Friday, February 4, 2011

Apostle of Virginia

On January 1, 1761, thirty-seven year-old Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies, known to history as the "Apostle of Virginia," preached a sermon at Princeton, New Jersey, on a text from Jeremiah 28.16: "this year thou shalt die." He said, "Perhaps I may die this year… It is of little importance to me whether I die this year or not; but the only important point is that I make a good use of my future time, whether it be longer or shorter." It was said later that he preached his own funeral sermon. He died just one month later on February 4, 1761 of pneumonia. Today marks the 250th anniversary of his translation to a better country.

In such a short lifetime on earth, he managed, by the grace of God, to leave a legacy that is worth remembering three centuries later. He was born in Delaware, on November 3, 1723, and educated in Pennsylvania; he traveled to England on behalf of the College of New Jersey (which ultimately became Princeton College), where, as a dissenter, he was nevertheless invited to preach before King George II, to whom he gave a memorable rebuke (when the king heard him he was amazed at his eloquence, and spent much time whispering that fact to his advisors, until young Davies told him bluntly: "When the lion roars, the beasts of the forest all tremble; and when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence."); and is forever associated with the Dominion of Virginia, where he was the first non-Anglican licensed to preach as a circuit minister. He succeeded Jonathan Edwards as president of the College of New Jersey, and is remembered as America's first notable hymn-composer, leaving behind a body of hymns and poems that exude the love of Christ. He mentored James Waddel, and preached to Patrick Henry -- all three of whom are considered to be among history's best orators. He was married twice -- his second wife, Jean or Jane (née Holt), is immortalized to history as "Chara" -- and left behind five living children. His eloquence is legendary -- he wrote in his journal that "It is sin, alas, that intimidates me. To be miserable and to be a sinner is the same thing, and I feel that I can never be happy till I am more holy"; he wrote to his brother-in-law in Williamsburg that "I am as happy as perhaps creation can make me. I have a peaceful study, the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me. I very much question if there is a more calm, placid, and contented mortal in Virginia"; he told Virginia recruits who would serve in the French and Indian War to "Fly to Jesus on the wings of faith - all of you ... that are now about generously to risk your lives for your country. ... What can do you a lasting injury while you have a reconciled God smiling upon you from on high, a peaceful conscience animating you within, and a happy immortality just before you?"; and he exhorted his student body that "Whatever be your place, imbibe and cherish a public spirit. Serve your generation." Like Stonewall Jackson, he taught Virginia slaves to read the Bible. He believed that eternal life was found in the Word of God, that is, Jesus Christ, who was at the center of his ministry, his poetry, and his life. His sermons live on, as Matthew Poole said "Ministers are living Books, and Books are dead Ministers; and yet though dead, they speak. When you cannot heare the one, you may read the other." Remember Samuel Davies, the "Apostle of Virgina," today, a man who lived a short time on earth, but who redeemed the time, giving all for Jesus, with whom he lives even now, and for ever and always.

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