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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 Protectorate, of course, did not last long after the death of Cromwell in 1658, and following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 many of those deemed responsible for the execution of Charles I were labeled regicides and brought to justice. Former New Englanders such as Hugh Peter and Henry Vane were among those executed. Three of the regicides – John Dixwell, and two kinsmen of William Hooke, Edward Whalley and William Goffe – escaped and fled to New England, where they were pursued by royal agents. Despite the risks in doing so, Davenport played a key role in sheltering them and eventually helping them resettle in colonial towns under assumed names. And the message of his sermons, published as The Saints Anchor-Hold in All Storms and Tempests (1661), for puritans on both sides of the Atlantic, was to persevere in their efforts to bring about reform, for “God’s deferring of the rule of the saints is no empty space but a time of fitting his Church and People for the good things promised.”

In that same sermon sequence Davenport acknowledged that puritans felt the “frustration and disappointment” of those who, “when they have given up their names unto Christ, looked for peace, prosperity, and good days, but find troubles, crosses and afflictions of various kinds.” And New Haven and John Davenport would have their own special crosses to bear. The colony had gone further than any of its sister Bible Commonwealths in recognizing and establishing close terms with the regime that had toppled Charles I, and it was the last to officially recognize the new king. Knowing they would receive little consideration at the hands of Charles II, some New Havenites negotiated with the authorities in New Netherlands and relocated within that Dutch colony, founding the town of New Ark (later, Newark, New Jersey). Never having actually received a charter, New Haven was more vulnerable than her neighbors, and any hope of favorable treatment was dashed by the rumors that the colony as harboring the regicides. In 1662 the colony was absorbed into the larger entity of Connecticut, losing its autonomy and the character that had made it unique.

For Davenport, all of this was the start of a process in which he became increasingly marginalized. Despite being in America, in the 1640s and 1650s he had the satisfaction of knowing that his views were well regarded in England and that through his friends he had access to the most powerful men in the kingdom. But after 1660 puritans were no longer in power in England, and his friends there were struggling to find a way of surviving and maintaining their churches in a new and, for them, oppressive world. And in New England, Davenport had gone from being the guiding force in an independent colony that was a respected partner in the New England Confederation to being the pastor of a small town in the larger colony of Connecticut.

Not only did it seem to Davenport that he had become geographically isolated, he also suffered from the loss of the friends with whom he had labored to shape the New England Way. Among lay magistrates, in Massachusetts John Winthrop had died in 1649 and Thomas Dudley in 1653. John Haynes, who had served one term as governor of Massachusetts and seven as governor of Connecticut, died in 1654. Edward Hopkins, also seven times a governor of Connecticut, died in 1657. Davenport’s friend from childhood and closest ally, Theophilus Eaton, passed away in 1658. Francis Newman, Eaton’s successor as New Haven’s governor, had died in office in 1660. Plymouth’s Edward Winslow died on Cromwell’s expedition to seize Jamaica in 1655, and William Bradford two years later. The ranks of the clergy had been similarly ravaged. Thomas Hooker had passed away in 1647, Thomas Shepard in 1649, John Cotton in 1652, and other friends and allies of Davenport in the years that followed.

A new generation of New Englanders faced new challenges, from how to deal with the new royal government to concerns about the baptismal practices of the colonial churches. The pattern set by the founding generation had required those seeking membership in the church to offer a narration of their born-again experience before the existing members voted to admit them. By the 1650s the percentage of churchgoers who sought admission was in decline, possibly due to individuals being more scrupulous in judging the state of their souls. Since only a member could present a child for baptism, this meant that many families were unable to have their infants baptized. A proposal to create a form of half-way membership with lower requirements, that would allow the baptism of these individuals, was proposed in the 1650s and recommended to the churches of the region by representatives of Massachusetts and Connecticut churches in 1657. From the start, Davenport opposed any modification of membership requirements and so New Haven refused to participate in the assembly. A broader based synod in 1662 endorsed the Half-Way Covenant. Once again Davenport was absent – perhaps in this case preoccupied with the pending annexation of his colony by Connecticut. He did, however, lead the traditionalists who sought to persuade the independent congregations of the region to reject the innovation. But it was a losing battle, again underscoring his growing irrelevance.

In the mid-1620s Davenport had been a rising figure in the international reform movement. By the mid-1660s he was in a backwater colony where his ability to influence events was minimal, the latest example being the growing tendency of New England congregations to adopt the Half-Way Covenant. And then the First Church of Boston, the church of Winthrop, Cotton, John Wilson, and John Norton invited him to assume the post of pastor. He would preach from the most distinguished pulpit in New England. There he would have a chance to reverse the tide of decline, revitalize the puritan errand into the wilderness and thus once again contribute to the cause of international Protestantism. There was, of course, a catch. New Haven did not want to let him go. He was at that time the town’s only claim to importance as it struggled to adapt to its new role in Connecticut.

The result was tragedy. After three requests that he be dismissed had been rejected by the New Haven church, Davenport evidently connived with some of his Boston supporters in extracting a portion of the last response that made it appear permission had been granted. In December 1668 he was ordained as pastor of the Boston church. But his calling had distressed a minority of that congregation that supported the Half-Way Covenant and they sought to secede and form their own church. Davenport fought this, but the minority was supported by the other area churches. The Third Church of Boston, or Old South, was established in May of 1669. Boston was not what Davenport had hoped for, and it was with a sense of bitterness and frustration that he delivered the annual election sermon of 1669, warning the magistrates that the choice New England faced was between renewing its proper relationship with God or apostasy. Shortly thereafter his own moral authority was undermined when the true circumstances of his departure from New Haven were revealed and he was condemned by a group of seventeen of his fellow ministers. Within a year, he was dead.

For a half century John Davenport had fought for the advance of international Protestantism, and his contributions to that cause were numerous and significant. His story is one of triumphs and of tragedy. It is an American story, but an American story that connects with a broader geographical world and that highlights the religious themes that have been a part of the American story from Davenport’s time to our own. The task of the historian is to engage in a conversation with the past, but to do so in a way that makes the past more relevant to the present. By examining John Davenport’s story more thoroughly, I believe we may gain greater insight not only into his times but into out own.

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© 2005, Francis J. Bremer

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