Hymns & Hymn Writers: Samuel Davies

Most believers, if asked to name the greatest gospel preachers in American history, might come up with a few well-known names: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, C. H. Spurgeon, Gilbert Tennent, or D. L. Moody. Most would likely miss naming Samuel Davies, who was considered by some to be as fine a gospel preacher as any, and who helped shape the spiritual cloth of early America. The great Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones called him, “the greatest preacher ever produced in America.”

He was born in humble circumstances in 1723, on a small farm in Newcastle County, Delaware. His parents had emigrated from Wales, and were devout believers. His mother had specifically asked the Lord for a son, and when Samuel was born, named him what Hannah had named her own answer to prayer.

He was the first of his entire family to learn to read and write. Due to the godly influence of his parents, he understood himself to be a sinner before God at age 12, and was saved at age 15. His mother had always prayed that her son would be greatly used by the Lord. The family was poor, but the Lord provided. A wealthy Virginia planter had been saved, and had come into a large sum of money. He was made aware of a young man who was poor, but who had great potential as a preacher. This man funded Samuel’s studies at Fagg’s Manor, in Chester County, PA. The headmaster was Samuel Blair, a fine Christian, and a notable orator himself. Samuel Davies was present at this school, when in 1740, George Whitefield visited, and preached to a crowd of 12,000 people.

Once he was done his training, he went to Hanover County, Virginia, where the wealthy planter lived. He labored there for 12 years, faithfully preaching the gospel. He married in 1746, but lost his young wife, and son, who both died in childbirth. He also contracted tuberculosis, but kept on preaching through great personal sadness and frailty.

That part of Virginia was blessed by the Lord, and the gospel flourished. Fourteen different meetinghouses had been built, some 30 miles from each other. Davies made the rounds on horseback, and countless souls heard his clear, honest gospel. The crowds got larger in each place, with every circuit he made. Some halls held 500 people, yet because of the crowds who flocked to hear him, the meetings often had to be moved outside. So many were saved that one remarked that these small towns seemed to become “the suburbs of heaven.”

He summarized his fervor for gospel preaching in these words: “To preach repentance toward God, and faith toward Jesus Christ – to alarm the impenitent; to reform the profligate; to undeceive the hypocrite; …’tis the conversion and salvation of men I aim to promote. The design of the gospel is to bring perishing sinners to heaven.”

The great American orator and statesman Patrick Henry attended Davies’ meeting when he was a boy. The passionate gospel preaching deeply impressed him, and riding home with his father, he stood in the back of the wagon, and tried to repeat Mr. Davies’ sermons word for word. Before his death, Patrick Henry told his biographer that Samuel Davies had taught him “what an orator should be.”

Many early American universities were founded upon godly principles, by godly men. One such college was the New Jersey Presbyterian College in Princeton. The first president had been Jonathan Edwards, the much-respected gospel preacher among the colonies in New England. His most famous sermon, still circulating today, is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” When Edwards died from smallpox in 1758, Samuel Davies was chosen to be Princeton’s next president. He took office in 1759, at the age of 35. By this time he had remarried, had three children, and a full life of service to the Lord seemed to stretch before him.

On New Year’s day, 1761, he preached a gospel message in the chapel of the university. His text was Jeremiah 28:16, “This year thou shalt die.” His intent was to awaken the unconverted among the student body. He preached “And it is not only possible, but highly probable, that death may meet some of us within the compass of this year. 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 good use of my future time, whether it be longer, or shorter.”

Within one month, he had developed a severe infection that led to pneumonia and sepsis, and he went into the presence of the Lord on February 4, 1761. His mother said, standing by his casket, “There is the son of my prayers, and my hopes, my only son – but there is the will of God, and I am satisfied.” He was buried alongside Jonathan Edwards, in Princeton Cemetery.

He had written many hymns in his short time on earth. Amazingly, only one has remained in popular use, yet it is in hundreds of hymnals. It is a treasured gem – a brilliant tribute to the God of salvation. He paints a dark canvas of man’s ruin, but he also paints the glorious tapestry of God’s sovereign grace, and His prerogative to save lost sinners. He had personally thrilled at the salvation of countless lost souls, and he well knew the wonders of a pardoning God. The original words have been oft-changed. What remains to us today is a wonderful short hymn that describes, better than most others, the saving grace of our God.

Great God of wonders! All Thy ways
Display Thine attributes Divine!
But the bright glories of Thy grace
Above Thine other wonders shine.
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?

Such deep transgressions to forgive!
Such guilty daring worms to spare!
This is Thy grand prerogative,
And in this honor none shall share.
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?

Pardon from an offended God!
Pardon for sins of deepest dye!
Pardon, bestowed through Jesus’ blood!
Pardon that brings the rebel nigh!
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?