"Apostle of Dissent"
Samuel Davies (1723-61) was born into a tradition of religious dissent. The son of a “plain farmer” in Delaware, Davies later described the “utter obscurity” of his background and his family’s “mean” financial circumstances. But although his parents could not easily fund a formal education for him, they did provide an early introduction to the evangelical Presbyterian thought of the Great Awakening. In 1732, when Davies was nine years old, his mother Martha was expelled from her Baptist church for adopting Presbyterian doctrine. As a young man, Davies studied under “New Light” minister Samuel Blair, supported (according to one early biographer) by donations from a congregation in Hanover, Virginia. The Hanover congregation supposedly learned about Davies from a traveling New Jersey preacher—a connection perhaps made by Blair, who was one of the College of New Jersey’s founding trustees.
Davies was ordained in 1745, at the age of twenty-two. Two years later he relocated to Hanover as the first resident Presbyterian minister in the Piedmont, what was then Virginia’s western frontier. Davies, who was often ill and had suffered from “consumption” (tuberculosis) for years, was a tireless preacher and defender of religious freedom in Virginia. He brought legal challenges against Virginia’s restrictions on non-Anglican churches to the governor in Williamsburg as well as the king’s attorney-general in England—winning significant victories for evangelical sects and earning the epithet “apostle of dissent” from later biographers. By October 1748, Davies was personally officiating at seven meeting houses across five counties—the closest congregations “twelve or fifteen miles distant from each other,” as he wrote to a colleague, “and the extremes about forty.”
In Virginia, Davies gained a reputation as a powerful preacher and successful evangelist for “New Light” Presbyterianism. On one occasion, Virginia’s Anglican Commissary complained to the Bishop of London that ever “since Mr. Davies has been allowed to officiate in so many places … there has been a great defection from our Religious Assemblies.” Davies’s success as a minister was due in part to his skill as a public speaker. His preaching style allegedly influenced a young Patrick Henry—one of the most famous orators of the Revolutionary period—who claimed that he was “first taught what an orator should be” by listening to Davies’s sermons.
As a minister, Davies addressed political as well as religious subjects. During the French and Indian War (1754-63) he preached that “Christians should be patriots,” using language that presaged the rhetoric of the Revolutionary War:
What! shall we resign so extensive and flourishing a country—a land of plenty, and liberty—shall we tamely surrender it to a parcel of perfidious French, and savage Indians? Shall slavery here clank her chain, or tyranny rage with lawless fury?
Davies’s reference to slavery was not merely rhetorical. During the decade he spent in Virginia, he had extensive contact with enslaved people—both as a slave-owner himself, and as a missionary to Africans and African Americans.
Slavery and Christianity
Samuel Davies owned at least two slaves while living in Virginia during the 1750s, justifying the practice by framing himself as a benevolent master. In one sermon he delivered in 1755, Davies directly addressed the enslaved people he saw attending the worship service, stating:
You know I have shewn a tender concern for your welfare, ever since I have been in the colony: and you may ask my own negroes whether I treat them kindly or no.
Davies’ income as a minister was small, at times a mere £100 per year (approximately $12,000 in modern American currency), but he nevertheless indicated that he was interested in purchasing a slave despite his difficult financial circumstances. In a letter to his well connected brother-in-law John Holt, he wrote:
I understand, by your information, that the Governour has a Negro Wench to sell. … If you think her fit for me, and that her price is reasonable, please to request his Honour to keep her for me—I want One very much; therefore would be willing to give a good Price for a good one.
Davies’s slaves may also have been given to him as a gift by his congregation in Hanover—a common practice in southern churches at the time.
Despite owning slaves himself, Davies was one of the first and most successful Christian evangelists to a growing population of enslaved Africans and African Americans in British North America. Between 1755 and 1782, the number of slaves in the Piedmont region of Virginia increased by an average of 7.1% per year—a result of natural increase and the continuing importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean. During this time, a full third of all slaves in the region may have been born in Africa. While some of Davies’s contemporaries (including Princeton’s first president Jonathan Dickinson) preached the spiritual equality of free and enslaved people, widespread racial prejudice and belief in the intellectual inferiority of non-white people resulted in a general disinterest in converting slaves. Davies went further than these contemporaries in both preaching and acting on his belief in the spiritual equality of all people.
When addressing slave-owners in his sermons, Davies emphasized the “awful and important” responsibility masters had to give enslaved people access to religious education. “Country, colour, liberty or slavery” were “trifling distinctions” in the eyes of God, he declared, because all people were equally “formed for immortality.” Though Davies believed that “the order of the world, not only admit, but require that there should be civil distinctions among mankind,” he also noted that such distinctions “do not reach beyond the grave,” where even “the meanest Slave is as immortal as his master.”
Davies’s position ultimately accommodated Christianity with the practice of slaveholding. Although he believed that “Liberty” was “the sweetest and most valuable of all blessings,” he considered it more important for enslaved people to experience “spiritual liberty” through conversion to the Christian faith than civil liberty in this world. As he implored slave-owners in a sermon titled “The Duty of Masters to their Servants”:
Will you not labor to make this land of slavery, a land of spiritual liberty to them … in exchange for their liberty, and as a reward for the fruits of their labors, which you enjoy?
Davies’s idea of the religious education masters should provide their slaves—namely, literacy and access to religious texts—was particularly radical for the time. Evangelicals of the Great Awakening emphasized a personal, emotional experience of religion, but Davies believed that true conversion to Christianity also required in-depth knowledge of the scriptures. Anti-literacy laws for enslaved people would not become widespread until the 19th century, and Davies reported that the slaveholders he appealed to did not strongly oppose literacy among their slaves. They were not, however, often willing to provide books or money for books themselves. Some of this reluctance stemmed from white colonists’ racist belief that enslaved people were—as Davies paraphrased them—“such sullen perverse creatures, or stupid dunces, that it is impossible to teach them anything that is good.” To the contrary, Davies argued that enslaved people’s “ignorance” was a result of their “imperfect acquaintance with our language” and the “negligence” of masters themselves, rather than lack of intelligence.
In 1753, Davies established a relationship with the London-based Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge Among the Poor, which provided donations of Bibles, prayer books, spelling books, and hymnals for him to distribute to enslaved people. He reported that (to his “agreeable surprise”), his Black congregants were quick learners and required “very little help to learn to read.” During worship services, he noted:
I can hardly express the pleasure it affords me to turn to that part of the gallery where they sit, and see so many of them with their Psalm or Hymn Books, turning to the part then sung, and assisting their fellows, who are beginners, to find the place.
Davies’s letters indicate that hymnals were particularly popular among enslaved people. Historian Jeffrey Richards suggests that slaves used them as a pedagogical tool, learning to read and then teaching others phonetically by linking the sound of familiar songs with the text written in the hymnals. Their success is particularly impressive considering the large numbers of African and Caribbean-born slaves in the area who spoke little English or only creolized dialects.
Enslaved people took full advantage of Davies’s literacy campaign. In a 1756 letter to John Wesley (considered the founder of Methodism), Davies wrote that “the poor slaves, whenever they could get an hours leisure, hurried away to me” to ask for books:
Sundry of them lodged all night in my kitchen, and sometimes, when I have awaked at two or three in the morning, a torrent of sacred psalmody has poured into my chamber. In this exercise some of them spend the whole night.
During his time in Virginia, Davies personally converted hundreds of slaves to Christianity and, with the help of Presbyterian ministers he mentored, brought his literacy campaign to more than one thousand enslaved men and women. Taking into account enslaved people’s concerted efforts to teach each other to read, the number of people impacted by Davies's campaign was likely much higher. John Todd, one of Davies’s students and a Princeton alumnus (class of 1749), reported that slaves shared the books they received from Davies across considerable distances—throughout Virginia as well as “a great part” of North Carolina and some areas of Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Though Davies’s intentions in promoting literacy were conservative and focused entirely on conversion to Christianity, enslaved people turned his campaign to their own purposes. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, enslaved and free Black people would use the evangelical emphasis on spiritual equality to oppose slavery and advocate for civil equality. Likewise, Davies’s literacy campaign may have ultimately had a subversive effect. In 1842, when anti-literacy laws had gained momentum across the South, Georgia slave-owner and Presbyterian minister Charles Colcock Jones described seeing enslaved people who still had the books Davies had distributed nearly a century before.
Davies and Princeton
Davies left Virginia for Princeton in 1759, when he was appointed the fourth President of the College of New Jersey. Although he never attended the college himself, Davies recognized its importance as a bastion of “New Light” thought in the colonies and regularly directed the young ministers he mentored to complete their studies in Princeton. In recognition of his success as an evangelist in Virginia, the Board of Trustees had chosen Davies to accompany trustee and fellow minister Gilbert Tennent on a fourteen-month fundraising tour of the United Kingdom from 1753-55. Together, Davies and Tennent raised at least £3,000 (more than ten times their original goal of £300), which was later used to construct Nassau Hall. During the course of the trip, Davies’s reputation as an orator grew—giving him a level of international prestige and recognition that may have influenced his appointment as president in 1759, despite his lack of other connections to the college.
As president, Davies made few changes to the college’s curriculum, though he did instate more rigorous examinations and emphasize public speaking assignments. His most significant contribution to Princeton may have been his expansion of the college library’s holdings. By the time of his death in 1761 (at the age of thirty-seven), the library comprised 550 volumes, including classical writers such as Cicero, early Christian theologian Augustine, Protestant theologian John Calvin, and contemporary religious writers such as English minister (and hymn writer) Isaac Watts.
Over the course of his career, Davies went from ministering to enslaved people—the most marginalized group in the colonial world—to the elite sons of slave-owners who attended the College of New Jersey. The change was a dramatic one, and one Davies seemed to recognize. As he reminded his students in a sermon given at Princeton:
There is not one in a thousand of the sons of men that enjoys your advantages … You have nothing to do but polish your minds, and, as it were, render them luminous. But let me put you in mind, that unless you admit the light of the glorious gospel of Christ to shine in your hearts, you will still be the children of darkness, and confined in the blackness of darkness forever.
Meanwhile, for at least another century, the enslaved men and women Davies converted and fellow bondspeople across the South would spread their knowledge laboriously and in secret, praying, singing, and teaching each other late into the night.