Chauncy, Charles (1705-1787)
Charles Chauncy (1705-1787)
Bosto n Roots. Charles Chauncy spent most of his life in Boston, becoming a leader of the liberal wing of New England Congregationalism from his post as pastor of the city’s leading church. He was born on 1 January 1705 into a prominent family, the son of a leading merchant and great-grandson of the second president of Harvard College. After attending Boston Latin School he too graduated from Harvard, in 1721. Chauncy settled into the pastorate of Boston’s First Congregational Church on 25 October 1727, where he stayed for sixty years. This position, combined with his intellectual power and strongly held opinions, enabled him tobecome the most prominent preacher in eighteenth-century Boston.
Old Lights. Chauncy became best known for his leadership of the Old Light Party of Congregationalism. This group formed in opposition to the religious upheavals of the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. Chauncy and his followers objected mainly to the open emotionalism of the revivals being led by evangelical preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Chauncy was especially dismayed by the emotional preaching of James Davenport, an itinerant preacher who openly criticized ministers more wary of the new revivals and who left divided churches wherever he preached. Edwards and other leaders of the awakenings tried to distance themselves from the excesses of men such as Davenport, but Chauncy saw all participation in the revivals as dangerous to religion and social order. His 1743 book, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England, exhaustively documented these dangers and was an important statement of the principles of the emerging liberal wing of New England Congregationalism.
Rationalism. At the heart of the Old Light thinking was a faith in reason that Chauncy and his followers got from thinkers active in the Enlightenment taking shape in Europe during the 1700s. Chauncy was drawn to reason as a way of integrating experience and faith into an orderly whole. His objection to the revivals was that they gave too much sway to the emotions as the basis of faith and of one’s knowledge of God, thus overemphasizing the irrational part of religious life. Unlike some believers in the power of reason, Chauncy never drifted away from Christianity toward deism. He believed in the Bible and explained it tirelessly to his parishioners as a rational exploration of the truth about God.
Universalism. Chauncy’s most radical contribution to American religion was in his thinking about salvation. As early as 1762 Chauncy began to think that Christ’s death had saved all humans, not only an elect few, as orthodox Calvinists believed. His reading of the Bible brought him to a belief in a benevolent, loving God, who wanted people to be happy and would never condemn humans to an eternity in hell. There would be punishment for sin, he thought, but only in proportion to the crime, and over time it would cleanse the soul and prepare it for an eventual entry into heaven. These were extremely radical ideas for the time, and he explored them cautiously, through letters and private papers exchanged with friends. He published his views only anonymously near the end of his life. Chauncy died on 10 February 1787.
Edward M. Griffin, Old Brick: Charles Chauncy of Boston, 1705–1787 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980);
Charles H. Lippy, Seasonable Revolutionary: The Mind of Charles Chauncy (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981).
The liberal religious views of the American clergyman Charles Chauncy (1705-1787) influenced 19th-century theology in New England.
Charles Chauncy was the great grandson of Charles Chauncy, second president of Harvard College. Young Charles was born and educated in Boston. He graduated from Harvard in 1721 and received his master's degree there in 1724. Ordained as minister to the First Church in Boston in 1727, he served in this prestigious position for 60 years. In 1727 he married the first of three wives, Elizabeth First; in 1738 he married Elizabeth Townsend; and in 1760 Mary Stoddard. He was a serious, diligent person and an energetic scholar of religion and the Bible.
Chauncy became the Great Awakening's most formidable critic. In 1741 he gave a lecture remarkably close in spirit to the thinking of New England clergyman Jonathan Edwards, but a year later Chauncy preached against the revivals. His Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion (1743) is a carefully built treatise against religious enthusiasm. Referring extensively to the Bible, he presented the Great Awakening as a time of runaway emotionalism, spiritual pride, delusion, and disorder. When George Whitefield, the great English evangelist, returned to New England in 1744, he was welcome neither at Harvard nor at Yale, and Chauncy, a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers, chose this moment to preach an excoriation of Whitefield and the Awakening.
Although Chauncy considered himself a Calvinist, he reinterpreted Calvinism at several major points, veering away from views held by his more orthodox contemporaries. He preached against an Anglican establishment in the colonies. Chauncy saw reason as the essence of "our character as men" and believed it would help guide a person to salvation. The contrast between faith and works as opposites, he felt, had been overemphasized.
Chuncy's belief in the essential reliability of common sense, even in the unredeemed, derived from his confidence in the benevolence of the Deity. He held that Christ's death was necessary for man's salvation, not to appease a vengeful God but because this cataclysmic event awakened sinners to God's authority. Chauncy felt that Christ died not to redeem a few chosen but to save all mankind, and that original sin was not an imputed condition but merely an inborn tendency. He moved gradually toward universalism and the concept of God as the single monarch of the universe rather than the three person God of Calvinism. These themese are basic to his influential Compleat View of Episcopacy (1771), as well as two other works, The Benevolence of the Deity (1784) and The Mystery Hid fromm Ages … or the Salvation of All Men … (1784), both published anonymously in London but apparently written before 1768. Chauncy's thinking significantly foreshadowed 19th-century developments in New England theology.
The best brief sketch of Chauncy is clifford K. Shipton, Sibley's Harvard Graduates, vol. 6 (1942). For a picture of Chauncy in the context of his times see Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (1955).
Griffin, Edward M., Old Brick, Charles Chauncy of Boston, 1705-1787, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.
Lippy, Charles H., Seasonable revolutionary: the mind of Charles Chauncy, Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981. □