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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

Why did it take almost eight years for Davenport, one of the first investors in the Massachusetts Bay Company, to make this decision? We may never know for sure, but it is likely that it was his commitment to international Protestantism that kept him in England as long as possible. John Winthrop and those who journeyed with him in 1630 believed that they could create in the New World a godly kingdom that would serve as an example to Englishmen in particular and all Christendom in general. But they knew that their journey was, in many respects, an irrevocable one. Having sold their estates to migrate to America they would find no way to finance a move back home. Davenport was not the only puritan who preferred to remain closer to the front lines of the fight for reform. Only when his other options were closed off did Davenport decide to cross the Atlantic. The Boston, Massachusetts Davenport arrived at in 1637 was in the midst of a destabilizing conflict that had been caused in part by the arrival in the colony during the mid-1630s of immigrants who had been radicalized by the events in England. These included individuals such as Anne Hutchinson and Henry Vane, who had pushed their reliance on grace to a point where they denied any value to works in influencing or measuring salvation, and conservatives such as the Rev. Thomas Shepard, who saw such views as tending towards gross heresies.

This is not the time of a full analysis of the so-called Antinomian Controversy, more properly seen as a dispute over Free Grace. Suffice it to say that while the extremists on both sides pushed to define orthodoxy in accordance with their separate narrow perspectives, some – such as John Winthrop – sought to preserve a broad center with tolerance for all but the most extreme. A prime objective of Winthrop and those who shared his moderate view was to save John Cotton, whom Anne Hutchinson’s supporters claimed as their inspiration, and whose views were under sharp attack from Shepard and Deputy-Governor Thomas Dudley. Davenport, who, despite – or perhaps because of – his experiences in Amsterdam and London, still sought Protestant unity, was a key figure in this process. Taking up residence with Cotton, he helped persuade his friend to separate himself from the extremists in the Boston church, and he worked with Winthrop to hold the center so that relatively few of the radicals were forced into exile.

Davenport and those who accompanied him would have been welcome to stay in Massachusetts. But they chose instead to find a separate place for settlement, on the north shore of Long Island Sound, at a place called Quinippiac, which they renamed New Haven. As with other decisions made by Davenport, it is difficult to know exactly why he led his people away from Massachusetts. Various factors probably played some part in the decision. The Bay Colony was reeling from the departure a few years before of Thomas Hooker and others, who had resettled on the Connecticut River, founding the town of Hartford and neighboring settlements. The so-called Antinomian controversy further destabilized the colony. Perhaps this created enough doubts about the future of Massachusetts to prompt the Londoners to move on. It is also possible that Davenport was concerned about the different elements remaining in the Bay. We know that he was close to John Cotton and John Winthrop, but we do not know his relations with the other leaders of the Bay. Perhaps he felt that, learning from what he had seen there, he could shape a more secure godly kingdom elsewhere. Certainly it will be worth examining his thoughts and actions regarding a new plantation in light of his brief and relatively undocumented experience in 1637 Boston.

This is not to say, however, that we need discount the idea that the Davenport party, with their experience of conducting business in England’s largest commercial city, and realistic about their limited chances to compete as merchants against already established Bostonians, wished to set up their own center for Atlantic trade. Central New England had been viewed as a potentially rich location for fur trade, but the region was highly contested by different native tribes as well as by colonists from New Netherlands, Plymouth, and Massachusetts. The defeat of the dangerous Pequot tribe in 1637 made Southern New England more attractive to settlers. But if the hope was to make New Haven the center of a prosperous Atlantic trading empire, it was a hope that would not be realized.

The history of the New Haven Colony is a fascinating story. It was a colony whose spine was Long Island Sound, a water highway that connected the disparate settlements that came to comprise it. It developed its own take on the norms of New England church and civil practice, but united with its neighbors Plymouth, Connecticut, and Massachusetts in the New England Confederation. And Davenport was at the center of all this. But while occupied with the formation and leadership of a new colony, he was also concerned about the course of international Protestantism.

Davenport had maintained his contacts with Hartlib, Drury, and other friends and allies from his days in England, and in the late 1630s he sent Drury a pledge of monetary support for “the godly endeavors of some reverend and well affected brethren” organized by Drury to aid the cause of Protestant union. He also kept his eyes on events in the British Isles – the Scots uprising when Charles I and Archbishop Laud tried to impose the English liturgy on the northern kingdom, the resulting war and Scottish invasion of England, the calling of the Short and Long Parliaments and the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Ironically, just as Davenport had left England, it appeared that the tide was changing and hope dawning for puritan reform. Davenport’s nemesis, Archbishop Laud was arrested, imprisoned, and would soon be executed. And the parliament invited England’s leading clergy to an assembly that would recommend a new form for the national church.

Among those invited to sit in the Westminster Assembly were the New Englanders John Cotton, Thomas Hooker, and Davenport. Here was a chance to return to the center stage of the fight for reform, and the invitation was tempting. But in the end, the three colonial clergy declined. Their own local congregations, with whom they had entered into covenant, were loath to lose their services. The situation in England was uncertain, and before they could even reach London the king could have recovered his authority, dissolved Parliament, and dispersed the Assembly. Correspondence with friends such as Philip Nye and Thomas Goodwin who had returned to England from the Netherlands warned them that the majority of the Assembly was likely to favor a Presbyterian reform agenda. Davenport and Hooker had both encountered Presbyterian hostility in the Netherlands and knew well how difficult it as to persuade such men to trust laymen as favored by congregationalists. But deciding to stay in New England did not mean that any of these ministers were willing to abandon England. Rather, they sought to perfect their colonial system, advocate it in tracts and pamphlets, and mobilize New England prayers on behalf of English reform.

Davenport had begun explaining the New England Way for concerned Englishmen shortly after arriving in the region, in 1638 writing An Apology of the Churches in New England for Church Covenant and The Answer of the Elders of the Several Churches in New England in Answer unto Nine Propositions Sent Over to Them both of which were published through the aid of his English friends in 1643, just as the deliberations over English reform were getting underway. Over the next decade and more he would continue to use his pen to assist an English audience struggling to erect a godly ecclesiastical order, writing The Profession of Faith of that Reverend and Worthy Divine, Mr. J. D. (1642), and other works.

Prayer was seen as a powerful weapon by seventeenth century puritans. William Hooke, who joined Davenport in the New Haven ministry in 1644, asserted the efficacy of prayer at this time, stating that “Fasting and prayer are murderers that will kill point blank from one end of the world to the other…; thousands shall fall and never know who hurt them.” The churches of New England were like regiments, laying wait in the wilderness to launch their prayers against God’s enemies. From the earliest days of the British conflict the colonists had held special days of fast and prayer to implore God to aid their English friends. Under Davenport’s leadership, New Haven became the first colony to adopt a regular monthly system of fast and prayer on behalf of the English puritan cause, doing so late in 1643.

While Davenport did not return to England, many New Havenites did. Theophilus Eaton’s brother Samuel left the colony early on and became the central figure in Lancashire and Chesire Congregationalism in the following decades. Thomas James, David Yale, and Samuel Desborough were also among the many who returned. All of these men provided Davenport with much desired information on the course of English events – the triumph of the New Model Army in the first Civil Wars; the king’s escape from captivity and renewal of the conflict; his second defeat, capture, and execution in 1649; the proclamation of the Commonwealth; and then the rise of Oliver Cromwell and his installation as Lord Protector.

An ocean away, Davenport felt close to the events in England, and sought to use New Haven’s support for the cause and connections in England to advance the colony’s interests. There was no doubt as to where New Haven’s loyalties lay. In 1644 the colony omitted all reference to the king from the oath of allegiance to be taken by magistrates. Later that same year Thomas Gregson was dispatched to seek a charter from Parliament that would settle the colony’s legal existence. His ship was lost at sea and an actual charter was never secured, but the two houses of Parliament officially recognized the colony in 1648 and that was deemed sufficient. Relations between New Haven and the English government became even stronger when Oliver Cromwell headed the Protectorate in the 1650s. Samuel Desborough, who had returned to England earlier, was married to Cromwell’s sister Jane and was a valued intermediary. Davenport’s colleague in the New Haven pulpit, William Hooke, was a cousin by marriage of the Lord Protector. It was through the intervention of such friends that Cromwell in 1654 dispatched a small expedition to assist the colonists in defending their territory against the claims of the Dutch in nearby New Netherland. When Hooke returned to England himself in 1656 he became a chaplain to Cromwell and one of the Protector’s trusted religious advisors. He would also provide Davenport with information and advice on the changing course of English events.

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© 2005, Francis J. Bremer

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