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John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds

by Francis J. Bremer

Pub Date: Nov. 27th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-300-17913-2
Publisher: Yale Univ.

A specialist in Puritan New England submits a biography of the clergyman who founded New Haven.

Through the singular life of the Coventry-born, Oxford-educated John Davenport (1597–1670), Bremer (History Emeritus/Millersville Univ.; John Winthrop: America’s Forgotten Founding Father, 2003, etc.) supplies general readers with a solid primer about the much-misunderstood Puritans and the religious issues that preoccupied this reform movement within the Church of England during the 17th century. By 1625, Davenport’s reputation for learning, industry, devotion and brilliant preaching made him an important London voice for Protestant unity. But demands from the crown and the bishops to conform to church practice increasingly conflicted with parishioners’ calls for purification, for removing all vestiges of Catholicism from their religious practice. Davenport wrestled with doctrinal questions that will strike many modern readers as absurd, but for him, they were deadly serious matters of conscience, where a deviation from God’s will amounted to sin. Driven to emigrate, seeking a place to enjoy the liberty of all God’s ordinances, “all in purity,” Davenport founded the New Haven colony, modeling its physical layout on Solomon’s Temple, establishing civil and church institutions designed to promote godliness. By 1667, alarmed by religious divisions that parted the colony from its founding principles, Davenport accepted a call to Boston’s First Church. Even while the minister’s private life remains tantalizingly remote (did he, indeed, suffer from venereal disease?), Bremer nicely situates Davenport’s story within the larger English world of the Protectorate and Restoration, among his better-known colonial contemporaries like John Winthrop, Anne Hutchinson and John Cotton, and around enduring theological controversies that Davenport, despite his tireless appeals for moderation, never quite escaped.

A knowledgeable appraisal of an overlooked but important figure in our colonial history.