A few years ago, my father came to me with some fascinating news. The Rev. Samuel Davies (November 3, 1723–February 4, 1761), a great evangelist of the Great Awakening and the fourth president of Princeton Seminary, was our blood relative.
When I heard that, my heart filled up with pride. Pride, because another Presbyterian minister belonged to our family history. Pride, because less than three hundred years later in the providence of God, I am walking in the same trajectory as my relative. I couldn’t have been more excited.
So, I started mining the sermons of my ancestor and reading as much as I could about him. With every word and insight I gleaned, I was proud to be linked to him not only by water baptism and theological tradition, but also by blood. I learned he was an apostle-missionary of sorts in Virginia, going where no one else would go to minister to the enslaved people of the British colonies. He preached to people of African descent, and would baptize and hand out Bibles and hymnals to them just as he would to any white people, no small act given the time period.
Not only was I related to a Presbyterian minister and president of the same theological tradition that I belong to, but the guy was also ahead of his time and wanted to preach equality in his own day. What a privilege to be related to him.
Well, not so fast.
As great as the man was, Davies owned at least two slaves during his lifetime and showed an interest in acquiring more. Learning this fact broke my heart and crushed my pride. I went from wanting to announce to the whole world that this man was my relative to hiding this truth under a bushel. And for a few years, I’ve wondered how to reckon with the reality that my ancestor was still a man of his time. He was, in fact, still a racist.
I think my reaction to Samuel Davies is often the reaction all of us have. It’s something that Christians and institutions in particular struggle with accounting for. Like Adam and Eve, we look for the proverbial fig leaf to cover up our—or their—sins. Maybe it’s that we’re afraid of being found out. Maybe we fear being shown that our heroes—great as they are or were—still don’t measure up to God’s standards of holiness. Or maybe this goes deeper, and it demonstrates that we have been trusting in a hero, or a tradition, more than we trust in the gospel itself. Maybe, the tendency to hide behind our flawless, sinless, perfect heroes—heroes that we have made into our own image—reveals that we have erected idols that are in need of being torn down.
After much reflection, I have come to the conclusion that we have to be fully honest whenever remembering our heroes. If the Bible is open and honest about the heroes of the faith, shouldn’t we be honest about every hero that follows after them? Abraham is the father of our faith, but a pretty terrible husband who tried to trade his wife to save his own life. David was a man after God’s own heart, but he sometimes loved adultery and murder more. And the list goes on detailing sinners who were saints and saints who were sinners. How much more should we be open and honest about our heroes throughout church history?
Good, Bible-believing, and God-fearing Christians who may have been ahead of their time, or even radical by a relative estimation to others in their own time period, are always capable of falling far behind God’s requirement for us to love our neighbor as ourselves. And that doesn’t make them any less important to remember—but it does make them more human. And by making them human again, it should keep us from idolizing or whitewashing these men.
Ahead of His Time
In several regards, Davies was ahead of his times: He preached to people thought by his contemporaries to be too stupid, worthless, or sub-human. Others in his day refused to preach to black people due to racial prejudice, even if some actually believed that spiritually all men were to be treated equal.
In one sermon, Davies preached, “a black skin, African birth or extract, or state of slavery, does not disqualify a man from the blessings of the Gospel.” He practiced what he preached throughout his ministry and life, seeking the true conversion of black lives. For example, writing to Joseph Bellamy (circa 1757), Davies shared:
“What little success I have had, has been chiefly among the extremes of gentlemen and negroes. Indeed; God has been remarkably working among the latter. I have baptized about one hundred and fifty adults; and at the last sacramental solemnity, I had the pleasure of seeing the table graced with about sixty black faces.” 
Radical for His Time
In some ways, Davies was radical for his times: He advocated for literacy and placing textbooks into the hands of all slaves. Others in his time refused to educate people of African descent. And to his credit, Davies argued that the only reason slaves were perceived as “stupid dunces” by slave masters was due to the “negligence” of the masters and not to their own lack of intelligence.
In spite of his slave owning, Davies still advocated for slaves to receive a substantial education. Although this may not have directly supported the emancipation cause, it did pave the way for thinking about salvation as not simply spiritual, but also physical. Once slaves experienced spiritual freedom, it was only a matter of time before people were awakened to the reality that all men are in fact created equal.
But for all the good he had done, for all the wonderful accomplishments that I can celebrate the man for, at the end of the day he still failed to practice and advocate for true spiritual and physical equality of all people, regardless of color. Samuel Davies was still a racist—a man of his own time, and a sinner in the eyes of God.
Davies may have been a kind slave owner himself, ministering to a great number of slaves and treating his own slaves in respectable ways. He may have been bold and right for rebuking fellow slave masters for their harsh treatment of slaves in countless sermons and efforts, but he failed to disavow or fight against chattel slavery in his own lifetime. Instead, he went along with the status quo and encouraged the widespread belief that, “a Christian may be happy, even in a State of Slavery.”
Tragically, as he outlined in The Duty of Masters to their Servants, Davies ensured that in all of his advocacy to preach and baptize slaves, his goal was only “to make this land of slavery, a land of spiritual liberty,” not of actual, physical liberty. He was willing to emancipate slaves from the spiritual slavery of a spiritual Egypt, but he did not endorse liberation for captives from their actual slave masters.
Call it What it is
For that, Davies cannot be excused. He was wrong. And not only wrong, but he was also living in unconfessed sin. Sure, it was a sin that at the time stretched beyond one man in a systematic manner, but belonging to a group of sinners doesn’t excuse a person from being affiliated, associated, or responsible. All sin is sin. And as a Christian following Christ and not my theological or ancestral heroes, I must refuse to call evil good. I have to call this racism what it is: sin.
And as far as we are able, we must refuse to accommodate Christianity to any practice of this present evil age—no matter what it is or who accommodates it. Davies along with countless others in our ecclesiastical family history may not have accommodated to theological liberalism, or other heresies of their time, but they did accommodate to the practice of slaveholding. For that, they were wrong and we have to acknowledge this sin in them by naming it and grieving it.
It’s heartbreaking that so many bright lights failed to speak out against slavery in their own day. We can be thankful that God used at least some Christians to help bring about the emancipation of slaves (John Newton and William Wilberforce, for example) and who stood on the right side of history when so many others did not.
So, what now? As a distant relative of Samuel Davies, I’ve pointed out some things I admire about him and have exposed one of his greatest sins, but where does that leave me? Where does that leave us now in our doing of church history?
We should always be honest about our heroes. It’s okay to admit that gifted men and women sinned. It doesn’t make them any less heroic. It makes them human and reminds us that, like us, they too were sinners. That admission of guilt, that admission of sin, should lead all of us deeper into the Bible where we see the Christ who is better than our favorite hero, and remains the greatest hero of our heroes.
 The Duty of Masters to their Servants: In a Sermon, by the Late Reverend, Pious, and Learned, Samuel Davies, of Hanover County, Virginia.
 Charles C. Jones, “Review of ‘The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States.’” The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, Vol. XV (1843), p. 28.
 The Duty of Masters to Their Slaves.
 Duty of Christians to Propagate Their Religion Among the Heathens, p. 20
Cover image by Roman Kraft