Finley, Samuel (1715–66), presbyterian minister in America and principal of Princeton, was one of seven pious brothers born in Co. Armagh. Some genealogies state that his parents were Michael Finley and Ann Finley (née O'Neill) of Mullaghbrack, Co. Armagh, and that he was born 2 July 1715, but this information is not conclusively attested. Samuel received a good education in Ireland; from the age of six, when he first heard a sermon, he intended to become a minister. He emigrated to America, arriving in Philadelphia 28 September 1734, and was probably a student for several years in the celebrated ‘log college’ of William Tennent (qv) (1673–1746). In August 1740 he was licensed by the New Brunswick presbytery to preach, and on 13 October 1742 was ordained. He was influenced by George Whiteside and by William Tennent (qv) (1705–77) and Gilbert Tennent (qv), evangelical preachers who insisted on the validity of personal salvation, and he took a vigorous part in the controversies that followed the Great Awakening; he published polemic sermons and pamphlets in support of the doctrines and tenets of the Calvinistic ‘New Side’. He also attacked the baptists' beliefs in two tracts (1746, 1748). Finley travelled widely in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut; in the latter state the authorities chose to regard him as a vagrant since the church to which he was travelling had no legal status, and he was briefly imprisoned in 1743 and then deported from the state. In 1744 he accepted a call to the congregation of Nottingham, on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania, and there established a school which enjoyed a considerable reputation in his own day, and which survived in 2004 as West Nottingham Academy, one of the two oldest boarding schools in America. The students lived in his household, and he insisted that all should experience farmwork as well as gaining experience in ‘the common forms of good breeding’ (Rush, 26). He displayed ‘apostolic prudence, piety and zeal’ (ibid., 33) and was so much beloved that after his death some of his pupils expressed their respect for his memory in ‘terms bordering upon idolatry’ (ibid., 190). In 1761 he was unanimously elected principal of the College of New Jersey, better known as Princeton.
Finley corresponded with ministers in America and elsewhere; he was the first American presbyterian minister to be awarded an honorary degree by a European university when Glasgow awarded him a DD (1763). Princeton flourished under Finley's guidance; enrolment increased, and he planted trees, some of which survive. In 1766 he went to Philadelphia to seek medical advice; he died there on 17 July 1766, after a painful illness. His conduct on his deathbed was so edifying that an attendant's description of his last days was published in the United States Magazine, i (1794). Eight members of Princeton's senior class travelled to Philadelphia to be his pallbearers; he was buried in the Second Presbyterian Church, beside his friend Gilbert Tennent. Finley married first Sarah Hall (d. 1760), whose nephew Benjamin Rush was a pupil in Nottingham. Rush showed his gratitude to the family by adopting and educating the youngest of Finley's eight children, a son who was the only one that lived till after 1789. Finley married secondly (1761) Anna Clarkson, probably the sister of one of his pupils. They seem not to have had children. John Finley, a notable pioneer who is said to have shown Daniel Boone the way into what later became Kentucky, may have been Samuel Finley's nephew. Samuel Finley Morse, who developed the telegraph, was a great-grandson of Samuel Finley, and in 1870 presented a portrait of his ancestor to Princeton.