The Possession of James Davenport (Part Two of Two)

Continued from Part One

Some of the available descriptions of James Davenport's bizarre behaviour at his new trial are downright entertaining.  According to one new story:

"At one point everyone there heard him "vehemently crying out, That he saw hell-flames slashing in their faces; and that they were now! now! dropping down to hell; and also added, Lord! Thou knowest that there are many in that gallery and in these seats, that are now dropping down to Hell! etc.”

Screaming about persecution, Davenport compared himself to Christ with his own suffering and, when the sheriff tried to eject him, he shouted "Lord! thou knowest somebody’s got hold of my sleeve, strike them! Lord, strike them—".     A mob of his supporters quickly gathered and attacked the sheriff and his deputies as they led Davenport to jail.  

On the following day, the court concluded that Davenport was insane and deported him from the Connecticut colony.   Though supporters tried to stop them, Davenport and his assistant were shipped back to Long Island.   Once there, he discovered that his old parishioners were rather tired of his antics and frequent absences.    He was basically ordered to stay at home and tend to his own congregation but Davenport was unrepentant.  As far as he was concerned, he was one of the leading lights of the new Evangelical movement and his crusade would continue.

By 1742, his crusading had taken him to Boston where a group of ministers promptly ordered to explain his attacks on fellow preachers.  His critics included many Evangelists who refused to allow him to preach to their own parishioners.   But this didn't stop him.  Instead, he took to the streets and held open-air rallies that would last whole nights.  As one Boston newspaper described it: 

"Though were you to see him in his most violent Agitations, you would be apt to think, that he was a Madman just broke from his Chaines: But especially had you seen him returning from the Commons after his first preaching, with a large Mob at his heels, singing all the Way thro’ the streets, he with his Hands extended, his Head thrown back, and his Eyes staring up to Heaven, attended with so much Disorder that they look’d more like a company of Bacchanalians after a mad Frolick than sober Christians who had been worshipping God."

People in Boston were forced to put up with Davenport and his disciples singing hymns in the streets at all hours, day or night.  Most of these followers were young people, including children, from the less well-off segments of Boston society.   Though some of them simply came to watch the antics, Davenport's vicious attacks on fellow clergy proved to be extremely popular.  Like everywhere else he went though, Davenport divided Boston society and his exhausted critics finally persuaded Boston magistrates to have him arrested and put on trial.

And what a trial it was!

Davenport was in fine form throughout the hearing, denouncing the unconverted ministers and making grim prophecies about what would happen to them when they faced judgment.  His supporters predictably insisted that he was being persecuted though he was extremely well-treated while in jail (his jailors likely worried about mob violence if any reports of abuse got out).   The outcome was never really in doubt though.   The only two holdouts in the jury were a Quaker and a lay supporter, both of whom objected to the trial being held at all.   When the court declared Davenport to be non comp0s mentis, he promptly decamped for a more congenial city.   It took a considerable amount of time for things to settle down in Boston afterward and his trial would remain a hot issue for years.

The final saga in James Davenport's strange career occurred in 1743 when he was invited to New London, Connecticut.   Despite having already been deported (and risking a heavy fine in the process), Davenport and one of his chief disciples, Daniel Tuthill, set sail immediately.  By this time, Davenport was visibly weaker because of his health problems.   He needed Tuthill's help to walk but this hardly deterred him from his mission.   On arriving in New London, he preached to his followers about the "Messages which he said, he received from the Spirit in Dreams and otherwise, importing the great Necessity of Mortification and Contempt of the World.” 

To accomplish this great goal, Davenport encouraged his followers to throw away any worldly possessions to which they were attached.  Along with wigs, fine clothing,artworks, and jewelry, they also had to throw away those books he deemed offensive.   To nobody's surprise, this included books by religious authors he regarded as "unconverted", including some of his own fellow Evangelists.  These various works were destroyed in two "bonfires of the vanities" in which his followers danced around the flames while these books were still burning.  

During the last of these bonfires, Davenport and his followers were reportedly in a state of hysteria as they cast clothing onto the bonfire.  According to one account, "ome of them in the heighth of their Zeal, conferred not with Flesh and Blood, but fell to stripping and cast their Cloaths down at their Apostle’s Feet; one or two hesitated about the Matter, and were so bold as to tell him they had nothing on which they idoliz’d: He reply’d, that such and such a Thing was an Offense to him; and they must down with them."   Davenport, in his zeal, began stripping off his own clothing, including his breeches which he then threw on the fire.   One woman, perhaps a little distressed by this radical act, snatched the breeches from the fire and basically told the good Reverend to restrain himself.  This was apparently what broke the spell and made Davenport realize that he had gone too far.

And, that was pretty much it for James Davenport.   While his other antics had done little to curb the enthusiasm of his followers, indecent exposure was a bit much for them.   He left town soon afterward and, because of declining health, he was taken home to recover.  As for the local townspeople who had taken part in the book burnings, they were later charged though most of them just got off with small fines.  A council of ministers was held later that year which marked the end of Davenport's crusade, not to mention the Great Awakening itself.   While Evangelism still continued, the zeal was somewhat more restrained from that point onward.

As for the Reverend Davenport, he was deeply disturbed by the New London incident and began to wonder whether he had been possessed by God or Satan.  His doubts about what he had been doing, not to mention the deep schism he had caused, left him depressed.   Though he still believed that the Holy Spirit had spoken to him, he recognized that he he had been too arrogant in denouncing his fellow preachers.   By 1744, he had recovered enough to go on a "repentance tour" visiting many of the towns in which he  had carried out his most outrageous episodes so he could personally apologize for what he had done. 

Still, while he was considerably wiser, his great success as a preacher was largely behind him.  His movement broke up and he was largely abandoned by almost everyone, even his "armour bearer" Daniel Tuthill.  Though he made a new tour across Connecticut in which he personally apologized to many of the ministers he had previously denounced,  the spirit had largely gone out of him.  In 1744, he wrote The Confessions and Retractions of James Davenport in which he publicly apologized for much of what he had said in the past and blamed himself for "falling into the Snare of the Devil." 

Reaction to Davenport's confession was largely mixed.  Some critics argued that he didn't go far enough in apologizing considering the harm he had already done while others were prepared to accept his apology at face value.  Davenport resigned his Long Island post and went to a new church in New Jersey where he would spend the rest of his days.  Somewhere along the way, he managed to marry and have three children though little else is known about this final period in his life.  In 1756, with the outbreak of the Seven Years' War, Davenport made one last proclamation that the war was an omen of the coming Apocalypse,  A year later, he was dead at the age of forty-one. 

So what can anyone say about James Davenport's legacy?  His fervent crusading and his humiliating disgrace can probably serve as a warning for modern evangelists whose outrageous claims have a way of blowing up in their faces.   If nothing else, his antics can be considered a prime example of the dangers of hubris (not to mention, ahem, overexposure).   Sadly, modern day pundits seem determined to fall into the same trap as Davenport, even if they definitely lack his personal charisma. 

In an era of smartphones and social media, embarrassing moments have a way of being recorded for posterity.   We may be seeing quite a few "penitence tours" in the years to come.

 

           

Related Stories

  • The Possession of Nicole Aubrey
  • The Possession of James Davenport (Part One of Two)
  • Unfalsifiability and Belief
 

 
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