• David Joyce

Rev. Samuel Davies and Early Education in Colonial Virginia

Updated: Jan 6


Jeffrey H. Richards, Samuel Davies and Transatlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy in Virginia (Mechanicsville, Virginia : Historic Polegreen Church Foundation), front cover

It is a known fact that Virginia’s economy was fueled by slavery. Affecting every aspect of society, no one was exempt from witnessing the consequences of the slave trade. This was especially true during the eighteenth century. An integral part of how the government and the Anglican Church functioned, it became accepted as a social norm. However, this would not always remain the case. Beginning with the influence of the Quakers who condemned slavery, the consciences of pioneers would soon be challenged. Unfortunately, because Quakers were seen as radicals, most of their customs were rejected by the majority of the population. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Presbyterian Church, and later the Methodist Outreach movement, that opinions began to change.


With the arrival of the Presbyterian minister, Rev. Samuel Davies, a new campaign to educate slaves had begun. Through his efforts, he established “the first sustained and successful program by a white clergyman in the south to stimulate large numbers of Africans and African Americans to read in English.”1 This success; however, did not come easily. The Obstacles he faced were numerous, and it was due to outside assistance that he was able to provide educational opportunities for them.


From the beginning of his missionary work, Davies worked with the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge Among the Poor in importing bibles and other books.2 Reaching out to those were who “grofsly ignorant, and confequently carelefs” about salvation3, he faced skepticism. However, he found a warm reception with Africans, African-Americans, and other European settlers who had a desire to learn. In March 1756, after preaching a sermon in Hanover County, Virginia, he handed out books to slaves who “could read, and alfo fuch white People as would make a good ufe of them, and were fo poor, that they could not buy fuch books.”4 Success soon followed as is demonstrated when a African confessed to Davies “in broken Englifh” that he desired to hear “fome good things, concerning JESUS CHRIST, and my duty to GOD.”5


In a letter written February 7, 1757, Samuel Davies mentions another problem he had to overcome. Shunned by the “Eftablifhed Church in Virginia [Church of England],”6 he writes that the “Clergy and Laity are very lamentable and difcouraging.”7 Even though Davies had been given permission to preach in Virginia, his popularity was attracting large number of religious dissenters. By 1757, the Established Church of England was losing power and influence.


Among the educational pioneers in Virginia history, Rev. Samuel Davies, grew to be an influential figure within and outside of the Presbyterian Church. Establishing the church as an inclusive community, his efforts to educate African, African-Americans, and whites proved instrumental , and had political and religious implications. Politically, it helped pave the way for religious freedom and weakened the Church of England. Spiritually, it inspired settlers to adopt a stronger relationship with God, thus influencing other dissenting denominations. Without the labors of Samuel Davies, the political and ecclesiastical history of Virginia would have turned out differently.



Documentation:


1. Jeffrey H. Richards, Samuel Davies and Transatlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy in Virginia (Mechanicsville, Virginia : Historic Polegreen Church Foundation), 2.

2. Jeffrey H. Richards, Samuel Davies and Transatlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy in Virginia (Mechanicsville, Virginia : Historic Polegreen Church Foundation), 3.

3. Samuel Davies, Letters from the Rev. Samuel Davies, &c. Shewing the State of Religion (particularly Among the Negros) in Virginia. Likewise an Extract of a Letter From a Gentlemen in London to his Friends in the Country (London, England, 1757), 4.

4. Samuel Davies, Letters from the Rev. Samuel Davies, &c. Shewing the State of Religion (particularly Among the Negros) in Virginia. Likewise an Extract of a Letter From a Gentlemen in London to his Friends in the Country (London, England, 1757), 11.

5. Samuel Davies, Letters from the Rev. Samuel Davies, &c. Shewing the State of Religion (particularly Among the Negros) in Virginia. Likewise an Extract of a Letter From a Gentlemen in London to his Friends in the Country (London, England, 1757), 15.

6. Samuel Davies, Letters from the Rev. Samuel Davies, &c. Shewing the State of Religion (particularly Among the Negros) in Virginia. Likewise an Extract of a Letter From a Gentlemen in London to his Friends in the Country (London, England, 1757), 25.

7. Davies, Letters from the Rev. Samuel Davies, &c. Shewing the State of Religion (particularly Among the Negros) in Virginia. Likewise an Extract of a Letter From a Gentlemen in London to his Friends in the Country, 25.

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