In 1743, religious enthusiasts ignited a bonfire of the vanities on the docks of New London, Conn. Their deranged leader, James Davenport, preached them into a frenzy as they threw their prized possessions into the blazing fire.
The next night, they did it again.
Then the bonfire of the vanities turned into a bonfire of indecency when James Davenport threw his pants onto the pyre.
Many New England towns were caught up in religious fervor called the First Great Awakening during the 1730s and 1740s. A cross-eyed English minister named George Whitefield helped start it all with speaking tours of America. He delivered a fiery blast of Biblical rhetoric with personal philosophy, and he rose to power and influence.
James Davenport and others followed in Whitefield’s footsteps. They preached that people could find salvation through spiritual rebirth – a rebirth that started with public weeping, groaning and howling.
The ecstatic revival meetings alarmed many of the Puritan leaders. The disorderly assemblies threatened their control of their communities.
Worse, religious revivals upended the belief that some people were destined for salvation, while the rest were out of luck. The Puritan ruling class also believed in a worldly difference between the saved and the unsaved. The saved had wealth, the unsaved did not. The pants-free preacher undermined that convenient belief with the message that anyone could get to heaven.
James Davenport, ironically, came from an old and distinguished Puritan family. He was born in 1716 in Stamford, Conn., the great-grandson of the John Davenport who settled New Haven. A bright child, he entered Yale to follow his father and grandfather into the Puritan ministry. He graduated at the age of 17 and was ordained at 21 in the Congregational church in Southold, Long Island.
While in college, James Davenport caught a bad case of religious revivalism.
He didn’t deliver prepared sermons from the pulpit. Instead, he screamed, he sang, he rambled, he ranted about damnation and hellfire, and he whipped his listeners into frenzies. The Boston Evening Post commented, “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 chains.”
One day in Southold he opened his Bible and pointed to a random passage. God, he thought, spoke to him through that passage and told him to go and denounce another Congregational minister 50 miles away. So he left his parish, traveled to another town and burst into a church – uninvited – in the middle of a service. He called the minister a blind guide leading his parish straight to hell. Twenty parishioners agreed with him and left the church to start their own.
James Davenport got more and more outrageous. He once ranted from the pulpit for 24 hours, then collapsed. When he recovered, he demanded his parishioners write down their confessions.
He prayed and fasted for a mentally ill woman who couldn’t speak. He predicted she would be ‘delivered and recover her speech’ on a certain date. But on that day, she died. Davenport claimed he did deliver her – to heaven.
He started to roam around Connecticut. For four years he crashed religious services and attacked ministers as hell-bound wolves in sheep’s clothing. He also preached in the open air, the way George Whitefield did. He paraded through the streets, preaching at the top of his lungs with his head thrown back and eyes closed. People followed him, howling and singing hymns.
Other itinerant preachers also stirred up trouble in New England. Connecticut’s General Assembly finally tried to do something about it. In 1742, the assembly passed, “An Act for Regulating Abuses and Correcting Disorders in Ecclesiastical Affairs,” which punished uninvited preaching. It only took a month for Davenport to get arrested.
James Davenport turned in one of his most bizarre performances during his trial before the General Assembly. A local newspaper reported,
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.’
When the sheriff tried to take him away, he shouted, “Lord! thou knowest somebody’s got hold of my sleeve, strike them! Lord, strike them—”. His followers attacked the sheriff and his deputies as they dropped James Davenport down to jail.
The general assembly declared him insane and banished him from Connecticut. He returned to his old parish on Long Island. But he ignored orders to stay home and just preach to his congregation.
Davenport went to Boston, where he disrupted services, held all-night revival meetings and paraded through the streets. The Boston Post reported that the street processions were, ‘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.’
But worse than annoying were his attacks on Puritan ministers – which proved extremely popular among Boston’s lower classes. Officials arrested him and, once again, James Davenport went to court.
A jury in Boston declared him insane.
Bonfire of the Vanities
James Davenport then humiliated himself so thoroughly in New London that people still wrote about it hundreds of years later.
After his trial in Massachusetts, he returned to Connecticut. His health had deteriorated, and he had to lean on an assistant to walk. But people in New London had invited him, and he went.
On March 6, 1743, he exhorted his followers to build a bonfire of the vanities. They couldn’t find salvation, he said, unless they burned their idols. And so they burned their books. For hours, a feverish Davenport preached his followers into a frenzy as they threw their books into the fire and danced around it, shrieking. When it finally died out, Davenport announced he would light another bonfire of the vanities the next day.
And so again he goaded his followers into a state of hysteria. One after the other they threw onto the pyre such finery as silk dresses, petticoats, fans, shoes with red heels, necklaces, wigs and rings.
James Davenport got so caught up in the moment he took off his pants and threw them in the fire.
A woman snatched the pants back and handed them to Davenport. Suddenly the spell that held him for so many years suddenly broke.
The Boston Weekly Post-Boy reported that the person told Davenport he thought the Devil was in him. Davenport said he thought so too. He said God had left him and an evil spirit possessed him.
The crowd melted away from the second bonfire of the vanities.
The next year, he published Mr. James Davenport’s Confessions & Retractions in which he took it all back. He claimed to have an inner peace he’d never before experienced. He got a parish in New Jersey, where he stayed put.
But his health, never good, failed, and he died at the age of 41.
With thanks to David S. New, Christian Fundamentalism in America, A Cultural History. This story was updated in n2021.