An Introduction to the Life of Samuel Davies

Samuel Davies was the first Presbyterian minister east of the Shenandoah and Appalachian Mountains to be lawfully licensed in Virginia.

…Third, Davies was one of the first American ministers to actively labor among the African slaves, and received many of them into membership in his Hanover congregation. Fourth, he started a mission to the Overhill Cherokees along the western borders of North Carolina and South Carolina. Fifth, his sermons were among the most popular in print for nearly a century after his death. Finally, he was the fourth President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton College or Princeton University).

 

Patrick Henry awoke early in the morning on March 20, 1775, which was a day of great importance for Virginia and the American colonies. A light snow was falling as he mounted his horse for the twenty-mile ride to Richmond.[1] Henry was the delegate for Hanover County to the second meeting of the Virginia Convention that would debate the issue of waging war with Great Britain. Many of the delegates were Tories who opposed any rebellion against the Crown. Recently bereaved of his wife, Sallie, after twenty years of marriage, the impending crisis at this convention weighed heavily on Henry’s heart.

When Henry arrived in Richmond, the sky was clearing and the delegates were gathering outside St. John’s Parish Church. There was a flurry of excitement with horses, gigs, and carriages everywhere, according to witnesses. St. John’s, which sat conspicuously on Church Hill, was the only building in the city that could seat the one-hundred-and-thirty delegates and friends from sixty-one counties. Suddenly, a howling March wind swept through the church grounds, upsetting the horses and sending the delegates scurrying for seats. The foul weather further depressed an already downcast assembly, particularly Henry, who quickly repaired to the third pew.

Peyton Randolph, speaker of the Virginia House of Burgesses, was elected President of the Convention, which made the cause of rebellion appear hopeless. Little was accomplished the first day. The following day, Henry made a resolution to arm the colony which passed the convention with ease. His second motion, to declare war with Great Britain, was hotly debated and vigorously opposed by delegates Edmund Pendleton, Robert Carter Nicholas, Richard Bland, Benjamin Harrison, and George Wythe. Much of their opposition focused on Henry himself with some delegates ready to oppose any measure which he championed.

On the epoch fourth day of this convention, March 23, Henry passed “through the westerly gate in the brick wall surrounding the churchyard and . . .  into the little wooden building.”[2]  The weather was balmy and the church windows were opened to let in the refreshing breeze.[3] Randolph called the convention to order at 10 a.m. and the ironic prayer for the King was read by Reverend Miles Selden, rector of the St. John’s Church. A motion from the Jamaican Assembly[4] was read to the convention by Pendleton, the delegate from Caroline County. That resolution wished for “a speedy return to those halcyon days” of British rule as “a free and happy people.”[5] This sentiment aroused the patriotic spirit of Henry who quickly presented amendments which were vigorously opposed by several influential members of the Convention.

Rising from his seat, Henry spoke in favor of his amendments without attacking the patriotism of the opponents to his motion. In the audience were John Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington. The time for action was now, in Henry’s opinion. Before he finished, Henry gained immortality for his speech with the final sentence: “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

As the delegates reflected on his words, liberty and freedom wafted through the assembly like the balmy breeze that blew in the open windows. Colonel Edward Carrington, a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress in 1786-1788, was so overcome with emotion as he listened by an open window that he exclaimed, “Let me be buried on this spot!”[6]

Henry dramatically held up an ivory letter-opener as he exclaimed, “Give me liberty . . . ,” and feigned stabbing his heart as he uttered the word “death.”[7]  This speech stunned the convention into silence for a few minutes before Richard Henry Lee rose to second Henry’s motion. Jefferson, who called Henry the “greatest orator ever,” spoke in favor of the motion with great eloquence. Henry’s speech carried the day. His amendment was passed, and the colony of Virginia prepared for war with Great Britain.

Where did Henry, the former tavern keeper and planter whom some considered to be illiterate, acquire such oratorical powers? As a youth, he drove his mother and sisters by carriage over Hanover County’s back roads from their home at Studley to hear the great Samuel Davies preach.[8] On the ride home, he was required to recite as much of the sermon as he could remember, which was undoubtedly the source of his education in oratory. Henry repeated the sermons word for word and mimicked the gestures of the man he esteemed as “the greatest orator he ever heard.”[9] Two decades before his speech to the Virginia Convention at Richmond, Henry had heard several of Davies’ war sermons, particularly “Religion and Patriotism the Constituents of Good Soldiers,” which was preached at Hanover Courthouse on August 17, 1755 to the company raised by Captain Samuel Overton for the French and Indian War. There are no phrases in Davies’ sermons that exactly match Henry’s immortal words, but the ideas of fighting for liberty and preparing for death are interspersed throughout them. Many of the ideas in Henry’s speech were inimical to Davies’ thoughts and style of oratory.

Who was Samuel Davies, whose preaching prowess was the model for one of the most important speeches in American history? Known by few today, Davies was, in the opinion of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, former pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, “the greatest preacher you ever produced in this country.”[10] The man who inspired some of the most important words in the history of the United States and who championed religious toleration in Virginia well deserves our study.

Without Davies’ example, Patrick Henry might never have become the orator and statesman he was. Without Henry’s moving speech before Virginia’s convention in March of 1775, that colony might not have voted in favor of the Revolutionary War. Without Virginia’s support in the cause of freedom, her favorite son, George Washington, might not have led the Continental Army through all the difficult days and losing battles to eventual victory over the British in the Revolutionary War. Perhaps independence would have come at a later date through different circumstances, but the place of Davies in the prelude to the Revolution is but one of the reasons he is worthy of this book.

There are several other reasons Davies is worthy of our attention. First, he was a champion of religious toleration and freedom. He was the first Presbyterian minister east of the Shenandoah and Appalachian Mountains to be lawfully licensed in Virginia, and he was intimately involved in efforts to secure the freedoms guaranteed by the Act of Toleration in 1689 for other Dissenters. Second, he was active in promoting the flames of revival throughout Virginia for over a decade. Third, he was one of the first American ministers to actively labor among the African slaves, and received many of them into membership in his Hanover congregation. Fourth, he started a mission to the Overhill Cherokees along the western borders of North Carolina and South Carolina. Fifth, his sermons were among the most popular in print for nearly a century after his death. Finally, he was the fourth President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton College or Princeton University), succeeding the venerable Jonathan Edwards upon his unexpected death. All these reasons commend his life to us as worthy of our interest and study.

Dewey Roberts, is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL. This article is excerpted from the first chapter of a new biography, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, and is used with permission.

[1] Norine Dickson Campbell, Patrick Henry: Patriot and Statesman (New York: Devin-Adair, 1969), 123. Most of the information for the first six paragraphs is taken from this work.

[2] Robert Douthat Meade, Patrick Henry, Practical Revolutionary (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969), 23.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jamaica was a British colony

[5] Meade, Patrick Henry, Practical Revolutionary, 23.

[6] Campbell, Patrick Henry: Patriot and Statesman, 131.

[7] Meade, Patrick Henry, Practical Revolutionary, 35.

[8] Campbell, Patrick Henry: Patriot and Statesman, 17.

[9] Ibid., p. 19.

[10] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 263.