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.”

The Lantern that John Rodgers Broke

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Samuel Miller tells a story of his mentor and senior colleague, John Rodgers, and a lantern that he once broke as a boy.

It is generally known, that Mr. [George] Whitefield often preached in the open air; sometimes, because houses of worship were shut against him; and at others, because his audiences were too large to be accommodated in any ordinary building. In Philadelphia, he often stood on the outside steps of the Court-house, in Market-street, and from that station addressed admiring thousands who crowded the street below. On one of these occasions [c. 1739], young Rodgers was not only present, but pressed as near to the person of his favourite preacher as possible; and to testify his respect, held a lantern for his accommodation. Soon after the sermon began, he became so absorbed in the subject, and, at length, so deeply impressed, and strongly agitated, that he was scarcely able to stand; the lantern fell from his hand, and was dashed in pieces; and that part of the audience in the immediate vicinity of the speaker’s station, were not a little interested, and, for a few moments, discomposed, by the occurrence.

The impressions thus begun, were confirmed and deepened, and resulted, in a short time afterwards, as he hoped, when he was but little more than twelve years of age, in a saving knowledge and acceptance of Jesus Christ as the only refuge and hope of his soul; and in a cordial devotedness to his service.

From this period he resolved, if God should enable him, to devote himself to the service of Christ, in the work of the Gospel ministry.

Miller adds that there is more to the story.

A subsequent circumstance, connected with this event, and not less remarkable, is worthy of being recorded. Mr. Whitefield, in the course of his fifth visit to America, about the year 1754, on a journey from the southward, called at St. George’s, in Delaware, where Mr. Rodgers was then settled int he Gospel ministry, and spent some time with him. In the course of this visit, Mr. Rodgers, being one day riding with his visitant, in the close carriage in which the latter usually travelled, asked him, whether he recollected the occurrence of the little boy, who was so much affected with his preaching, as to let his lantern fall? Mr. Whitefield answered, “Oh yes! I remember it well; and have often thought I would give almost anything in my power to know who that little boy was, and what had become of him.” Mr. Rodgers replied with a smile, “I am that little boy!” Mr. Whitefield, with tears of joy, started from his seat, took him in his arms, and with strong emotion remarked, that he was the fourteenth person then in the ministry whom he had discovered in the course of that visit to America, of whose hopeful conversion he had been the instrument.

This fascinating account is derived from Miller’s Memoirs of the Reverend John Rodgers, D. D. (1813). Rodgers was such an important figure in colonial American Presbyterianism that this biography is a valuable window into the period as well as a portrait of the man. Take time to peruse its pages, and learn more about the boy who broke a lantern in his excitement at hearing the gospel preached, and later became a leading minister of the gospel in the early American Presbyterian Church.

John Rodgers on "a life of usefulness"

In November of 1808, John Rodgers preached a sermon at the opening of a new Presbyterian church in New York City, at the conclusion of which he left us with profound words to meditate and act upon even today:

As ever therefore sinners would wish to be reconciled to God — to escape eternal misery, and be prepared for unwasting blessedness — and as ever the people of God would wish to enjoy the comforts, the consolations of the religion of Jesus, as they pass through life — as they would wish to grow into a meetness for the inheritance of the saints in light, after a life of usefulness on earth — We most affectionately beseech both the one and the other, to be steady, uniform, and conscientious, in their attendance upon the house of God. Amen. (John Rodgers, The Presence of Christ the Glory of a Church: A Sermon Delivered November 6th, 1808, at the Opening of the Presbyterian Church in Cedar Street, New York)