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On Reading Old Sermons: Samuel Davies and the Power of Reformed Preaching

On November 1, 1755 , a killer earthquake destroyed Lisbon, Portugal. The quake was a monster one of the worst in history. Some 60,000 people died, and, according to estimates, the earthquake would have registered a whopping 7.85 on the Richter scale.

  • Roger Schultz,
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On November 1, 1755 , a killer earthquake destroyed Lisbon, Portugal. The quake was a monster one of the worst in history. Some 60,000 people died, and, according to estimates, the earthquake would have registered a whopping 7.85 on the Richter scale.

Special circumstances made the earthquake even more tragic. The quake itself was followed by a seismic tidal wave, which flooded and devastated low-lying areas, and by fires that further crippled the city. Some have described the Lisbon earthquake as "the first modern disaster." The quake struck the fourth largest city in Europe, one that had a reputation for religious devotion, and struck while many of the people of Lisbon were in church for All Saints Day services.

God and Disasters

The Lisbon earthquake dominated late 18 th century discussions about God and nature and destiny. Four distinct worldviews were discernable. First, many Enlightenment philosophers posited a benign deity who mechanically superintended a tidy, reasonable and necessary universe. In the words of Alexander Pope, "One truth is Clear, whatever is, is RIGHT!" The French philosopher Voltaire represented a second position. Shaken by the earthquake and furious about the blithe confidence of the Pope, he published disheartening works with an "anti-optimism" theme. His "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster" (or "An Examination of the Axiom 'All is Well'"), for instance, is theologically focused and rails against divine Providence : "Those iron and irrevocable laws, this rigid chain of bodies, minds, and worlds. A God came down to lift our race: He visited the earth and changed it not." Voltaire's best-selling Candide (1759) also references the earthquake, as the leading figures of the famous novel careen from one disaster to another. Jean-Jacques Rousseau advocated a third view, that the disaster was largely human in nature, arising from overcrowding and crime. Finally, a fourth perspective was a Christian one, which acknowledged the direct and comprehensive providence of God in all things, even in the Lisbon tragedy. No one argued for this better than the great colonial Presbyterian Samuel Davies.

Samuel Davies (1723-1761) was a remarkable Christian leader. The father of Presbyterianism in Virginia , he was the primary force in organizing Hanover Presbytery in 1755. He was an advocate of religious freedom in Virginia , leading the cause of dissenters in a state dominated by the Anglican elite. Patrick Henry, the greatest orator of the Revolutionary generation, learned his eloquence from hearing Davies speak. Davies was committed to Biblical evangelism and genuine revival; Ian Murray begins his great book, Revival and Revivalism , with a chapter on Davies. Davies also supported the work of the College of New Jersey ( Princeton ), and served briefly as its president before his untimely death.

Davies the Preacher

Davies was a magnificent preacher. His sermons were rooted in Scripture, were theologically sophisticated, and were personally challenging. Martin Lloyd Jones considered him to be the finest preacher America ever produced. About ten years ago, Soli Deo Gloria Publications reprinted Davies' sermons in three volumes. It is an excellent collection and gives a taste of Reformed preaching at its best.

Davies could easily capture the attention of his audience. His sermons had a seamless unity, with emotion and reason flowing simultaneously to series of excited climaxes. The man could modulate his voice into a great variety of tones, booming, hushed, lyrical, penitent, frightened. He could enact, right before the congregation's eyes, the majestic scenes of resurrection and judgment so that his listeners could see and feel the cosmic drama unfold.

Davies was vigorously evangelistic. He pressed hearers with the demands of Christ and warned them of the consequences of turning away. He concluded one sermon, for instance, with an appeal to those who have not responded to the gospel: "And oh! Sinners, will your future conduct prove, that there was good reason for my fears? Alas! Is the ministry of the gospel a useless institution with regard to you? Will you resist my benevolent hand, when I would stretch it forth to pluck you out of the burning? Well, my friends, I cannot help it. If you will perish, if you are obstinately set upon it, I have only this to say, that your poor minister will weep in secret for you, and drop his tears upon you as you are falling into ruin from between his hands."

Davies even preached his own "funeral service" -- and it had an evangelistic theme. Presidents at Princeton were accustomed to preach New Years Day sermons, and in 1761 Davies selected as his text Jeremiah 27:16: "Thus saith the Lord, this year thou shalt die." (Past president Aaron Burr, Sr., had selected the same text for a New Years Day service in 1757, and when he died later that year, the text was considered to be bad luck. Davies scoffed at the superstitious, but he fell ill shortly after the January 1 service and eventually died on February 4.) Davies urges his hearers to respond to Christ, as it was the only way to "secure a happy new year -- that will lead the way to a happy eternity."

Davies' Preaching Today

I am amazed at the power of Davies to reach people today. A week ago students in my graduate seminar were discussing a reading assignment (a comparison of different sermons from the Revolutionary period), and they agreed that Davies was a most compelling preacher. One young woman said she had never read anything like it, and said she'd spent her study time brushing tears from her eyes as she read Davies' two hundred year old sermon on the glories of Christ's kingdom. On another occasion, I read a section from a Davies sermon to my class and an older student, clearly moved by Davies' message, asked, "Where can I find this kind of preaching today?" Few preachers are the equal of Samuel Davies, I warned, so it might be difficult to find anything comparable today. But I also suspect that modern preachers have lost the art of Biblical and Reformed preaching.

What is the secret of good preaching? John Carrick's excellent new book, The Imperative of Preaching: A Rhetoric of Sacred Theology, analyzes five great preachers from the past (Samuel Davies, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Asahel Nettleton, and Martin Lloyd-Jones). For Carrick, preaching involves four rhetorical moods. The indicative is a statement of fact or the proclamation of truth. The exclamative offers a passionate emphasis. The interrogative mood questions the listeners. And the imperative issues a command or an appeal. Carrick argues persuasively that the indicative-imperative construction is essential to gospel preaching. Biblical preaching must include a statement of propositional truth (the indicative), but it will also be applicatory, including an exhortation to hear and respond to the truth of Christ (the imperative).

God and the Lisbon Earthquake

Samuel Davies is an excellent example of this indicative-imperative approach to preaching, and he uses it in a sermon dealing with the Lisbon earthquake. On June 19, 1756 , Davies preached a sermon on "The Religious Improvement of the Late Earthquakes." The message is taken from Isaiah 24:18-20, "The foundations of earth do shake."

Davies noted that earthquakes are one of God's temporal judgments. They are "extraordinary executioners of his vengeance,"used to "rouse a slumbering world" and "convince us that we are not beyond the reach of that desolating judgment." God's temporal judgments are designed to drive us to Christ and to that eternal city which has a firm and unshakable foundation. "There is not safety but in Jesus Christ." Davies concluded, "Away to him, therefore; let me lay the hand of friendly violence upon you, and hurry you out of your present condition, as the angel did Lot out of Sodom. [E]scape for thy life, look not behind thee -- escape to Jesus Christ, lest thou be consumed!"

Attached to the sermon is a special hymn Davies wrote about the disaster. (Only a Presbyterian would write a worship hymn about earthquake!) It describes the sovereign power of God "who shakes creation with his nod." He emphasizes human sinfulness and a globe that "totters to its fate [and] trembles beneath her guilty sons." Finally, the hymn contrasts the terrors of sinners facing God's judgments and the eternal lake of fire with the serene confidence of Christians who know that their Savior lives and can preserve them.

Modern culture, and even many modern evangelicals, have followed the path of Voltaire. They either question God's presence in times of tragedy, or rail at Him for the perceived imperfections of His providence. We should, instead, follow the example of Davies: use the Scriptures to proclaim a sovereign God who governs all things, brings judgments upon the earth for His purposes, and uses astonishing means to drive His children to refuge in Christ.

  • Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.

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