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 that story was told. 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 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 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 (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.

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A Children's Sermon by Samuel Davies

Samuel Davies once preached a sermon to youth in 1758 (260 years ago) titled Little Children Invited to Jesus Christ (reprinted by the American Tract Society in 1826). It was an argument not to delay but to come to Jesus, and to embrace him by faith.

In this sermon, Davies clarifies what he means by “coming to Christ” (based on this text: “But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little Children to come unto me, and forbid them not: For of such is the Kingdom of God,” Mark 10:14). The truths he lays out in this sermon are timeless and applicable to all, young or old.

You have a right, and that it is your duty, to Come to Jesus. Therefore, oh! come to him: come to him this very day, without delay.

But here, I hope, you start a very proper question, "What is it to come to Christ? or in what sense are we to understand this phrase, as it may be applied to us now, since he is removed from our world?"

Coming to Christ, in my text, did indeed mean a bodily motion to him: and this was practicable, while he tabernacled in flesh among men. But even then, it signified much more. It signified coming to him as a divine teacher, to receive instruction; as a Saviour, to obtain eternal life; and as the only Mediator, through whom guilty sinners might have access to God. It signified a motion of soul towards him, Correspondent to the bodily motion of coming: a motion of the desires, a flight of tender affections towards him. In this view it is still practicable to come to Christ; and it is our duty in these latter days, as much as it was theirs who were his contemporaries upon earth. It is in this view, I now urge it upon you: and in this view, it includes: the following particulars.

1. A clear conviction of sin; of sin in heart, in word, and in practice; of sin against knowledge; against alluring mercies and fatherly corrections; of sin against all the strongest incitements to duty. Without such a conviction of sin, it is impossible that you should fly to him as a Saviour: for he "came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

2. An affecting sense of danger, upon the account of sin. You cannot fly to him as a Saviour, till you see your extreme need of salvation; and you cannot see your need of salvation, till you are sensible of your danger; sensible that you are every moment liable to everlasting condemnation, and have no title at all to the divine favour.

3. A humbling sense of your own inability to save yourselves by the merit of your own best endeavours. I do not mean, that you should neglect your best endeavours; or that you should not exert your utmost strength in every good work, and in the earnest use of all the means of grace: for you never will come to Christ, till you are brought to this. But I mean, that while you are doing your utmost, you must be sensible, that you do not deserve any favour at all from God on that account, and that you neither can, nor do make any atonement for your sins by all your good works; but that God may justly condemn you notwithstanding. Till you are sensible of this, you will weary yourselves in vain, in idle self righteous efforts to perform the work which Jesus came into the world to perform, and which he alone was able to do; I mean, to make atonement for your sin, and to work out a righteousness to recommend you to God. It is an eternal truth, that you will never come to Christ as a Saviour, till you are deeply sensible there is no salvation in any other; and particularly that you are not able to save yourselves.

4. An affecting conviction, that Jesus Christ is a glorious, all sufficient and willing Saviour: that his righteousness is perfect, equal to all the demands of the divine law, and sufficient to make satisfaction for all our sins, and procure for us all the blessings of the divine favour; that he is able and willing to "save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him;" and that he is freely offered in the Gospel to all that will accept him, however unworthy, and however great their sins. Indeed it is an eternal truth, that though multitudes perish, it is not for want of a Saviour. There is a Saviour all sufficient, and perfectly willing; and this you must be convinced of before you can come to him.

5. An entire dependence upon his merits alone for acceptance with God. Sensible that you have no merit of your own; on which to depend; and sensible also that Jesus is a sure foundation, on which you may safely venture your eternal all, you must cast all your dependence and fix your entire trust on him. You will as it were hang about him, as the only support for your sinking soul, and plead his righteousness as the only ground of your acceptance with God. This is so unnatural to a proud self-confident sinner, that you must be brought very low indeed, thoroughly mortified and self-emptied, before you will submit to it.

6. A cheerful subjection to him as your ruler; and a voluntary surrender of yourselves to his service. If you come to him at all, it will be as poor penitent rebels, returning to duty with, shame and sorrow, and fully determined never to depart from it more. To embrace Christ as a Saviour, and yet not submit to him as our ruler; to trust in his righteousness, and in the mean time disobey his authority; this is the greatest absurdity, and utterly inconsistent with the wise constitution of the Gospel.

And now, my dear young friends, I hope even your tender minds have some idea what it is to come to Christ. And therefore, when I exhort you to it, you know what I mean. Come then, come to Jesus.

Happy Birthday to Samuel Davies!

The “Apostle of Virginia” — Samuel Davies — was born at Summit Ridge in New Castle County, Delaware, on November 3, 1723. His parents were Thomas and Martha Davies, at the time Baptists of Welsh heritage. As the time of Samuel’s birth drew near, “his mother…had special occasion for the exercise of her faith, in waiting for the answer to her petition” (Appendix, Sermons on Important Subjects, Vol. 1, p. xxxi).

Samuel later told his friend Thomas Gibbons (as reported in Gibbons’ “Divine Conduct Vindicated,” ibid, p. 22): “That he was blessed with a mother whom he might account, without filial vanity or partiality, one of the most eminent saints he knew upon earth. And here, says he, I cannot but mention to my friend an anecdote known but to few; that is, that I am a son of prayer, like my name-sake Samuel the prophet; and my mother called me Samuel because, she said, I have asked him of the Lord, 1 Sam. i.20. This early dedication to God has always been a strong inducement to me to devote myself by my own personal act; and the most important blessing of my life I have looked upon as immediate as immediate answers to the prayer of a pious mother. But, alas! What a degenerate plant am I! How unworthy am I of such a parent and such a birth!”

Samuel Davies would go on to be noted as “the first Presbyterian minister east of the Shenandoah and Appalachian mountains to be lawfully licensed in Virginia…active in promoting the flames of revival throughout Virginia for over a decade…one of the first American ministers to actively labor among the African slaves…he started a mission to the Overhill Cherokees along the western borders of North Carolina and South Carolina…his sermons were among the most popular in print for nearly a century after his death…[and] he was the fourth President of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton College or Princeton University)” (Dewey Roberts, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, pp. 21-22).

We remember his birth, life, work and legacy on this day, as a man who was indeed a “son of prayer.”