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Samuel Davies.

Samuel Davies (1723–1761) was President of Princeton University, then known as the College of New Jersey.

Born to Baptist parents in New Castle County, Delaware, Davies received his early education under the tutelage of Rev. Samuel Blair at the academy he conducted in Faggs Manor, Londonderry Township Chester County Pennsylvania. He was ordained a Presbyterian by the New Castle presbytery in 1747.

At the request of religious dissenters in Hanover, Virginia, the newly ordained 23-year-old Presbyterian minister headed south to be the pastor of four congregations which had been licensed by the Colonial government in 1743. As the first non-Anglican minister licensed to preach in Virginia, Davies advanced the cause of religious and civil liberty in colonial Virginia. Davies's strong religious convictions led him to value the "freeborn mind" and the inalienable "liberty of conscience" that the established Anglican Church in Virginia often failed to respect in the days before independence. By appealing to British law and notions of British liberty, Davies agitated in an agreeable and effective manner for greater religious tolerance and laid the groundwork for the ultimate separation of church and state in Virginia that was consummated by the Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786.

At the same time that Davies was starting his ministry in Virginia, six students began their studies in Elizabeth, N.J., at the College of New Jersey, which had been established in 1746 to educate "those of every Religious Denomination." In 1754 the trustees of the college persuaded Davies, whose work in Virginia had been favorably noted, to go to Great Britain to raise money for the fledgling school. The journey was at times harrowing, but Davies confided to his diary that "To be instrumental of laying a foundation of extensive benefit to mankind, not only in the present but in future generations, is a most animating prospect." In the end, Davies and a friend, Gilbert Tennent, spent eleven months in Great Britain and raised substantial support, enough to build Nassau Hall as the first permanent building on the new campus in Princeton.

After his return from Great Britain, Davies' prominence in Virginia grew during the French and Indian War as he implored men to do their part "to secure the inestimable blessings of liberty." Governor Dinwiddie declared Davies to be the best recruiter in the colony. Davies' rhetorical gifts were renowned. Patrick Henry, who as a child often heard Davies preach, told his biographer before his death that Samuel Davies had taught him what an orator should be.

Musicologists credit Davies with being the first American-born hymn writer, and his poetry was published in Williamsburg in 1752.

Davies also spent his time in Virginia pioneering the literacy of the colony's slave population, whom he felt were equally deserving of direct access to the word of God.

In 1759, four years after he had returned from his trip to Great Britain on behalf of the College of New Jersey, the trustees of the college called on Davies again – this time to become the school's fourth president. Davies succeeded Jonathan Edwards, who died just six weeks after his inauguration. Unfortunately, Davies's term as president was also cut short when he died in 1761 at the age of 37. He was buried alongside his predecessor in Princeton Cemetery.

Despite his relatively short life, Davies accomplished much and lived the creed to which he exhorted the Princeton Class of 1760 in his baccalaureate address and which has been echoed by the presidents of Princeton throughout its history: "Whatever be your place, imbibe and cherish a public spirit. Serve your generation."



  • Foote, W.H., Sketches of Virginia, first series (Philadelphia: 1850; Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1966).
  • Webster, Richard, A History of the Presbyterian Church in America From its Origin until the year 1760 (Philadelphia: 1857).

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Academic offices
Preceded by
Jonathan Edwards
Jacob Green (Acting)
President of the College of New Jersey
Succeeded by
Samuel Finley


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