Presbyterian Expansion South and West (2) - Scotch-Irish in America

Henry Jones Ford
CHAPTER XIV (2) Start of Section

Davies returned to Virginia in February, 1755, and resumed his indefatigable labors. There were two months of 1757 in which he travelled 500 miles and preached forty sermons. On August 16, 1758, he was elected President of Princeton, but he doubted whether he should forsake the Virginia field, and recommended Samuel Finley as better qualified than himself. But the trustees reelected him, May 9, 1759, and the Synod of New York and Philadelphia dissolved his pastoral relation. Davies was inaugurated September 26, and applied himself energetically and successfully to the duties of his position but his term was brief. At the close of 1760 a friend, alluding to the sermon expected from Davies on New Year's day, remarked that his predecessor Aaron Burr had begun the last year of his life with a sermon on Jeremiah, xxviii, 16: "This year thou shalt die." Davies selected the same text, and died a little more than a month later, February 4, 1761.

Davies's picture in Nassau Hall, Princeton University, shows a man of plethoric habit, the ruddiness of his face emphasized by his large wig. Yet in early life he came near dying of consumption. He married October 23, 1746, and on September 15, 1747, his wife was dead with her infant son. His own health was such that it seemed there was nothing more for him to do than to spend freely what was left of it. He went to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, engaged actively in evangelistic work, suffering from fever by night and riding and preaching day and evening in the extremest cold of winter. As it turned out, in thus losing his life he was saving it as he was unwittingly taking what is now known as the fresh air cure. His health had been restored when he went to Virginia and after settling in Hanover he married again, October 4, 1748. When he went to Princeton he became an indoor man. He left off his habit of riding and gave himself up to study, rising with the dawn and continuing his labors till midnight. The ailment of which he died started as a bad cold and then fever set in, ending fatally after an illness of ten days. He was only in his thirty-eighth year.

Although Davies was not himself of Scotch-Irish stock yet his career is so intimately associated with the spread of the Scotch-Irish settlements in the South and Southwest and was such a formative influence that it merits special consideration. For one thing the evidence points strongly to the fact that Davies was the founder of a school of oratory that profoundly affected forensic method in America, whether in the forum, in the pulpit or at the bar. It is known that Patrick Henry as a child used to be taken to hear Davies preach, and in after life he used to say that he had drawn inspiration from Davies for his own oratory, which certainly bears the marks of Davies's style. An extract will be sufficient proof. After Braddock's defeat in 1755 Davies was active in rousing the people to defend the frontier against the French and Indians, and on May 8, 1758, by invitation he preached a sermon to the militia of Hanover County, at a general muster. In this discourse Davies said:

"Need I inform you what barbarities and depredations a mongrel race of Indian savages and French Papists have perpetrated upon our frontiers? How many deserted or demolished houses and plantations? How wide an extent of country abandoned? How many poor families obliged to fly in consternation and leave their all behind them? What breaches and separations between the nearest relations? What painful ruptures of heart from heart? What shocking dispersions of those once united by strongest and most endearing ties? Some lie dead, mangled with savage wounds, consumed to ashes with outrageous flames, or torn and devoured by the beasts of the wilderness, while their bones lie whitening in the sun, and serve as tragical memorials of the fatal spot where they fell. Others have been dragged away as captives and made the slaves of cruel and imperious savages; others have made their escape, and live to lament their butchered or captivated friends and relations. In short, our frontiers have been drenched with the blood of our fellow-subjects through the length of a thousand miles, and new wounds are still opening. We, in those inland parts of the country are as yet unmolested, through the unmerited mercy of Heaven. But let us glance a thought to the western extremities of our body-politic, and what melancholly scenes open to our view! Now perhaps while I am speaking, now while you are secure and unmolested, our fellow subjects there may be feeling the calamities I am now describing. Now, perhaps, the savage shouts and whoops of Indians and the screams and groans of some butchered family, may be mingling their horrors and circulating their tremendous echoes through the wilderness of rocks and mountains."

Davies had a successor in the Valley of Virginia who perhaps attained even greater fame as an orator, though this was probably due to accidental circumstances rather than to real preeminence. This was James Waddel, who was born at Newry in the North of Ireland in July, 1739, but emigrated with his parents to Pennsylvania while a child. He was educated at the school of Dr. Samuel Finley (later President of the college at Princeton), at Nottingham, Cecil County, Md. He intended to practice medicine but entered the ministry through Davies's influence. He was licensed in 1762 and in 1764 received a call to Tinkling Springs Church to succeed Craig, who had retired, but declined it in favor of a charge on the Northern Neck, where he remained until his health was broken by the malarial fever prevalent in that region. In 1776, another call having been made by Tinkling Springs Church, he accepted it and his health improved in the mountain air. In 1783 he organized a congregation at Staunton to which he ministered in conjunction with his Tinkling Springs charge, the joint salary being forty-five pounds. A few years later he removed to an estate which he had purchased in Louisa, where he taught a select school. He was a fine classical scholar, and a man of cultivated literary taste. Some of his pupils became men of distinction, such as Governor Barbour of Virginia and Meriwether Lewis, the explorer of the Rocky Mountains. After his removal to Louisa he lost his sight from cataract, but continued to preach, and it was during that period that William Wirt, then a rising lawyer, later Attorney-General of the United States, was thrilled by Waddel's eloquence, and wrote an account of it that has become classic.

Wirt relates that he was traveling through Orange County when his eye "was caught by a cluster of horses tied near a ruinous, old wooden house, in the forest not far from the roadside." Moved chiefly by curiosity he stopped, "to hear the preacher of such a wilderness." On entering he saw "a tall and very spare old man; his head, which was covered with a white linen cap, his shriveled hands and his voice, were all shaking under the influence of the palsy; and a few moments ascertained to me that he was perfectly blind." Evidently there was nothing in the appearance of the preacher to prepare Wirt for what was to follow. He goes on to say: "It was a day of the administration of the sacrament; and his subject, of course, was the passion of the Saviour. I had heard the subject handled a thousand times; I thought it exhausted long ago. Little did I suppose that in the wild woods of America, I was to meet with a man whose eloquence would give to this topic a new and more sublime pathos, than I had ever before witnessed." Wirt gives a vivid account of the effect upon the congregation of the picture drawn by the preacher of the scene of the Crucifixion:

"I began to be very uneasy for the situation of the preacher. For I could not conceive how he would be able to let his audience down from the height to which he had wound them, without impairing the solemnity and dignity of his subject, or perhaps shocking them by the abruptness of the fall. But—no; the descent was as beautiful and sublime as the elevation had been rapid and enthusiastic. . . .

"The first sentence with which he broke the awful silence, was a quotation from Rousseau: 'Socrates died like a philosopher, but Jesus Christ like a God.'

"I despair of giving you any idea of the effect produced by this short sentence, unless you could perfectly conceive the whole manner of the man, as well as the peculiar crisis in the discourse. Never before did I completely understand what Demosthenes meant by laying such stress on delivery. You are to bring before you the venerable figure of the preacher; his blindness, constantly recalling to your recollection old Homer, Ossian and Milton, and associating with his performance the melancholly grandeur of their geniuses; you are to imagine that you hear his slow, solemn, well accented enunciation, and his voice of affecting, trembling melody; you are to remember the pitch of passion and enthusiasm to which the congregation were raised; and then the few moments of portentous deathlike silence which reigned throughout the house; the preacher removing his white handkerchief from his aged face (even yet wet from the recent torrent of his tears), and slowly stretching forth the palsied hand which holds it, begins the sentence, 'Socrates died like a philosopher'—then pausing, raising his other hand, pressing them both clasped together, with warmth and energy to his breast, lifting his sightless eyes to heaven and pouring his whole soul into his tremulous voice,—'but Jesus Christ—like a God!' If he had been indeed and in truth an angel of light, the effect could scarcely have been more divine. . . .

"If this description gives you the impression, that this incomparable minister had anything of shallow, theatrical tricks in his manner, it does him great injustice. I have never seen in any other orator such a union of simplicity and majesty. He has not a gesture, an attitude or an accent, to which he does not seem forced by the sentiment which he is expressing. His mind is too serious, too earnest, too solicitous, and at the same time, too dignified, to stoop to artifice. Although as far removed from ostentation as a man can he, yet it is clear from the train, the style, and substance of his thoughts that he is, not only a very polite scholar, but a man of extensive and profound erudition.

"This man has been before my imagination almost ever since. A thousand times, as I rode along, I dropped the reins of my bridle, stretched forth my hand, and tried to imitate his quotation from Rousseau; a thousand times I abandoned the attempt in despair, and felt persuaded that his peculiar manner and power arose from an energy of soul, which nature could give, but which no human being could justly copy. . . .

"Guess my surprise, when on my arrival at Richmond, and mentioning the name of this man, I found not one person who had ever before heard of James Waddel!! Is it not strange, that such a genius as this, so accomplished a scholar, so divine an orator, should be permitted to languish and die in obscurity, within eighty miles of the metropolis of Virginia?"

These rather copious extracts have been given of Wirt's description of a pioneer Scotch-Irish preacher because of the force with which they display the fact that although preachers of his class may have been poor in circumstances and obscure in social position they could be great orators and erudite scholars. At the time Scotch-Irish immigration became a notable influence in the population of the colonies the American seaboard had been settled over a century, and a social elegance had been established in the older capitals vying with that of the old country, whose fashions in life and literature were assiduously copied by provincial coteries. As has already been pointed out Scotch-Irish immigration flowed around and beyond the old settlements into new territory, carrying with the stream an educated clergy whose high attainments were unknown to the centers of American culture. As Mr. Wirt remarked, nobody in Richmond had ever heard of Waddel. But despite this obscurity Waddel was the exponent of a forensic method that founded a school of oratory and had a marked effect upon literary style. The evidence points strongly to the fact that the Scotch-Irish preachers were the agents by whom heavy prose style derived from England was superseded by the warm, vivid, direct energetic expression of thought and feelings characteristic of American oratory from the time of Patrick Henry down to the present time. The eighteenth century stands out in English literature as a transition period. The luxuriance of Elizabethan forms was trimmed and repressed. Literature was made neat and formal.

In the hands of such masters as Johnson and Gibbon prose style attained a stately elegance that suggests the silk waistcoats and the full bottomed wigs of the period. In the hands of less skillful practitioners it was a style that inclined to ungainly affectations and cumbrous pedantry. Illustrations of these characteristics abound in the works of the Mathers, particularly in Cotton Mather's Magnolia. Jonathan Edwards exhibits probably the highest colonial attainment in the classic form of eighteenth century style. Together with precision of form and logical force he combined a pithy directness of expression that was the precursor of the simplicity and ease of nineteenth century prose. But emancipation of pulpit style and political oratory from the artificiality of eighteenth century method was the work of Wesley and Whitefield in England, men whose zeal and emotion needed ampler channels for expression than were afforded by the conventional forms. The Tennents, particularly Gilbert Tennent, substituted the new hortatory method for the old pulpit dissertation, under the direct influence of Whitefield and in close association with him during his American tour. How effective that method was in impressing the feelings and in influencing conduct, we have impressive testimony from Benjamin Franklin, than whom there could be no more prudent and circumspect an observer. In his Autobiography he tells in the plain, matter-of-fact, unemotional style characteristic of the man how in spite of himself he had to yield his judgment to the persuasion of Whitefield's eloquence.

The new style, which was in effect a personal harangue, was liable to serious defects. It admitted possibilities of rant and incoherence against which the older method guarded. Criticism on this score was directed against Gilbert Tennent himself. It appears to have been the special work of Davies and his successors to systematize the new method, imparting to it dignity and character, and establishing its artistic canons. In so doing a distinctively American school of oratory was founded, whose best examples vie with the finest passages of literature the world can furnish. But it is also a method that in incapable hands produces the style that has become popularly known as "highfalutin." Tinsel rhetoric, affected emotion and pumped enthusiasm became ordinary adjuncts of public discourse, and dreadful examples of this sort may still be found in the Congressional Record. But the fact that the style has degenerated until it is now insufferable does not detract from the merit of the masters who unconsciously originated it, in adapting pulpit method to the needs of the times. With them that style was unaffected, natural and sincere. The literary emancipation in which they were leaders remains as a permanent gain since to it modern prose owes its ease and freedom.