionate solemnity."[2] A contemporary and friend, minister David Bostwick said that Davies' sermons were "adapted to pierce the conscience and affect the heart," while William Buell Sprague noted that "he spoke with a glowing zeal...and an eloquence more impressive and effective than had then ever graced the American pulpit."[2] Davies' sermons went through several editions in the United States and England, and for fifty years after his death they were among the most widely read in the English language.[5] The first five volumes of sermons were printed in London from 1767 to 1771, and the best known American edition is three-volume set, which appeared in New York in 1851.[9]

Songwriter and poet[edit]

Musicologists credit Davies with being the first American-born hymn writer.[8] Davies followed the lines of Isaac Watts, and while his verses are considered "solid, but somewhat dry and heavy,"[11] several of his hymns maintained popularity in American hymnals into the twentieth century. Two of his most popular hymns are "Eternal Spirit, Source of Light," and "Great God of wonders, all Thy ways."[11] In 1752, Davies had a collection of his poems published in Williamsburg, titled Miscellaneous Poems, Chiefly on Divine Subjects.[8] Davies' poems were written in the meditative style of Edward Taylor, although his attempts at putting "sublime evangelical rhetoric into couplet form" produced writing that had a "cramped" style.[8]

Educator and evangelist[edit]

Even before becoming president of Princeton Davies proved to be highly beneficial to the university. In addition to raising money to build Nassau Hall, Davies received funding from Great Britain in order to build a house for the school's president, and to start a charitable fund to educate young people. Upon his selection as president one trustee wrote to another "I believe there was never a College happier in a president. You can hardly conceive what prodigious, uncommon gifts the God of Heaven had bestowed on that man."[12] While serving as the school's president, Davies drew up the first catalog of the university library, 1,281 books in all.[12] Davies' efforts to evangelize slaves in Virginia has come to be called "the first sustained proselytization of slaves" in that colony, earning him scholarly attention into the present day.[7]

Archival collections[edit]

The Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has a collection of Davies’ personal papers including correspondence with Rev. David Cowel, manuscripts of his sermons and a manuscript for one of Davies’ published works.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Whitley, William Bland. "Samuel Davies (1723–1761)". Encyclopedia Virginia. 18 January 2012. Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d Ellis, Thomas Talbot (April 1983). "Samuel Davies: Apostle of Virginia" (PDF). The Banner of Truth Magazine. Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  3. ^ Blair, Samuel. "Letter from Mr. Samuel Blair, Minister at New Londonderry, to Mr. Prince, Minister at Boston, August 6th, 1744." Retrieved June 8, 2014.
  4. ^ "Samuel Blair Sermons, 1766-1769: Finding Aid". Princeton University Library. 2008. Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Leitch, Alexander (1978). "Davies, Samuel". A Princeton Companion. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691046549. Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  6. ^ Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission staff (October 1972). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Providence Presbyterian Church" (PDF). Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 
  7. ^ a b c Richards, Jeffrey H (2003). "Samuel Davies and the Transatlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy in Virginia". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society) 111 (4). JSTOR 4250141. 
  8. ^ a b c d Thomson, Gale (2005). "Samuel Davies". Dictionary of Literary Biography. Thomson Corporation. ISBN 0787681733. Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  9. ^ a b "Rev. Samuel Davies". Evangelical Tracts. Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  10. ^ Davies, Samuel (1761). This Very Year You Are Going to Die!. Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  11. ^ a b "Davies, Samuel, 1723-1761 > Texts". Retrieved 14 May 2012. 
  12. ^ a b "The Presidents of Princeton University." Retrieved February 2, 2016.

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
Jonathan Edwards
President of the College of New Jersey
Succeeded by
Samuel Finley