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The Stamford Historical Society Presents

Portrait of a Family: Stamford through the Legacy of the Davenports

John Davenport: The American Career of an International Puritan
print iconLecture by Francis J. Bremer, Ph.D., April 17, 2005
at the Stamford Historical Society

The national capital had always been a center of puritanism and that was true at this time. But it was a puritan community that, while united, was not uniform. In their efforts to provide pastoral guidance to their flocks, some clergy emphasized the sense of spiritual empowerment experienced by the elect, while others looked to good works, not to save them but as evidence of their election. Some were grudgingly willing to perform mandated church ceremonies which they felt were remnants of Catholic practice, while others were moving down a road of nonconformity that would take some into exile and others to separatism. But virtually of these puritans were committed to two causes that Davenport would quickly embrace – the need to support the cause of international Protestantism, and the effort to place more godly preaching ministers in the pulpits of England’s churches.

In London Davenport began to associate with leading puritans such as John Preston and Richard Sibbes. Preaching the word was central to the puritan concept of the ministry, and at St. Lawrence Davenport quickly earned a reputation as a powerful and inspiring preacher. He attracted the attention of the parishioners of the parish of St. Stephen’s on nearby Coleman Street. That parish was unusual in having the right to elect its own vicar, and in 1624 they chose Davenport for that post. With a secure position and income he was able to fulfill the remaining requirements for his Oxford degree and received both his BA and MA in 1625.

Despite his relative youth Davenport became a key player in two major puritan initiatives. In the same year that he received his Oxford degrees, he helped organize and direct the Feoffees for Impropriations, a corporation that raised funds for reform and used them to purchase control of church livings where they then installed puritan preachers. Two years later he joined with other London puritans in soliciting funds to relieve Protestant refugees from the devastation of the Thirty Years War. This latter reflected his strong commitment to the international Protestant cause. In a sermon to the members of the London Artillery Company in 1629 he reminded those troops that “the distresses of our brethren abroad should quicken us to the use of all means whereby we may be enabled to succor them.” Davenport also became involved with a number of continental Protestants who were laboring to unify Protestant Christendom. These included John Drury, the son of a Scottish clergyman who had been raised and educated in the Netherlands. He had served briefly as minister to a clandestine Reformed church in Catholic Cologne, and had witnessed up close the ravages of the Thirty Years War. He devoted his life to efforts for church unity, urging that all Protestants focus on a small group of religious fundamentals and devote their primary attentions to ethical concerns. Samuel Hartlib was also a member of this circle. Polish by birth, Hartlib settled in London after the death of his second wife, but retained strong contacts with continental reformers, scientists, and intellectuals. Davenport came to know both men and was a strong supporter of Drury’s efforts, being commended by the latter as being “forward, earnest, and judicious in the work” of Protestant unity.

Efforts such as these attracted the critical attention of the new bishop of London, William Laud. Laud had already established a reputation as a promoter of innovations in worship that smacked of long discarded elements of the Catholic liturgy. He supported theological positions which puritans saw as a retreat from Calvinism. And he was an unflinching advocate of the king’s right to control all aspects of church belief and practice, pledging himself to root out all who in any way challenged the monarch’s policies. As such he viewed the Feoffees as an effort to subvert the proper order of the church and helped bring charges against them. He viewed the effort to aid the refugees as implicit criticism of the king’s refusal to commit England to the Protestant cause in the conflict. Davenport’s role in these enterprises made him a suspect figure in the eyes of Laud.

King James I had threatened to make puritans conform or to harry them out of the land, but his bark was worse than his bite. Charles I and his bishops took that goal seriously. By the late 1620s numerous puritan clergy had been deprived of their livings. Some were seriously considering emigration to Ireland, the Netherlands, or – perhaps – the new England across the ocean. Davenport, his own situation becoming precarious, was involved in some of these discussions and was an early investor, along with some of his former colleagues in the Feoffees, in the Massachusetts Bay Company. His involvement was more than financial, however, and while the records of the society do not let us know everything we would like to, we know that in 1629 he and John Winthrop were two of four members called upon to represent the company in arbitration of a dispute between John Endecott, the advance leader of the enterprise, and some of the colonists whom he had alienated.

While sympathetic to those who felt compelled to emigrate, Davenport was not yet prepared to do so himself. He still believed that puritans should make every effort to conform to the dictates of the king and his bishops so they would be able to retain their livings and minister to their flocks. When his own conformity was called into question in 1631 he was able to successfully defend himself before the episcopal authorities. And so when, in 1632, the prominent Lincolnshire clergyman John Cotton was called before the authorities to answer for his nonconformity, Davenport sought to persuade him to bend his knee to authority. In a significant and secret conference held at the Ockley, Surrey home of the Reverend Henry Whitfield, Davenport, Thomas Goodwin, Philip Nye, Samuel Stone, Thomas Hooker, and William Twisse met with Cotton to discuss the growing pressures being placed on puritan clergy. Davenport, Goodwin, and Nye all pushed the case for conformity. But it was Cotton who proved more persuasive in making the case that the ceremonies they were being pressured to perform were offenses in the eyes of God. Nye resigned his lectureship at St. Michael’s on London’s Cornhill Street and left for the Arnhem in the Netherlands. Goodwin resigned his living at Trinity College, Cambridge. And Davenport prepared to leave St. Stephen’s. Without resigning his living, he left London for the Netherlands.

The Netherlands had long been the preferred refuge for English religious radicals. The puritan theologian William Ames had spent much of his career there. The Pilgrim fathers had tarried there in their journey from Scrooby to Plymouth. Thomas Hooker and Hugh Peter sought refuge there before emigrating to New England, and Cotton also had considered settling there. It was close enough to make a return to England possible if the tide was to swing back in favor of reform. And so Davenport journeyed to Amsterdam in November of 1633, responding to an invitation that he stand in for John Paget, the pastor of the English church in Amsterdam, who was ill.

The Netherlands sojourn did not work out as he anticipated. The congregation he had joined was divided and Paget, who soon recovered, differed with Davenport over issues of church government. The elder clergyman was a Presbyterian who submitted to the authority of the Amsterdam classis, had a restrictive view of the role of congregants in church government, and baptized all who were brought to him. Davenport by this time had come to hold a more congregational view of church government and believed that only the children of regenerate parents should be baptized. The two engaged in a written exchange that would eventually be published and contribute to the broader debate between the Presbyterian and congregational polities. Paget was able to gain the support of the Dutch classis and the English ambassador to force Davenport out of the church.

While this course of events was working itself out, William Laud had continued to investigate Davenport’s practices at St. Stephen’s and ordered him to appear before the High Commission, the prerogative church court that was used to root puritans out of their livings. Davenport had not resigned from his London pastorate, but this summons put an end to any chance that he could return to his English ministry. Leaving Amsterdam, he resided briefly in Rotterdam, and then returned secretly to England in April 1636 to plan his move to New England. Together with his childhood friend and St. Stephen’s parishioner Theolphilus Eaton, Davenport gathered a group of friends and supporters who chartered a ship and sailed for Boston in May of 1637.

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© 2005, Francis J. Bremer

Portrait of a Family: Stamford through the Legacy of the Davenports