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Apostle in Virginia

By Dominic A. Aquila
Samuel Davies, an 18th-century minister, set for us an example of excellence.

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Thirty-five miles west of Richmond, Virginia, in Louisa County, stands an old frame building.  It was built in 1749, and except for a balcony added later to accommodate slaves, it looks the same today as it did then.  There the members of the Providence Presbyterian Church meet now, and there 200 years ago Samuel Davies preached.


More than any other man, Davies was responsible for the solid establishment of Presbyterianism in Virginia.  An unusually gifted man, Davies took his job seriously.  Even though he was physically weak during most of his life, he maintained a pace that would cause many of us to fall by the way.  This weakness, which Davies thought would lead him to an early death, partly motivated him to work as hard as he did.


Samuel Davies was only 36 years old when he was called to be President of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).  It is an indication of his reputation with his contemporaries not only that he succeeded Jonathan Edwards, but al­so that he was pressed three times by the board to accept the call to be president.  From his inauguration as president of the college in July 1759 until his death on February 4, 1761, Davies set the school in good stand­ing academically and financially.


To appreciate Davies and his ministry requires us to look at the period in which he lived and, more particularly, the situation in Virginia.


The colony of Virginia had the established Church, Anglicanism, and other religious groups were discouraged from beginning any type of ministry there.  A non-Anglican minister or Church could function in Virginia only by an official decree of the governor or the General Council.


Just before Davies moved to Virginia in 1748, the governor issued a proclamation "strictly requiring all magistrates to suppress and prohibit, as far as they lawfully could, all itinerant preachers."  Non-Anglicans who ministered in Virginia were called dissenters because of their refusal to join the established Church.


There was not a single organized Presbyterian Church in any of Virginia's settled areas in 1745. Francis Makemie arrived in Virginia in 1684.  In 1706 he helped form the first presbytery, the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and he had established a couple of Presbyterian churches on the eastern seaboard but they had closed.


In the western valley of Virginia there were a number of Presbyterian churches because of the great influx of Scotch-Irish settlers.  These churches were Old Side Presbyterians, who had broken with New Side Presbyterians in 1741 over the issues brought on by the Great Awakening.  Davies entered upon his ministry in Virginia as a dissenter and a New Side Presbyterian.


He was called to be pastor of a new congregation in Hanover County, Virginia, arriving there in 1748, one year after his ordination at the age of 24.  This church had an interesting beginning. Samuel Morris, a layman, began to invite friends to his home where he read aloud to them the sermons of George Whitefield and Luther's Commentary on Galatians.  The number of people attending grew to the point that a reading house was constructed.


To these people gathered at Morris' Reading House, a Rev. William Robinson preached in July 1743. During his four-day visit, a revival broke out.  Robinson had to flee from the sheriff for preaching without a license, and he suggested that the people in Hanover County call Samuel Davies as pastor.


Davies arrived in 1748 to begin his full-time work.  His first order of business was to get licensed.  To do so he appeared before the governor and the Council, who grudgingly approved him, but he had to fight hard to keep his license.  Several times he was called before the Council and threatened with revocation of his license.


However, he knew his laws well and was not daunted by these threats.  He ably argued his case, persuading the Council to continue his license to preach.  One of his enemies said: "What a lawyer was spoiled when Davies took the pulpit."


While Davies' main charge was located in Hanover County, at a point just 12 miles north of Richmond, he felt he had a wider responsibility because there were so few ministers and so many congregations without pastors.  Davies' own parish was 90 miles wide, and he also gave general oversight to six other churches in Henrico, Goochland, Louisa and Caroline Counties.  He tried to visit these other churches once every three or four months.


Davies’ influence spread even farther as he made frequent excursions into the territory south and southwest of Hanover.  One summer, in a two-month period, he rode 500 miles on horseback and preached 40 times.


What else need be said of Samuel Davies?


He was chosen to travel with Gilbert Tennant to England in 1753 – 1755 to raise funds for the College of New Jersey.  While there he was asked to preach before King George II in his royal chapel. The king, struck with Davies' manner of preaching, made comments about it to those sitting around him.  Davies noticed this, and being disturbed, he is said to have remarked: "When the lion roars, the beasts of the forest all tremble; and when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence."


He helped found Hanover presbytery on December 3, 1755 and became its first moderator.  There were four ministers and three elders in the membership of this "mother" presbytery of all Southern presbyteries.  It spanned the colonies from western Pennsylvania to Georgia.


Davies, a product of the Great Awakening, always preached for conviction.  His was a heart-religion.  He could preach to kings or to slaves and be understood.  It is said that Patrick Henry was among his hearers; Henry stated that Davies was the best orator he had ever heard.  Some have speculated that Henry’s views on religious liberty were influenced by Davies.  One indication of his abilities was that for 50 years after his death, Davies' sermons were still being reprinted and widely read.


We see in Samuel Davies a great patriotic zeal, too.  General Braddock was defeated in Pittsburgh in 1755, and Davies called on the men of Hanover to enlist to fight the French and Indians.


When Virginia was having difficulty recruiting its quota for the war, he preached his most famous sermon to the citizens of Hanover on May 8, 1758, entitled "Curse of Cowardice."  His text came from Jeremiah 48:10, "Cursed be the one who does the Lord's work with deceit, and cursed be the one who restrains his sword from blood."  After hearing this sermon, more men desired to enlist than could be accommodated.


Davies also wrote hymns, and in fact, he may be America's first hymn writer.  One of his hymns was published in over 100 English hymnbooks.  Another, taken from Micah 7:18, is becoming popular today: "Who is a pardoning God like Thee, or who has grace so rich and free?" (See hymn printed below)


About 300 slaves regularly attended his services, and about 100 of them were baptized.  Davies also helped establish a mission to the Indians with aid from the Scotch Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.


The success of Davies and the Presbyterians in Virginia had a wider significance than the mere establishment of another group of religionists in the colony.  It was a portent of a social and political, as well as a religious, revolution in the life of the colony – the beginning of a movement which constantly pushed upward the common folks to a "respectable" plane in society and politics.


Samuel Davies had a full 38 years.  He is noted for church planting, biblical preaching, heart religion, and academic excellence, as minister, citizen, patriot and educator.  All of these accomplishments were achieved without the aid of our modern conveniences such as the telephone, automobile and airplane.  His reliance was on the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, and the power that comes from the Holy Spirit.  He was a faithful ambassador for Christ.


As we reflect on this life, may we be encouraged to have a well-rounded ministry.  Let us be clear in calling sinners to repentance; let us work on edifying believers; let us strive to plant new churches.  And like Davies, let us not fear to stand for justice and righteousness even before the civil authorities.  In doing these things we will stand with the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us.


TE Dominic A. Aquila is president of New Geneva Seminary in Colorado Springs, Colo., and editor of PCANews. This paper was originally delivered to the 1976 General Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod.


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Great God Of Wonders


Great God of wonders! All Thy ways
Are matchless, Godlike and divine;
But the fair glories of Thy grace
More Godlike and unrivaled shine,
More Godlike and unrivaled shine.


Crimes of such horror to forgive,
Such guilty, daring worms to spare;
This is Thy grand prerogative,
And none shall in the honor share,
And none shall in the honor share


Angels and men, resign your claim
To pity, mercy, love and grace:
These glories crown Jehovah’s Name
With an incomparable glaze
With an incomparable glaze.


In wonder lost, with trembling joy,
We take the pardon of our God:
Pardon for crimes of deepest dye,
A pardon bought with Jesus’ blood,
A pardon bought with Jesus’ blood.


O may this strange, this matchless grace,
This Godlike miracle of love,
Fill the whole earth with grateful praise,
And all th’angelic choirs above,
And all th’angelic choirs above.


Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?
Or who has grace so rich and free?


Listen to a MIDI version of the tune at

Also, see this hymn in the Trinity Hymnal (red), p. 82.




    God Substituting Himself for Man

    The concept of substitution may be said to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting Himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone.

    John Stott in The Cross of Christ

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