Samuel Davies – Preacher, Father, and Poet

 Samuel Davies – Preacher, Father, and Poet

            Most parents share mixed feelings of excitement, wonder, and anxiety at the birth of a child. Samuel Davies, one of the main preachers of the Great Awakening, was no exception. In fact, his profound knowledge of Scriptures and of God’s staggering work of creation and redemption served to amplify these feelings. To Davies, his son John Rodgers was more than what we would call “a bundle of joy.” He was “fearfully and wondrously made” for eternity, with all the implications of that weighty thought. Davies expressed these feelings in a poem.

Thou little wond'rous miniature of man,

Form'd by unerring Wisdom's perfect plan;

Thou little stranger, from eternal night

Emerging into life's immortal light;

Thou heir of worlds unknown, thou candidate

For an important everlasting state,

Where this young embryo shall its pow'rs expand,

Enlarging, rip'ning still, and never stand.

            Davies knew that John was born in a difficult world. Davies’s first wife and first son had died six years earlier in childbirth. Later, one of Davies’s daughters died in infancy. The brevity of life was an ever-present reality. Davies couldn’t promise John a long life, nor an easy one.

Now thou art born into an anxious state

Of dubious trial for thy future fate:

Now thou art listed in the war of life,

The prize immense, and O! severe the strife.

            Davies reserved his greatest fear for the last lines of his poem. Knowing by experience that not every child who was brought up in a Christian home preserved the faith that was taught in the home, he closed his poem with an anguished prayer that John would not go astray.

            Maker of souls! Avert so dire a doom,

            Or snatch her back to native nothing’s gloom!

            Some modern critics have found these words unduly pessimistic, but Davies was honestly sharing a heart-felt concern. “There is nothing that can wound a parent’s heart so deeply as the thought that he should bring up children to dishonor his God here, and be miserable hereafter,” he wrote his friend Thomas Gibbon. “I beg your prayers for mine, and you may expect a return of the same kind.”[1]

            With this concern fixed in his mind, Davies took care of his children’s education, being “unwilling to trust them to a stranger.”[2] At times, he found his homeschooling experience quite challenging: “I find the business of education much more difficult than I expected.  My dear little creatures sob and drop a tear now and then under my instructions.”[3]

            As always, his comfort was in knowing that grace is a gift of God, and all he could do was try to teach his children well. “Grace cannot be cultivated by natural descent; and if it could, they would receive but little from me.”[4]

Addressing the Crucial Issues of Life and Death

            Born in 1723 of a Welsh family who had emigrated to Pennsylvania, Davies relocated to Virginia and was ordained Presbyterian minister at the age of 22. He soon became known for his preaching abilities. Ministering at the height of the Great Awakening, he distinguished himself for his wise moderation and adherence to Scriptures.

            Apparently, his preaching was never accompanied by the emotional outbursts that were typical of his time. In recent years, theologian Hughes Oliphant Old described him as “the most well balanced, the most literate, the most popular in his appeal and at the same time the most theologically cogent American preacher of the eighteenth century.”[5]

            Davies didn’t shy from the issues of his day but, according to Old, eschewed “the contentiousness” that was so prevalent in preachers “of lesser magnitude.”[6] Two causes he had at heart were the promotion of religious freedom in Virginia (an Anglican state that had issued strong restrictions against other denominations) and the education of slaves. He made great strides on both fronts. Old believes that Davies’s “irenic spirit” had much to do with the acceptance of the Great Awakening in Anglican Virginia.[7]

            While, subject to the culture of his day, Davies owned a couple of slaves, he didn’t subscribe to the Enlightenment idea that some races possessed inferior mental abilities – a concept that left many slave-owners uninterested in their slaves’ eternal fate. Any apparent disparity in mental faculties or dispositions, Davies said, was “not for want of capacity, but for want of instruction.”[8]

            Moved by this conviction, he became one of the first and most earnest preachers to enslaved people. He also worked with the London-based Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge (SPCK), acquiring from them Bibles and instructional books for free distribution.

            In promoting these causes, however, Davies never strayed from his ultimate goal of bringing men and women into God’s kingdom. Education was important in order to understand Scriptures. “People may be diverted from thinking about them,” Old wrote about Davies, “but in the end the ultimate questions of life and death, faith and reason, or time and eternity keep reasserting themselves simply because they are the ultimate questions. It was about these questions that Davies preached and that is why people flocked to hear him.”[9]

Davies at Princeton

Davies moved to Princeton in July 1759, when he was appointed fourth President of the College of New Jersey, after Jonathan Edwards. He had declined a similar invitation the previous year, but the College insisted. At the same time, he served as pastor of a local Presbyterian church.

            Here, as in Virginia, he continued to be supported by his second wife Jane Holt. He called her Chara, a Greek word meaning “joy” or “happiness.” His poems to her reveal his deep love and appreciation. Thanks to her, he said, “I grew into a finish’d man, compleat, and hardly feel the huge unwieldy weight.” She also helped him “to put the Stoic off and soften into Man.” In other words, she assisted him in becoming more mature and tender-hearted.

            A poet at heart, Davies continued to write poems throughout his ministry, both for his personal use and the encouragement of others. Some were turned into hymns, making him the earliest colonial hymn-writer. As other pastors at that time, he wrote some of these hymns to accompany his sermons. One of these, “Great God of Wonders,” is still sung today.

            Davies was greatly appreciated at Princeton. An unswerving promoter of education, he made improvements both to the curriculum and the library, in the effort to allow the students “to investigate Truth thro’ her intricate recesses; and to guard against the Stratagems and Assaults of Error.”[10]. Investigating truth included reading works with opposing views.

            But his health, already taxed from years of “consumption” (tuberculosis), didn’t last long, and a common cold turned into a fatal case of pneumonia. He died on February 4, 1761, at 38 years of age.

            His legacy as preacher and forerunner of religious toleration continued, and is still a subject of many studies. Less well-known is his work for the education of enslaved people. But in the 1830’s, when the laws against the instruction of slaves became particularly stringent, many slaves still had in their possession the Bibles and books Samuel Davies had distributed in the previous century.

 



[1] Samuel Davies, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Davies: Formerly President of the College of New Jersey, Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1832, p. 106.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., pp. 106-107.

[4] Ibid. p. 107.

[5] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, Vol. 5, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsman, p. 154.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 156.

[8] Frank Lambert, "Pedlar in Divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 140

[9] Old, The Reading and Preaching, p. 157.

[10] Hugh Amory, David D. Hall, A History of the Book in America, Vol. 1, The University of North Carolina Press, 2007, p. 420.