Samuel Davies taught us to 'live not for yourselves'

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During his final illness, Samuel Davies selected the text upon which Samuel Finley would preach Davies’ funeral sermon: “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8). This was done by Finley under the title The Dis-Interested and Devoted Christian [1761]. George Pilcher says that this Scripture text “expressed the belief that had governed [Davies’] life” (Samuel Davies: Apostle of Dissent in Colonial Virginia, p. 187).

Davies was a man who loved his family and his studies, and would have contented himself to serve his flock in rural central Virginia for the rest of his days. In 1751, he wrote to his brother-in-law, John Holt:

I can tell you that I am as happy as perhaps the Creation can make me: I enjoy all the Necessaries and most of the Conveniences of Life; I have a peaceful Study, as a Refuge from the Hurries and the Noise of the World around me; the venerable Dead are waiting in my Library to entertain me, and relieve me from the Nonsense of surviving Mortals; I am peculiarly happy in my Relations, and Providence does not affect me by afflicting them. In short, I have all a moderate Heart can wish; and I very much question if there be a more calm, placid and contented Mortal in Virginia.

But though Davies, with characteristic humility, thought himself unworthy to take up calls to serve the College of New Jersey (Princeton) by fundraising in Europe or in the capacity of President, and resisted those calls strenuously, he was not deaf to the call of duty when pressed upon him by others. He himself preached war sermons during the French and Indian War in which he told others: “FOLLOW THE PATH OF DUTY wherever it leads you” (Religion and Patriotism: The Constituents of a Good Soldier [1756]).

As President of Princeton — which he spoke of as “a Seminary of Loyalty, as well as Learning, and Piety: a Nursery for the State, as well as the Church” (A Sermon Delivered at Nassau-Hall, January 14, 1761, on the Death of His Late Majesty King George II [1761]) — Davies delivered a discourse on the importance of cultivating a public spirit which is reminiscent of wisdom from Thomas à Kempis, who said “Never be entirely idle; but either be reading, or writing, or praying, or meditating, or endeavoring something for the public good” (The Imitation of Christ). Let us give heed to Davies:

Whatever, I say, be your Place, permit me, my dear Youth, to inculcate upon you this important instruction, IMBIBE AND CHERISH A PUBLIC SPIRIT. Serve your Generation. Live not for yourselves, but the Publick. Be the Servants of the Church; the servants of your Country; the Servants of all. Extend the Arms of your Benevolence to embrace your Friends, your Neighbors, your Country, your Nation, the whole Race of mankind, even your Enemies. Let it be the vigorous unremitted Effort of your whole Life, to leave the World wiser and better than you found it at your Entrance (Religion and Public Spirit: A Valedictory Address to the Senior Class, Delivered in Nassau-Hall, September 21, 1760 [1762]).

Samuel Davies did much good in the span of 37 years on this earth. He left a legacy of godliness which continues to encourage and inspire. May his “important instruction” to the students of his beloved college ring in our ears today: “Leave the world wiser and better than you found it at your entrance.”