The following article was published in Preaching Magazine.
Past Masters: Samuel Davies, Preacher of Fiery Eloquence
Preaching Magazine, Spring 2019
C. Stewart Holloway, Ph.D.
Pastor, First Baptist Church, Pineville, LA
As a boy I learned of Patrick Henry’s rousing call to revolution, “Give me liberty or give me death!” Henry’s courage and resolve impressed me. My teacher encouraged our class to grow up and emulate this American hero.
Years later, I learned about another American hero my teacher never mentioned, but Patrick Henry knew well. Samuel Davies (1723-1761) was probably the most admired Presbyterian pulpiteer of his day and the man whose example Patrick Henry attributed his own oratorical success.
George William Pilcher, the leading Davies expert, states, “Samuel Davies was a major leader of the Great Awakening in the American colonies and perhaps was unsurpassed as a pulpit orator either in Great Britain or in America.” Homiletical historian Hughes Oliphant Old declares, “Samuel Davies was the most well balanced, the most literate, the most popular in his appeal, and, at the same time, the most theological cogent American preacher of the eighteenth century.”
Davies was a brilliant combination of statesman, preacher, poet, and humanitarian. As such, he was able to unify the New Side Presbyterians during the First Great Awakening in the American colonies and provide a doctrinal basis for the revival in the southern colonies of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. Though some Virginia Anglicans opposed him because he emptied their churches, Davies maintained a careful balance between boldness and gentility, refusing to attack the established church, yet expressing appall at the lack of concern for religion.
Revival came to the southern colonies a few years later than it did to the other colonial regions. Consequently, the southern revival benefited from the work of quickly growing denominational groups such as the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists. The revival burned first through the Presbyterians, encouraged by Samuel Davies, continued to the Separate Baptists, guided by Shubal Stearns, and concluded with the Anglican-Methodists led by George Shadford.
Davies’ Ministry. In 1747, Samuel Davies arrived to supply for a few weeks for the Presbyterian congregation in Hanover, Virginia. After denying a call to serve the church permanently, primarily due to his ill health, Davies embarked on an itinerant ministry, preaching throughout Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland.
In 1748, with his health improving, Davies accepted a renewed call to the Hanover church and became the first resident dissenting pastor in that area of Virginia. After arriving in Hanover, Davies found that numerous congregations in the region needed his services. He eventually expanded his influence to seven areas in five counties. For the next eleven years, Davies’ name became the center of revivalistic Presbyterianism in Virginia and North Carolina.
As Davies led his scattered congregation, revival spread. In addition to preaching at his seven satellite congregations, Davies published sermons, poems, and essays, and made missionary excursions into other parts of the region. Davies preached to land owners as well as their slaves, bringing many from each group to saving faith in Christ.
Preaching ministry. People listened to Davies’ preaching “with profound attention and admiration.” His church, which accommodated about five hundred persons, was still too small for the throngs who came to hear him. Therefore, Davies often held services in an adjoining forest. Nearby Anglicans attended Davies weekday sermons, other Virginians traveled miles to hear him speak, and other ministers desired to host him in their pulpits. Much of Davies’ attraction stemmed from his meritorious character, but such extensive demand related to his role as the only New Light preacher permanently settled in the county for many years. Gewehr offers additional insight:
While Davies’s success . . . depended wholly on his own efforts, the times favored him. The Established Church had reached a low ebb. . . . As a body the clergy had lost all influence over the mass of the people and were considered as the mere parasites of the rich and the great. The
While the soil was prepared, the preacher still had to plant, water, and harvest. This Davies did with expert skill. Though he was a settled pastor, Davies “saw himself as an evangelist preaching to people who had never heard the gospel.”
The people of the western southern colonies were looking for real answers to the real questions they faced on the frontier. Therefore, Davies made the uncertainty of frontier life one of the chief emphases in his preaching. “His message was one of preparation, so that his listeners would be better able to face death should it suddenly confront them.” Surely, Davies was the perfect man to deliver such a message. Having lost his first wife and child, he could empathize with those in his congregations who had lost loved ones to the frontier’s harshness. Further, since illness burdened him, Davies faced the imminence of his own death. He lived out the words of Richard Baxter (1615-1691), “I preach . . . as a dying man to dying men.”
Davies was also popular with the elites of society. For example, on his fundraising journey with Tennent to England, Davies’ “fine social qualities and eminent Christian character” helped him gain a hearing, and his “powers of pulpit eloquence” impressed his listeners. A famous story is told of Davies preaching before King George II (1683-1760). In the midst of his sermon, Davies noticed the king speaking to the people sitting near him. Shocked at such irreverence, Davies stopped his message, looked in the direction of the king, and said, “When the lion roars, the beasts of the forest all tremble, and when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth keep silent.” The king bowed and remained quiet for the remainder of the message. The story goes that the king had been so impressed with Davies that he was commenting about this to those who sat near him. Unfortunately, since Davies provides no reference to this incident in his diary, most scholars regard it as apocryphal. However, as Macartney says, “Whether apocryphal or not, it is a clear intimation of the sway, power, and reputation of Davies as a preacher.”
Much of Davies’s attraction and success came from his intense preparation for the preaching event. He loved his Hanover study, and there he exegeted and meditated upon the scriptures, considering nothing a sermon unless it was the product of at least four days of hard study.  The result of such careful, reflective preparation was sermons that were theologically sound and perceptive.
Davies’s methodology in the pulpit was in keeping with his Welsh background. Exhibiting the “fervent Celtic eloquence for which the Welsh pulpit has always been distinguished,” Davies’s preaching combined “the highest graces of rhetoric and elocution with the most luminous, simple, and forcible exhibition of divine truth.” In this, Davies was unlike some of his evangelical colleagues. The story of Davies’s revival work includes few exciting tales of balconies breaking, people rapturous in ecstatic expressions, or the like. Davies’ revivalism was of a moderate sort. Though he was criticized at times for inspiring tears, faintings, and tremblings, such criticisms were ignored because such displays were so infrequent. Davies believed a preacher should not be fiery and superficial in order to gain a congregation’s attention, rather, he needed to be “of ready utterance, good delivery, solid judgment,” and “free from enthusiastic freaks and of ardent zeal.”
No matter his intensity of delivery, Davies maintained his dignity. This may have been due to his effective use of a sermon manuscript. Unlike many of his colleagues, Davies memorized his manuscript. However, in the course of the sermon he extemporized there from, allowing him to be extemporaneous in delivery and genuine in presentation.  In his sermon occasioned by the death of Davies, Samuel Finley, Davies’s successor as President of the
In the sacred desk, zeal for God, and love to men, animated his addresses, and made them tender, solemn, pungent, and persuasive; while at the same time there were ingenious, accurate, and oratorical. A certain dignity of sentiment and style, a venerable presence, a commanding voice, and emphatic delivery, concurred both to charm his audience, and overawe them into silence and attention.
Such fiery eloquence allowed Davies to remain a consummate orator and to gain acceptance among a broad spectrum of the population in Great Britain as well as the American colonies.
George William Pilcher, Samuel Davies: Apostle of Dissent in Colonial
Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 5, Moderatism, Pietism, and Awakening (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 154.
New Side Presbyterians supported the awakening.
Dewitte Holland, The Preaching Tradition: A Brief History (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), 59.
For example in the summer of 1757, Davies estimates that in two months he traveled some five hundred miles and preached about forty sermons. Personal letter, 12 September 1757, included in Thomas Gibbons, “Discourses Preached . . . Occasioned by the Decease of the Rev. Samuel Davies,” (1761), in Davies, Sermons, vol. 1, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1864), 62.
William D. Sprague, “Memoir of President Davies,” in Samuel Davies, Sermons, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1864), 13.
Wesley Gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1930), 71.
Edward Macartney, Sons of Thunder: Pulpit Power of the Past (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1929), 208.
Finley in Davies, Sermons, vol. 1, 42.
Sprague in Davies, Sermons, vol. 1, 13. Heimert notes, “Samuel Davies was especially noted for the warmth of his voice and the use of a variety of sounds in his sermon delivery.” Alan Heimert, Religion and the American Mind: from the Great Awakening to the Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 231.
Quoted by Davies in a letter to Bellamy, 4 July 1751, in The Presbyterian Magazine IV (1854), 513, quoted in Pilcher, 54.
Finley in Davies, Sermons vol. 1, 43.