The Davenant Institute began, like the classic meme, with someone being wrong on the internet. That someone was me.
I’d grown up in a Reformed church and household but shared with many of my generation a somewhat sophomoric disdain for Protestantism’s fractious isolation from the historic church (as I conceived it). Frustrated with evangelicals’ reflexive support for neoconservative politics, I’d increasingly dabbled in the then-fashionable “neo-Anabaptist” political theology associated with Stanley Hauerwas and his followers. And yet I still had enough common sense to know that the best way to answer my burning questions was to go back to the sources—to read the Protestant Reformers and their theory of faith and politics. I was one year into my graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh and was by this point thoroughly confused—the world of the Reformation was so much richer and yet so much more foreign than I’d imagined.
Asked by a journal to review a new book by David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, and by my church to give a talk on Christian citizenship, I was trying to put together the scattered fragments: what does it mean to be faithful Christians and good citizens in a society where these were no longer the same thing? So naturally, I blogged about it, laboriously processing VanDrunen’s curious rendition of Reformation political thought at my personal blog, “The Sword and the Ploughshare.” Suddenly into my comment box popped one J. Peter Escalante, an international man of mystery with a seemingly encyclopedic grasp of—well, most any topic that came up.
I was well accustomed to blog arguments. I was not accustomed to losing them. Before long, though, it became clear to me that this Peter Escalante and the curious cadre surrounding him—Steven Wedgeworth, Andrew Fulford, Joseph Minich—had a much firmer grasp of the contours of Reformed political theology than I did, and I’d better stop trying to BS my way out of my ignorance and start trying to learn. I later learned that Peter and Steven had for some time been quietly carrying on an online ministry to young men like me—Protestants wavering with attractions to Rome, Orthodoxy, or “Anglo-Catholicism,” and Protestants hungry for a robustly Reformed political vision that refused both liberalism’s naked public square and theonomy’s black-clad one. But the little blog war over VanDrunen was a turning point. Steven and Peter decided to create an email list of some of their conversation partners to hash out issues and build bonds of friendship more fully. They called the group “Reformed Irenics,” and I’m told that in its earliest days much of the conversation revolved around just how wrong I was.
But, true to their irenicism, they soon invited me to join, and although I scorned the first invitation, I welcomed the second—Richard Hooker had gotten to me in the meantime. Soon I discovered in the group an intellectual home away from home, a thriving community of conversation that I had been starved for at Edinburgh. I still remember being stung when, early in my studies there, I’d asked a former graduate student if he could share with me a paper he’d written on a topic of shared interest—“Sorry,” he told me, “I’m thinking of publishing it, so I couldn’t.” Knowledge was obviously meant to be shared, but in academia, many preferred to keep it close to their chest. Knowledge was meant to be communicated out into the church and the world, but in academia, many preferred to wrap it up in jargonistic gobbledygook and publish in obscure journals to improve their job prospects. Within Reformed Irenics, I found a very different world, one in which bright young graduate students mingled freely with quirky professors and wise pastors, along with a small smattering of journalists, businessmen, and public servants, freely exchanging knowledge, refining ideas, and hashing out disagreements. There I found not only invaluable research recommendations as I pursued my doctoral work on liberty and authority in the English Reformation, but also invaluable practice in connecting and translating that work to present-day pastoral and political issues. My faith and my scholarship were deepened immeasurably by the friendships nurtured here.
As I began to approach the end of my doctoral studies in Edinburgh and pondered my future vocation, I found myself asking, “Why did I have to get so lucky to find such a community? Why aren’t there more places for this kind of intellectual friendship, cross-pollination, and translation between church and academy?” One winter day (a grey and windy day, no doubt, as most were) as I was walking through Holyrood Park under the brooding shadow of Arthur’s Seat, the idea just came to me: why not create an institution that could sustain and expand the organic community of “Reformed Irenics”? And why not start by inviting its members to meet for the first time in person? That day, the Davenant Institute was born in my imagination.
Something Very Special
The first step then was convening the inaugural in-person meeting. My parents agreed to host it in a rental cabin they owned in the Blue Ridge foothills of South Carolina. But we wanted this to be more than just a guys’ hang-out; we wanted this to be a serious intellectual gathering, a firstfruits of the retrieval work we hoped this new institution would foster. So we decided to “go big or go home,” inviting W.J. Torrance Kirby, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at McGill University and world-renowned English Reformation scholar, to come address us at our backwoods cabin. Dr. Kirby had been a deep influence on myself and several other members of Reformed Irenics, so it seemed appropriate. We said we’d cover his flight and lodging, but we didn’t have a penny to offer him by way of honorarium, so it was quite the leap of faith. Less than three hours later, though, he replied, “I would be delighted to accept your invitation, and very much look forward to meeting the members of your Convivium Calvinisticum, of whom I have heard some occasional rumours.”
And so it was official. We dubbed the gathering the “Convivium Calvinisticum” (in later years shortened to “Convivium Irenicum,” as it remains today) and started lining up guests and presenters for a mid-June gathering. The session titles we settled on then could fit just as easily today at a Davenant Institute conference ten years later: “What Went Wrong with 20th Century Protestantism?”; “Principles of Natural Law”; “The Political-Theological Importance of Justification by Faith”; “Law and Liberty in Richard Hooker”; “Polemics and Irenics in the Digital Age”; “The Politics of N.I.C.E.”; and “Engaging Contemporary Cultural Debates” (chief among them: gay marriage).
As I rushed to finish my dissertation that spring before moving my family back to the States, I had the pleasure of participating in one last conference in Edinburgh, a small grad-student gathering of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics featuring Oliver O’Donovan and N.T. Wright. The day ended with an open Q&A session for all of us to pick their brains, and several questions focused on the state of theological education and the decadent state of academia. I listened closely, pondering my own future and my plans for this new institution. I still recall O’Donovan’s advice to one student: “The academy as it now exists is a very poor home for the work of theology, and increasingly at odds with the needs of the church. It’s still possible to do good work there, so if you’re called to the academy, do the best you can for the church there, because right now it’s what we’ve got to work with. But soon that will change, and God will open up new institutional avenues for the work of theology. Be on the lookout for that, and when the opportunity presents itself to do something different, seize it!” I took that as a personal word from God to me at that moment, and left Edinburgh determined to try and do something outside of the usual mold.
The first Convivium was a glorious success—fifteen men (most of us still in our twenties) gathered for three days of intense reading, instruction, and conversation. Most of us were in sleeping bags on the floor (something that didn’t change until several Conviva later). Few of us had ever met in person, but we lost little time in forging deep and lasting friendships (indeed, of those fifteen, a majority are still closely involved with the Davenant Institute today!). Somewhat to our amazement, the very formal and proper self-described high Tory, Prof. Kirby, joined right in with the conviviality and participated in our conversations throughout. At the end of the conference, he took me, Steven, and Peter aside and said, “You’ve got something very special going here. I hope you’ll make it an annual thing, and next time, plan on publishing your proceedings; the quality of the presentations here deserves a wider audience.”
From then on, it was official. The “Reformed Irenics” community would be given institutional form. An institution would cost money, to be sure; however, my grandfather had just passed away and left me a sum greater than I (in my youthful naïveté) could imagine ever needing, and I’d been reflecting prayerfully on what to do with it. He had been a man of deep faith, passionate about history and about investing in the next generation, so it seemed like a perfect fit.
But what to call it? My first choice, of course, would be to name it after Richard Hooker, my own personal theological hero and the lodestar for many in our fellowship. But, as many have jokingly observed since, we couldn’t very well call it The Hooker Institute. So I decided instead to name it after John Davenant (1572-1640), who served as lead theologian on the English delegation at the Synod of Dordt, and later as Bishop of Salisbury. Besides standing at the intersection of the “Reformed” and “Anglican” traditions, as I hoped this new institute would, Davenant embodied the peculiar set of intellectual virtues I hoped to foster: a simultaneous commitment to theological rigor and to ecumenical breadth, a conviction that the best way to bring peace to a divided church was not to stay shallow but to go deep, using Scripture, philosophy, and history to untangle doctrinal controversy at its heart. Having come fresh from the UK, where many nonprofits were called “Trusts” (e.g., “The Banner of Truth Trust”), it seemed natural to dub it “The Davenant Trust,” which had a very snappy ring to it. (The change to “Institute” wouldn’t come till 2017.)
Since I’d moved to Moscow, ID to work alongside my father, Rick, as an investment advisor, I recruited him to serve as the first Treasurer of the organization (he still jokes today that he only accepted because he thought it wasn’t going to go anywhere and so wouldn’t be much work.) Steven Wedgeworth agreed to serve as Secretary, Peter Escalante as VP, and another friend and Reformed Irenics collaborator, Dr. Jordan Ballor (then the Research Director of the Acton Institute) rounded out the first Board of Directors. On September 9th, 2013, my dad and I walked two blocks to the bank and another block to the lawyer’s office to open an account and sign the articles of incorporation, and that day, The Davenant Trust was born in reality.
The first few months were spent in that obligatory rite of passage for any modern entity larger than a flower shop: building a website. That website did its job adequately for the first three or four years, though it is mercifully lost to oblivion now—I’ve learned a thing or two about design and communication since then.
The End of Protestantism and Beginning of Davenant
Much more interesting than a website, though, was an idea that started brewing in November 2013, when my old mentor Peter Leithart published a piece at First Things called “The End of Protestantism.” This typically provocative essay began with the line, “The Reformation isn’t over. But Protestantism should be,” and ended by declaring, “Protestantism isn’t what the Church, including Protestants themselves, needs today. It’s time to turn the protest against Protestantism and to envision a new way of being heirs of the Reformation, a new way that happens to conform to the original Catholic vision of the Reformers.” Needless to say, this piece caused a bit of a stir, in our own circles and far more widely. The blogosphere was active with rebuttals for the next several weeks, including compelling interventions by Fred Sanders of Biola University and Carl Trueman (then of Westminster Seminary).
Davenant agreed with Leithart (in some sense) in highlighting “the original catholic [without the capital C] vision of the Reformers” and in insisting that creative renewal was needed in our own day. But we heartily rejected his suggestion that this meant leaving behind the original doctrinal inheritance of the Reformation, like a chrysalis to be shed so that the butterfly of “Reformational Catholicism” (Leithart’s new term) could burst forth from the tired old caterpillar of confessional Protestantism. In it we discerned another form of the Hegelian progressivism that had bedeviled the church since the mid 19th century: the idea that old oppositions, rather than being patiently worked through and resolved, could simply be “transcended” in a creative new synthesis that revealed itself to the most sanctified imaginations. This debate, we quickly decided, presented a golden opportunity to present Davenant’s essential vision of Reformational retrieval and renewal to the world. This would be our coming-out party.
I started brainstorming the idea through my network of contacts, and my friend Matthew Lee Anderson quickly suggested that we might host the event at his alma mater, Biola University, for which he was doing some communications and consulting work. Biola agreed, and we quickly succeeded in recruiting Leithart, Trueman, and Sanders for a panel discussion scheduled for April 28th on “The Future of Protestantism.” Davenant supplied the funds, First Things agreed to help advertise, and Peter Escalante grudgingly agreed to come out of his cocoon of anonymity and moderate the panel.
I landed at Long Beach on April 27th—my first time ever setting foot in the sprawling LA metro area, and took my taxi (yes, this was before Ubers!) to my hotel in La Mirada, just as dozens of tornadoes were tearing through northern Mississippi and Alabama. Initially, this fact only piqued my interest as an obsessive devotee of meteorology, but it soon became clear that this far-off weather event might have ripple effects way over in sunny SoCal—Leithart’s flight out of Birmingham had been canceled. Matt Anderson and I quickly went to work, staying up late into the night on travel websites and phone calls to find Leithart a route that would get him there on time. We just managed: Leithart’s taxi pulled onto the Biola campus just as the pre-event dinner was wrapping up on the 28th. We hastily supplied him with food and water and ushered him on stage. I stood up in front of the camera and livestreams and introduced the Davenant Trust to the world with our original mission statement: Our mission is to equip evangelical and Reformed Christians today for church leadership, civic participation, and faithful discipleship in other vocations as responsible citizens, by encouraging scholarly research into the time-tested resources of early Protestant theology, philosophy, ethics, civics, and jurisprudence, and by putting these resources at the disposal of the contemporary church.
The event was a success beyond our expectations. Thousands tuned in to watch it live, and many thousands more watched the video in weeks and months following (today I still meet folks who tell me that was their first exposure to Davenant). Peter Escalante enjoyed fifteen minutes of fame as a minor internet celebrity, as his elegant handlebar mustache trended on Twitter. And most importantly, the discussion took place at a high level. A great deal of common ground emerged, but Sanders and Trueman pushed back thoughtfully against some of Leithart’s most jaundiced characterizations of contemporary Protestantism. I was able to write a summary of the event for First Things, and both Trueman and Sanders shortly afterward joined Davenant’s Board of Advisors (alongside Torrance Kirby, Herman Selderhuis, and Oliver Crisp).
While the event definitely made a splash, it didn’t send quite the message we were hoping to telegraph to the world about the Davenant Trust. The disconnect was highlighted to me just a few days after the event, when an acquaintance from my doctoral studies at Edinburgh emailed to congratulate me on landing such a fantastic job fresh out of grad school—President of an institute! I thanked him but wryly informed him that the institute in question was a rinky-dink operation I’d started myself and had no income to speak of. In the months that followed, we received several emails solemnly applying to our organization for funding, but no one offering to give us funding. We’d somehow managed to position ourselves as chiefly a grant-making organization rather than a grant-seeking organization—clearly the word “Trust” sent the wrong message in the North American context. It would take some time to get the messaging right.
Building Out the Vision
In the meantime, though, our activities moved forward apace. Our Second Annual Convivium Irenicum took place in June 2014, on the theme of “Creation, Redemption, and Neo-Calvinism.” This time, we were joined by Calvin College’s esteemed Kuyper scholar, James Bratt, who had just published Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat. This event afforded us a great opportunity to sketch out Davenant’s distinctive middle way between the overly world-transformative trajectory of Dutch neo-Calvinism (especially in its Van Tillian variant) and the overly world-denying trajectory of “Reformed two-kingdoms” theology associated with David VanDrunen. Presenters included Matt Tuininga (shortly afterward hired as Professor of Christian Ethics at Calvin Seminary) and Eric Hutchinson of Hillsdale College, who was to become a fast friend and longtime collaborator of Davenant. True to Prof. Kirby’s admonition, we published the papers from the conference that fall as For the Healing of the Nations—a volume whose original cover design I would gladly forget, but whose remarkably thoughtful papers still stand up well nearly a decade later.
That fall, at the Sixteenth Century Society Conference, I met with Professors Kirby and Selderhuis to get their advice on how Davenant could make the most difference going forward. Prof. Selderhuis had a bold suggestion: launch an online Latin program. There was a massive gap, he said, in the world of language education for historical theologians, especially those focused on the Reformation and post-Reformation period. Most seminaries didn’t teach Latin at all, and the few programs offering online instruction focused generally on Classical Latin, or occasionally Medieval. Early Modern Latin, on the other hand, required a fusion of classical and medieval Latin paedagogy, as well as training in a variety of specialist skills to interpret the abbreviations and marginalia of early printed texts. Davenant, he argued, should fill this gap.
On this advice, we boldly announced in spring 2015 the launch of the Davenant Latin Institute, a three-year program of study offering Beginner and Intermediate Latin and concluding with our signature capstone course, Advanced Early Modern Latin. Many friends and collaborators came into the Davenant army of friends from those first language offerings, and although DLI growth stagnated as several other competitors entered the market over the next few years, it provided the initial template for online education that we were later to expand with the launch of Davenant Hall.
2015 also saw the Third Annual National Convivium, this one on the “Trans-Atlantic Legacy of Protestant Political Thought,” headlined by Glenn Moots and featuring such colorful characters as Jake Meador of Mere Orthodoxy and Dr. Miles Smith of Hillsdale, all frequent collaborators since. More importantly, it saw the first expansion of the Convivium concept to smaller regional events, beginning with a weekend event held at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia that Fall. Most importantly of all, it saw a new concept take shape: Davenant House.
The idea for Davenant House came to me in a sudden epiphany while preparing for the Third National Convivium. So magical was the property there in the South Carolina Blue Ridge, and so memorable had been our gatherings there, that it seemed meant to be. Davenant shouldn’t continue to rely on my parents’ hospitality, but should acquire the property and develop it into a L’Abri style study center, running Convivia and summer intensive courses, hosting students, and facilitating local theological education.
The idea was completely hare-brained of course. We had no money to pay for such a purchase and no one to appropriately staff such a study center; one board member initially felt called to the idea of moving his family there, but Providence intervened, and we decided to forge ahead with the purchase regardless in spring 2016, negotiating a generous financing arrangement that seemed feasible based on rosy projections of potential income streams. Although it was clearly a stupid thing to do, we’re very grateful in hindsight that the Lord allowed us to charge so rashly ahead, for Davenant House today has become the beating heart at the center of Davenant’s global mission of retrieval and renewal, a place that has nurtured so many friendships and incubated so many ideas in the years since. For the first three years, however, Davenant House was an albatross around our necks. We did run some fantastic little intensive residential courses in Protestant Wisdom each summer from 2016 onward, but otherwise the property was little used and expensive to maintain, and by summer 2018 we decided to list it for sale. Of course, the good Lord didn’t let it sell, but we’ll have to leave that thread of the story hanging for a moment.
Aslan on the Move
By three years in, then, the Davenant Trust (for so it was still called until our official rebrand in summer 2017), had stumbled into its three main modes of ministry: a publishing house—Davenant Press—which in fall 2016 started our popular little Davenant Guides book series and a monthly mini-magazine, Ad Fontes; a program of online graduate education—Davenant Latin Institute; and a residential study center—Davenant House. We didn’t yet realize it, but we had found our winning formula. Donations were still anemic, and other revenue streams barely sufficient to cover their costs even with a lot of volunteer labor, but, as one of our donors likes to say, “Aslan was on the move.”
From 2016 to 2018 our library of publications expanded considerably, from two to ten titles, not to mention the entire Peter Martyr Library, which we were gifted by Truman State University Press through the clever negotiation of Torrance Kirby. One of my favorite days in Davenant history came in early spring 2018, when we announced to our Facebook page that the ten volumes of the Peter Martyr Library were on sale for 50-60% off their usual $50 price tag. Truman State had despaired of ever selling their roughly 1200 copies left in stock and so were happy to hand over the copyrights to us. But from the moment we posted the announcement, my inbox started lighting up with order notifications. From late morning till nightfall, we sold around one book per minute until we were nearly out of the stock we had there in the Moscow office. My assistant and I were kept busy for the next couple of weeks labelling and shipping—including orders to Norway, New Zealand, and an underground seminary in China who had to smuggle three sets over from a go-between in Taiwan.
We hosted a whole range of fantastic Convivia during this period—national Convivia featuring Carl Trueman, Fred Sanders, and Michael Allen as keynote speakers, and eight or nine regional Convivia in Toronto, New York, DC, Denver, and the Pacific Northwest. The Army of Friends grew prodigiously, with five-star recruits like Shane Morris, Dale Stenberg, Ian Clary, Mike Lynch, Gayle Doornbos, Steve Duby, David Haines, and many more. Many of these have become not merely friends of Davenant, but dear personal friends of mine and tremendous supports in my own journey of faith—above all Colin Redemer and Onsi Kamel. Colin had initially reached out to me in May 2016, excited by the vision for Davenant House which we’d shared in an interview on the Mere Fidelity podcast, and we kept in touch until a year later, when he decided to leave InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and join Davenant as our first Teaching Fellow. Since we had no money to spare, it was truly a Godsend to be able to recruit a new half-time employee who brought his own dedicated donors with him from IVCF. Onsi Kamel came to his first National Convivium only one year out of college in 2018 and immediately impressed us as one of the most brilliant young men we had ever encountered. He quickly rose through the ranks from volunteer proofreader to Editor-in-Chief of Davenant Press. Although he now only has a few hours to spare for Davenant work in the midst of his demanding Ph.D studies at Princeton University, he has left an indelible mark on the Institute over the last five years.
However, for all this organic growth, the institution was definitely on the rocks by mid-2018. We had just used up the last of our $180,000 in seed funding, and donors seemed scarce. That summer I accepted a job at Patrick Henry College in northern Virginia—a good place to make strategic fundraising connections, in theory, but in practice I had almost no time to spare for such networking, and indeed barely enough to keep managing Davenant’s sprawling operations. We explored various ideas for streamlining the ministry, foremost among them the plan to sell Davenant House. But God had other plans.
Davenant House: From Albatross to Asset
As I drove our moving truck from Idaho to Virginia that summer, I’d taken a slight detour to meet a fellow named Michael Hughes. He knew Colin Redemer from an InterVarsity pilgrimage they’d led together on the Santiago de Compostela, and Colin thought he might be a great fit for our need at Davenant House: someone who could maintain and improve the property, host events, and disciple students. Michael was eager to move on from InterVarsity and enthralled by Davenant’s vision. Too bad we were planning on selling the place, I told him at a coffee shop in Wausau, WI—he and his family really did sound like they’d be a perfect fit if we’d had the finances to make it work. “Let’s keep in touch,” I said, as one does at the end of such disappointing interviews, but of course, we didn’t. That is, until one evening in early November.
Davenant House had stubbornly failed to sell, or even generate any convincing buyer interest. Maybe God was trying to tell us something? Perhaps, it struck me, the finances could work out if Michael could motivate his IVCF donors to support the work at Davenant House. I picked up my phone at 10 PM and texted him for the first time since that July meeting: “Hey Michael, are you and Lynette still potentially interested in a role at Davenant House?” A few minutes later he excitedly replied, “If you can believe it, we’ve just been praying for the last few hours that God would show us a path forward! We’d concluded that he was leading me to move on from IVCF, but didn’t know what was next.” The next couple weeks, we both crunched numbers and exchanged emails: yes, it looked like this just might work.
On New Year’s, the whole Hughes family drove down to Davenant House to check it out, and I drove down from Virginia to meet them. They loved the property and the vision, and soon were making their preparations to move down from Wisconsin that summer. The vast majority of their InterVarsity supporters—small donors scattered across small-town central Wisconsin—generously committed to continue funding them in South Carolina, and they’ve continued that support to this day! Thanks to them, Davenant House has not only remained a part of the Institute, but has become a more and more central part of our work, as we seek to anchor the broad network of digital friendships and collaboration in the deep soil of face-to-face fellowship and worship.
Reimagining Theological Education
By summer 2019, things were looking up for Davenant. We received a $45,000 gift from the Nathaniel Institute, a small Anglican non-profit whose founder had cherished a vision a bit like that of Davenant House until he became too ill to carry it forward. Colin Redemer took over from Jake Meador as Vice-President, and was able to leverage his donor base in the Bay Area to help us begin to build some financial momentum. Most exciting, though, was a conversation I had that July at the Dry85 pub in Annapolis, MD with my friend Mike Lynch. Mike was one of many extraordinarily gifted young scholars in our network who had found the post-Ph.D job market in higher ed to be a valley of dry bones—for evangelical white males at least. Like many such, he’d found a good job at a classical Christian high school instead, but was itching for opportunities to pursue his scholarly interests with a somewhat higher echelon of students. As we talked through the problem together, we hatched an idea: we knew folks like Mike who wanted to teach classes involving deep dives into classic theological texts, and we figured that even if there were hardly anyone in any given area interested in such classes, there would be plenty of people scattered around the globe. Why shouldn’t Davenant serve as matchmaker? It was a low-frills, low-risk proposition: teachers would draft a course description and reading list, we’d post these on our website with a Register button, and if enough students signed up, the course would run as a weekly Zoom class; if not, it wouldn’t. Davenant would take a small cut and pass on the large majority of the tuition straight to the teachers.
Thus the idea for Davenant Hall was born. Within a few weeks, I’d thrown together a simple webpage, gotten course listings from Mike Lynch, Alastair Roberts, and David Haines, and we were taking registrations—37 of them that first Fall, to be exact. By the following summer, we were up to almost 100, and the vision had in the meanwhile grown enormously. The world, after all, had been turned upside down in the meantime. As the Covid-19 pandemic engulfed the globe in Spring 2020 and colleges, universities, and seminaries moved all their classes online, people everywhere began to discover what we already had: that technology had advanced to the point where you could have a great class discussion on Zoom. But it wouldn’t be long, we figured, before they started asking why they needed to pay $1,000+ for the privilege of that discussion. Universities and seminaries around the country were now offering 100% online degrees, for something close to 100% of the price of an in-person degree. As Colin and I discussed these trends over the phone during lockdown, it seemed clear to us that this model was unsustainable, and a shake-up was coming. Davenant had always been committed to imagining and creating alternative institutional models for the dissemination of theological education, and this, we felt, was our time. Over the past seven years, we’d built a network of Reformational Protestant scholars second to none; it was time to turn this network into a faculty.
That summer we announced the launch of the M.Litt. in Classical Protestantism, a 72-credit degree program in theology, philosophy, biblical studies, church history and languages that would consist almost entirely of deep dives into primary sources throughout the Christian tradition, and that would anchor students in the rich soil of the magisterial Reformation—for a small fraction of the price of traditional programs. It would include signature courses such as Natural Law and Scriptural Authority, How to Read the Bible and the World, and Philosophy as a Way of Life, inculcating central Davenant themes of what it means to quest after wisdom by learning to discern the patterns of God’s self-revelation in both nature and scripture. Existing Davenant Hall courses were expanded and restructured to be part of this degree program, although the majority of students would still be pastors, teachers, and Christian professionals taking occasional courses for continuing education. That fall, the M.Litt. launched with four degree-seeking students, one of whom, Coleman Rafferty, is about to become our first graduate, and is pursuing ordination in the Reformed Episcopal Church.
Leading Davenant into the Future
This, then, takes us to 2020. The three years since then being such recent history, I can pick up the pace as I bring this great story of God’s faithfulness up to the present.
During this period, God finally opened the doors for me to transition into leading The Davenant Institute in a full-time capacity. For most of Davenant’s life, I’d been forced to squeeze all the management and operations and fundraising into what was effectively a very exhausting side-gig, as I held other jobs in financial management, higher education, classical Christian education, and the thinktank space. Throughout all this time, though, Davenant had always been at the heart of my vocation, the one thing I cared most deeply about and felt called to shepherd and steward and grow for God’s glory and the good of the church. But I’d not been able to organize my life fully around this vocation.
The catalyst for changing this came in Fall 2020, when we learned that the family partnership that owned the land around Davenant House and the big house next door (the house I grew up in) was going to be dissolving and selling the assets. We’d long hoped that Davenant would someday be able to buy this other house, along with some of the neighboring land, to host larger events, but this was too soon; we were just beginning to get some fundraising traction and there was no way we could buy all of this, even at the generous price on offer. As we thought and prayed about all of this, a solution struck my wife and me: maybe we should move to South Carolina; maybe we should buy the house next door. It may seem odd that the idea had never occurred to us before; why wouldn’t I want to live where I’d grown up, and be right at the center of Davenant’s activities? But we had been very happy in northern Virginia since 2018, and assumed we would be there for the long haul. Still, our little house in Leesburg with 0.15 acres was ill-suited as a home office and a schoolhouse for four homeschooled children, and whenever we’d looked into trying to give our kids some room to roam, we’d had sticker shock at Loudoun County prices.
The more we thought and prayed about it, the more sense it made, and when we paid a visit to SC over Thanksgiving, we fell in love with the hills and woods of my childhood—my wife at least as much as I. Here was a chance to carry on a family legacy, and make Davenant an integral part of it. The following year, God helped smooth the way for all the needed transactions to go through: we easily sold our house in Virginia and bought the house in South Carolina (now called Ridgeview House), along with some of the adjoining land; Michael Hughes bought some more of the adjoining land; and Davenant raised enough money to finance the purchase of the rest. Into the midst of this whirlwind another curveball came flying: a smaller third house on the property, owned by family friends for more than 20 years, was suddenly going to be up for sale, and a local foundation that sponsored Christian education offered to fund the purchase. When the dust settled from these purchases, plus the renovation work of two volunteer work groups from Wisconsin, the Davenant House complex could boast 75 acres and sixteen bedrooms, capable of sleeping almost 40 people at once! And my family and I were now onsite, able to pitch in alongside the Hugheses in running expanded post-pandemic programs: the National Convivium, two regional Convivia and two intensive summer courses a year, regular discussion nights and discipleship weeks, and small conferences and retreats for other partner organizations.
One of the coolest such partnerships we were able to be part of was the “Quadrivium Summit,” a gathering of leading Christian educators at the cutting edge of retrieving and renewing the study of the quadrivium in the classical education movement. The working group was led by faculty from New College Franklin, a fantastic Christian college in Tennessee whose teachers we got to know at the 2021 National Convivium, “Reforming Classical Education” (headlined by Gene Edward Veith). In many ways, Davenant’s work of reviving the Reformers’ vision and practice of holistic Christian humanism dovetails closely with the aspirations of the classical Christian education movement, with Davenant Hall serving as an ideal graduate program for preparing the next generation of teachers and headmasters at these essential institutions. We’ve been excited to expand our relationships and partnerships within this movement over the last few years.
In March 2022, I was finally able to officially transition over to full-time work at Davenant, as I stepped down from my position at the Edmund Burke Foundation and took on a much more flexible part-time appointment at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. With Davenant growing by leaps and bounds, I’ve needed every bit of this extra time to effectively lead this extraordinary group of men and women that have grown up around our essential mission of renewing Christian wisdom in the contemporary church. I’ve worked hard over the last eighteen months to forge this army of friends into a true institute, making key hires to ensure more effective collaboration and wider dissemination of our resources and courses. Several long-time friends of the organization have risen to key positions of leadership—such as Rhys Laverty at Ad Fontes, Mark Hamilton at Davenant Press, and Dale Stenberg in our Teaching Fellows program. Davenant Hall has recruited and nurtured a heavy-hitter faculty, headlined by Professors Matthew Hoskin, Ryan Hurd, Michael Lynch, Alastair Roberts, and Colin Redemer. And other gifted men and women, relatively new to the network, have pitched in with energy and enthusiasm: Tim Jacobs, Nathan Johnson, Marina Ziemnick, Robin Harris, Michael Lucchese, Michael Riggins, and more.
It has been such an enormous privilege to lead this ragtag band, constantly punching above their weight, over the last ten years. I have had to learn hard and humbling lessons in leadership and scale mountains I never thought scalable. I have been so grateful to the many donors who have come alongside us, especially in the last few years, to make this continuing work possible, and the friends and advisors who’ve shared so much wisdom and counsel.
As I look back over the rich harvest that God has blessed our work with—nearly forty books, more than one hundred courses, dozens of conferences and events, and all on a fraction of the budget that most comparable organizations depend on—the achievement I am proudest of is one that may sound trite and sentimental: we’ve remained friends. And yet I am convinced that in this age of hyper-polarization, as Western society unravels in a spiral of increasing distrust that has entrapped our churches as well, there is nothing more difficult or more important. As the already red-hot culture wars came into contact with highly flammable social media, rolling conflagrations have engulfed one institution and one denomination after another. The heated emotions and divisive politics of Covid-19 pandemic in particular left almost no community unscathed, with many hopelessly torn into warring factions. I won’t pretend that we here at Davenant have been immune to these pressures. We’ve had hard words with one another from time to time, and taken a lot of grenades from folks who think we’re too far left or too far right. But because we built this organization from the beginning on a spirit of mutual sacrifice, humility, and trust, we’ve been able to enjoy the benefits of an institution that is, in Nassim Taleb’s term, “anti-fragile,” capable of withstanding whatever the devil wants to throw at it. That, I am convinced, is a gift of divine grace, not something to be taken for granted. As we look toward ten more years, please join me in giving thanks to God for this gift, and praying with me that he would continue to smile upon our labors.
The Davenant Institute is only able to do the work it takes to renew Christian learning, restore Protestant wisdom, and contend for the common good thanks to supporters like you.
In recognition of our ten-year milestone, would you consider donating $10 or more to support our continued work? Every dollar goes to supporting our community of scholars, students, and friends to pursue truth and defend the Gospel together.
Please give today to sustain and expand this essential work of equipping the next generation of Christian leaders, and become part of our growing army of friends!
Dr. Bradford Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the Founder and President of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute-Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife, Rachel, and four children. Follow him on Twitter at @WBLITTLEJOHN.