Exactly 250 years ago, Samuel Davies wrote in his Bible one short sentence-"Settled in Hanover Virginia May 1748"-and the history of America changed.
Mr. Davies was a young Presbyterian minister called to Virginia to put flesh on the future the great evangelist George Whitefield had glimpsed during his foray into the South a decade earlier: that "God intended, in His own time, to work a good work in these southern parts of America. At present they seem more dead to God but far less prejudiced than in the northern parts."
Not much had changed in Virginia (and other southern colonies) by the time Mr. Davies settled in Hanover, just north of Richmond. "Religion has been, and in most Parts of the Colony still is, in a very low State," he concluded: "Family-Religion is a Rarity.... Vices of various Kinds are triumphant, and even a Form of Godliness is not common." The mostly dead Anglican church establishment showed little "Solicitude about eternal Things"; priests wore their riding boots to church and rushed through sacraments so as not to lose any time from fox-hunting.
But God sent revival: By 1751 Samuel Davies was preaching to 300 communicants, and he began traveling hundreds of miles to reach thousands of "lukewarm Christians." He asked one and all, "Is there any fire and life in your devotions?" His preaching helped to transform lives such as that of one young listener, Patrick Henry. Those transformed lives in turn influenced many more, until the once "dead to God" South became the part of the country where Christian influence was strongest.
Mr. Davies ministered to not only whites but blacks, and he became an instrument for the salvation of many slaves. In 1755 300 blacks regularly worshipped at his church, and he wrote about his awe at "so many black countenances eagerly attentive to every word they hear, and frequently bathed in tears"-and taking the Lord's Supper. Iain Murray in his excellent history, Revival and Revivalism, quotes a correspondent from nearby Richmond writing in 1755, "When I go amongst Mr. Davies's people, religion seems to flourish; it is like the suburbs of heaven: It is very agreeable to see the gentlemen at their morning and evening prayers, with their slaves devoutly joining with them." How different both heaven and its suburbs would be had blacks not been evangelized!
Mr. Davies also knew that God, not technique, moves hearts: "Sometimes the reading of a sermon has been the means of awakening careless sinners, when at other times the most solemn and argumentative preaching has been in vain.... And whence could this difference arise, but from special grace? We have seen persons struck to the heart with those doctrines which they had heard a hundred times without any effect." Those are words that all of us who have explained the gospel to relatives and friends for years or decades, with no apparent change in their hearts, need to recall.
The Davies legacy can teach us not only about the difference between revival and revivalism, but about how to react when America goes through bad times. During the dark early days of the French and Indian War in the 1750s, he asked, "Is our Country under no Influence or Power, but what is visible? Are all our Affairs under the Management of Chance or Fortune? ... Are we to trace the Origin of the Defeat of our Army, no farther than the Power or Stratagems of the French or Indians? If this be the Case, what a miserable World is this? What a State of Anarchy and Confusion?"
The Mr. Smoothaways of the Anglican establishment asked why bad things were happening to good people, but Mr. Davies spoke of appropriate things happening to sinners: "You who can eat, and forget God; you who enjoy the Blessing of the Sun and Rain, and the Fruits of the Earth; and yet go on thoughtless of your divine Benefactor, as the Cattle of your Stall, or who look upon these as Things of Course, or the Fruits of your own Industry ... you are practical Atheists." God requires action, not merely assent: "Whatever you profess in Words, you do in Heart and Life renounce and abjure Jehovah from being the Governor of the World."
Samuel Davies did not lack confidence, but when he looked at himself with biblical objectivity, perceiving the God's-eye view, he could see that "I have but little, very little true religion.... Perhaps once in three or four months I preach in some measure as I could wish." Yet, he was God's instrument for much good in American culture. How much more should the rest of us grasp our own limitations and look to God's greatness.