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Evangelism has a long and strange history in the United States, but there were few evangelists who had a more, ahem, colourful career than the Reverend James Davenport.
Born in Stamford, Connecticut in 1716, Davenport was part of an extremely distinguished Puritan family. His great-grandfather founded the New Haven colony while his father and grandfather were both Puritan pastors. James seemed destined to follow in their footsteps and attended Yale University so that he could be ordained as a minister, Whatever plans he had for a quiet career in the ministry ended when he met the overzealous David Ferris in Yale and became part of his inner circle. Ferris was a radical evangelist who took his inspiration from the evangelical movement that was sweeping parts of Europe and the pre-Revolution American colonies around this time.
Known as the First Great Awakening, Protestant ministers led by George Whitefield in the United Kingdom and Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts began to reject traditional religious teachings and preached a more personal relationship with God. This also marked a major split in Protestant churches along class lines. While the Evangelists talking about being "born again" and publicly proclaiming their faith, the traditionalists were increasingly disturbed at what was happening at the Evangelist rallies, including screaming, "talking in tongues", fainting spells, and cries of salvation. Although the new Evangelist movement was mainly limited to local revivals in numerous places throughout British North America, at least a few religious leaders were especially prominent, James Davenport among them.
After Davenport graduated from Yale at the age of seventeen (the youngest on record), he went on to complete his religious training so that he could be ordained as a minister. It was somewhere around this time that he developed a "cancry humour" on his leg, likely a severe ulcer, that would plague him for the rest of his life. While staying at the house of the Reverend Jared Eliot, Davenport managed to recover to the point of continuing his religious studies. He credited his recovery to the power of faith and his future vocation seemed even clearer.
Ordained as a minister in 1738, he took up position at a Puritan church in Long Island though he was only twenty-one years old. Meanwhile, momentous things were happening as other Evangelists began preaching the "Good News of salvation" and Davenport became convinced that the Day of Judgment was at hand. Inspired by the success of other Evangelists, Davenport decided that God was calling him to follow their example. As he would later claim, opening his Bible to a passage in which Jonathan and armor-bearer attack the Philistine camp inspired him to launch his crusade in 1741.
This transition from staid minister to fiery evangelist was somewhat, um, abrupt. During one marathon session, he ranted at his congregation for twenty-four hours straight before collapsing. After recovering, he then called on all of his parishioners to make full confessions and chose the most worthy among them to become his formal "brethren" (the less worthy among them were relegated to being called "neighbors"). Though Davenport insisted that it was the Holy Spirit which inspired him to choose who were most likely to be saved, quite a few parishioners were disgruntled to find out they were considered unworthy.
Davenport also tried his hand at faith healing. One mentally ill parishioner who was "distracted and dumb" (possibly catatonic) became a special project for him as he predicted that she would be "delivered and recover her speech" on a given day as a result of his prayers and fasting over her. As it happened, she died on the predicted date though she never recovered her sanity or speech. Not wasting an opportunity, the good reverend insisted that his prayers had been answered and that she had been received into Heaven instead. Quite a few of his parishioners accepted this explanation and managed to get themselves promoted to "brethren" status afterward.
Soon afterward, James Davenport gave up his comfortable congregation and became a traveling preacher, much like his Evangelist heroes. One of his "brethren", Daniel Tuthill, joined him as an assistant. Davenport's new mission depended on recruiting converts by reaching as many people as possible in order to save them before the world ended. His preaching, much like so many of his fellow Evangelists before and since, was filled with descriptions of hellfire, the inherent sinfulness of mankind, and the need for salvation by allowing the Holy Spirit to flow through their hearts so that they could avoid damnation.
With other Evangelists paving the way, whipping congregations into a religious frenzy, Davenport certainly found his share of receptive converts. One media account describes the kind of sermons he gave and the fever of religion he helped inspire:
Divers women were terrified and cried out exceedingly. When Mr. Davenport had dismissed the congregation some went out and others stayed; he then went into the broad alley, which was much crowded and there screamed out, “Come to Christ! Come to Christ! Come Away! Come Away!” Then he went into the third pew on the women’s side, and kept there, sometimes singing, sometimes praying; he and his companions all taking their turns; and the women fainting and in hysterics. This confusion continued until 10:00 at night and then he went off singing through the streets
Not surprisingly, he also had to deal with the numerous enemies he made along the way. Along with converting the unbelieving, he also began attacking other ministers, including some he declared to be "unconverted" after they refused to confess their own sins to him. He declared these uncooperative ministers to be "wolves in sheep's clothing" who were leading their parishioners into "perdition." Considering that a few of his targets were fellow Evangelists, you can imagine the controversy Davenport inspired. Many even refused to allow him to deliver sermons in their churches and Davenport was obliged to conduct his revival meetings out in the open.
Davenport's crusade had mixed success at best. His illustrious family guaranteed him a few sympathetic listeners among the more established communities but he still had an unfortunate tendency to divide entire congregations. The sermons he delivered were, well, provocative. Here is a bit of one of his sermons that one witness described:
"At lenth, he turn’d his Discourse to others, and with the utmost Strength of his Lungs addressed himself to the Congregation, under these and such-like Expressions; viz. You poor unconverted Creatures, in the Seats, in the Pews, in the Galleries, I wonder you don’t drop into Hell! It would not surprise me, I should not wonder at it, if I should see you drop down now, this minute into Hell. You Pharisees, Hypocrites, now, now, now, you are going right into the Bottom of Hell…. Then he came out of the Pulpit, and stripped off his upper Garments, and got into the Seats, and leapt up and down some time, and clapt his Hands, and cried out in those Words, the War goes on, the Fight goes on, the Devil goes down, the Devil goes down; and then betook himself to stamping and screaming most dreadfully.
Even supposedly "converted" ministers quickly regretted inviting him to give guest sermons to their parishioners. When some of them visited him to try to get him to explain himself, he denounced them as "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing" and prayed for their conversion instead.
Still, Davenport was amazingly successful when he went out to preach to Native American tribes and the support he received with Protestants tended to split along class lines. The wealthier merchants and farmers mistrusted this new preacher whom they regarded as a dangerous fanatic but the less well-off townspeople loved his antics. A general court in Connecticut even passed a law in 1741 banning preachers to give sermons to parishes without the express permission of the presiding minister. Davenport promptly broke that law and was arrested soon after.
Appearing before the Connecticut general assembly, Davenport gave his most bizarre performance yet. It would be a foreshadowing of what lay ahead.
To be continued
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