I have become absolutely convinced that the more we know about our Presbyterian history and heritage the better Christians we become. The Presbyterians who came before us have set high standards of service and sacrifice, of faithfulness and of fearlessness. They have shown us what it is to be open to the leading of God‚s Spirit both in terms of where we live and serve and how our faith changes and grows.
There is so much forgotten Presbyterian history, that one could spend one’s entire discretionary reading delving into the people who have made our denomination so great. Here is an excellent example. “Living on the Borders of Eternity” is essentially a biographical novel. It takes history and helps flesh it out, so that we become intimately acquainted with one of our America Presbyterian forebears, and one we all should know.
The man was Samuel Davies–born in New Castle County, Pa. on November 3, 1732. The rest of the story is that not only was Davies the first Presbyterian minister to serve a congregation in the Colony of Virginia, in 1758, after serving there for 11 years, he was called to become the fourth president of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University.
Samuel Davies’ life reads like a historical novel, complete with romance, disease and disaster, with love and laughter complete with conflict with authorities both secular and religious. Davies was a friend of the Henry family (yes, as in Patrick Henry of Give me liberty or give me death! fame) and he was also a hymn writer.
In 1747, Davies went to the Colonial Capital in Williamsburg, Va., to petition for the first license ever granted to anyone in Virginia who was not of the Anglican / Episcopal established religion of that colony, to preach. He was granted the privilege, to the joy of his fledgling congregations and the consternation of the Anglican clergy of the colony. He did so in four Presbyterian meeting houses, three in Henrico and one in Hanover County, Va. The churches where he labored exist to this day, and are among our sister Presbyterian congregations.
Davies lived as a man who knew the touch of God’s Spirit upon his heart and life. He ventured into unknown places and served far from his native land and family. He gave his best efforts of Christian witness despite poor health and personal loss. To say more would spoil the unfolding drama of the book.
From 1974-1983, author Robert Bluford served as pastor of the Mechanicsville (Va.) Presbyterian Church. In 1977, he made an effort to do something to protect and interpret the importance of the historic Polegreen Church site. That effort has led to the recognition of the site, a foundation for preserving its history and to this marvelous resource of our Presbyterian heritage. Dr. Bluford is president of the Historic Polegreen Foundation and president of the Douglas Southall Freeman Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. He is also a 2004 recipient of the “First Freedom Awards,” recognizing individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the cause of religious freedom.
As a General Assembly Commissioner, I received an advance proof copy of this book. I encourage you to read it. No person of faith can fail to be inspired by the life of Samuel Davies.
*(Of course, you know the answer: They are all Presbyterians.)
JOHN A. DALLES is pastor of Wekiva Church in Longwood, Fla.