Of the Venerable Dead

Some quotes are special. Anyone who enjoys the peaceful pastime of library reading will appreciate what Samuel Davies of Hanover County, Virginia, once wrote to his brother-in-law, John Holt, residing in Williamsburg, in which Davies refers to himself as a "happy recluse." Davies' words have oft been repeated, with some variation, but rarely properly cited. 

This writer spent many years seeking out the original letter from which the famous quote came. It was recently with the most kind and gracious assistance of Dr. Dewey Roberts, author of a wonderful and highly recommended biography titled Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia (2017, available here), that a photograph of the letter was obtained, the original of which resides in the holdings of The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded by Benjamin Franklin. 

The letter is dated August 13, 1751. The quote in question, pictured here for you now, dear reader, reads thus: 

“I can tell you that I am as happy as perhaps the Creation can make me; I enjoy all the Necessaries & most of the Conveniences of Life; I have a peaceful study, as a refuge from the Hurries & Noise of the World around me; the venerable Dead are waiting in my Library to entertain me, & relieve me from the Nonsense of Surviving Mortals….In short, I have all a moderate Heart can wish; & I very much question if there be a more calm, placid & contented mortal in Virginia."

After years spent in search of the original words of Samuel Davies, this 21st century contented mortal in Virginia is pleased to share the picture with you showing the words in his own handwriting. May your library or study be a peaceful refuge as well. 

Davies, Samuel Quote.JPG

Spiritual Improvement on a Journey Homeward

"There is no object that we see; no action that we do; no good that we enjoy; no evil that we feel, or fear, but we may make some spiritual advantage of all: and he that makes such improvement is wise, as well as pious" (American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, Meditations Divine and Moral I).

From English Anglican Bishop Joseph Hall's Occasional Meditations (1630) to English Puritan John Flavel's Husbandry spiritualized, or, The Heavenly Use of Earthly Things (1674) to Anne Bradstreet's Meditations, we have examples of devotional literature wherein the pious writer takes note of ordinary or extraordinary things around him or her and with meditation finds spiritual application and benefit. 

One such example from the literature of American Presbyterianism comes from the Journal of Samuel Davies. In 1753, he left Virginia to visit England and Scotland. That is when his Journal begins. He often took note of the wind, waves and weather around him as he sailed, and sometimes inspired his poetry, but it was not until he was almost back home, off the coast of North Carolina, in 1755, that he really began to takes notes on what he saw for purposes of spiritual meditation and improvement (George William Pilcher, ed., The Reverend Samuel Davies Abroad: The Diary of a Journey to England and Scotland, 1753-55). 

"Wednesd. Feb. 12. Blessed be God, we had the wellcome [sic] Sight of Land this Morning; and suppose we are on the Coast of N. Carolina, about 20 Leagues S. of Cape Henry. The Wind is contrary; and if a Storm should rise, we might be driven out to Sea again. 

Since my last Remarks, we have had strong Gales and violent Storms of Snow, with violent intense Cold. It has been so cloudy; that we have had no good Observations of 9 Days; and our Reckoning for Longitude being out [editorial note: John Harrison's marine chronometer was not invented until 1761], we knew not where we were. We have been expecting Land, and sounding for Ground, these 14 Days, but were still disappointed 'till this Morning. If the Longitude, which has been so long sought for in vain, could be certainly discovered, it would be vastly to the Advantage of Navigation. 

Tho' my Mind has been in such a confusion, during the Passage, that I have not been able to make any useful Remarks to any Advantage; yet the various Phenomenon of the Ocean have suggested to me such Hints as might be well improved by a spiritual Meditant. And I shall take short Memorandum of them that if I should happen to be disposed for it hereafter, I may improve upon them. 

The majestic Appearance of this vast Collection of Waters, may suggest to use -- the Majesty -- and Power of God, the Author -- and his uncontroulable Government who rules so outragious an Element as he pleases, and stills it with one almighty Mandate, 'Peace, be still,' -- and the Terror of the Conflagration which shall dry it up. 

The alternate Storms and Calms are a picture of the Mutability of human Life on this World -- of the various Frames of a Xn.

As Storms and Hurricanes purifie the Sea, and keep it from corrupting; so Afflications are necessary to purge and sanctifie the People of God, and shall work together for their Good. And so God brings Good out of Evil. 

It is calm in some Parts of the Ocean, while it is tempestous [sic] in others. So, particular Persons -- and Countries, are alternately happy and miserable. 

The Sea in the Ferment of a Storm gives us an Image -- of a Mind agitated with furious Lusts and Passions -- and a riotous Mobb. 

The Ship is our only Safety. So is Xt. to the Souls amid the Ruins of Sin. 

After a Storm and a gloomy Night, how wellcome and chearing is the Return of a Calm, and a the Morning Light! So is the Return of Peace and the Light of God's Countenance to a Soul in Darkness and Distress. 

The Want of an Observation to discover the Latitude, in cloudy Weather, leaves the Mariner perplexed about his Course. Thus perplexed is the Xn. when God withdraws the Light of his Countenance, or when the Meaning of the Scripture is uncertain. 

It is a great Disadvantage to Navigation, and occasions the Loss of many Ships, that the Longitude is not discovered. Thus would it have been, with the moral [sic?] World, if it had not been favoured with the Light of Revelation; and thus is the heathen Part of Mankind at a Loss about the Way to Heaven. 

After a long and dangerous Voyage, how eager are the Seamen looking out for Land; and how rejoiced at the Sight of it! Thus eager are some Xns and thus eager should they all be, to see Immanuel's Land, and arrive there. 

It is a striking Evidence of the Degeneracy of human Nature, that those who traverse this Region of Wonders, who see so many Dangers and Deliverances, are generally tho'tless, vicious and impenitent. 

Such Remarks as these, decorated with lively Images and good Langue, would be both useful and entertaining." 

It was the next day that Samuel Davies arrived in Yorktown, Virginia, and two days following he returned home to his dear wife. 

Pictured: Winslow Homer, Northeaster (1895).

Memento Mori

If there a place that proclaims Memento Mori more loudly and clearly than the Princeton Cemetery, it is unknown to this writer. In the Presidents Plot alone, there are three ministers who died soon after preaching a New Year's sermon on the Scriptural text Jer. 28:16: "This year thou shalt die": Aaron Burr, Sr. (1716-1757); Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758); and Samuel Davies (1723-1761) (the same is true of Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801), who is buried elsewhere).

The day of my visit happened to coincide with the anniversary of Charles Hodge's passing into glory. The morning began with a passing rain shower, but the clouds parted and the sun shined. There was time to meditate at the graves of Archibald Alexander, and many others. The weather was very different when Moses Hoge visited the cemetery in 1820. 

"He also visited Princeton College, which, in 1810, had conferred on him, in company with his friend, Mr. [Archibald] Alexander, the degree of S.T.D.; and passed a few days with Dr. Alexander. A cold easterly rain was falling the whole time of his visit. He examined thoroughly the condition of the two institutions, the College and the Seminary, with reference to the two in Prince Edward. He rejoiced in the extended influence of his friend Alexander, and [Samuel] Miller the co-laborer. He could not refrain from a visit to the grave-yard to meditate by the tombs of [Aaron] Burr, [Sr. and Jr.]; [Jonathan] Edwards, [Samuel] Davies, [John] Witherspoon, and [Samuel Stanhope] Smith. As he tarried in that hallowed spot, the bleak wind pierced his diseased frame, and hastened his descent into the valley of death. His heart was elevated as he went from grave to grave, and read the epitaphs of these Presidents of College and teachers of Theology; and his body under the cold rain was chilled in preparation for his own resting in the silent tomb. The conversations of Hoge and Alexander those few days, had there been a hand to record them, laying open the hearts, as by a daguerrotype, of men of such exalted pure principle, so unselfish and so unlike the mass of men - what simplicity of thought, benevolence in feeling, and elevation of piety! -- but there was no man to pen what all men would have been glad to read. Mr. Hoge took his seat in the Assembly - but his fever returned upon him, of a typhus case, and by means of the cold caught in Princeton, became too deeply seated for medicine to remove. He bowed his head meekly to the will of the Head of the Church, and fell asleep in Jesus, on the [5th] of July" (William Henry Foote, Sketches of Virginia, Second Series, p. 373). 

The French Huguenot Charles Drelincourt once wrote (The Christian's Defence Against the Fears of Death, p. 59): 

"And let the most learned Philosophers learn, That the soundest Philosophy is the Meditation of Death.

In short, Whatever be our Employment, Condition, or Age, let us lift up our Minds and Hands unto GOD, to speak to him in the Language of the Prophet DavidLord, let me know my end, and the number of my days, that I may know how long I am to live. Or of MosesSo teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto Wisdom." 

Today is always a good day to consider one's standing before God (Rom. 13:11). Memento mori

An Awakening in Central Virginia

Presbyterianism was planted in eastern Virginia in the late 1600s and early 1700s with the arrival and ministry of Francis Makemie. As pioneer settlers, many of them Scotch-Irish,  migrated down the Valley of Virginia, they brought Presbyterianism with them. These seeds were watered by the ministry of such men as John Blair, John Craig and Alexander Craighead, and others, who planted and organized congregations along the Blue Ridge. But in-between, the established Anglican church dominated the colony of Virginia, and as a consequence, parish preaching often led to a spiritual dormancy. 

As Ezra H. Gillett notes, "The rise of Presbyterianism in Hanover is inseparably connected with what is known by tradition as Morris' Reading-House" (History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Vol. 1, p. 111). The spirit of God began to stir in the County of Hanover around 1740, an awakening which centered, in the providence of God, upon Samuel Morris, a simple brick mason who was anxious for the state of his soul, and, as a result, began to read such works as Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians, Thomas Boston's Fourfold State, and the sermons of George Whitefield, who had preached in Williamsburg in 1739, and began to embrace true Biblical experimental piety. He organized meetings in his home with family and neighbors to pray, read Scriptures and discuss these books. These Sabbath afternoon meetings became so popular that crowds grew, necessitating the erection of a meeting-place, which became known as "Morris' Reading House," while attendance upon the parish churches began to decline. This decline became so precipitous that the authorities in their alarm summoned Morris and his friends to appear before the Governor's Council in Williamsburg "to declare their creed and name." Being largely unacquainted with church history, and referencing the works of Luther, they were apparently identified as "Lutherans" and allowed to continue their meetings. Another report, said by Ernest T. Thompson to be "almost certainly apocryphal" (Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 1, p. 52), claims that on their way to Williamsburg, Morris and company happened upon a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which they found most agreeable to their religious sentiments. Governor Gooch, when presented with this document, being a Scotsman himself, is said to have immediately identified the group as Presbyterian dissenters whose right to worship was protected under the Toleration Act. 

It was in the winter of 1742-1743 that the Rev. William "One-Eyed" Robinson was sent by the Presbytery of New Castle to minister to points south, which included Hanover. Archibald Alexander's Biographies of the Log College Men gives an account of Robinson's arrival there (included in that account is a 1751 letter by Samuel Davies, which further incorporates a letter by Samuel Morris describing the experience of Robinson's ministry there). On July 6, 1743, Robinson preached the first Presbyterian sermon in those parts, and he stayed for three further days, fanning the flames of revival. Morris called those four days the "glorious days of the Son of Man." As a token of thanks, a substantial financial gift was offered to Robinson, which he declined. Edward Mack relates the account thus: "The first Presbyterian preacher who came to this Hanover flock was William Robinson, whose four days of preaching in 1743 bore fruit in earnest throngs and many converts. Being a man of means, Robinson refused money for these days of preaching. But discovering a large roll of bills slipped into his saddle-bags without his knowledge, he dedicated it to the education of a young man for the ministry, in the hope that he might come to Virginia. So it was that a poor, struggling young man, Samuel Davies, became the beneficiary of Virginia’s first gift for Ministerial Education, and after a few years, in 1747, this same Samuel Davies, at the age of twenty-three, came to these Presbyterians of Hanover as their first regular minister." Thus, a congregation was planted, Polegreen Church (which was attended by Patrick Henry), and eventually in 1755 the Hanover Presbytery itself was organized, "the mother-Presbytery of most of the churches and Presbyteries south of the Potomac" (Robert Ellis Thompson, A History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, p. 38). 

The Hymns of Samuel Davies

Samuel Davies (1723-1761) was both a poet and an early American advocate of singing uninspired hymns in public worship - in fact, he was the first American-born hymn-writer. A minister who read and appreciated the The Psalms of David Imitated by Isaac Watts, he frequently gave away copies of Watt's hymnal to others. Davies himself composed a total of 18 hymns, two of which were variations on compositions produced by Philip Doddridge. The other sixteen were published in one volume, though scattered amongst other compositions, posthumously by his friend Thomas Gibbons in 1769, under the title Hymns Adapted to Divine Worship. We have extracted those hymns by Davies from that volume at Log College Press.

Louis FitzGerald Benson (1855-1930) also wrote two fascinating articles about Samuel Davies, the hymn-writer, in the Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society: "President Davies as a Hymn Writer;" and "The Hymns of President Davies." His analysis of the background of these hymns is extremely helpful to those concerned to know more about the context of these hymns, which were often written by Davies to accompany a particular sermon upon which he preached. The latter article reproduces not only the 16 original compositions by Davies, but also the 2 variations on Doddridge. 

If you wish to learn more about the compositions of "America's Isaac Watts," these primary and secondary sources will be of great help. 

Samuel Davies Passed Into Glory on This Date in History

Readers of this blog will recall that on January 1, 1761, Samuel Davies (1723-1761) preached "A Sermon on the New Year" (see Sermons on Important Subjects, Vol. 2, Serm. 34, pp. 139 ff), based Jer. 28:16: "This year thou shalt die." In that sermon, he said:

"Thus it appears very possible, that one or other of us may die this year. Nay, it is very probable, as well as possible, if we consider that it is a very uncommon, and almost unprecedented thing, that not one should die in a whole year out of such an assembly as this. More than one have died the year past, who made a part of our assembly last new year's day. Therefore let each of us (for we know not on whom the lot may fall) realize this possibility, this alarming probability, 'this year I may die.'" 

As it turned out, less than three weeks later, Davies, who is known to history as "the Apostle of Virginia," caught a severe cold, and under the care of his physician, was bled with leeches. He seemed to improve briefly, and was able to preach again, but by January 23, he relapsed and was overtaken by a fever and chills. At that point, in and out of delirium, he spoke of his earlier sermon as "his own funeral sermon." (In a remarkable providence, this was the exact text that Aaron Burr, Sr. (1716-1757, the second President of the College of New Jersey) preached as a New Year's sermon right before his death, which Davies knew, yet which inspired him somehow to choose for his own text. The same was also true, by the way, of both Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758, the third president of the College of New Jersey) and his son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr. (1745-1801).)

After 13 days of illness, at 38 years of age, at 2 pm on February 4, 1761, in Princeton, New Jersey, where he served as fourth President of the College of New Jersey, Samuel Davies passed into glory, leaving behind his bereaved second wife (Jane Holt Davies, known to readers of Davies' poetry as "Chara") and five living children, and many others who lamented the loss of a remarkable man. The story of his life and final days is well told by Dewey Roberts in Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia (2017). 

What he once wrote to his brother-in-law, John Holt, who lived in Williamsburg, from his rural retreat in Hanover, Virginia, has special meaning for those who appreciate the work of Log College Press: "I am as happy as perhaps 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 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 very much question if there is a more calm, placid, and contented mortal in all of Virginia." (Letter dated Aug. 13, 1751)

Have You Read Samuel Davies' New Year's Sermons?

Samuel Davies (1723-1761), who was only 37 years old when he died, preached two New Year's Day sermons at the end of his life. Together, they constitute a remarkable examination of the brevity of life and the importance of redeeming the time - given providentially as he prepared to step into eternity. He, now being dead, yet speaketh (Heb. 11:4). 

On January 1, 1760, he preached "A New Year's Gift" (see Sermons on Important Subjects, Vol. 3, Serm. 59, pp. 309 ff), using Rom. 13:11 for his text: "And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed."

Listen to how he begins: "Time, like an ever-running stream, is perpetually gliding on, and hurrying us and all the sons of men into the boundless ocean of eternity. We are now entering upon one of those imaginary lines of division, which men have drawn to measure out time for their own conveniency; and, while we stand upon the threshold of a new year, it becomes us to make a solemn contemplative pause; though time can make no pause, but rushes on with its usual velocity. Let us take some suitable reviews and prospects of time past and future, and indulge such reflections as our transition from year to year naturally tends to suggest. 

The grand and leading reflection is that in the text, with which I present to you as a New-Year's Gift: Knowing the time, that it is high time to awake out of sleep."

The following year, his last on earth, on January 1, 1761, Davies preached "A Sermon on the New Year" (see Sermons on Important Subjects, Vol. 2, Serm. 34, pp. 139 ff), from Jer. 28:16: "This year thou shalt die." Because Davies died just one month later, on February 4, 1761, it has often been said (even by Davies himself before he died) that here Davies preached his own funeral sermon. Interestingly, he borrowed the same text that College of New Jersey Founder and President Aaron Burr, Sr. (1716-1757) had preached on his last New Year's Day on earth. 

In a most sobering sermon, Davies reminds us that "Thus it appears very possible, that one or other of us may die this year. Nay, it is very probable, as well as possible, if we consider that it is a very uncommon, and almost unprecedented thing, that not one should die in a whole year out of such an assembly as this. More than one have died the year past, who made a part of our assembly last new year's day. Therefore let each of us (for we know not on whom the lot may fall) realize this possibility, this alarming probability, 'this year I may die.'" 

None of us knows how long the thread of our lives may extend on earth. Our times are in the hands of the Lord (Ps. 31:15). Therefore, as one year closes, and a New Year begins, let us take stock and heed the words of Samuel Davies: "Therefore conclude, every one for himself, 'It is of little importance to me whether I die this year, or not; but the only important point is, that I may make a good use of my future time, whether it be longer or shorter.' This, my brethren, is the only way to secure a happy new year: a year of time, that will lead the way to a happy eternity."

The works of Samuel Davies are increasing on Log College Press...

Samuel Davies was born on this day in 1723, and so we highlight him today. On our website you will find not only his four volumes of Sermons, but his Letters Shewing the State of Religion in Virginia (1757) and an installation sermon he preached in 1754 entitled "The Duties, Difficulties and Rewards of the Faithful Minister." 

A new biography of Samuel Davies has been published by Dewey Roberts. If you're interested in learning more about this Presbyterian father in the faith, don't miss it. 

Four volumes of sermons by Samuel Davies are on the Log College Press website

Samuel Davies was one of the great 18th century Presbyterians. A preacher without peer, he fought for religious liberty and was instrumental in the First Great Awakening in the South. He raised money for the newly formed College of New Jersey, and was the school's fourth President. Unfortunately, he died at the early age of 37. He was a prolific author, and four volumes of his sermons can be found here