Davies was born in New Castle County, Delaware, on November 3, 1723. His parents, David Davies (the surname also appears as Davis and David) and Martha Thomas Davies, lived in a farming community among other Baptists of Welsh descent. He received his earliest education from the leader of the local Baptist meeting. After his mother embraced Presbyterian doctrine, Davies attended a school run by a Presbyterian clergyman before enrolling in Samuel Blair’s classical academy at Fagg’s Manor, Chester County, Pennsylvania. Davies’s teachers adopted the evangelical outlook then emerging in the Anglo-American world. They adhered to a Calvinist notion of justification, whereby salvation was accomplished solely through God’s grace, but they also emphasized a dramatic inward transformation through religious conversion. Davies embraced the theology of Blair and other so-called New Light, or New Side, Presbyterians.
On July 30, 1746, the New Castle Presbytery licensed Davies to preach. He became a member of the New Side, or evangelical, Synod of New York. While filling pulpits in Delaware and Pennsylvania, Davies married Sarah Kirkpatrick on October 23, 1746. Ordained on February 19, 1747, he accepted a mission to Hanover County, Virginia, where several years earlier some residents had begun to challenge tenets of the established Church of England and to grapple toward a more Calvinist understanding. They embraced New Side Presbyterian theology, resisted efforts of Virginia authorities to quell their dissent, and attracted the attention of the New Castle Presbytery. Unlike previous itinerants who had preached without obtaining a license and had overtly criticized Anglican doctrine and the local clergy, Davies signaled obedience to the English Act of Toleration (1689) and secured a license to preach at three meetinghouses in Hanover and one in Henrico County. Recognizing that defenders of the Anglican establishment would clamp down on any extralegal religious movements and demonstrating shrewd political sensibility, Davies operated within the bounds English law set for dissenters. He thereby gained more latitude to spread the subversive New Light message. After a successful month in Virginia, Davies returned home suffering from symptoms consistent with tuberculosis. On September 15, 1747, his wife died from a miscarriage, and he threw himself into preaching, convinced that he, too, was about to die.
His health returned, but Davies never lost his death-haunted sense of urgency. He moved back to Virginia in May 1748, as a settled minister. Classically trained, temperate in demeanor, and zealous in spreading the message of revivalistic Calvinism, he was an able advocate of religious dissent. Although highly critical of “this jangling ungrateful colony” and the practice of religion there, Davies professed respect for the Church of England’s legal privileges and mixed easily in Virginia society. On October 4, 1748, he married Jane Holt, a member of a prominent Williamsburg family. They had three sons and three daughters, one of whom died at birth. He became close to his Anglican brother-in-law John Holt, then training as a printer, and gained access to Williamsburg presses. In response to a widely distributed sermon critical of New Light theology, Davies published a long polemic, The Impartial Trial, Impartially Tried, and Convicted of Partiality (1748). He also persuaded the General Court, in spite of the open hostility of some Council members and of the attorney general, to add three new meetinghouses to his pastorate, which then sprawled across seven counties.
Davies maintained an extraordinary work pace. Later describing himself (not approvingly) as a “settled itinerant,” he served congregations the extremes of which lay eighty or ninety miles apart, and he also preached in other parts of Virginia. Davies was an outstanding orator. His dignified manner belied stereotypes of New Light enthusiasts, but he punctuated his sermons with passionate calls for conversion. His sermons were rigorously structured. They featured vivid similes and analogies and dramatic exhortations. Published on both sides of the Atlantic, they were read well into the nineteenth century. Davies wrote poetry, intended as another means of spreading God’s word but indicating a familiarity with more secular works, and published a collection in 1751. While attracting readers throughout the colonies, he drew a sharply satirical series of commentaries from one Church of England minister, and Davies defended himself in several letters to the Virginia Gazette. He was also one of the first colonial Americans to compose hymns.
Success in gaining converts renewed Davies’s conflict with Virginia authorities. When the New Kent County Court granted him a license for an eighth meetinghouse in 1750, the General Court invalidated it as beyond the county court‘s authority. Not satisfied with merely halting further expansion of his pastorate, authorities appealed to the bishop of London to clarify whether Davies was entitled to the seven posts for which he already held licenses. Davies in turn appealed to leading dissenters in England, who communicated their views and concerns to the bishop. At issue was whether the Act of Toleration should accommodate evangelical ministries. Virginia authorities willingly licensed ministers for settled dissenters, such as the Scots-Irish communities then populating the Shenandoah Valley, but clergymen resented efforts, as one petition phrased it, “to seduce” parishioners “from their lawful Teachers.” Davies argued that as long as he sought permission from the government, he had a right to as many licenses as were needed and that preventing changes of conscience was not a realistic intent of the Toleration Act. The bishop never issued a binding recommendation, and after Davies gained a license for an assistant who took charge of some of the meetinghouses, tensions subsided. Although his aggressive proselytizing continued to anger defenders of the established church, they never succeeded in confining him to a smaller field of work.
Davies was well known to English dissenters when the Synod of New York selected him to raise funds in Great Britain for the struggling College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). He arrived in London on Christmas Day in 1753, and spent almost a year in England and Scotland soliciting subscriptions for the school. He also met with leading dissenters about his political difficulties in Virginia. Disappointed by the English Presbyterians, he nevertheless secured funds from other English dissenters and added to his reputation as an eloquent pulpit preacher. He made little progress, however, in advancing the cause of dissent in Virginia.
Davies enlisted his forensic skills on behalf of the British during the French and Indian War. Shortly after his return to Virginia he preached a series of sermons that emphasized patriotism as an essential aspect of Christian behavior. Secularizing the disdain Davies had previously expressed about an Anglican establishment little concerned with saving souls, the sermons targeted colonists and their leaders who seemed reluctant to rush to the colony’s defense. In The Curse of Cowardice (1758) he blasted failure to join the war effort as a “moral Evil” and identified cowardice and false security as sins responsible for the calamities on the frontier. The pressure for religious conversion that Davies typically elicited also served the cause of military enlistment. By appealing to Protestant unity against “Heathen Savages and French Papists,” he further legitimized dissenters by linking them with Anglicans. He also published inflammatory essays in the Virginia Gazette under the pseudonym “The Virginia Centinel.” Reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies, these essays stoked resentment against the French and their Indian allies and sharply criticized the lack of public spirit shown in Virginia, particularly among the gentry.
In 1758, Davies declined an offer to succeed Jonathan Edwards as president of the College of New Jersey. By then he had established his legacy as the first settled New Light minister in Virginia and as a leading advocate of the rights of religious dissenters. He had also promoted the conversion of slaves to Christianity. Although not opposed to slavery (indeed, he likely was a slaveholder) and not alone in his efforts to Christianize slaves, he respected the spiritual equality of masters and slaves. Viewing education as central to conversion, he engaged his transatlantic connections to acquire reading materials for potential converts, slave or free, who otherwise could not afford books. Davies instructed and converted hundreds of slaves, many of whom joined other congregants at the communion table, a central and exclusionary Presbyterian rite.
Davies accepted a renewed invitation from the College of New Jersey in July 1759. As president, he conducted a survey of the library as part of a campaign to expand its holdings, and he made academic standards more rigorous. He required seniors to deliver monthly orations, open to members of the college and inhabitants of Princeton. Davies was well liked at the college and in the community, where he also served as pastor of the Presbyterian church. Unfortunately, the long hours of private study he conducted in an effort to overcome his perceived educational deficiencies likely aggravated his consumption. After a period of declining health, Samuel Davies died at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, on February 4, 1761, and was buried in the presidents’ plot of Princeton Cemetery. Funeral sermons were delivered in New York, Philadelphia, and London.
- The Impartial Trial, Impartially Tried, and Convicted of Partiality (1748)
- The Curse of Cowardice (1758)