Presbyterians and Education

Some of these schools, such as Thomas Evans’ at Pencader, the Blairs’ at Fagg’s Manor and the Smith’s at Pequea, endured only through the lifetime of their founders. But others were continued by a succession of teachers (always Presbyterian ministers) and developed into colleges: for example, the school which Dr. Francis Alison, colonial scholar and Presbyterian clergyman, started in 1743 at New London, Pa., became the forerunner of Delaware College and the University of Delaware, which will be described in more detail later. Princeton and Dickinson were also founded and developed by Presbyterian ministers. All of them originally had the training of ministers as their primary object. Samuel Davies (1723-1761), fourth president of Princeton, was born in New Castle County near Summit Bridge. His parents could not afford to send him to college but were determined that he should be trained in the ministry. He studied in Samuel Blair’s famous school at Fagg’s Manor, Chester County, Pa., was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of New Castle when he was 22, and was ordained as an evangelist to Virginia a year later.

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 civic 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. The horseback rides between preaching sites were described as a tonic, and “Davies found strength to do a remarkable work among both whites and Negroes.” 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 interest 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. During their eleven-month stay, Davies and Tennant secured donations — 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 30, preached some 60 sermons. Near the end of his stay he had an apoplectic fit but recovered sufficiently to undertake the voyage home.

In 1758, Davies was elected to succeed Jonathan Edwards, another Presbyterian, as president of Princeton, but declined, partly because of a reluctance to quit his pastoral work in Virginia. The trustees persuaded him to accept. He took up his duties on July 26, 1759. Eighteen months later, in February 1761, he died of pneumonia, in his thirty-eighth year, a few weeks after having been bled for “a bad cold.”

One of the most important services rendered by the Presbyteries of New Castle and Donegal was the sending of many itinerant missionaries to the “back parts” of Virginia, to the Carolinas, and to western Pennsylvania. Almost all of the first members of Hanover Presbytery, in Virginia, and Redstone Presbytery, in western Pennsylvania, were sent out in this way. These Presbyteries in turn became the founders of other Presbyteries in the west and south, advancing with the frontier. The rapid growth of the church in the interior of the continent was due to these wise measures.

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