Evangelical Preacher

Samuel Finley spent the first nineteen years of his life in his birth country of Ireland before immigrating to Philadelphia with his family in 1734.[1] As a young man, Finley attended William Tennent’s “Log College,” well known as a prominent training ground for Presbyterian ministers. At the Log College, Finley was introduced to the evangelical thought and fervor of the Great Awakening. “New Light” ministers such as Tennent believed that salvation required a personal, emotional experience of conversion and relationship with God—beliefs that put them at odds with the conservative “Old Lights” of the American Presbyterian Church.[2] And in time, Finley would come to count himself among the era’s “New Light” preachers.[3]

Portrait Of Samuel Finley

Portrait of Samuel Finley, Princeton's fifth president.

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18th-century schools such as Tennent’s Log College—as well as Princeton president Jonathan Dickinson’s school in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Aaron Burr Sr.’s in Newark—followed in the tradition of English “dissenting academies.”[4] There, young men trained for the ministry under teachers whom more conservative members of the ministry considered “schismatics, defamers, and fanatics.”[5] Many early College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) leaders received their educations at such academies. Along with Finley, three other founding trustees were Log College alumni—giving Tennent’s school a reputation as an ideological precursor to the College of New Jersey.[6] In 1738, the Log College became the target of the “Old Lights” in the Synod of Philadelphia as “the chief seat of dissent” in the British North American colonies.[7] When the synod expelled the Presbytery of New Brunswick (with which many “New Lights” had associated), the presbytery joined the Synod of New York instead.[8] Samuel Finley, who completed his preparation for the ministry in the midst of this controversy, was ordained by the Presbytery of New Brunswick in 1740.

Finley quickly gained a reputation as a firebrand—or as one early biographer more diplomatically phrased it, he had a “fondness for controversy.”[9] He famously engaged in a public debate with a Baptist minister which lasted for two days.[10] On another occasion, Finley was invited to preach at the Second Society in New Haven, considered an illegal “separatist” congregation under Connecticut law.[11] When he accepted the invitation and delivered his sermon, Finley was arrested by civil authorities and expelled from the colony as a “vagrant”—a label often applied to itinerant evangelical preachers and revivalists of the time.[12]

Educator and Princeton President

In 1744, Finley moved to Nottingham, Maryland, where he served as the pastor of a Presbyterian congregation for seventeen years.[13] While in Nottingham, Finley also formed a dissenting academy of his own, where he taught students who would go on to prominent careers in the ministry and public life.[14] Founding Father, Enlightenment physician, and future abolitionist Benjamin Rush (class of 1760) was one of Finley’s students at Nottingham, as well as James Waddell, a Virginian preacher who would go on to minister to enslaved people alongside Princeton president Samuel Davies.[15]

Benjamin Rush

Portrait of Benjamin Rush ('1760), secretary of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

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Similar to other academies of the period, Finley’s curriculum fused college and grammar school, stressing preparation for the ministry as well as ethics, theology, Latin and Greek.[16] But Finley may also have influenced his students’ political views. Like his contemporaries Davies and Jonathan Edwards, Finley’s sermons during the French and Indian War (1754-63) presaged the discourse of the Revolutionary period. In one 1757 sermon, Finley declared himself “fired with a patriot Zeal” as he warned against “The Danger of Neutrality, in the Cause of God, and our Country.”[17]

Finley’s “New Light” thinking and experience as an educator in Nottingham primed him for a leadership role in the College of New Jersey, which was founded in 1746 in part to counter the “Old Light” influence of Yale and Harvard.[18] Finley was unanimously elected the college’s fifth president in 1761, after the death of his predecessor Samuel Davies.[19] Davies considered Finley “the best of men, and my favorite friend,” writing:

Though the want of some superficial accomplishments for empty popularity may keep him in obscurity for some little time, his hidden worth, in a few months or years at most, will blaze out to the satisfaction and even astonishment of all candid men.[20]

Though Davies was more famous as an orator in his time, Finley became well known as a scholar. In 1763, he received an honorary degree from the University of Glasgow—the first Princeton president and second American minister or theologian to receive an honorary degree from abroad.[21]

During his five years as president, Finley oversaw a period of increasing enrollment for the College of New Jersey, with more than 130 students graduating from the institution during his tenure. Among others, his students included Oliver Ellsworth (‘1766), future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, William Paterson (‘1763), future Governor of New Jersey, and James Manning (‘1762), who would become the first president of Brown University.[22] Finley wore multiple hats in his role as president, serving as an administrator while also teaching Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.[23] He also had a powerful impact on the religious culture of the school; one writer credits him with catalyzing a campus revival that converted nearly half of the student body.[24]

Finley and Slavery

Finley’s “acrimonious spirit” having mellowed in his later years, the president was beloved by Princeton students who recalled his “round ruddy face” and “uncommon sweetness of temper.”[25] The enslaved people he bought and sold during his tenure, however, may have had a different impression of the Princeton president.

While serving as president, Samuel Finley owned slaves, at least six of whom lived and worked at the President’s House on campus. At the time of his death in 1766, Finley’s estate included “Two Negro women, a negro man, and three Negro children.”[26] A public notice advertising the sale of the late president’s property stated that the enslaved women were conversant in “all kinds of house work,” with the men trained in farming and agricultural work.[27] In August 1766, these enslaved people were sold alongside furniture, livestock, and “books, religious, moral and historical.”[28]

Penn Journal Advertiser July 31 1766 P 3 Ad

Advertisement announcing the estate sale of President Samuel Finley, held at the President's House on campus.

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The auction was advertised to take place at the President’s House on campus, perhaps under the twin sycamore trees the college trustees had purchased the year before. For later generations of Princeton students, the trees—mythologized as having been planted to commemorate the repeal of the Stamp Act—represented liberty and the Revolutionary fervor for which Finley and his contemporaries had provided a model during the French and Indian War.[29] But in 1766, the young sycamores were the backdrop for a sale of slaves at the heart of Princeton’s campus.

About the AuthorsPanel Toggle

R. Isabela Morales is an award-winning author and public historian. Her first book, Happy Dreams of Liberty: An American Family in Slavery and Freedom, received the 2023 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, the 2023 Tom Watson Brown Book Award, the 2023 Shapiro Book Prize, the 2023 William Nelson Cromwell Book Prize, the 2024 James F. Sulzby Book Award, and was a finalist for the prestigious Harriet Tubman Prize. Dr. Morales received her Ph.D. in history from Princeton University in 2019. She has been involved in the Princeton & Slavery Project since its founding as a researcher, contributing writer, editor, and project manager.

View all stories by R. Isabela Morales »

ReferencesPanel Toggle


Wheaton Joshua Lane, Pictorial History of Princeton (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 4.


Thomas J. Wertenbaker, “The College of New Jersey and the Presbyterians,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4 (December 1958), 210.


Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Princeton 1746-1896 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 12-13.


Wertenbaker, “The College of New Jersey and the Presbyterians,” 211.


Richard Webster, History of the Presbyterian Church in America, From Its Origin Until The Year 1760 (Philadelphia: Joseph M. Wilson, 1857), 490.


Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 181; James Moorhead, Princeton Seminary in American Religion and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 10.


Wertenbaker, “The College of New Jersey and the Presbyterians,” 211.




Webster, History of the Presbyterian Church in America, 489.


Leitch, A Princeton Companion, 181.






Webster, History of the Presbyterian Church in America, 490.


Lane, Pictorial History of Princeton, 4.


Webster, History of the Presbyterian Church in America, 490.


Wertenbaker, Princeton 1746-1896, 11; Lane, Pictorial History of Princeton, 4.


Samuel Finley, The Curse of Meroz; Or, The Danger of Neutrality, in the Cause of God, and our Country (Philadelphia: James Chattin, 1757), 5, 6.


Wertenbaker, Princeton 1746-1896, 14; Princeton University, Catalogue of Princeton University (Princeton University, NJ: Princeton, 1922), xxii.


Princeton University, Catalogue of Princeton University, xxii.


Webster, History of the Presbyterian Church in America, 490.


Leitch, A Princeton Companion, 181.




Lane, Pictorial History of Princeton, 4.


Charles Maxson, The Great Awakening in the Middle Colonies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1920), 98.


Leitch, A Princeton Companion, 181; Webster, History of the Presbyterian Church in America, 491.


“To Be Sold,” Pennsylvania Journal, 31 July 1766.






Minutes; 25 September 1765; Board of Trustees Records, Princeton University Archives, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library; Barksdale W. Maynard, “Our Unforgettable Trees,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, accessed 7 July 2017, https://paw.princeton.edu/article/our-unforgettable-trees; Mulford Colebrook, “Revolutionary Trees,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, Vol. LXVI, No. 29 (June 7, 1966).

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Did You Know...?Most of Princeton's founding trustees bought, sold, traded, or inherited slaves. Read More