In Anglican Virginia, where dissenters were subjected to constant vexations, he built up a strong Presbyterian membership and became the advocate and defender of their civil rights and religious liberties. He conducted services in seven houses of worship dispersed through five counties, riding horseback through fields and forests to minister to his scattered congregations. A sufferer from tuberculosis, ``he preached in the day and had his hectic fever by night,'' but was nevertheless ``resolved that while life and sufficient strength remained, he would devote himself earnestly to the work of preaching the gospel.'' As a principal founder and first moderator of the Presbytery of Hanover, which comprised all the Presbyterian ministers in Virginia and North Carolina, he was considered ``the animating soul of the whole dissenting interests in these two colonies.''
In 1753 Davies and Gilbert Tennant, another well-known Presbyterian minister, were chosen by Princeton trustees to go to Great Britain and Ireland in search of donations for the College. Davies kept a diary of the mission, which was later published. Their five-week ocean voyage from Philadelphia to London was rough. The ship smelled, they were both seasick, and Davies suffered from the toothache, but they prayed alternately in their cabin for the success of their mission. Their prayers were answered. During their eleven-month stay in the British Isles, they secured donations -- some individual gifts including three guineas from Oliver Cromwell's great-grandson, but chiefly church collections -- sufficient to build Nassau Hall and the president's house and to found a charitable fund ``for the education of pious and indigent youth for the gospel ministry.'' Davies, then only thirty, preached some sixty sermons. Near the end of his stay he had an apoplectic fit but recovered sufficiently to undertake the voyage home. The return trip lasted thirteen weeks and was tempestuous. Storms threatened to engulf the vessel, and Davies was saddened by the curses of the sailors and perplexed as to what to do about them, they were ``so habituated to blasphemy.''
In 1758 Davies was elected to succeed Jonathan Edwards as president of the College, but declined election, partly because of a reluctance to quit his pastoral work in Virginia, partly because he knew that while a majority of the trustees had voted for his election, a minority shared his own belief that Samuel Finley, a member of the Board, was better qualified for the office. The trustees subsequently reelected Davies and persuaded him to accept. He took up his duties on July 26, 1759. Eighteen months later, on February 4, 1761, he died of pneumonia, in his thirty-eighth year, a few weeks after having been bled for ``a bad cold.''
During his brief tenure Davies raised the standards for admission and for the bachelor's degree, instituted monthly orations by members of the senior class (an important part of undergraduate education at Princeton for more than a century), composed odes to peace and to science which were sung at Commencement and drew up a catalogue of the 1,281 volumes in the college library ``to give Information to such who are watching for Opportunities of doing good; and to afford particular Benefactors the Pleasure of seeing how many others have concurred with them in their favourite Charity.''
Davies left his mark as scholar and patriot on his students, particularly the eleven members of the Class of 1760 whom he taught as seniors. ``Whatever be your Place,'' he told them in his baccalaureate address, ``imbibe and cherish a public spirit. Serve your generation.'' This they did. Among the eleven were a member of the Continental Congress, chaplains in the Continental Army, judges in Maine and Pennsylvania, the founder of a college in North Carolina, a member of the United States House of Representatives, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Davies was long remembered as one of the great pulpit orators of his generation. Patrick Henry, who as a boy had frequently heard him preach, acknowledged Davies's influence on his own oratory. Davies's sermons went through four editions in the United States and nine editions in England, and for more than fifty years after his death were among the most widely read of any in the English language.
At Princeton, Davies was loved and respected; as one trustee wrote another, ``There never was a college happier in a president.''
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