Samuel Davies: Apostle of Virginia

Princeton University Chapel
By Thomas Talbot Ellis - Posted at Fire and Ice:

[Reprinted from The Banner of Truth Magazine, no. 235, April 1983,with permission]

Some years ago the late Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones said to an audience in the United States, 'You Americans do not know one of your greatest preachers'. He then pronounced a name almost unknown — the name, 'Samuel Davies'. Unhappily, we Americans still do not know one of our greatest preachers. Graduates of the finest seminaries in our land have not so much as heard of Samuel Davies. This is certainly not universally true, but those who have become aquainted with this man have found reason to agree with Dr Lloyd-Jones. Davies is indeed one of America's greatest preachers.

The life of Samuel Davies was remarkable in many respects. For one thing, he may be said to have preached his own funeral sermon when he was only thirty-seven. The occasion was a service in the chapel of the College of New Jersey at Princeton on New Year's Day, 1761, and his text, Jeremiah 28.16, 'This year thou shalt die'. The sermon was designed to alarm the careless and unconverted among the students. In that sermon Davies said: 'And it is not only possible, but highly probable, death may meet some of us within the compass of this year. Perhaps I may die this year'. He concluded: 'It is of little importance to me whether I die this year, or not; but the only important point is, that I make a good use of my future time, whether it be longer or shorter'. The preacher died one month later on February 4th.

Born in Newcastle County, Delaware, 1723, Samuel Davies was of Welsh extraction on both sides of his family. His parents were deeply religious, but especially did his mother exhibit an ardent piety. Years later Davies could 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'.

At the age of twelve, young Samuel received convictions of a religious nature that were abiding. In his fifteenth year, having a settled confidence of being justified by faith through grace, he made a public profession of faith, joining the Presbyterian Church. His heart was impressionable; his conscience tender, his feelings lively; and in reviewing his own conduct, he became at this early period a severe and unsparing judge of himself 'in all things pertaining unto godliness', and continued so throughout his life.

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. Many other men who later became eminent in the church also studied with Blair. These young friends received their education under the preaching and teaching of one who took a leading part in perhaps the greatest religious awakening this country has ever known. The piety, talents, and ministerial usefulness of Samuel Blair were renowned. Years later when Davies revisited the church in which Mr Blair had preached, he says that he could not help crying out, 'Oh, how dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven'. When mature, his own estimate of the preaching of Mr Blair was that is was superlative. After returning from an extended tour of England and Scotland he was asked about the preachers he had heard while abroad. He replied 'that there was scarce one of them who exceeded, and most came far short of his old master, the incomparable Mr Blair, both as to the matter of their discourses, and the impression produced by their delivery'.

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 dishonour the ministry, Davies was reluctant to go. In obedience to Presbytery he set out.

Before beginning to preach Davies first visited the Governor of Virginia and was favourably received. He was granted by the court at Williamsburg a licence to preach as a dissenting minister, the first ever granted in that colony. I do not intend to go into the details, but a great and violent controversy raged in Virginia at this time over dissenting churches, The Established Church being the only one allowed in that colony. Those who did not attend the state church were greatly harassed. It was Samuel Davies who, by his prudent behaviour and brilliant reasoning and oratory in the courts of Virginia, won a measure of tolerance for those who were outside the Anglican communion. It was a lifelong and uphill fight, yet by God's help and his own gracious deportment he was always able to continue the ministry God had given him.

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