Samuel Davies, Champion of Liberty

With this week’s article, I am sending out the gist of a message I gave In Richmond, Virginia last Friday evening on the 300th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Davies. Half of the message is in this week’s email and the other half will be next week. There were about 120 people who gathered last Friday evening at the Virginia Crossing’s Hotel conference room and I was the keynote speaker. I chose to address them on his Samuel Davies was in one sense the most important of the founding fathers of this country. Before my speech, a very astute man commented to me that the American republic began at the Polegreen Presbyterian Church in Hanover county where Samuel Davies preached and where young Patrick Henry listened to the sermons of one he esteemed to be the greatest orator he ever heard. I could not agree more with that sentiment. Yet, Davies is strangely forgotten by modern America. There are many reasons why Davies should be remembered, but I chose to speak about the things he did by way of cultivating a public spirit and serving his whole generation. 

 When I was checking into my room, I saw a lady getting some things out of her SUV and I asked her if she needed help, but she said she had everything. My friends, Ned and Marla Coleman, were helping me get several boxes of my book, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, into my room. That lady then asked me what the book was and I told her it was about a Colonial minister. She asked: Did he work with George Whitfield? I said he did and then she replied, “I love reading about the Great awakening.” As she was moving towards the elevator, I asked her how she knew about those things and she simply said, “I am the Lieutenant Governor.” Her name is Winsome Sears. A friend had encouraged me to contact her and invite her to the conference (which I did), but her office told me she would be unable to do so because she is in a political campaign. What struck me, though, was that she knew about George Whitfield (who was British), but did not know about Samuel Davies (who was local). It is not her fault, in one sense. Samuel Davies has been forgotten by this country and we need to remember him at this critical juncture of our nation. What follows is the essence of my speech. 

Isaiah 32:8 says: “But the noble man devises noble plans and by noble plans he stands.” In many ways, that verse describes Samuel Davies. On November 3, 1723, three hundred years ago today, he was born in New Castle county, Delaware to parents who were both immigrants from Wales. His parents, David and Martha Davies, may have never learned to speak English well and they had to sign with an X when they joined the Pencader Baptist Church in 1717. Samuel himself only had a few years of education—two years at a grammar school in New Jersey; a year or two of education in the Welsh Tract; and, then 4-5 years of education at Samuel Blair’s school for ministers. When we read his letters, his sermons, his tracts, and his various works, we are amazed that a man of such little education could also be a “man of letters”, as he was. We are tempted to ask about him as the Jews once asked about Jesus, “How did this man get such learning having never been taught?’ Only the greatest of men can become so prominent in knowledge without being taught—men such as Samuel Davies, Charles Spurgeon, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and even Jesus Himself. 

Yet, Samuel Davies has lived in relative obscurity for the past 150 years and is mostly forgotten even in Hanover, Virginia where he did his greatest works. Why is that? There are at least three reasons. First, he died at a young age. He was barely 37 years old when he died of pneumonia. Second, there was never a full biography written about him by those who knew him best. Robert Murray McCheyne is well-remembered precisely because his friend, Andrew Bonar, worked prodigiously on the Memoir and Remains of R. M. McCheyne. No one took up the task of writing a biography of Davies shortly after his death and thus he was forgotten. Third, the church where he preached every Lord’s Day, Polegreen Presbyterian Church in Hanover, Virginia,  was burned to the ground in the Civil War battle of Cold Harbor in 1864. Until that time, many people remembered Davies because his sermons were the mostly popularly read and sold in the English speaking world for nearly a century. But when the Polegreen church burned to the ground, everything was lost and Davies was forgotten. What a shame. 

There is a sense in which Davies deserves to be considered one of the greatest of the founding fathers of this nation. He was involved, either directly or indirectly, in all of the greatest issues of this nation in her founding and early history. He was on the right side in every instance. It is no exaggeration to state that the American republic had her birth and foundation at the Polegreen Church and with Samuel Davies. So, I want us to consider the four great crises in which Davies played a leading part either directly or very closely through others. 

Religious Liberty

When Daviesbegan his ministry in 1748 to four meeting houses in and near Hanover county, Virginia, that colony was mostly intolerant of other churches except the Anglican Church. Virginia was like other colonies. Connecticut only permitted Congregationalism. Rhode Island was Baptist. People who fled to America for religious freedom quickly became intolerant of other religious views. Therefore, most of the years of Davies’ ministry in Virginia were spent in the battle for religious toleration and liberty. At that time, Virginia imposed stiff fines on citizens who missed worship services at the Anglican churches and made it very difficult, almost impossible, for Dissenters to have the freedom to worship in the colony. There were two great acts at the mother country had passed in the seventeenth century concerning religious worship. The first was the Act of Uniformity in 1662 under King Charles II. The churches throughout Great Britain were required to start using the Book of Common Prayer by August 24, 1662. Many Non-Conformist churches refused to do so and many ministers were arrested, imprisoned, or killed on what has been called Black Bartholomew’s Day. That act resulted in numerous people fleeing from Great Britain to come to America for the right to worship according to the dictates of their consciences. For twenty-seven years, the Act of Uniformity wreaked havoc and turmoil on Great Britain and her colonies. So, in 1689 the British Parliament passed the  Act of Toleration granting religious freedom to the non-conformists and dissenters of the Church of England. Yet, Virginia did not accept that the Act of Toleration extended to that colony for the most part. Settlers in the mountainous areas of Virginia were allowed to worship however they wished since they were a buffer against Indian raids, but the counties closest to Williamsburg were watched carefully. 

   More than any other Colonial minister of his day, Davies was the champion of religious toleration. Without his voice and actions, this nation would not have become known for religious freedom. In his own life and ministry, he practiced a charitable spirit towards members of other denominations. He was non-bigoted. He knew well in his own experiences and those of his own family how terrible religious intolerance was. By his actions I fighting for religious toleration, Davies rightly deserves to be recognized as the driving force behind the First Amendment to the Us Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or the prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . When the military chaplaincy was under opposition in the 1970’s, the “free exercise clause” in the First Amendment saved it. We live in days when evangelical Christianity is under great persecution and the “free exercise” of it is being challenged. Christians today need to wage the war for their freedoms on the same basis as Davies once did. He argued against Peyton Randolph before the governing Council of Virginia that if the Act of Toleration did not extend to the colonies, then neither did the Act of Uniformity

The French and Indian War (1755-1763)

   Davies had only recently returned to Virginia from Great Britain when the French and Indian War broke out in a battle at Fort Duquesne near Pittsburgh on July 9, 1755. Other wars had started in Europe and spread to America, but this war started in the colonies and spread back to Europe. Col. George Washington fired the first shot that resulted in nine hundred British and/or Virginian soldiers being killed. The shocking news of the defeat of General Braddock by the French and Indians sent terror into the hearts of all Virginians. Virginia, more than any other colony, was on the forefront of this war which has been called “the first world war” and was considered by Washington to be the defining moment of his life. The battle raged on the northern borders of the colony near Pittsburgh and spread from there to New York and Pennsylvania. The Virginia counties closest to the danger were in shambles from Indian attacks and fleeing citizens. The first county to respond was Hanover county and CPT Samuel Overton asked Davies to preach to the independent volunteers at the Hanover Courthouse—which he did. His sermon was from 2 Samuel 10:12, “Religion and Patriotism, the Constituents of a Good Soldier.” August 17, 1755. Davies saw clearly that the great issue was whether the colonies would become Catholic or remain Protestant. If France had won, America would have become a very different nation and American exceptionalism would never have existed. America would have more resembled France, Spain, and Mexico than the great nation it became. Moreover, the religious freedom that Davies had fought for would have been denied. Religious persecution similar to what other Catholic dominated nations experienced would have been the norm. In a sermon from Daniel 4:25, “God the Sovereign of All Kingdoms,” Davies warned his congregation of the dangers of a French victory. That message was actually preached four months before battle at Fort Duquesne, but while the drumbeat of war was already in the air. Thus, he warned them:

Let us take a view of the French government and of our wretched circumstances if we should fall under it. . . There you must conform to all the superstitions and idolatries of the church of Rome, or lose your life; or at best be obliged to flee your country, hungry and famishing, and leave all your estate behind you. . . And can you bear the thought, that you and your children should have such an iron yoke as this riveted about your neck? Would you not rather die in defence of your privileges? I am sure you would, if you had the spirit of men or Christians. Therefore, improve your religion, lest you lose it: make a good use of your liberty, lest you forfeit it; ad cry mightily to God for deliverance.[1]  

After receiving notice of General Braddock’s defeat, Davies said in a sermon on July 20, 1755:

And oh, Virginia! oh my country! shall I not lament for thee? Thou art a valley of vision, favoured with the light of revelation from heaven, and the gospel of Jesus: thou hast long been the region of peace and tranquility; the land of ease, plenty, and liberty. But what do I see now? I see the brazened skies, thy parched soul, thy withering fields, thy hopeless springs, and thy scanty harvests. Methinks I also hear sound of the trumpet, and see garments rolled in blood—thy frontiers ravaged by revengeful savages; thy territories invaded by French perfidy and violence. Methinks I see slaughtered families, the hairy scalps clotted with gore; the horrid acts of Indian and popish torture. And, alas! in the midst of all these alarms, I see thy inhabitants generally asleep, and careless of thy fate.[2]

Whereas Davies had been viewed very suspiciously before the French and Indian War, he quickly became the best recruiter for the colony of Virginia and his patriotism was recognized even by the governing officials of Virginia. Virginia was the first colony to respond to the French and Indian perfidy. And Hanover county was the first county in the colony to raise and independent militia for the defense of the colony. And Samuel Davies was the preacher whose rousing sermons raised that militia and sounded the trumpet for a sleepy colony to awaken to their danger. Where would Virginia have been without Samuel Davies? And, where would America have been without him? This nation very well could have become a nation ruled by the Catholicism of France and Spain without him. Those nations were the dominant rivals to Protestant Great Britain for control of the American colonies. Without Samuel Davies, the history of this nation very well might have been very different than what it has been.    

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

Please send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

[1] Samuel Davies, Sermons on Important Subjects (London: W. Baynes and Sons, 1824), 4:178-9. 

[2] Davies, Sermons on Important Subjects, 4:136. 

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