Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds

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John Davenport, who cofounded the colony of New Haven, has been neglected in studies that view early New England primarily from a Massachusetts viewpoint. Francis J. Bremer restores the clergyman to importance by examining Davenport’s crucial role as an advocate for religious reform in England and the Netherlands before his emigration, his engagement with an international community of scholars and clergy, and his significant contributions to colonial America. Bremer shows that he was in many ways a remarkably progressive leader for his time, with a strong commitment to education for both women and men, a vibrant interest in new science, and a dedication to upholding democratic principles in churches at a time when many other Puritan clergymen were emphasizing the power of their office above all else.

Bremer’s enlightening and accessible biography of an important figure in New England history provides a unique perspective on the seventeenth-century transatlantic Puritan movement.

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Editorial Reviews

Peter Lake

"This, in short, is a book that anyone interested in Puritanism on either side of the Atlantic would buy and have to read."—Peter Lake, Vanderbilt University
Mary Beth Norton

“To anyone who thinks that Massachusetts Bay equals ‘New England,’ I say: read this book. To anyone who thinks that John Davenport was unimportant, I say: read this book. You will be enlightened by Francis Bremer’s compelling study of a man who profoundly influenced New England’s early religious and secular history.”—Mary Beth Norton, author of In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692
David Hall
  "Frank Bremer has written a richly detailed biography of a major figure that retrieves his career on both sides of the Atlantic and throws a fresh light on theology, the making of the Congregational Way, and the building of New England institutions. Anyone interested in the seventeenth-century Anglo-American world can learn from this impressive book."—David D. Hall, Harvard Divinity School
Diarmaid MacCulloch

"No one is better qualified than Francis Bremer to excavate the memory of an almost-forgotten pioneer of the first English colonies in North America. The principal founder of an American New Jerusalem, Davenport exhibited a peculiar mixture of obstinate high principle and determination to seek peace and unity which deserves honoring, particularly in an age of American religion which is just as highly politically-charged as his own."—Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years 
Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association - 2012 Reading the West Book Awards

Shortlisted for the 2012 Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, Reading the West Book Awards in the Adult Nonfiction category.
New England Society - Book Award

Finalist for the 2013 New England Society Book Awards in the Nonfiction category.
Journal of Religion
“This fine biography finds that the man long regarded as the most hardline and recalcitrant of all New England puritans was actually quite cosmopolitan.”—Journal of Religion
Journal of Religion - Evan Haefeli

“This fine biography finds that the man long regarded as the most hardline and recalcitrant of all New England puritans was actually quite cosmopolitan.”—Journal of Religion
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300179132
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/27/2012
  • Pages: 440
  • Sales rank: 1,056,267
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Francis J. Bremer is professor of history emeritus, Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He has been a fellow at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England and at Trinity College, Dublin.  He is the author of Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction and a biography of John Winthrop.
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Read an Excerpt

Building a New Jerusalem

John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds
By Francis J. Bremer


Copyright © 2012 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-17913-2

Chapter One


John davenport was born in April 1597 in Coventry, England, and baptized on the ninth of that month in Holy Trinity church by the parish vicar, Richard Eaton. Coventry had been the major urban center of the English Midlands in the late medieval period and a center of provincial trade routes. By the time of davenport's birth the city was in decline, though still significant. Today, visitors of the city are drawn to the preserved ruins of the cathedral of St. Michael's, destroyed by incendiary bombs in a German air attack in 1940, and to the modern cathedral next to it, which was built after the war. But walking the streets, one is still able to find remnants of the city in which John Davenport spent his first seventeen years. St. Mary's Guildhall, where his uncle Christopher and his father, Henry, were elected mayor, still stands. Holy Trinity Church is still a place of worship four hundred years after John was baptized there. A walk along Spon Street reminds the modern visitor of the physical appearance of the shops and housing of the early modern period. It offers a useful supplement to the archival records scholars explore as they seek to understand John Davenport's experiences in the city and how they prepared him for his future.

Coventry is in the northeastern part of the county of Warwick. It was described in Davenport's time as "sweetly situated on a hill" on a bend of the River Sherborne, which flows through the city. Along with a pair of brooks and streams the Sherborne formed a system of waterways that powered mills and provided water for the town residents. The surrounding countryside had enough woodlands to fill some of the city's needs for fuel and building timber. One of the notable features of the city in davenport's time was the imposing wall that encompassed the community. A visitor in 1639 called Coventry "a fair, famous, sweet, and ancient city, so walled about with such strength and neatness as no city in England may compare with it." A soldier who saw the city during the 1640s believed the wall to be comparable to that of London in breadth and height. It was approximately nine feet thick and fifteen feet high, extending two and half miles in length, with twelve gates and more than twenty defensive towers. In the 1590s another notable feature of the city landscape was the large amount of open space within the walls. Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries had led to the destruction of the extensive properties of the Benedictines, the Greyfriars, and the Whitefriars, and most notably St. Mary's Cathedral.

Coventry had risen to be the principal city in the English Midlands in the fifteenth century, with an economy centered on the purchase and selling of wool and the making of cloth. The city's merchants and craftspeople had been able to capitalize on its location on the main road that connected London and Lancaster, as well as the route from London to Chester and North Wales. It had ranked fourth among all English provincial cities in the revenue assessed for the government's subsidies in 1523–1527. But shortly thereafter the city entered a period of economic decline. By the mid-seventeenth century it barely ranked in the top-twenty provincial cities. Much of the decline was attributable to changes in the cloth trade and the failure of Coventry's clothiers to meet the challenge of new foreign imports. The closure of the religious houses in the city during the early decades of the english reformation also disrupted the local economy, as did outbreaks of plague. The economic slump was matched by a sharp decline in the city's population, which in turn inhibited any new building. Some of the former priory land was used by the city's butchers to keep hogs.

Despite its declining importance, the city was still impressive. From a distance travelers saw the spires of Holy Trinity and St. Michael's parish churches rising side by side over the town walls. A visitor in 1634 commented on the city's "fair streets and buildings." For the most part the houses were "built the old wooden way." As for the streets themselves, the municipal authorities had taken steps to have them paved with stone as early as 1333. Homes were multiple-story structures with shops on the ground-floor front, and living quarters behind and above, as was typical of the period. The homes of the merchants tended to be three stories, whereas those of artisans were two stories. The upper stories projected out above the lower floors.

All visitors to Coventry remarked on the complex of buildings that was St. Mary's Hall. Originally built for the Guild of St. Mary in 1340, the hall was transformed into the center for civic government following the reformation. it was there that the city housed its armory, there that the council met in davenport's time, and there that visiting dignitaries were housed and entertained. All mayors were sworn in at the guildhall, and city regulations were proclaimed from a balcony. The actual hall where public feasts were held contained a large tapestry celebrating the visit of Henry Vi and his queen to the town, as well as other "rich hangings" and "fair pictures," and a timber minstrels' gallery.

Coventry was known to many as the place where Lady Godiva took her famous ride. Although historians question whether such an event ever took place, the legend was firmly established by davenport's lifetime. The tale focused on Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and his wife, Godiva (Godgifu originally). The two had endowed a monastery in 1041 in what evolved into coventry. More than a century after their deaths a story was written down about how, to free the residents of Coventry from some form of oppressive feudal tax or dues imposed by her husband, Godiva had agreed to ride on horseback through the town wearing no clothes. The legend took on a life of its own as a means of providing Coventry with a sense of self-identity and as a way of celebrating the community's freedoms (owed to Godiva's sacrifice). A thirteenth-century stained-glass window in Holy Trinity celebrated the tale. In William Camden's 1586 edition of Britannia, he wrote that "a procession or cavalcade is still yearly made in memory of Godiva, with a naked figure representing her riding on horseback through the city." Visitors to the city took note of the story in their accounts. One, in 1634, mentioned a painting in St. Mary's Hall "of a noble lady [Lady Godiva], whose memory they have cause not to forget, for that she purchased and redeemed their lost, infringed liberties and freedoms."

The English Reformation was still being contested at the time when John Davenport was born. While Henry VIII (1509–1547) had broken with Rome in the 1530s and had Parliament declare him the head of the new Protestant Church of England, the character of that church was still being vigorously debated. Despite the urgings of his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, Henry had been slow to adopt the positions of the leading Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther. Henry's son, Edward VI (1547–1553) encouraged a more thorough reformation during his brief reign, but many laypeople and clergy were still dissatisfied with the pace of reform, calling for a more complete purifying of the church by removing all remnants of roman Catholic faith and practice. Edward's death at the young age of fifteen brought to the throne his older sister, Mary Tudor (1553–1558), who tried to restore Catholicism as the nation's faith, in the process forcing more than eight hundred Protestants into exile and committing more than three hundred to death by burning at the stake. Mary's death brought to the throne the last remaining child of Henry VIII, Elizabeth (1558–1603). The Protestant Church Of England again became the national church, and all Englishmen were required to be members. The quarrel over the definition of that church resumed, with the proponents of more thorough reform coming to be known as puritans.

Puritanism was a movement within the church, lacking the coherence that would be expected of an institutionalized faith. There were varieties of puritanism, and different emphases depended on local cultures and changing circumstances. In general, however, puritans called for adoption of a Calvinist theological definition of English faith, an educated preaching minister in every church, the broad dissemination of an English-language Bible to a literate laity, a purging of ceremonial practices connected with the catholic past (such as the wearing of priestly vestments and kneeling to receive the Lord's supper), and a vigorous anti-Catholic national foreign policy.

When Queen Mary's death brought Queen Elizabeth to the throne, the Coventry chronicle recorded that "the Book of common Prayer & the administration of the sacrament in the vulgar [vernacular] tongue was restored as to being in Edward VI's time, and popery put down." The following year the chronicle reported, "This year the mass was put down, all images and popish relics beaten down, and burnt in the streets; the gospel preached freely." Organs were removed from the churches, and religious paintings whitewashed over—including The Doom, the vivid depiction of the last Judgment over the chancel arch in Holy Trinity. The mayor and aldermen invited a number of zealous preachers to settle in the city, where they were liberally maintained by a levy on the householders.

The foremost of these clergymen was Thomas Lever, one of the returning exiles, who assumed the ministry of St. John's, Bablake, Coventry, and was appointed archdeacon of Coventry by his friend, Bishop Thomas Bentham. In reporting his move, lever referred to Coventry as "a city, in the middle of England ... in which there have always been, since the revival of the gospel, great numbers zealous for evangelical truth." Earlier, during the reign of King Edward, Lever had distinguished himself by his preaching on the need to apply the proceeds from the dissolution of religious houses to social needs and for denouncing the covetousness of the wealthy. He continued his strong advocacy of reform in his new position. Lever was clearly identified with those who were beginning to be referred to as puritans, arguing for an educated preaching ministry, calling for ceremonial reforms, and demonstrating his own position by refusing to wear the prescribed ecclesiastical vestments, instead choosing to officiate in his simple black gown.

To enhance the knowledge of other local ministers, lever organized clerical exercises called prophesyings. A prominent preacher, sometimes lever himself, would preach a sermon on a given scriptural text to the gathered assemblage of clergy, magistrates, and interested laypeople. Such prophesyings were an important part of the reform agenda throughout the nation, but in may 1577 Queen Elizabeth ordered all such exercises to cease because of her fear that they were subversive. Lever was opposed to the ban but died two months later, before his obedience was tested.

Another major figure in the puritan movement came to Coventry when Humphrey Fenn was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity, Coventry, in 1581. His patron, the Earl of Leicester, was the foremost advocate of religious reform at Elizabeth's court, and on one occasion Fenn accompanied Leicester to petition the queen for changes in the national church. Fenn became a close friend and ally of Thomas Cartwright, who was one of the foremost puritan clergy of the late sixteenth century. The two men organized a classis (an organization of local clergy) in Warwickshire in the early 1580s. Fenn was suspended from his living in 1583 for his refusal to subscribe to the Three articles, archbishop John Whitgift's effort to enforce conformity, but he was reinstated two years later through Leicester's intercession. In 1585 the Queen dispatched Leicester and a force of English volunteers to assist the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands, and Fenn accompanied the force as one of the chaplains.

During the late 1580s there was a renewed effort to advance reform in England, and on his return to Coventry from the Netherlands, Fenn bent his efforts to the cause. Together with other leading puritans he subscribed to the "Book of Discipline," a platform for the Presbyterian reform of the English church. He hosted a regional classis in the city in April 1588. But some of the more extreme attacks on the national church backfired, alienating many moderates and infuriating the bishops. As a suspected ringleader of the Presbyterian movement, Fenn was arrested, committed to the Fleet Prison in London, and deprived of his living. He was finally released on bail in 1591 and returned to Coventry, but not to Holy Trinity, where Richard Eaton had succeeded him.

Lectureships were appointments funded by lay patrons that involved a clergyman undertaking the task of preaching sermons apart from regular religious services, sometimes on a Sunday but often on weekdays. In 1608 the mayor of Coventry paid for a lecturer to preach at St. John's Bablake on Saturday afternoons, for the "better fitting of the people for the Sabbath." it is possible that this is where Fenn preached after his return to Coventry; his son Humphrey was named lecturer there in 1624. The elder Fenn also ran an informal type of seminary to assist young men aspiring to ministerial careers. Julines Herring, whose father served terms as sheriff and mayor of Coventry, had been educated in the city before going off to Cambridge. He returned to Coventry to study with the elder Fenn before launching his own career as a prominent puritan clergyman.

Lever and Fenn were responsible for much of the community's shift toward a puritan culture. The godly were opposed to many of the celebrations of the communal year that they believed were tied to the catholic past. In 1579 the city authorities brought the regionally famous Corpus Christi plays to an end. Another traditional catholic play, performed on Hock Tuesday, was suppressed shortly thereafter. The mayor and aldermen banned the raising of maypoles in 1591. Other communal entertainments that were viewed as unseemly were also banned—in 1585 citizens were prohibited from playing football in the city streets. By the seventeenth century Coventry could be described by an unsympathetic bishop as "a second geneva." This was the city where John Davenport was born.

The davenports were prominent members of the Coventry community. Edward davenport first appears in the historical record in the lay subsidy rolls in 1524. He leased an estate of about seventy-four acres from the priory in the years just before the English reformation. Edward appears to have been a pewterer by trade, and he was chosen city chamberlain in 1534. In 1540 he was chosen sheriff, and ten years later he was chosen mayor of Coventry. In 1553 he was one of coventry's two representatives to Parliament. He died in February 1558.

Edward and his wife, Margaret, had eight children, three of whom died young. Christopher followed his father's trade as a pewterer. He became one of the wealthier citizens of the city and a substantial property holder. At the time of his death he owned properties in the city proper on cook street, as well as properties in the near suburbs outside Gosford Gate and in Harnall Fields and Swan's Croft, both of the latter lands to the north of the city walls. In 1602 Christopher was chosen mayor. Years later he would be named one of the permanent aldermen of the city. He was noted for his charity and support of godly religion, having donated money for sermons to be preached at Holy Trinity. He was especially concerned with "the estate and condition of poor men's children, how they are rudely brought up and ignorantly, without the knowledge of god or their duties towards men." He believed that "the better education and bringing up of them would tend to the glory of god, and their own good," and he donated the considerable sum of two hundred pounds "for the maintenance of a free school in the said city of such poor children whose parents are not able and cannot spare a penny a week for their learning."

Henry davenport, a younger brother of Christopher, was apprenticed a draper, someone who was engaged in the sale of woolens. In the fourteenth century Coventry had been the principal center for the production and distribution of wool in all of England, noted especially for its nonfading Coventry-blue cloths. By Henry davenport's time the English woolen industry was in decline, its international sales reduced by new, lighter-weight cloths produced on the continent. The change was largely responsible for Coventry's economic decline. As did his brother, Henry also played an important role in the city's civic affairs. He was chosen sheriff of Coventry in 1602, and he was elected mayor in 1613 and a permanent alderman under the new charter of 1621.


Excerpted from Building a New Jerusalem by Francis J. Bremer Copyright © 2012 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Why John Davenport?....................1
Chapter 1. Coventry....................5
Chapter 2. Oxford....................26
Chapter 3. Hilton Castle....................35
Chapter 4. London—The Early Years....................51
Chapter 5. London Rector....................64
Chapter 6. Campaigning for Reform....................83
Chapter 7. Nonconformity....................100
Chapter 8. The Dutch Interlude—Controversy in Amsterdam....................109
Chapter 9. The Hague and Rotterdam....................130
Chapter 10. Boston....................144
Chapter 11. A New Heaven in a New Earth....................167
Chapter 12. The Quinnipiac Jerusalem....................181
Chapter 13. Everyday Life in Mr. Davenport's Town....................193
Chapter 14. From Town to Colony....................205
Chapter 15. Cracks in the Foundation....................220
Chapter 16. Beyond New Haven....................237
Chapter 17. Defending Congregationalism and Baptism....................254
Chapter 18. The End of the New Haven Colony....................277
Chapter 19. The Fight Continues....................304
Chapter 20. Boston Divided....................314
Chapter 21. The Last Struggle....................339
List of Abbreviations....................355
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