Samuel Davies and the Transatlantic Campaign for Slave Literacy in Virginia

Article excerpt

LONG known as the first resident Presbyterian minister in Piedmont Virginia, moderate New Light, renowned pulpit preacher, minor poet, pioneering hymn writer, and significant evangelist of the mid-eighteenth century, Samuel Davies earned the respect of his white dissenting contemporaries almost as soon as he moved permanently to Hanover County from Delaware in 1748. Early in his ministry, Davies identified evangelizing slaves in the households and on the farms and plantations of his parishioners as crucial to his project of bringing awakened religion to the seven meetinghouses in four counties in which he preached. By spring 1749, James Davenport had reported to his Presbyterian colleague Jonathan Edwards of hearing "of a remarkable work of conviction and conversion among whites and negroes, at Hanover in Virginia, under the ministry of Mr. Davies." Thereafter, word spread quickly to the rest of the Presbyterian community in North America and to dissenters in England and Scotland that the awakening of people of African origin and ancestry was unusual in its intensity and scope. Indeed, his efforts were "the first sustained proselytization of slaves" in colonial Virginia, and as such have received scholarly attention from a number of commentators. Although he may not have been responsible for as many conversions as the Baptists and Methodists would be a generation later, Davies certainly brought to the Piedmont the vocabulary of nonconforming Protestantism and spread it widely within the region among black and white alike.1

One dimension of his conversion work among slaves that has received relatively little focus on its own terms, however, is Davies's effort to teach blacks to read. If his own accounts can be trusted, no white person in colonial America was as successful as Davies in stimulating literacy among slaves in the South. Davies, of course, was not the first southerner or even resident of Virginia to make efforts to teach slaves to read. Well before Davies arrived in Virginia, Anglican missionaries sponsored by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Associates of Dr. Bray made efforts to instruct African American children in basic precepts of Christianity and literacy. However, until a school for thirty children opened in Williamsburg in 1760, the ambitious ideals of Thomas Bray's original benefactor (Abel Tassin, Sieur D'Allone) were only sporadically practiced in most Virginia parishes-and in the Piedmont hardly at all. Unlike a later generation of evangelists, primarily Baptists and Methodists, who worked among slaves and free blacks for conversions based on heartfelt outpourings of the spirit, Davies as a Presbyterian believed that the attainment of true religion by anyone, bond or free, black or white, required extensive religious knowledge that came from not only hearing the word of God but also reading it. Taken together, the work of Davies, his white ministerial associates in the Hanover Presbytery, and the many unnamed blacks who took their lessons from the clergy and taught other slaves, Davies's campaign for literacy was 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.2

Aiding or encouraging him in the process of slave conversions was a transatlantic network of ministers and benefactors with which Davies began corresponding in the late 1740s or early 1750s, including Edwards in Massachusetts, Davenport in New Jersey, Joseph Bellamy in Connecticut, Philip Doddridge in Northamptonshire, England, and Robert Cruttenden in London. Early in his ministry, Davies was often concerned with the matter of government tolerance of dissenters, and the conflicts he had with the colonial Virginia council often led him to write to individuals in America and Britain who might have advice or insight into defending Presbyterian interests in an established Anglican colony. Nevertheless, his work in the Piedmont generating new communicants or winning them from established churches led to his growing reputation as an effective proselytizer in the New Eight mode. …