Samuel Davies was born in Delaware, trained in Pennsylvania, and at 23 years of age, a missionary to Virginia. He was a “New Light” Presbyterian (like George Whitfield) that taught salvation by grace alone, thru a personal conversion that resulted in a Romans 12:2 transformation. He arrived in Hanover County, Virginia, and took Samuel Morris’ reading houses (such as we have here in Polegreen) from just sermon-reading (hence the name, “reading house”) to a full church.
In 1864 the church was destroyed in a Civil War artillery battle, but has been rebuilt so you can see what it would have looked like when Henry was a boy.
Davies claimed his rights under the 1688 Act of Religious Toleration, and became the first non-Anglican minister licensed in Virginia. Soon he was pastoring eight churches over a ninety mile area, but based at Pole Green Church. It was here at Pole Green, in 1748, that Sarah Henry took her 12 year old son, Patrick to church. Sarah didn’t just give Patrick some crayons and paper, or an iPad and earbuds, she quizzed him after every service, and Patrick had to answer with the Scripture and a summary of the sermon!
Eventually the College of New Jersey (you may know it better as Princeton) reached out to Samuel Davies – their president died just a couple months after taking the job. You may have heard of him – Jonathan Edwards? So the college asked Samuel Davies to be the president to succeed Jonathan Edwards. Davies took the job, he increased the academic rigor of the school, and pastored the local church. However his time at Princeton was short – 18 months later, he was buried nearby Jonathan Edwards.
At the request of the Hanover dissenters, a newly ordained 23-year-old Presbyterian minister from Pennsylvania arrived in 1747 to be pastor of the four congregations which had been licensed by the Colonial government in 1743. He was the first non-Anglican minister licensed to preach in Virginia. Davies remained in Virginia until 1759 and made a remarkable contribution to the religious and political climate of the colony. Among his achievements was his pioneering effort in the education of black slaves.
The classic Negro slave spiritual, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart,” originated at Polegreen. Musicologists credit Davies with being the first American-born hymn writer. His poetry was published in Williamsburg in 1752. He had no peer as a pulpit orator in Virginia — or perhaps in all the colonies.
As a young man, Patrick Henry worshipped with his mother, a Hanover dissenter, at Polegreen during the twelve years Davies was in Virginia. Before Henry’s death he credited Davies with “teaching me what an orator should be.” During the French and Indian War, Davies distinguished himself as an American patriot prompting Governor Dinwiddie to say, “Davies is the best recruiter in the Colony.”
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