James Davenport (clergyman)
|Alma mater||Yale College|
Background and early life
Davenport was born in Stamford, Connecticut, to an old Puritan family. Graduating from Yale College, he was ordained as a minister by the Congregational Council of Southold, Long Island in October 1738.
Preaching career and controversies
It was around this time that he met Presbyterian revivalist Gilbert Tennent and English evangelical George Whitefield. The success of Whitefield's style of revival preaching convinced Davenport that God was calling him, and in 1741 - having by chance opened his Bible to 1 Samuel 14, where Jonathan and his armor-bearer attack the Philistine camp, and taken this as a sign - he left his congregation to become an itinerant. His actions during this time often caused him to run afoul of both ecclesiastical and civil authorities.
Davenport often denounced fellow clergymen for their conduct, such as when he labeled Joseph Noyes, the pastor of New Haven, a "wolf in sheep's clothing." Davenport is also noted for his "Bonfires of the Vanities", the public burnings he organized in New London. As with those of Girolamo Savonarola, Davenport urged his followers to destroy immoral books and luxury items with fire. He often said that he could distinguish people who were saved versus people who were damned just by looking at them.
In June 1742, Davenport and fellow preacher Benjamin Pomeroy were arraigned before the Colonial Assembly at Hartford, Connecticut, charged with disorderly conduct. Pomeroy's case was dismissed, but Davenport was declared to be under "enthusiastical impressions and impulses, and thereby disturbed in the rational faculties of his mind." No punishment was meted out, but Davenport was sent back to his former parish of Southold.
On March 7, 1743, Davenport exhibited perhaps his most bizarre behavior yet, in an incident which garnished him lasting fame—or infamy. The day before, he had led a crowd to burn a large pile of books; this day he called them to throw their expensive and fancy clothing onto the fire, so as to prove their full commitment to God. Davenport—leading by example—removed his pants and cast them into the bonfire. One woman in the crowd quickly grabbed his pants out of the blaze, and handed them back to Davenport, entreating him to get a hold of himself. "This act broke Davenport's spell," wrote historian Thomas Kidd. Davenport had gone too far, charisma or no, and the crowd quickly dispersed.
In July 1744 Davenport published a retraction claiming that he had been possessed by "demonic spirits." According to the Boston Weekly Post Boy of 28 March 1743, Davenport had exhibited signs of physical distress along with his unorthodox behavior, symptoms that at the time would have been interpreted as evidence of demonic possession.
On 27 October 1754, Davenport became pastor of Maidenhead and Hopewell, New Jersey, an office he held until his death in 1757. He was buried in the Old Cemetery lot of the Pennington (N.J.) Presbyterian Church.
- Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening: A Brief History with Documents (New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008), 1.