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George Leonard Chaney, son of James and Harriet (Webb) Chaney, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, on December 24, 1836, the descendant of family stocks long settled in Essex County. He was educated at the Salem High and Latin Schools and at Harvard College, from which he received his bachelor’s degree in 1859. He belonged to a number of college societies, including the Phi Beta Kappa Fraternity. After graduation he went to Meadville, Pennsylvania, as a tutor in the family of Mr. Edward Huidekoper and, a little later, he entered Meadville Theological School, from which he graduated in 1862. On October 5 of the same year he was settled as minister of the Hollis Street Church in Boston, the successor in that pulpit of Starr King, who had resigned nearly two years before to go to San Francisco.
The position was a difficult one for a young and inexperienced minister. Starr King had been a notable preacher and man of letters, and it was no easy task to stand in his place. The church had an honorable history covering nearly a century and a half, but it was in a part of Boston where the population was changing rapidly and from which a large proportion of the parishioners had already removed. While the Civil War lasted, Mr. Chaney preached frequently upon national and political issues, and after the Battle of Fredericksburg, he served for a while in the army hospitals there. After the War he took a keen interest in the Freedman’s Aid Society; was one of the earliest supporters of Hampton Institute; and visited and spoke on behalf of other educational enterprises in the South. Under his leadership his own church was active in various social service activities in Boston. He helped to establish the Associated Charities. He was for twelve years a member of the Boston School Committee, and was instrumental in introducing manual training into the public schools, for that sort of training in Boston was the outgrowth of work started by Mr. Chaney in the “Hollis Street Whittling School” connected with his church.
In 1877 he resigned the Hollis Street pastorate, spent a year in Hawaii and California, traveled widely, and wrote two popular books for boys. In 1884 he went to Atlanta, Georgia, where, in the face of great discouragements, he succeeded in establishing a Unitarian congregation in a church built and paid for in two years’ time. He there applied the same educational methods which he had used in Boston and began an “Artisans’ Institute” in connection with his church. This was the seed from which sprung the Georgia School of Technology in Atlanta. He was also a director and, for a time, president of the Young Men’s Library, which was later merged in the Carnegie Library. He was a trustee of Atlanta University, and for about twenty years a trustee of Tuskegee Institute, serving for some time as president of the board. He dedicated the first building of the Institute, and was a wise adviser in the development of Booker Washington’s plans for that great school.
In 1890 he became Southern Superintendent for the American Unitarian Association, residing in Richmond, Virginia, from 1893 to 1896. He traveled widely in the southern states, gathering societies at Chattanooga, Richmond, Memphis, and other centers, and inaugurating circuit preaching in northern Florida and eastern North Carolina. Two books containing his sermon—essays were published, and from 1893 to 1895 he edited the Southern Unitarian. He resigned from active service in 1896 on reaching the age of sixty. His work, and that of his wife, is commemorated in the Founders’ Window in the present building of the Unitarian Church in Atlanta.
After his retirement from active service, he lived for the most part in Salem, although he commonly spent a part of each winter in Florida or Jamaica, and his summers at Leominster, Massachusetts, on the farm which belonged to his wife, the former Caroline Carter. He died in Salem in his eighty-sixth year, on April 19, 1922, in the house in which he had been brought up.
His career as a minister was marked by self-sacrificing devotion to professional tasks of an exceptionally difficult character, and by a keen sense of the obligations of the church to serve the community in the development of a better social order. But he never forgot his primary duty as preacher and leader in worship. His literary gift was considerable, showing itself not only in his sermons and books but, most of all, in the exceptional charm of his letters. That charm was but the expression of his whole personality, compounded of warm affections, humane interests, self-effacing devotion and farsighted wisdom, making him a delightful companion and a beloved minister.