The Curse of Cowardice

“Therefore, instead of assuming the state of patriots and heroes at home, TO ARMS! and away to the field and prove your pretensions sincere. Let the thunder of this imprecation rouse you out of your ease and security.”

Summary Overview

“The Curse of Cowardice” was delivered in Hanover County, Virginia, during the French and Indian War. At the time, the British were struggling to gain ground against France and its American Indian Allies. Reverend Samuel Davies, a popular Presbyterian minister and a talented orator, was called upon to help the militia of Hanover County recruit able-bodied men. For his part, Davies argued that to fight a war was not a sin, but rather an obligation to God, when the fight was a righteous one. Indeed, to a Protestant minister of British descent, defeating the Catholic French would have been a justifiable cause for war.

Defining Moment

By May 1758 North America, and much of Europe, was embroiled in the Seven Years’ War. The fighting within the North American colonies was commonly known as the French and Indian War and was primarily a conflict between the British and French empires. The conflict had begun in 1754 as the British and French struggled over frontier boundaries, in particular over the Ohio River Valley. Early in the contest, western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland were devastated by France’s American Indian allies, resulting in the death or imprisonment of seven hundred colonists. By this point, the British had suffered more losses than victories and morale was understandably low. To this end, general musters were called by the commanding officers of various colonial militias. These musters were mandatory and often called monthly for further training. However, this particular muster had also been called for recruitment, as well as moral and religious edification.

Despite his status as a dissenter (any Protestant who was not a part of the Church of England), Davies was a supporter of the British government as well as the rights of the Church of England to govern religious doctrine in the colonies. He was called upon to inspire new recruits as well as current soldiers to take up the British cause in the Seven Years’ War.

Author Biography

Samuel Davies was an American colonist born in Newcastle County, Delaware, on November 3, 1723. He was the son of David and Martha Thomas Davies, farmers who lived in the Welsh community. He was reared in a Presbyterian home and received a Presbyterian education at the school run by New Light minister Samuel Blair in Fagg’s Manor, Pennsylvania. New Light Presbyterians, as opposed to Old Lights, favored revivals and required that ministerial candidates show evidence of experimental religion. Upon completion of his studies, Davies took and passed the ministerial examinations of Newcastle Presbytery, becoming a licensed minister on July 30, 1746. In October of that same year, he married Sarah Kirkpatrick.

Immediately, Davies began serving as an itinerant minister, meeting the needs of Presbyterian congregations throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania, which had no settled minister. However, this was a short-lived assignment. On February 19, 1747, Davies was ordained a minister. He then accepted a call from the Presbyterians in Hanover County, Virginia, to serve as their minister. Despite his status in the British colonies as a dissenter, Davies gained licenses to preach at various meetinghouses, and his Presbyterian message gained popularity.

In September of 1747, Davies’s wife died during a miscarriage and he subsequently turned to his work for consolation. He married his second wife, Jane Holt, in 1748. The couple would have three sons and three daughters.

Davies continued his message of religious dissent, but defended the rights of the Church of England in the colonies. His moderate stance won him popularity in Virginia, and he preached throughout the colony. His sermons were published in Great Britain as well as the colonies, and his religious poetry was also widely read.

In 1753, he travelled to London to raise funds for the fledgling College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian establishment that would later be renamed Princeton University. Having successfully secured funding, he returned to Virginia the next year. In July of 1759, he accepted the position as the fourth president of the College of New Jersey. On February 4, 1761, Samuel Davies died at the age of thirty-seven. He had contracted tuberculosis the same year his first wife died. Though he had recovered, the disease most likely contributed to his death.

Samuel Davies.

(Library of Congress)

Document Analysis

For this occasion, Reverend Samuel Davies relies on Jeremiah 48:10 as the basis for his sermon. Curiously, after illuminating the scriptural basis for “The Curse of Cowardice,” he discusses the wishes of the “God of Peace,” who wants all beings, both as individuals and nations, to live together in harmony and peace. Davies also comments that Christ had been quite clear when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” How then were Christians to reconcile this paradox of apparent scriptural inconsistencies? Davies’s answer centers on the sinful and fallen nature of humankind. In his view, violence and war were caused by human lusts and a peaceful recourse was not always an option. Furthermore, war was not only acceptable, but holy when an enemy threatened the lives, personal freedom, and religious freedom of a people.

To be clear, Samuel Davies did not believe any American colony to be “the region of tranquillity” he so vividly describes in his opening statements. Alongside their Calvinistic brethren the Congregationalists (also known as Puritans), the Presbyterians often relied on sermons to rouse their churches to righteous living. A constant theme in these sermons was the sinfulness of man, particularly the depraved nature of the contemporary generation. It is unlikely then, that Davies pictured the colonies before the war as the realization of God’s kingdom on earth. As he points out later in the sermon, sin was still rampant in the British colonies. However, this was a matter of degrees, and despite their problems the British were still Protestant. That meant they were far closer to the divine ideal than their Roman Catholic, or “Papist,” French enemies, who were often depicted as allies of the Antichrist. Davies speaks in order to inspire young men to fight by alleviating any doubts that God was not on their side.

Yet despite what he sees as God’s approval of their actions, Davies notes that many colonists seemingly believed that neither God nor man could take away their property or liberty. In other words, they believed that the war need not concern them because it would never affect them. Their complacency was intolerable and sinful to Davies. In typical Calvinistic fashion, Davies wonders aloud how a people chosen by God to inherit the Americas could so willfully sin against their Lord without expecting to be punished in some way. Of course, he concludes, these wicked cowards were worthy of saving. Perhaps the soldiers and locals who attended the general muster knew men fitting this description, but Davies does not directly challenging his audience at this point in the sermon. Instead, he establishes an early consensus on cowardice—and repugnant behavior in general—so that later, when he condemns sins more familiar to the audience, they might more easily accept them as such.

Having stirred the emotions, and maybe even the ire, of those present toward their enemies and their unrepentant neighbors, Davies begins to praise the soldiers and those who would enlist, who were in attendance. He reinforces the idea that God is with them by noting how they are made for this purpose. Just as Davies had been called to serve God as a minister, the soldiers have also been called to do God’s will, and that is the key to “the glorious dangers of the field.” War and conflict could only be glorious if they were in response to a divine charge, and Davies assures his audience that this is God’s will by re-emphasizing the temporal and spiritual threats that loom large. Of these, the danger to the colonists’ “religion” was the biggest cause for concern. He exhorts “Protestant Christianity” to resist the advances of an unholy alliance of French Catholics, “heathen” American Indians, and “the power of hell.”

In addition to reaffirming the providential nature of the French and Indian War, although not to the same extent as is generally noted in histories of the period, Davies also clearly associates the Catholic Church with Satan, another common theme among Protestant colonists. Despite this agreement on the diabolical nature of Catholics, colonial Protestants found little else on which they could agree. There were many instances of church cooperation and unity, but they are largely overshadowed by the multitude of conflicts that dominated the period. Interestingly, Samuel Davies was an integral part of a Presbyterian movement to work more closely with Christians from other churches. In fact, it was his work in Virginia toward this end that afforded him the opportunity to preach to the colony’s militia.

The general muster was an official colonial function and if a minister addressed the muster, he would almost universally come from the Church of England, the established church in Virginia. Before the late 1740s and 1750s, it would have been unimaginable for a dissenter to be given the opportunity. However, Samuel Davies was no mere dissenter. It was largely through his work with the Anglican establishment that allowed Presbyterians, as well as other Protestant denominations, to gain acceptance in Virginia. For the Anglicans, Davies and the Presbyterians served as a nonthreatening liaison and a pacifying example to the more tumultuous dissenters in the colony. Samuel Davies had repeatedly proven himself a proponent of “the working together of Protestant denominations instead of a peddler in the doctrine of a particular church, and the Church of England rewarded him.

No doubt constantly aware of the precarious nature of the Protestant alliance in Virginia, Davies continued to prove his value by promoting service and submission (both military and civilian) to colonial and royal authority. To that end, he quickly notes and addresses several general objections raised against military service. For those concerned that they would be drafted against their will and treated like slaves while others were arbitrarily exempted from service, he replies that enlisting was up to them as free and honorable men. To those troubled that they would be commanded by “foreign, unknown, or disagreeable officers” he states that their commanding officers would likely be their neighbors or friends. This intimacy, he contends, would also reduce the “cruelty or injustice” encountered while in service to Virginia and the Crown.

The final objection Davies addresses, and that with which he agreed the most, was the moral degradation of a soldier while serving in the army. He openly concedes “the contagion of vice and irreligion is perhaps nowhere stronger than in the army” and that men must be constantly vigilant in the faith. However, he again hopes that the neighborly composition of the army will serve as a deterrent. Using the civilian portion of the audience as a gentle coercion, the minister continues, “May I not give the public the satisfaction of such an assurance concerning you, that, whatever others do, as for you and your company you will serve the Lord?” Davies clarifies his point in case public responsibility was not a strong enough reason for godly leadership: “And let me honestly warn you that, if you do not maintain such a conduct, you will bitterly repent it, either in time or eternity.”

In addition to offering rebuttals to arguments potentially undermining to colony and Crown, Samuel Davies proves himself worthy of the Anglican establishment’s trust through the non-proselytizing evangelism evident in the final portion of his sermon. With death surrounding the soldier’s life, Davies argues that soldiers need to concern themselves with the salvation of their souls. Vices such as drinking, swearing, or patronizing prostitutes will not provide his listeners with courage in battle, he argues. Nor will ridding themselves of such vices be sufficient to ensure their salvation. He says that instead they “must become humble, brokenhearted penitents and true believers in Jesus Christ and “must be enabled to live righteously, soberly, and godly in this present evil world.” For Davies, faith in Christ was the need of every soldier and the only thing that would sustain them on the battlefield and ensure immortality, should they die in combat. Undoubtedly, this was a gripping Calvinistic account of humankind’s inherent sinfulness and need for Christ’s salvation, but what attracted Virginian Anglicans to Samuel Davies was the fact that he never mentioned a particular church or creed in official addresses. Without investigating Davies’s background, neither his preference for Presbyterianism nor his position as a Presbyterian minister can be found in the sermon. He was interested in drawing people to Christ, not to a particular denomination.

Essential Themes

Davies’s work offers a complex and diverse view into the mid-eighteenth century British world. We get a glimpse into the thoughts and fears—both temporal and spiritual—of colonists during the French and Indian War; the ways in which the colonists viewed themselves in relation to the larger British Empire, the French, and their Indian American neighbors; the workings of the colonial militia during the war; the role of religion in civil affairs; the tendencies of colonial Protestant ministers, particularly the Calvinists; and the development of a specific denomination, the Presbyterians. It can be surprising how many historical fields and interests can be informed by one document.

Davies’s sermon, though on the surface a call to arms, served also as a way to encourage Christian morals and conversion to Protestantism. Davies begins by assuring the safety of his audience’s souls should they go to war. However, he also cautions that those very same souls are in danger if they do not accept and live by God’s word. And so, Davies takes the opportunity to advance the cause of Great Britain while simultaneously advancing his own.


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Additional Reading

  • Balmer, Randall and John Fitzmier. The Presbyterians. Westport: Praeger, 1994. Print.
  • Bonomi, Patricia U. Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.
  • Davidson, James West. The Logic of Millennial Thought: Eighteenth-Century New England. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977. Print.
  • Ferling, John. Struggle for a Continent: The Wars of Early America. Arlington Heights: Davidson, 1993. Print.
  • Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
  • Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 2010. Print.
  • Marsden, George M. Religion and American Culture. New York: Harcourt, 1990. Print.