Samuel Davies (1723-1761)
Samuel Davies was born in Delaware in 1723. His parents were born near Pontypridd, but later emigrated to North America. They were earnest Christians; his mother especially was a woman of prayer.
The parents experienced a long delay in conceiving a child and Samuel later wrote, ‘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 he was eleven, his Baptist mother became attached to the Presbyterians and, as the lamb follows the ewe, Samuel followed her, leaving the ministry and education of their Baptist pastor Abel Morgan.
At 12 years of age Samuel came to a personal knowledge of the Lord, and at 15 made a public profession of faith and joined the Presbyterian church. At that time, Samuel Blair opened his famous school, the Log College at Fagg’s Manor, where Samuel Davies received his education.
Blair became his role model – ‘my father, tutor, pastor, brother, friend!’ He enjoyed Blair’s powerful ministry and they experienced a solemn and exhilarating new spiritual dimension, which Davies later described in this way: ‘Suddenly a deep, general concern about eternal things spread through the country; sinners started out of their slumbers, broke off from their vices, began to cry out “What shall we do to be saved?”, and made it the great business of their life to prepare for the world to come.
‘Then the gospel seemed almighty, and carried all before it. It pierced the very hearts of men with an irresistible power. I have seen thousands at once melted down under it; all eager to hear as for life, and hardly a dry eye to be seen among them.
‘Many have since backslidden, and all their religion is come to nothing, or dwindled away into mere formality. But, blessed be God, thousands still remain shining monuments of the power of divine grace in that glorious day’. Davies’ preaching, like many others’, became authoritative, fervent and heart searching.
At 24 he married and was sent by his presbytery to Virginia as an evangelist. This Anglican colony granted Davies the first licence they ever gave to a dissenting minister. There he battled with the established church and built up Virginia’s nonconformist churches.
Davies’ marriage was short-lived. His wife died, and he wrote in his Bible besides her name: ‘September 15, 1747, separated by death and bereaved of an abortive son’.
One hundred and fifty families from Hanover, Virginia, issued a call to him to become their pastor, and so to the backwoods of that state he went. He had the pastoral charge of five meeting houses and 14 separate preaching stations. He read as he rode on horseback from one place to another through the vast forests of Virginia.
The Hanover meeting place was capable of holding 500 people, but in the summer the building was too small and they met in the open air. R. L. Dabney’s ancestors heard the gospel from Davies’ lips, and a century later Dabney himself served one of his congregations.
In the first three years of Samuel Davies’ ministry, an average of 100 people a year were united to the church, while many others made a profession of faith, but would not come to the Lord’s Table.
Three hundred Afro-Americans heard him regularly, half of them coming to the Lord’s Table. Some had been born in Africa, brought on slave ships to America, and converted under his ministry. Hanover became the mother church of the Southern Presbyterian Church.
In 1752, Davies and Gilbert Tennent were sent to the British Isles to raise money for erecting buildings for Princeton Seminary. Though only 29 he was well received, his reputation as a preacher going before him.
King George II invited him to preach before the royal family. He kept a journal which was printed by the University of Illinois Press in 1967. It is full of fascinating observations: ‘I visited Nathaniel Lardner, the celebrated author of The credibility of gospel history,and I was really surprised at the sight of him, as he differed so much from the ideas which I had formed of so great a man.
‘He is a little, pert, old gent, full of sprightly conversation, but so deaf that he seems to hear nothing at all. I was obliged to tell him my mind and answer his questions in writing; and he keeps pen and paper always on the table for that purpose and constrained me to dine with him’.
He met Dr Gill, the short Wesley brothers, Doddridge’s widow, and the Erskines in Scotland. He and Gilbert Tennent returned with enough gifts – about £4,000 – to help erect Nassau Hall in Princeton. But none of the preachers he heard in the British Isles could compare to his beloved Samuel Blair.
His welcome return to Hanover, after 11 months abroad, was short lived. Aaron Burr, president of Princeton College, died in 1757, to be followed by Jonathan Edwards his father-in-law, who died the following year.
The trustees turned to 35-year-old Samuel Davies to follow Edwards, and tearfully he finally accepted the call and moved to New Jersey. There he may be said to have preached his own funeral sermon. The occasion was a service in the college chapel, on New Year’s Day 1761. His text was 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 4 February 1761, after 18 months as president. He was survived by his second wife Jane Holt, three sons, two daughters and his godly Welsh mother.
Davies’ magnificent hymn ‘Great God of wonders’ was soon translated into Welsh and became such a staple of Welsh hymn singing festivals that few today in the ‘land of song’ dream, when they are singing it, that they are singing a hymn written by an American!
Dr Lloyd-Jones highly admired Samuel Davies, telling students at Westminster Seminary that he was ‘the greatest preacher you have ever produced in your country’.
The best summaries and explanations of his life are found in the first chapter of Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism (Banner of Truth) and in an extended essay by Thomas T. Ellis, in the Banner of Truth magazine, April and May 1983.
But perhaps the best way of remembering Samuel Davies is in reading and singing his incomparable hymn:
Great God of wonders!
All Thy ways are matchless,
Godlike and divine;
But the fair glories of Thy grace
More Godlike and unrivalled shine,
Who is a pardoning God like Thee
Or who has grace so rich and free?