A Visit to the Birthplace of Samuel Davies

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When Samuel Davies — the “Apostle to Virginia” — and Gilbert Tennent were chosen as emissaries to raise funds in Europe for the College of New Jersey, Davies left his Hanover, Virginia base in September 1753 to return home to Delaware and parts surrounding, including Philadelphia and New Jersey. An entry from his journal in November 1753, records his sentiments as he traveled through the Delaware Welsh Tract of his boyhood once again:

[W]hen I past by the Places where I had formerly lived, or walked, it gave a solemn Turn to my Mind. Ah! How much I have sinned, wherever I have been! And what solemn Transactions have been between God and my Soul in these my old Walks! Visited two Grave-Yards in my Way, to Solemnize my Mind among the Mansions of the Dead. O how solemn Eternity appeared! How frail and dying the Race of Mortals! And how near my own Dissolution!

Davies was born on November 23, 1723, at what is today known as the Lum’s Mill House in Bear, Delaware. It still stands but is in great disrepair and not open to the public. It is adjacent to the Lums Pond State Park, but beyond the grass being mowed, there is little evidence that it is remembered for its mark on history.

This writer recently toured some of the old stomping grounds that Davies may have visited on that 1753 trip, including his family home. Dewey Roberts — author of Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, a most valuable resource for studying the life of this great saint, particularly, his earlier years — was kind enough to make suggestions for the itinerary.

Samuel Davies’ birthplace - photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

Samuel Davies’ birthplace - photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

His family was originally associated with the Welsh Tract Baptist Church in New Castle County. I was not able to visit that church on this trip. But I did visit the church that the Davies family joined after departing from the Baptist church: Pencader Presbyterian Church (originally called the Welsh Tract Presbyterian Church). It is now known as Olivet Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), but the name Pencader is still found on the church building itself as well as the at the adjacent cemetery.

Pencader (Olivet) Presbyterian Church (originally founded 1707-1710; present building established in 1852) - photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

Pencader (Olivet) Presbyterian Church (originally founded 1707-1710; present building established in 1852) - photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

The pastor who embraced the Davies family and counseled them through a challenging transition was likely Thomas Evans, who is buried at this location.

Historical marker - photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

Historical marker - photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

I also visited other Presbyterian churches in the vicinity, including Head of Christiana — pastored by George Gillespie, who is buried at the cemetery there, as is James Laird Vallandigham, who authored a history of Pencader Presbyterian Church and a history of the New Castle Presbytery.

Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church (founded in 1706-1708; present building established in 1859) - photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church (founded in 1706-1708; present building established in 1859) - photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

Finally, I stopped at St. Georges — pastored by WIlliam Robinson (who played such an important role in the life of Samuel Davies and may be the subject of a future post) and Davies’ “close friend” John Rodgers (Samuel Finley preached the ordination sermon for Rodgers here in 1749 and later preached Samuel Davies’ funeral sermon elsewhere in 1761).

St. Georges Presbyterian Church (present building established in 1844)- photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

St. Georges Presbyterian Church (present building established in 1844)- photo credit: R. Andrew Myers

One additional place visited on this trip was the site of the Duck Creek Presbyterian Church. It was a place of significance to Thomas Evans, who conducted the first worship services there in 1733. This was just a year after Martha Davies (Samuel’s mother) was forced out of the Welsh Tract Baptist Church and received spiritual counsel from Rev. Evans (see Dewey Roberts, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, pp. 31-33).

Smyrna, Delaware

Smyrna, Delaware

Walking around the old historic buildings and graveyards, like Old Mortality (Sir Walter Scott), reminds one that Memento Mori (“Remember, you must die”) is a saying worthy to be impressed upon our thoughts, and pondered from time to time. The historical landmarks are too often in a sad state of decay, and it is greatly to be desired that they be not lost to future generations. But regardless, as Davies would say, it is eternity upon which our eyes of faith must be fixed, and while the footsteps of time have their necessary place, our chief care as we move through this world must be to ensure, by the grace of God, that these “mouldering tabernacles are become everlasting habitations.”

Where to find some sermons by Gilbert Tennent via Log College Press

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According to Hughes Oliphant Old, who has written notably about Gilbert Tennent in Volume 5 of The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church and elsewhere,* more than 80 sermons by Tennent were published in his lifetime. The Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has a collection of 160 sermons by him, many of which exist in manuscript form. It was only in the late 20th century that thirteen additional manuscript sermons were located in the library of Princeton Theological Seminary. Miles Douglas Harper, Jr. says that “Tennent preached a total of 588 times from the more than two hundred sermons extant.”** Log College Press has some of his published sermons available at Tennent’s author page. Four more by Tennent are found in Archibald Alexander’s posthumously-published (1855) Sermons of the Log College:

  • The Justice of God (no date) - text: Deut. 32:4

  • The Divine Mercy (no date) - text: Ex. 34:6

  • The Grace of God (no date) - text: Ex. 34:6

  • The Wisdom of God in Redemption (no date) - 1 Cor. 1:23-24

But some of his manuscript sermons are also available to read or obtain elsewhere via our site. For example, at our Dissertations and Theses page, one may read Cheryl Ann Rickards, “Gilbert Tennent: An Analysis of His Evangelistic Ministry, Methods and Message During the Great Awakening” (2003), which includes discussion and analysis, as well as the full sermon transcriptions, of:

  • The Solemn Scene of the Last Judgment (1737) - text: 2 Thess. 1:6-9

  • The Necessity of Religious Violence in Order to Obtain Durable Happiness (1735) - text: Matt. 11:12

  • The Righteousness of Scribes and Pharisees Considered (1741) - text: Matt. 5:20

On our Secondary Sources page, a book worth highlighting in this regard is Kimberly Bracken Long, The Eucharistic Theology of the American Holy Fair (2011), which contains (as appendices) transcriptions of three of the thirteen recently-discovered manuscript sermons at Princeton:

  • De nuptiis cum Christo (February 1753) - texts: Rev. 3:20, Matt. 22:2

  • “Sermon Manuscript 4” (no title, no date) - text: Song of Solomon 4:16

  • “Sermon Manuscript 12” (no title, no date) - texts: Ps. 122:1-2; Ps. 27:4

Also available at the Secondary Sources page is Milton J. Coalter, Jr., Gilbert Tennent, Son of Thunder (1986), which is the only full-length biography of Gilbert Tennent, and contains a valuable bibliography of his works (one may also consult Leonard J. Trinterud, A Bibliography of American Presbyterianism During the Colonial Period (1968), available at the Secondary Sources page; the bibliography by Miles Douglas Harper, Jr. is, however, more complete than either of the above).**

Tennent’s most famous (or infamous) sermon, The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry (1743), is still not available at our site, although it can be found elsewhere in modern form online or, for example, in the 1993 Soli Deo Gloria edition of Archibald Alexander’s Sermons of the Log College. We continue to add Tennent’s public domain works to the site as we are able. This post is a reminder to our readers that some of his manuscript sermons are available or accessible here as well.

* Hughes Oliphant Old, “Gilbert Tennent and the Preaching of Piety in Colonial America: Newly Discovered Tennent Manuscripts in Speer Library,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. X, No. 2 (1989), p. 134.

** Miles Douglas Harper, Jr., “Gilbert Tennent: Theologian of the ‘New Light’” (1958), pp. iii, 436-454.

Whatever happened to William Tennent, Jr.?

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Few figures in Reformed and Presbyterian history have had a greater cloud of mystery shrouding them than William Tennent, Jr. His first biographer, Elias Boudinot IV, wrote of him: We have never known a man in modern times concerning whom so many extraordinary things are related.” Frank R. Symmes adds: “His biography is of surpassing interest, a fascinating story of the unusual and extraordinary in spiritual life.” The son of the founder of the original Log College of Neshaminy, Pennsylvania, which was the seed that grew into the College of New Jersey (Princeton), he was trained for the ministry and then sent to New Brunswick, New Jersey for further training and theological exams under his brother Gilbert, who was already serving as a minister of the gospel.

While there, the toll of his intense studies affected his physical and emotional health greatly, so much so that his body wasted away and doubts of his salvation assailed him. In that condition, and he fainted. To all appearances he was in fact dead, and Gilbert with great sadness began the process of arranging for his funeral. A doctor arrived and thought he detected a slight tremor in one arm, but even a day later, no further sign of life was detected. Yet the doctor continued with efforts to revive him, delaying the scheduled funeral, until while Gilbert and the assembly who had gathered had grown impatient thinking the doctor’s efforts were useless, suddenly, William with a groan opened his eyes, and then relapsed into unconsciousness. This happened again and again until after a time he revived fully, though was bedridden for a year following. He experienced almost complete amnesia, which was discovered when his sister Eleanor found that he did not know what the Bible was. He had to be re-taught everything, although after more time, as he regained strength, the memory of his past life eventually returned to him.

Something else was learned of his experience. As he related it to both Elias Boudinot and separately to Dr. John Woodhull, while he was unconscious, he experienced a trance.

This was the substance of his recital: suddenly he found himself in another state of existence, with an innumerable throng of heavenly beings surrounding him, singing hallelujahs with unspeakable rapture. He was unable to define any shapes to these celestial beings, aware only of their adoration and the aura of glory enfolding them. His entire being was so pervaded with their rapture that he longed to join them, comforted by the thought that he had been redeemed and permitted to enter heaven. But at this point the guide who had led him thither told him that he must return to earth. The thought pierced his soul like a sword and at that instant he awoke to hear the doctor and Gilbert arguing above him. The three days had seemed but a few moments in length, but for three years afterward the echoes of that celestial music rang ceaselessly in his ears (Mary A. Tennent, Light in Darkness: The Life of William Tennent, Sr. and The Log College, pp. 104-105).

So William thus narrowly escaped being buried alive, and eventually was ordained to the ministry, and lived a full life until sickness and death overtook him in 1777. The story of his trance was widely discussed, with some understanding it in natural and others in supernatural terms.

Boudinot wrote: “The pious and candid reader is left to his own reflection on the very extraordinary occurrence. The facts have been stated and they are unquestionable. The writer will only ask whether it is contrary to the revealed truth or to reason to believe that in every age of the world, instances like that here recorded have occurred to furnish living testimony to the reality of the invisible world, and the infinite importance of eternal concerns” (Life of the Rev. William Tennent, p. 24).

Archibald Alexander did not view the trance as anything more than what could be “accounted for on natural principles.” Although there was other event in William’s life that led Alexander to conclude that God does still interpose in human affairs by means of dreams - a man and his wife who came from Maryland to Trenton, New Jersey after having both experienced the same dream whereby they were called to come to the aid of a Mr. Tennent who was in great distress. In fact, at the time they found him in Trenton he was facing a false charge of perjury for having served as a witness for the defense of a fellow minister accused of robbery under a case of mistaken identity. The arrival of the man and his wife from Maryland, who had previous contact with him, was helpful in establishing an alibi for William during his trial, and led to a verdict on “not guilty” on William’s behalf. It was a remarkable end to a troublesome situation (Biographical Sketches of the Founder, and Principal Alumni of the Log College, pp. 192-200, 222-231).

Back to William’s trace, Mary Tennent, writing in 1971, says: “Of course the simple explanation is that after a long and devastating illness, in a state of exhaustion and weakness, he sank into a coma from which he was at length aroused by the continuous efforts of his friend, the doctor. The vivid dream occurring during the few moments of returning consciousness was the natural result of his last conscious anxiety concerning his soul, while the tremendous surge of happiness at seeing and hearing the angelic choir was but a subconscious wish fulfillment” (Light in the Darkness: The Story of William Tennent, Sr. and The Log College, p. 105).

Many other fascinating anecdotes are recorded about William by Boudinot and Alexander. One that is mentioned by the latter, but not the former. One night he awoke from his sleep with intense pain in one foot. It seems that several of his toes had been cleanly amputated, although the toes were not to be found, nor was there any bloody trail or blade was found. There was simply no explanation for the event, which left him minus several toes. Whether he was a sleepwalker who had an accident or whether something else natural or supernatural occurred, we have no way of knowing.

This is just one of many extraordinary events in the life of an extraordinary man. The biographies consulted above are worth perusing to learn more about this remarkable figure and his place in church history.

Tennent, Jr., William, The Remarkable Trance of Rev. William Tennent.jpg