Tuesday 15 January 2019

A Puritan Preacher in County Durham: The Digitized Sermon Manuscripts of John Davenport

While the majority of sermon manuscripts remain accessible only within the confines of specific archives and libraries, these sources have not been untouched by the process of digitization undertaken by many repositories. As a result, some collections are now easily accessible online. One such collection is the Sermons and Writings of John Davenport from the Beinecke Library at Yale. The entire manuscript collection (GEN MSS 202) spans most Davenport’s career from 1615 to 1658, but the digitized selection (GEMMS Manuscripts 000777 and 000788) focuses on his early career as a chaplain at Hilton Castle, County Durham, in 1615. Davenport’s series of more than 40 sermons in these digitized manuscripts offer a glimpse into the formation and early career of a famous puritan preacher and religious practice on a noble estate in Durham.

Biographical Overview

Davenport’s career has been the subject of some scholarship on account of his prominence among “godly,” or puritan, ministers in the 1620s, and his role in the founding and governing of the colony of New Haven in 1638.[1] He became curate of St Lawrence Jewry in London in 1619, where he earned a reputation as an inspiring preacher. This led to his election as vicar of St Stephen, Coleman Street in 1624. It was at St Stephen that Davenport took part in a corporation of four ministers, four lawyers, and four merchants known as the “feoffees for the purchase of impropriations.” The basic scheme of the feoffees was to acquire ecclesiastical property and revenue that had come into lay hands following the Reformation (called impropriations), and use those funds to purchase lectureships and install them with preachers of puritan sympathies.[2] Archbishop William Laud’s efforts to stamp out puritanism within the Church of England eventually led to the corporation’s disbandment and ultimately to Davenport’s decision to opt for nonconformity, leading him first to the Netherlands in 1633, and then to America in 1637 to found a new colony for the godly in New Haven. In keeping with Davenport’s ideals and in order to maintain the colony’s godliness, all the colony’s government offices could only be held by those who had been baptized in the local congregational church. Davenport staunchly defended this restrictive policy into the 1660s when New Haven sought to merge with the larger and less-religiously stringent colony of Connecticut.

Figure 1: Reverend John Davenport by Davenport Limner (1670). Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery.

It is this latter part of Davenport’s career which has garnered the most scholarly attention. Interestingly, it is from the early part of his career, about which little is known, that the digitized sermons in Beinecke’s collection come. Davenport matriculated from Merton College, Oxford in 1613 and began his Bachelors at Magdalen Hall. He left university two years later due to lack of means. Although he was only eighteen years old and thus not old enough to be ordained, he sought a preaching position. Sometime in 1615, he was invited to serve as chaplain at Castle Hilton, Durham. It remains unclear how Davenport came to be chaplain at Hilton. Isabel Calder, editor of a published volume of Davenport’s correspondence, suggested that he was likely invited by Lady Mary Hilton, who managed the estate, given that her husband, Baron Henry Hilton, was absent from his estate for most of his life.[3] Lady Mary was likely a member of Davenport’s sermon audiences at Hilton Castle, but his more recent biographer, Francis Bremer, has suggested another candidate for his sponsor: Lady Isabelle Bowes, a prominent patron of puritan ministers. The Bowes and Hilton families were connected by marriage, so Lady Isabelle would have been aware of the need for a chaplain at Hilton Castle, and she knew the Davenport family from her time living in Coventry, where Davenport grew up. Catholicism remained strong in Durham, so she would have been keen to see a puritan preacher installed in a chaplaincy belonging to her kin.[4] Regardless of who invited him, Davenport’s early career seems likely to have benefited from the patronage of noblewomen, who, as Jeanne Shami and other scholars have pointed out, were not simply passive auditors of sermons, but often instrumental as patrons of preachers.[5] It was thus at Hilton Castle that Davenport’s preaching career began. An examination of the sermons he preached there can reveal a great deal about the formation of this young puritan preacher, his expectations for lay piety, and the religious atmosphere of County Durham in the early seventeenth century.

The Sermons

The digitized sermons span 172 pages and most of them are listed as part of a single series with each sermon numbered up to 35 (although additional unnumbered sermons also appear to be part of the series). The dates of these sermons are not given, but the Beinecke cataloguer notes that they were preached between November 1615 and March 1616. Unfortunately, some pages have been so badly damaged that the script is illegible. Nonetheless, enough of the sermons survive to get a sense of their content, structure, and overall approach. One example is sermon 9 of the series (GEMMS Sermon 011533), the first of 13 sermons on Exodus 34:6-7.

Figure 2: Sermon 9 in John Davenport Sermon and Writings, MS GEN 202, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, fol. 51r. Photo credit: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

The sermon begins with a summary of the previous one in the series on James 5:9 (“Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door”). Davenport notes how God righteously punishes malefactors before various “doors” of the heart, lips, and every thought. He implores his listeners to think therefore not just of their sinful actions, but also their sinful feelings and thoughts, since on Judgement Day, they will be as open to God as an unlocked door. He then connects that sermon with the current one. He worries that the content of previous sermon might lead the listener to a “variety of imaginations concerning this god, so that he is essentially in himselfe.”[6] In other words, an excess of introspection and fear of God’s punishment can cause one to misunderstand the nature of God. As a corrective, he offers an “understanding” of God’s nature out of scripture, namely out of Exodus 34:6 (“And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.”) in which God briefly passes before Moses out of a cloud. From this passage, Davenport essentially argues that as imperfect beings, humans can only ever have a partial understanding of a perfect god. That being said, God’s decision to appear before Moses, a mortal man, suggests his desire to be known by us. He further extrapolates that “this knowledge of god is as well necessary to the people as the preacher, to the masses as the minister” and rebukes those who seek to deprive laypeople of the ability to read scripture for themselves.[7]

What can scholars glean from this sermon? One thing that is notable is that already at this early stage in Davenport’s career, his puritan sympathies  – probably cultivated at the puritan-leaning Magdalen Hall – are already on full display.[8] This is evident even in the structure of many of his sermons, which follow that outlined by William Perkins’ The Arte of Prophecying (1607), a preaching manual popular amongst the godly. The so-called “doctrine-use” preaching scheme advocated by Perkins instructed the preacher to read, then carefully interpret a passage of scripture, teasing out its meanings before explaining “in a simple and plaine speech” how the doctrines might be applied to daily life.[9] The structure of this sermon appears to be a textbook example of this type of sermon, opening with a reading of the text, proceeding to an explanation of its scriptural context and the meaning of specific words (fols. 51r-52v), before moving on to an exposition (fols. 52v-53r, marked by “exposito” in the margins) of its doctrinal implications, and concluding with some remarks on practical application (fols. 54r-54v). While not every sermon in the collection follows this pattern (the sermon on James 5:9, for example, does not), it seems likely that Davenport was influenced by that approach.

Moreover, Davenport’s puritanism may have been reinforced by his status as a Protestant preacher in a region of England that was still predominantly Catholic. One scholar has estimated that as little as 5 percent of County Durham’s population had embraced the reformed Church of England by the early seventeenth century.[10] This context likely added a sense of urgency to Davenport’s apparent preoccupation with refuting Catholic doctrines in his sermons. In sermon 9, for instance, he argues that God’s revelation of himself in Exodus 34:6 serves to confute the “dangerous positions” of the disciples to have their followers “ledde by the judgement of the church not of the scriptures” and that it is “not lawfull for the lay people to read the Scriptures.”[11] In the following sermon on the same verse (GEMMS Sermon 011534), he concludes that God reveals himself in his word so that his followers would know how to worship him correctly. Davenport specifies that God wishes his followers to worship him alone, and thus “the papists are accused of unfit worshipping” for their veneration of Mary and the saints.[12] It seems likely that this experience preaching in a strongly Catholic region led Davenport to be particularly attuned to thinking of Catholicism as an ever-present threat and solidified his opposition to the Anglo-Catholicism of Archbishop William Laud in the 1630s.

In the application portion of sermon 9, we are also offered a glimpse into ideas of appropriate expressions of lay piety. At the outset of the sermon, Davenport cautions his audience against vain introspection and “imaginations” about God. However, as the sermon continues it becomes clear that he by no means advocates passive acceptance of the minister’s authority in religious matters. Instead, he insists that it is God’s will that all people are able to read the scriptures. He thus encourages all Christians, both men and women, not simply to take part in the rituals of the established church, but to actively engage with their faith through scriptural study.[13] Given that Lady Hilton or other women likely would have been auditors of this sermon, sermons like this one serve to highlight the complexity of gender norms in early modern Britain. On the one hand, women were instructed to be silent and submissive, while on the other hand were also encouraged to take an active role in studying the scriptures and promoting their faith. The sentiments of this sermon also presage Davenport’s future support of educational reform and expansion, particularly in New Haven.[14]

These are just some of the ways that scholars might approach these sermons. The digitization of these sermons and their bibliographical inclusion in the GEMMS database provides scholars greater access to this little studied sermon collection and thus facilitates new avenues of research into the early thought of a leading puritan preacher and the religious atmosphere of post-Reformation northern England.


[1] Francis J. Bremer has written most extensively on Davenport’s career. Davenport, John (bap. 1597, d. 1670), minister in America,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: OUP, 2004http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-7201.(Accessed 30 Sep. 2018).  A more extensive account is Bremer’s Building a New Jerusalem: John Davenport, a Puritan in Three Worlds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012).

[2] Isabel M. Calder, “A Seventeenth Century Attempt to Purify the Anglican Church,” American Historical Review 53 (1948), 760-775.

[3] Isabel M. Calder, ed., Letters of John Davenport, Puritan Divine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1937), 1.

[4] Bremer, Building a New Jerusalem, 37.

[5] Jeanne Shami, “Women and Sermons,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon,  Hugh Adlington, Peter McCullough, Emma Rhatigan, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 160-163. Sarah Bastow notes that Catholic women in northern England also served as patrons for their clergy: “The Catholic Gentlemen of the North: Unreformed in the Age of Reformation?” in Holiness and Masculinity in the Middle Ages, P. H. Cullum, Katherine J. Lewis, eds. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 206-221.

[6] John Davenport Sermons and Writings, 1615-1658, GEN MSS 202, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, fol. 51r.

[7] GEN MSS 202, fol. 53r.

[8] Bremer, Building a New Jerusalem, 33.

[9] Gregory Kneidel, “Ars Prædicandi: Theories and Practice,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Early Modern Sermon, 12-14.

[10] Bremer, Building a New Jerusalem, 36. This is the estimate of John Guy.

[11] GEN MSS 202, fol. 54v.

[12] GEN MSS 202, fol. 58v.

[13] GEN MSS 202, fols. 53r-54v.

[14] Bremer, Building a New Jerusalem, 202.

~ David Robinson