J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Remarkable Instance

Early last week I shared some predictions about John Hancock and Dr. Joseph Warren that didn’t turn out to be that far-sighted since there’s no evidence they were written before the late 1800s.

This post is about another forecast of significant activity by a man who came to prominence in the American Revolution—in this case George Washington.

On 17 Aug 1755, the Rev. Samuel Davies addressed a company of Virginia troops. It was a little more than a month after Native and French soldiers had devastated the expedition of Gen. Edward Braddock in the Pennsylvania wilderness. Virginians were anticipating a longer, bigger campaign, and Davis titled his sermon “Religion and Patriotism the Constituents of a Good Soldier.”

The minister had that sermon published the next year in Philadelphia, and then a London printer put out an edition as well. Here’s the title page of the London printing:

Davies told the new soldiers before him:
Our Continent is like to become the Seat of War; and we, for the future (till the sundry European Nations that have planted Colonies in it, have fixed their Boundaries by the Sword) have no other Way left to defend our Rights and Privileges. And has God been pleased to diffuse some Sparks of this Martial Fire through our Country? I hope he has: And though it has been almost extinguished by so long a Peace [Britain hadn’t been at war against France since 1748, or a whole seven years], and a Deluge of Luxury and Pleasure, now I hope it begins to kindle: And may I not produce you my Brethren, who are engaged in this Expedition, as Instances of it?
Davies meant that rhetorical question to inspire his audience. In the printed version he added a footnote to that passage, as shown on page 12.
As a remarkable Instance of this, I may point out to the Public that heroic Youth Col. Washington, whom I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal a Manner, for some important Service to his Country.
Davies was referring to how Washington had survived Braddock’s defeat without being killed or even wounded. The day before he spoke, Gov. Robert Dinwiddie had commissioned the ambitious young planter as colonel in charge of all the Virginia troops. By the time Davies published his sermon, he knew that he was recruiting men who would fight under Washington.

Col. Washington stepped down from his military post at the end of 1758. Davies became president of the college at Princeton the next year, and then died in 1761 (five weeks after delivering a New Year’s sermon with the repeated refrain, “This year you may die…”). It’s not clear whether Davies considered that Washington had by then rendered “some important Service to his Country” worthy of his providential preservation.

Washington must have seen this sermon circulating in Virginia. He was probably flattered by it, perhaps intimidated. In late 1777, a London admirer sent him another copy. Davies’s prediction was a lot to live up to, especially in that gloomy season.

One last note: in 1791 Davies’s son introduced himself to President Washington by writing: “I am the Son of a Prophet, whose prediction with respect to yourself hath been remarkably verified—I am much, very much in want of an office of profit…”


John L Smith Jr said...

"Hey remember my dad? And can I have a job?" Some things never change.

J. L. Bell said...

I love the quick transition from "prophet" to "profit."