Joshua Nobel Danforth was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1798 to Joshua Danforth, an American officer in the Revolutionary War, and Salome Noble of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Joshua was schooled at Lenox Academy, graduated with distinction from Williams College, and studied at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1820. After Princeton, he ministered at Presbyterian churches in New Castle, Delaware, starting in 1821, and at the Second Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. starting in 1828.
Danforth married Jane Janvier Whilldin (1789-1870) on August 6, 1829; they had at least two children: Samuel A. Danforth, and a daughter who died at a young age. From 1832-1834, Danforth worked as a general agent for the American Colonization Society in Boston, which supported the movement to help blacks emigrate to Africa, and supported the founding of Liberia. He returned to the ministry as pastor at the Congregational Church in Lee, Massachusetts, and in 1838 was called to the 2nd Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, Virginia, where he remained for 15 years.
Danforth was particularly active in the temperance movement and worked to establish schools for young children. He contributed to the religious and secular presses and wrote a number of books, including the 1852 publication, Gleanings and Groupings from a Pastor's Portfolio. In 1855, he received a D.D. from Delaware College. In 1860, Danforth again received employment with the American Colonization Society, where he worked until his death in 1861.