a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Chauncy, Charles (1705-1787)

Chauncy, Charles (1705-1787)

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

Charles Chauncy
Charles Chauncy. Courtesy of Harvard University Archives.

Charles Chauncy was a great-grandson of the Rev. Charles Chauncy, who was the second president of Harvard College, and a grandson of the Rev. Isaac Chauncy, who was the minister of Berry Street Meetinghouse in London. His father was Charles Chauncy, a prosperous merchant in Boston. His mother was Sarah Walley, daughter of Judge Walley, of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. His inheritances and his social position were therefore of the best. He was born in Boston, January 1, 1705. At the age of seven years he lost his father, but did not want for friends who were disposed to give him the best advantages. He entered Harvard College when he was twelve years old, and graduated in the year 1721.

He soon commenced the study of theology, and in due time received approbation to preach. After the removal of Mr. Wadsworth from the First Church in Boston to the presidency of Harvard College, the attention of that congregation was directed to Mr. Chauncy as a suitable person to be his successor. On June 12, 1727, they voted him a call to settle among them, and on the 25th of October following he was ordained and installed as co-pastor with the Rev. Thomas Foxcroft, the sermon on the occasion, according to the usage of that day, being preached by himself.

The history of the First Church in Boston is the spiritual history of New England and the record of intellectual and religious growth. Its significant development in religious opinion began with Chauncy. In all the history of the church there was no dissension about theological beliefs. Change in opinion came gradually and almost imperceptibly. There was simply a more and more generous interpretation of the ancient formulas. There is no record of any theological disaffection or schism during the years of change. The original covenant of the church has never been altered or disavowed, and is still in use.

Chauncy’s early ministry attracted little notice, both because he was the young colleague of a famous preacher and also because his sermons were marked by a studious simplicity of speech that was at first unattractive. He appeared to believe that rhetorical adornment was a kind of intellectual dishonesty. The very simplicity and directness of his style, however, made his sermons easy reading, and gave them wide diffusion in the printed form. His meaning was always clear, and the thought stood out the more by reason of the plainness of the verbal garb.

It was, therefore, chiefly as a writer of books and pamphlets that Chauncy influenced the thought of his time. His controversial writing took, in the main, three directions: first, his antagonism to the extravagancies of the “Great Awakening”; then his defence of congregational forms of church government; and, finally, his affirmation of certain theological convictions which were distinctly unorthodox. Through his publications on these themes Dr. Chauncy became the best known of the liberal leaders in the Massachusetts churches before Channing. He was the representative scholar of the earlier liberal movement, as Jonathan Mayhew was the representative orator.

In 1742 he received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from the University of Edinburgh.

Dr. Chauncy first came prominently into public notice as a stern opposer of the religious excitement that prevailed in New England and elsewhere in connection with the labors of Whitefield and his coadjutors. His first publication bearing directly on the subject was a sermon on Enthusiasm, in the year 1742. The next year he published an elaborate work, entitled “Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England.” In 1744 he published an Ordination Sermon and a Convention Sermon, both of which he designed as Tracts for the Times. The same year he published a Letter to the Rev. George Whitefield, calling on him to defend his conduct or confess his faults; and the next year he addressed a second Letter to him, in the same spirit and of the same decided character. Dr. Chauncy, though he did not by any means stand alone in his views of the then existing state of things, differed from the majority of his brethren in contemplating the case as one of unmixed evil. The other Boston ministers saw very much to disapprove and deplore, while yet they seem to have admitted the substantial genuineness of the work; but Dr. Chauncy regarded it as essentially evil, and opposed it with all the energy which he could command.

Charles Chauncy
Charles Chauncy. Courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

In 1747 Dr. Chauncy preached the Annual Sermon before the legislature of Massachusetts. In this sermon he expatiated, with great plainness and force, on some of the evils of the day, and particularly on the injustice which had been done to his professional brethren, in their having been allowed to suffer so severely from the fluctuations of the circulating medium. His remarks were received with little favor by a portion at least of the legislature, and they even debated whether, according to custom, they should print the sermon. The doctor, being informed of this, sharply replied, “It shall be printed, whether the General Court print it or not. And do you, sir” (addressing himself to his informant), “say from me that, if I wanted to initiate and instruct a person into all kinds of iniquity and double dealing, I would send him to our General Court?”

In May, 1762, he delivered the Dudleian Lecture at Harvard College on “The Validity of Presbyterian Ordination Asserted and Maintained.” This discourse attracted great attention, and was the cause of a controversy in which Dr. Chauncy successfully championed the freedom of the churches. In 1767 he published “Remarks upon a Sermon of the Bishop of Landaff,” in which he expressed his fears that the appointment of bishops for America, as was then proposed, would be followed by attempts to promote Episcopacy by force. He then adds, “It may be relied on, our people would not be easy, if restrained in the exercise of that liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free; yea, they would hazard everything dear to them—their estates, their very lives—rather than to suffer their necks to be put under that yoke of bondage which was so sadly galling to their fathers, and occasioned their retreat into this distant land, that they might enjoy the freedom of men and Christians.” His book on church polity, entitled “A Complete View of Episcopacy,” was published in 1771.

Dr. Chauncy was an active patriot during the exciting scenes of the Revolution. In 1774 he published a “Letter to a Friend”, detailing the privations and hardships to which the people of Boston had been, or were likely to be, subjected by the oppressive policy of the British Parliament; and this pamphlet was but an index to the spirit which animated him during the whole Revolutionary struggle.

In a sermon entitled “All Nations Blessed in Christ,” preached at the ordination of the Rev. Joseph Bowman, in 1762, he first shadowed forth the doctrine, which he afterwards more openly defended, of the final salvation of all men. It is said that this had been with him a subject of severe and earnest thought during the greater part of his ministry; but it was not until the year 1784 that he finally published the results of his inquiry in a work entitled “The Mystery hid from Ages, or the Salvation of All Men.” He published one or two other books, about the same time, bearing upon the same subject.

In these works he affirmed the restoration of all souls, denied the Calvinistic doctrines about future punishment, and questioned the doctrine of the Trinity. Though he knew himself to be unorthodox on these points, he, nevertheless, felt himself in sympathy with the prevalent theology of his own age and neighborhood. Theologically, he was always a difficult man to classify. Academic in style and moderate in expression, he was never an extremist. His unconsciousness of the inevitable consequences of his convictions was typical of the early stages of the movement that ultimately became known as Unitarian.

In July, 1778, Dr. Chauncy received the Rev. John Clarke as his colleague, and was thereby relieved in a measure from public labor. He, however, continued to occupy the pulpit, a part of the time, almost to the close of his life. He died February 10, 1787, in the eighty-third year of his age and the sixtieth of his ministry. The sermon at his interment was delivered by his colleague, the Rev. Mr. Clarke.

Dr. Chauncy was married three times. His first wife was Elizabeth, daughter of Judge Grove Hirst and grand-daughter of the first Chief Justice Sewall, by whom he had three children—one son and two daughters. His second marriage was on the 8th of January, 1738, to Elizabeth Townsend; and his third was on the 15th of January, 1760, to Mary, daughter of David Stoddard. There were no children by either of the two last marriages.

First Person Accounts of Charles Chauncy

Dr. John Eliot, who in the early part of his life was contemporary with Dr. Chauncy, wrote thus concerning him:

Dr. Chauncy was one of the greatest divines in New England. No one, except President Edwards and the late Dr. Mayhew, has been so much known among the literati of Europe or printed more books upon theological subjects. He took great delight in studying the Scriptures. Feeling the sacred obligations of morality, he impressed them upon the minds of others in the most rational and evangelical manner. When he preached upon the faith of the gospel, he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come. It was said that he wanted the graces of delivery and taste in composition. But it was his object to deliver the most sublime truths in simplicity of speech, and he never therefore studied to have his periods polished with rhetorical figures. His favorite authors were Tillotson of the Episcopal Church and Baxter among the Puritans. For he preferred the rich vein of sentiment in the sermons of the English divines to that tinsel of French declamation so fashionable in our modern way of preaching. Upon some occasions, however, Dr. Chauncy could raise his feeble voice, and manifest a vigor and animation which would arrest the attention of the most careless hearer, and have a deeper effect than the oratory which is thought by many to be irresistibly persuasive. At all times he was argumentative and perspicuous, and made an admirable practical use of the sentiments he delivered.

The following sketch of Dr. Chauncy is from an “Historical Sketch of the First Church in Boston” by Rev. William Emerson, one of Dr. Chauncy’s successors:

He had no taste for rhetorical studies. So little versed in poetry was he that he is said to have wished that somebody would translate the “Paradise Lost” of Milton into prose that he might understand it. He loved nature, simplicity, and truth, and looked upon the art of rhetoric rather as an inflamer of the passions and a perverter of reason than as an instrument of good to mankind. His aversion, indeed, was so rooted towards the noisy and foaming fanatics of his time, and his attachment so strong to Taylor, Tillotson, and writers of that stamp, that in the company of friends, as is reported of him, he would sometimes beseech God never to make him an orator. One of his acquaintances, hearing this report, remarked that his prayer was unequivocally granted. Yet I have been informed by one of his hearers, who is an excellent judge of sermons, that Dr. Chauncy was by no means an indifferent speaker, that his emphases were always laid with propriety, often with happy effect, and that his general manner was that of a plain, earnest preacher, solicitous for the success of his labors. He ordinarily entered on his task, whether of composing or of delivery, apparently without much nerve, as a laborer commences his daily toil, uttering a deal of common truths in a common way. But he had always a design, which he kept clearly and steadily in view, until it was prudently and thoroughly executed.

Of Dr. Chauncy’s personal characteristics Dr. Howard, of Springfield, wrote:

He was, like Zaccheus, little of stature, and, like Saint Paul, his letters were powerful. God gave him a slender, feeble body, a very powerful, vigorous mind, and strong passions, and he managed them all exceedingly well. His manners were plain and downright dignified, bold, and imposing. In conversation with his friends he was pleasant, social, and very instructive. Bigotry and superstition found no quarter with him. In whatever garb they approached, they were sure to be detected and rebuked. His attitude and tone of voice in the desk were dignified, solemn, impressive, and positive. They seemed to say, “I know that what I am delivering is true and highly important to your souls.” The doctor was remarkably temperate in his diet and exercise. At twelve o’clock he took one pinch of snuff, and only one in twenty-four hours. At one o’clock he dined on one dish of plain, wholesome food, and after dinner took one glass of wine and one pipe of tobacco, and only one in twenty-four hours. And he was equally methodical in his exercise, which consisted chiefly or wholly in walking. I said, “Doctor, you live by rule.”

If I did not,’ he replied, “I should not live at all.”