From chopping down cherry trees to roaring lions: How Pastor Weems' tall tales linger today

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It is well known that the source of the apocryphal story of young George Washington felling his father’s cherry tree with an axe is none other than “Parson” Mason Locke Weems (1759-1825), a Protestant Episcopal minister, traveling book agent and biographer, who in 1800 wrote The Life of Washington (the first time the cherry tree story was told was in the 5th edition of this book, which was published in 1806). The moral of the cherry tree story is that “I cannot tell a lie,” and there is a certain irony in that the story was entirely invented, assuming the best of motives, to promote truth-telling.

Another tale has been told over the past two centuries regarding Samuel Davies that has its origin in the 1816 edition of Sermons on Important Subject by the Late Reverend and Pious Samuel Davies . . . , "Printed for Mason L. Weems" in Baltimore. Nowhere prior to this publication did the story appear, but it was told there, and repeated by William Hill in correspondence to Albert Barnes, whose memoir of Samuel Davies appeared in the 1841 edition of his Sermons. It is further repeated by Gardiner Spring in The Power of the Pulpit (1848).

The story as told by Hill / Barnes concerns the trip made by Davies with Gilbert Tennent to England in 1753:

The circumstance alluded to is this - that his fame was a pulpit orator was so great in London, that some noblemen who had heard him, mentioned in the presence of King George II., that there was a very distinguished dissenting preacher in London from the colony of Virginia, who was attracting great notice, and drawing after him very crowded audiences; upon which the King expressed a strong desire to hear him, and his chaplain invited him to preach in his chapel. Mr. Davies is said to have complied, and preached before a splendid audience, composed of the royal family, and many of the nobility of the realm. It is further said, that while Mr. D. was preaching, the King was seen speaking at different times to those around him. Mr. Davies observed it, and was shocked at what he thought was irreverence in the house of God, that was utterly inexcusable in one whose example might have such influence. After pausing and looking sternly in that direction several times, the preacher proceeded in his discourse, when the same offensive behavior was still observed. The American dissenter is said then to have exclaimed, ‘When the lion roars, the beasts of the forest all tremble; and when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence.’ The King is said to have given a significant, but courteous bow to the preacher, and sat very composedly and reverently during the rest of the service. If this be a correct statement of the fact that took place, it speaks louder than anything that has yet been said in praise of Mr. Davies’ promptness, intrepidity, and solemn self-possession while engaged in delivering God’s messages to his perishing fellow-men. Whatever authority Mr. Davies’ friends had for narrating this story is not now known, but it was universally believed among them to have occurred.

The explanation given of this strange affair is this. The King is said to have been so enraptured with Mr. Davies’ solemn and impressive manner and eloquence, that he was constrained repeatedly to express his astonishment and applause to those around him, and felt anything else but irreverence upon the occasion. He was so delighted with him, that he sent him an invitation to call upon him at a given time, which interview unquestionably did take place, and was repeated more than once; after which, and the explanations which were given, Mr. Davies was delighted with his Majesty, and not only received a handsome donation from him for the college whose cause he was advocating, but was led to form a most exalted opinion of George II. ever afterwards, as may be learned from a funeral sermon he preached upon his death and character.

The same story told seven years later by Gardiner Spring varies in some details:

That distinguished American preacher, Samuel Davies, then the President of the College of New Jersey, when on a visit to England, in behalf of the college, was invited to preach before George III. His youthful queen was sitting by his side; and so enchanted were they by the preacher’s eloquence, that the king expressed his admiration in no measured terms, and so audibly and rudely as to draw the attention of the audience, and interrupt the service. The preacher made a sudden and solemn pause in his discourse, looked around the audience, and fixing his piercing eye upon England noisy monarch, said, “When the lion roars, the beasts of the forest tremble; when Jehovah speaks, let the kings of the earth keep silence before him!” He was God’s messenger; he feared not man, who is a worm. It is not God’s ministers who tremble amid such scenes.

It was pointed out in a review of Spring’s The Power of the Pulpit which appeared in The New Englander (Vol. 6, No. 4, October 1848, p. 502) that errors abound in the telling, both by Hill / Barnes, and by Spring.

Now this anecdote, minute as it is in its details, is utterly unsustained by evidence, and in all probability is utterly untrue. It was originally written and published by the well-known “parson Weems,'‘ who was famous not only for telling, but coining good stories. The original journal of Davies, which he kept while in England, is still in existence; and in that he has given the occurrences of each day while he was on this mission to that country in behalf of the College of New Jersey. He states distinctly when and where he preached while abroad; and he does not say a single word about having preached before the king: nor does he allude to the king’s having made a donation to the college, though he carefully records every donation he received, and from whom he received it. And so far from preaching before the king, Davies states in his journal, that by the advice of his friends in England, he kept the object of his mission concealed from the knowledge of the British government, lest the charter of the college should be revoked….Such facts [sourced, it is acknowledged, by President James Carnahan of the College of New Jersey] render it morally certain that the story, which Weems first published in an edition of Davies’ sermons, is a sheer fabrication, having not the least foundation in truth.

In this [Spring’s] version of the anecdote, there are two mistakes in dates; for Davies was appointed to go to England in 1753, which was six years before he was chosen president of the College of New Jersey; and George III. did not come to the throne until 1760, which was several years after his return to this country.

The 1848 Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society (Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 127-130) make the same point that Davies’ journal while abroad in England contains no such account of preaching before the King, much less rebuking the King.

In view of these facts, recorded in President Davies’ journal more fully than are here stated, can any one believe that such an occurrence as is related in the memoir ever took place?

It may be inquired, how did the story if it be not true, get abroad in the world? Dr. Carnahan would not affirm who invented it, Dr. Thomas Gibbons, of London, the intimate friend of President Davies, with whom he had daily intercourse while in London, who published a funeral sermon on the death of Davies and who also superintended the first edition of Davies’ sermons in 1765, did not originate the story; nor did Dr. Samuel Finley who also published a funeral sermon on the death of President Davies. The anecdote is not mentioned in an obituary notice by the Reverend David Bostwick, prefixed to Davies’ sermons published in New York, 1792; nor did the late venerable Dr. Ashbel Green in his notes respecting the College of New Jersey, although acquainted with the story, deem it worthy of credence.

The most probable account of its origin is, that an agent employed in the Southern States some forty years ago in selling an edition of Davies’ sermons invented and circulated the story; and as it was not called in question at the time, it has recently passed for true history. So far as the reputation of President Davies as a Christian and a faithful and eloquent preacher is concerned the anecdote is of little importance. But if it be received as true it gives us an erroneous view of the spirit of the times and of the treatment of the Colonial dissenters by the civil authorities in England.

In this case, as much as we might wish for the story to be true, whether of George Washington or of Samuel Davies, history tells a different tale. Yet, in the case of the Davies anecdote, despite being debunked by 1848, the story is still widely repeated, as for example in a 2009 article by the respectable church history magazine, Leben (which was an edited reprint of a 1983 article by The Banner of Truth Magazine). But history — church history especially — is best served by a true telling of events, and in this case, a correction to the popular tale, as noted, does not reflect poorly on Samuel Davies, although perhaps so on Parson Weems.