Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers

2014 Edition
| Editors: Thomas Hockey, Virginia Trimble, Thomas R. Williams, Katherine Bracher, Richard A. Jarrell, Jordan D. MarchéII, JoAnn Palmeri, Daniel W. E. Green

Danforth, Samuel

  • Pierre Marc Bellemare
Reference work entry

Born Framlingham, Suffolk, England, 17 October 1626

Died Roxbury, Massachusetts, USA, 19 November 1674

An English-born American Congregationalist (Puritan) minister, Samuel Danforth is the author of some early colonial almanacs as well as of a detailed account on the comet of 1665 (C/1664 W1), one of the very earliest pieces of astronomical literature published in America.

Son of Nicholas Danforth (1589–1639) and Elizabeth Symmes Danforth (born circa1596), Samuel Danforth and his five surviving siblings emigrated with their father to Massachusetts in 1634, their mother having died in 1629. The Danforths soon began to form matrimonial and other fruitful associations with the local colonial elite. Thus Thomas Danforth (1623–1699), Samuel’s elder brother, was for a time Treasurer of Harvard College, Deputy Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay, and Justice of its Superior Court. As such, in 1691–1693, he was involved in the Salem trials, taking a moderate stance.

Upon his father’s death when Samuel was only 13, he went to live with Thomas Shepard (1605–1649), Congregationalist minister in Cambridge. That was a mere three years after the founding of Harvard College. Dedicating himself to the ministry, Danforth enrolled there shortly afterwards. Graduating in 1643, he remained at the College as a tutor for the rest of the decade. During that period he perfected his knowledge of astronomy, and in need of income, he published his almanacs.

After his ordination, in September 1650, Danforth was appointed pastor at Roxbury, thus becoming a close associate of the Teaching Elder there, Reverend John Eliot (1604–1690), “the Apostle of the Indians.” In 1651, Danforth married Mary Wilson (1633–1713), daughter of Reverend John Wilson (1591–1667), Congregationalist minister of the First Church in Boston, and one of the main parties involved in Mary Dyer’s trial for heresy and subsequent execution. The couple had 12 children in 24 years, most of whom did not survive childhood or infancy. One son, Samuel II, shared his father’s interest in astronomy, and in his own time took part in the publication of almanacs.

In his lifetime, Samuel Danforth was known for his passionate, not to say fanatical style of preaching, and a few of his fiery sermons have been published and survive. They include the election oration entitled A Brief Recognition of New-Englands Errand into the Wilderness(1670, 1671), as well as the execution sermon known as The Cry of Sodom Enquired Into; Upon Occasion of the Arraignment and Condemnation of Benjamin Goad, for his Prodigious Villany(1674), the prodigious villainy in question being the then capital offence of bestiality.

Interestingly, due to the “Theological Explanation” that accompanies it, even Danforth’s essay on the Comet can be said to belong to the fire-and-brimstone genre of oratory. The scientific part shows that the author was up-to-date on the issue of comets. He knew that those bodies were no sublunar objects, that they were not on fire and that the flaming appearance of their tail, always pointing away from the Sun, came from the reflection of the latter’s rays off particles exhaled from the head of the comet. He also knew how to trace its path and measure it as well to calculate its perigee. Nor did Danforth shy away from speculation, venturing the hypothesis that the object’s orbit might be elliptical and therefore periodic. He was wrong in this, for, as demonstrated by another observer,   Giovanni Borelli , C/1664 W1 is in fact parabolic.

On the other hand, Danforth saw the comet as a sign of God’s wrath and warned his fellow New Englanders that if they did not heed the message and repent, a just punishment would be meted out to them. To make his point, he marshalled a sheaf of scriptural quotations, as well as a selection of texts from secular literature that tended to prove, to his satisfaction at any rate, that such celestial displays were always portents of catastrophic events. The incongruity of it all may surprise the modern reader, but Danforth was far from the only one to think along those lines: After the Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of London of 1666, everybody in England and the colonies remembered the great comet from two years earlier.

Previously, Danforth had found a more popular outlet for his astronomical work in his almanacs, three of which (1647, 1648, 1649) survive in their entirety and a fourth one only as a fragment. In those almanacs one finds the usual monthly tables, adapted to the longitude and latitude of Boston, giving, among other basic astronomical data, the times for sunrise and sunset, the phase of the Moon for each day, and even the dates of scheduled court sessions. The rest of the editorial space is filled with “chronological tables of some few memorable occurrences” in recent local history, as well as poems and puzzles of Danforth’s own composition. That material is of considerable interest to the specialist of colonial history as well as to the student of early Anglo-American literature, respectively. (Note that, in Danforth’s almanacs, the year runs from the beginning of March to the end of February, which reflects the practice of the time.)

The comet of 1664 appeared at a time when the public’s interest in such objects was still at its peak. Danforth is one of its many observers, notably Englishmen, who have left us notes or published accounts of it. They include John Milton, who seems to refer to the event in a celebrated passage of Paradise Lost(II, 708–711), quite possibly written at a time when the comet was still visible across the sky. Milton’s plotting, in poetic terms, of the path of the object is similar to Danforth’s, and both men draw the same “theological” conclusions from the event:

Incens’d with indignation Satan stood

Unterrify’d, and like a comet burn’d

That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge

In th’ arctic sky, and from his horrid hair

Shakes pestilence and war

Selected References

  1. Danforth, Samuel. Paul Royster, Editor and Transcriber. An Astronomical Description of the Late Comet or Blazing Star; As it appeared in New-England in the 9th, 10th, 11th, and in the beginning of the 12th Moneth, 1664. Together with a Brief Theological Application thereof. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Samuel Green, 1665.[Online edition, by Royster, Faculty Publications, UNL Libraries.]Google Scholar
  2. Danforth, Samuel. Paul Royster, Editor and Transcriber. “Samuel Danforth’s Almanack Poems and Chronological Tables 1647–1649” (1649). [Online Edition, by Royster, Faculty Publications, UNL Libraries. Paper 36.]Google Scholar
  3. May, John Joseph, Compiler (1902). DanforthGenealogy. Boston, Massachusetts: Charles H. Pope.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Saint Paul UniversityOttawaCanada