Thomas Davis, Jr.: Officiating Clergyman at the Funeral and Burial of President George Washington

Article excerpt

About twenty minutes past ten on Saturday evening, 14 December 1799, George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental army and the first President of the United States, breathed his last. During the next three days family, friends, and associates, led by Tobias Lear, Washington's secretary, prepared for his funeral and interment, which they set for Wednesday, 18 December. Among Lear's responsibilities was that of notifying Thomas Davis, the parish rector, and asking him to read the Episcopal funeral service. About three o'clock on the appointed day the body, in a lead-lined mahogany coffin, was carried from Mount Vernon. A solemn procession then moved out through the gate at the left wing of the mansion, around in front of the lawn, and down to the vault on the right wing of the house. Included in the long line, in addition to family members and close friends, were military units, a band playing a dirge, Thomas Davis, the subject of this essay, and James Muir, a Presbyterian minister. Virginia militiamen bore the casket, accompanied by honorary pallbearers, the deceased's horse, and a representation from the Masonic Order. When the casket reached the crypt, Davis took his place at the head of the bier and soon his voice rang out: "I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord..." When he had finished reading the Order of Burial, Davis "pronounced a short extempore speech," according to Lear, who has left the only eye witness account of the melancholy event. Unfortunately, Davis's brief eulogy was not transcribed. Thereafter Elisha Cullen Dick, grand master of the Alexandria Lodge, and James Muir, its chaplain, conducted full Masonic rites. They deposited the coffin in the vault and after the firing of guns, the mournful ceremony came to an end.1

Who was Thomas Davis? The biographical data about him by the standard authorities is incomplete, not always correct, and sometimes they confuse him with his father, Thomas Davis, Sr., also a Virginia Anglican minister.2 Heretofore no inclusive, integrated biographical sketch of the younger Davis has appeared in print. This analysis of his life and career may shed light on the broad issues involving the colonial clergy and church of Virginia, the Revolution, and the disestablishment of the Anglican Church.

Davis was a capable and highly respected clergyman who moved in the circles of the Virginia aristocracy. He was not a gentlemen by birth but by virtue of his college education and cultural style, his social relationships with members of the gentry, his dignified and respected clerical office and his marriage into a prominent Chesapeake family. Also because of the force of his moral character, personal attributes, and abilities, he was able to enter the ranks of Virginia's elite class.3

Both church and secular historians have assumed and even asserted that Thomas Davis, Jr. was the son of William Davis, a parson in Virginia, but the latter was his uncle. Our subject issued from the union of Thomas and Mary Davis in England about 1746.4 Richard and Ellen Davis, the parents of William and the elder Thomas, lived in Leyland, Lancaster County and were of modest means. When the father died during William's first year at St. John's College, Cambridge, the family's reduced circumstances forced William to withdraw from the university and accept a local teaching position. About 1750, after his ordination to the Anglican ministry, William removed to Virginia and served as rector of Hanover Parish in King George County and Westover Parish in Charles City County until his death in 1772. In 1754, as a newly ordained priest of the Church of England, William's brother, the senior Thomas, brought his family from Liverpool to Virginia. At the time Thomas's son and namesake was about eight. The father first served as rector of Warwick Parish in Warwick County and then of Elizabeth River Parish, which included the borough of Norfolk. There he became socially involved with the regional gentry as a member of the Masonic Lodge. …