Charles Chauncy

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.


Further Reading on Charles Chauncy

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).

Additional Biography Sources

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.