By Joe Harrod
In November, 1752, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) wrote a Scottish correspondent describing a young minister with whom he had recently spent an afternoon’s conversation: “He seems to be very solid and discreet, and of a very civil, genteel behavior, as well as fervent and zealous in religion.” Nearly four years before the aforementioned meeting, Edwards had called the same young preacher “a very ingenious and pious young man.” For all that he knew of this godly young man in 1752, Jonathan Edwards could never have known that within a decade their bodies would be buried just yards apart, about a half mile north of the yellow clapboard house in which both men had lived and died. Samuel Davies (1723–1761), the minister whose character Edwards described, was the reluctant fourth president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), a champion for religious toleration and civil rights for dissenters in Virginia, and a poet whose verses constitute some of the earliest North American hymnody. Davies was a husband and father who had lost both wife and children, a pioneer missionary to African slaves, and a New Side Presbyterian revivalist whom D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has described as "the greatest preacher" America ever produced. Yet a decade into the twenty-first century, Davies remains relatively unnoticed among American Evangelicals.
Moreover, for all of his remarkable public accomplishments, those who knew Davies most closely esteemed his personal holiness. Upon learning of Samuel Davies’ death, his long-time friend and London correspondent Thomas Gibbons (d. 1785) remarked,
what crowned all, or advanced his distinction as a man and a scholar into the highest value and lustre, was, that his pious character appeared not at all inferior to his great intellect and acquired accomplishments…His pious character as much surpassed all else that was remarkable in him, as the sparkling eye in the countenance of a great genius does all the other features of the face.
Samuel Finley (1715–1766), Davies’ successor as president at the college, noted that “from twelve or fourteen years of age, [Davies] had continually maintained the strictest watch over his thoughts and actions, and daily lived under a deep sense of his own unworthiness,” and “of the transcendent excellency of the Christian religion.” In reading Davies’ sermons, treatises, hymns, correspondence, and diary, one gains a sense of what his friends knew personally: Samuel Davies articulated a warm and Evangelical piety, rooted in theological reflection upon Scripture.
For the past two and a half years, I have become increasingly familiar with Davies’ works during my doctoral thesis research. In the weeks ahead, I hope to share a portion of the fruit of this research with readers of this blog. Though I don’t follow Davies’ theology on every point, I think his reflections on divinity and piety commend wider appreciation among contemporary Evangelicals.
Jonathan Edwards, letter to William McCulloch, November 24, 1752, in Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 16 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 544.
Jonathan Edwards, letter to James Robe, May 23, 1749, in Letters and Personal Writings, ed. Claghorn, Works 16:276.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times: Addresses Delivered on Various Occasions 1942–1977 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1989), 263.
Thomas Gibbons, “A Portion of Two Discourses, Preached at Haberdashers-Hall, London, March 29, A.D. 1761, occasioned by the Decease of the Rev. Samuel Davies, A. M., Late President of the College of Nassau Hall, in New Jersey,” in Sermons by the Rev. Samuel Davies, A.M. President of the College of New Jersey, vol. 1 (New York: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1854; repr., Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993), 56.
Samuel Finley, “The Disinterested Christian: A Sermon, Preached at Nassau-Hall, Princeton, May 28, 1761. Occasioned by the Death of the Rev. Samuel Davies, A. M. Late President of the College of New Jersey,” Sermons, 1:53.
Joe Harrod serves as Director for Institutional Assessment at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he is a doctoral candidate in the areas of Biblical Spirituality and Church History. He and his wife, Tracy, have three sons.