Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Introducing Charles Chauncy

Part of What Moves Us

Charles Chauncy was the leading opponent of the Great Awakening, the Protestant evangelical movement that swept through the British North American colonies between 1739 and 1745.

Chauncy was born into the elite Puritan merchant class that ruled Boston. His great-grandfather, after whom he was named, was the second president of Harvard. His father was a successful Boston merchant. As one biographer puts it, "Chauncy was first and foremost a traditional Puritan cleric." Moreover, "As a rule, Chauncy throughout his life supported the clergy who observed the traditional decorum of the New England [ruling elite] way" (Charles H. Lippy, Seasonable Revolutionary: The Mind of Charles Chauncy (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1981, p. 12). Although this Puritan stock had been dissenters in England (thus the liberals), in America they were the Standing Order, the ruling elite (and thus the conservatives against other religious groups like the Baptists and Quakers). Chauncy was thus a staunch and loyal supporter of the political, social, religious, and economic merchant class status quo.

Chauncy received both his undergraduate degree and his master's in theology from Harvard. He was ordained at the First Church in Boston in 1727, where he spent the rest of his life: 60 years as pastor of "Old Brick," as his church was called. Not only was it the oldest Congregational church in Boston, it was also one of the most important in New England.

In his book, Old Brick: Charles Chauncy of Boston, 1705-1787, Edward M. Griffin presents a thumbnail summary of Chauncy's life and work:

[Chauncy] played a role in the major events of his time: not only the Great Awakening, but also the French and Indian wars, the controversy over the proposed establishment of the Anglican episcopacy in America, political events from the Stamp Act through the Revolution, the rise of the Enlightenment, the growth of "liberal Protestantism", social changes in Boston, [and] the development of Unitarianism...

Chauncy organized American clergy and corresponded with English dissenting clergy to protest and prevent the encroachment of the Church of England in its colonies. Although his effort to unify the clergy ultimately failed, Chauncy received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the University of Edinburgh. He was a charter member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was recognized by the Massachusetts Historical Society (when his portrait was hung there) as "eminent for his talents, learning, and lover of liberty, civil and religious." He was, in short, honored as one of the leading intellects of 18th-century America. He was also an unapologetic elitist. Biographer Lippy wrote that Chauncy believed "the laymen should simply follow the lead of the clergy who were, after all, the theological professionals."

Chauncy published his major theology work, The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations, in 1785, two decades after he had completed it. He had held back publication because he recognized the rigorous logic of his arguments ended up affirming an innate moral sense in humankind, a belief in human free will, an affirmation of universal salvation and thus the spiritual equality of all. These claims undermined the doctrinal traditions of his own Calvinist faith tradition and the social hierarchy he extolled from the beginning to the end of his life. The construction of a rational, Enlightenment foundation for a theologically progressive but deeply embedded, socially conservative liberal faith tradition began with Charles Chauncy. Thanks in no small part to Chauncy's life and work, by 1804 a liberal Christian view was the dominant one in Boston. This complex conservative man had inadvertently sparked a new American liberal theological tradition: American Unitarianism.