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Introduction, Workshop 2: Charles Chauncy

In "What Moves Us," a Tapestry of Faith program

And let me tell you, if you have indeed been renewed in the spirit of your minds, it will [show] it self in your lives. — Charles Chauncy

This workshop introduces Charles Chauncy's Theology of Spiritual Renewal. The workshop translates Chauncy's mid-18th-century theological program for spiritual wholeness and moral action into viable theological steps relevant to our own lives today as Unitarian Universalists.

Called the "historical progenitor" of American Unitarianism in David Robinson's 1984 book, The Unitarians and The Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), Chauncy was pastor from 1727 to 1787 at the First Church of Boston, the city's oldest and most prestigious congregational church. He was also the leading defender of the religious interests and political power of Boston's ruling elite merchant class against a rising tide of evangelical preachers of the Great Awakening. These evangelical preachers made public, intensely charged, emotional conversion experiences foundational to Christian faith. They condemned congregational ministers like Chauncy and urged the members of these ministers' churches to abandon ship and join the rising tide of revivalism.

Chauncy refused to accept emotional conviction as the sole criterion and foundation for religious faith. The human mind, he insisted, must also give assent to the written word of God, and human behavior toward self and others must also be transformed. His rigorous use of reasoning to find, analyze, and explain the fundamental human elements entailed in spiritual experience is his legacy to us. Can Chauncy's legacy help us construct a Unitarian Universalist Theology of Spiritual Renewal relevant to our lives today?

Before leading this workshop, review the Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters found in the program Introduction.

Preparing to lead this workshop

Read background information about the Great Awakening from Answers.com, About.com, or another encyclopedia and read the story, "Introducing Charles Chauncy."

Read the five excerpts from Charles Chauncy's sermon, A Sermon on the Out-pouring of the Holy Ghost, in Handout 2. As you read, reflect on some of the following questions, looking for connections he makes among emotion, reason, behavior, and what he calls a Christian spiritual state. Keep in mind that Chauncy was a traditional, conservative Christian whose own reasoning began to challenge the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin, which claims that humans, because of their fallen sinful nature passed down to them from Adam in the Garden of Eden, lack the capacity to call forth and participate in their own spiritual salvation.

You may wish to write your reflections in your theology journal.

First Excerpt

  • Chauncy says that experiencing the Holy Ghost means experiencing the way in which a person is being influenced or operated upon. To get a sense of what he means by experiencing something internally, recall a way in which your parents have "influenced" you and in this way had an effect on your internal life. How might you use this example to help understand and explain what Chauncy means when he says that the Holy Ghost, as an expression of the Divine Parent, internally influences someone?

Second Excerpt

  • Chauncy emphasizes the "great diversity" of ways in which the human experience of the Spirit occurs. Do you believe there is a diversity of ways in which persons can have "spiritual experiences?" Explain.

Third Excerpt

  • Chauncy believes that the spirit of your mind has to be transformed by participation in the Divine nature of God. How are we to understand what Chauncy means by "participation?" To answer this question, think about what the word "participation" means to you when you affirm, as a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, that you are "part" of the interdependent web of existence. Explain your answer to this question by first using a personal experience of being part of the web of life. Then use your own example to unpack what you might mean by "participation" in the web of life. Would you call this participation spiritual? Explain.

Fourth Excerpt

  • Citing Scripture, Chauncy argues that "if we ask [Luke 11:9], we shall receive; if we seek, we shall find, if we knock, it shall be opened to us." This argument affirms the human capacity to participate in one's own process of spiritual healing by inviting it. Chauncy thus goes against orthodox Puritan beliefs that humans do not have any power or capacity to facilitate their own religious salvation. Rather, he argues that it is "unreasonable," "base and ungrateful" to doubt or hesitate to affirm this human capacity. Chauncy thus begins to build a rational argument for human agency in one's own spiritual transformation.

Fifth Excerpt

  • Describe a personal transforming spiritual experience. Compare and contrast it to Chauncy's description of the "Gift of the Holy Ghost." How is your transforming personal experience linked to your identity as a Unitarian Universalist? Or how would you like for it to be so linked?

For more information contact web@uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Tuesday, February 19, 2013.

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