Charles Chauncy, an Old Light and the "Old Brick"
Charles Chauncy is known mainly for his opposition to the Great Awakening, and as the main representative of the Old Lights of 18th Century Puritanism.
Chauncy was born in Boston in 1705, the son of a successful businessman and merchant. The great-grandson of the second president of Harvard and the grandson of a Massachusetts supreme court judge, Chauncy grew up as a member of the aristocracy of New England. His next-door neighbor was Benjamin Franklin, born a year after Chauncy. The Chauncy family were likely among those friends that Josiah Franklin invited over for dinner and intellectually stimulating conversation meant to improve the minds of his children. Chauncy and Franklin attended the Boston Public Latin School together, an education meant to prepare them for Harvard, though Franklin eventually dropped out.
Chauncy went to Harvard during turbulent times, when many were accusing the school of tending to liberal theology and Anglicanism. The New England Courant, which Franklin began to publish in 1721, frequently poked fun at the president of Harvard and his "frivolous" students, who were "slipping over to Boston for such mischief as horse-races and pirate-hangings, or, when they stayed in Cambridge, were disturbing good order by profane swearing, bringing cards into college, window-breaking, and other riotous actions" (Griffin 16). The president's most serious challenges were not coming from Franklin, however: Cotton Mather criticized Harvard because he feared that the college was slipping away from the Puritan orthodoxy of its founders.
At Harvard, Chauncy followed a program of study highly similar to that of the great Renaissance humanists: classical authors, rhetoric, natural philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, divinity, geometry, and astronomy. Edward Wigglesworth, the son of the poet Michael Wigglesworth, was a tutor's assistant and had the most intellectual influence on Chauncy during his time at Harvard. Wigglesworth tended toward rationalism, and one of his favorite intellectual exercises was to present the young men with both sides of a difficult argument and ask them to use their judgment to make a decision. Chauncy graduated from Harvard in 1721, and received his M.A. in divinity in 1724.
In 1727 Chauncy was called to the First Church in Boston and given the prestigious post of assistant to pastor Thomas Foxcroft, who, unlike Chauncy, later became an ardent supporter of the Great Awakening. A year later, on May 9, 1728, Chauncy married Elizabeth Hirst, the granddaughter of Judge Samuel Sewall.
As the 1730s began, a decline in religion in New England became apparent: church membership was dwindling, indicating that it was no longer a focal point of community and family life. Under these circumstances, Chauncy began to attack the doctrines and influence of Episcopacy and Anglicanism, and as the decade progressed, the first stirrings of the Great Awakening made themselves felt.
After Pastor Foxcroft became severely ill in 1736, Chauncy began to assume more of the preaching duties, until he became chief pastor of the First Church when Foxcroft died in 1769. Chauncy spent his entire ministry of sixty years at the First Church in Boston, which was known as the Old Brick Meeting House. He was so closely associated with the church that he was given its nickname, and became known as Charles Old-Brick. Chauncy's wife Elizabeth died in 1737, leaving him with three children: Charles, Elizabeth, and Sarah. In 1739 Chauncy remarried, this time to parishioner and widow Elizabeth Phillips Townsend. His marriage with this Elizabeth lasted eighteen years until she passed away in 1757, almost exactly twenty years after Chauncy's first wife had died. With their children grown and out of the house, Chauncy was left alone, and eventually he began to court a Boston lady named Mary Stoddard. They were married in June of 1760.
In Boston, the Great Awakening began to pick up momentum in 1740. In 1741, Cotton Mather's son Samuel, an assistant pastor at Boston's Second Church, preached a sermon against the revivals, only to be dismissed from his position. Chauncy, following his lead, also began to speak out against the revivals, though cautiously.
Chauncy believed in the rational order of things, and therefore was opposed to the Awakenings because he felt they interfered with the order of the church. In contrast to the chaos of revivalism, Chauncy believed that God "worked in orderly and predictable ways and made men rational, orderly and predictable creatures" (Jones 169-170).
The Great Awakening turned out to be the springboard that launched Chauncy into his unique theology. He was alarmed at what he thought was the hysteria and chaos introduced into the local church by itinerant preachers, who he felt upset the proper order of the congregation. Edwards, in contrast, welcomed this wave of revivalism, believing that God could work in a variety of ways, even those that seemed odd to rationalistic humans.
During the Great Awakening, many itinerant pastors roamed the countryside of New England, preaching to various congregations in the hope that they would spark a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit in conversions. In 1742, the itinerant preacher James Davenport visited Chauncy and questioned him regarding his faith. Chauncy was highly offended at this intrusion into his spiritual life, and responded with a letter to Davenport and a sermon entitled, "Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against." In the letter to Davenport, who was one of the most enthusiastic enthusiasts, Chauncy wrote of what he felt were the harmful effects Davenport's style had on the Boston congregations: "But I am well assured, instead of good, you will be the occasion of much hurt, to the interest of religion in these churches. Your manner in speaking, as well as what you say, seems rather calculated, at least at some times, to disturb the imagination, than inform the judgment" (Chauncy ii). Chauncy was convinced that Davenport allowed his emotions to rule his spiritual judgment, and said, "Whatever you may think of yourself, you have certainly a heated imagination. 'Tis too evident to be denied, that you too often take the motions of your own mind, for divine communications" (Chauncy vi).
As part of his campaign against the Great Awakening, Chauncy collected a file of accounts of abuses of itinerant preachers that had occurred throughout New England. He not only collected letters from correspondents, but, like a good natural philosopher, followed itinerants through several states in New England, observing and recording the detrimental effects of enthusiasm himself. Chauncy rather poetically described the effects of enthusiasm on the bodies of men as, "bodily agitations, convulsions, tremblings, swoonings,...groanings, quakings, foamings and faintings" (Corrigan 28).
The issues raised in the Great Awakening, namely the question of enthusiasm and genuine conversion, split the Puritan community into two groups. The Old Lights, led by Chauncy, focused on reason and man's intellect, discrediting claims of conversion in emotional revival services. On the other hand, Edwards was the main representative of the New Lights, those who felt that the affective aspect of religious experiences was highly important.
In defense of the Great Awakening, Edwards wrote Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England. Chauncy responded to this five-part work with his own five-part dissertation, entitled Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England. Chauncy asked,
"Is it reasonable to think, that the Divine Spirit, in dealing with men...would give their passions the chief sway over them? Would not this be to invert their frame?...Reasonable beings are not to be guided by passion or affection, though the object of it should be God...The plain truth is, an enlightened mind, and not raised affections, ought always to be the guide of those who call themselves men" (Brand 114).
Edwards responded to this by saying, "he that has doctrinal knowledge and speculation only, without affection, never is engaged in the business of religion...The Author of our nature has not only given us affections, but has made them very much the spring of actions" (Brand 114). Edwards also claimed that "True religion lies very much in the affections" (Corrigan 28).
Following the events of the Great Awakening, Chauncy began to rethink his Puritan theology. He did not set out to reject traditional doctrine, but wanted to meet the challenges that came out of the changing habits of life in New England and the new patterns of thought coming out of the European Enlightenment. He felt that the issues raised in the Great Awakening required such a reconstruction of Puritan philosophy. He said, "I was at first brought into this train of thought, by being willing, in opposition to previous sentiments and strong biases, to follow the light wherever it should lead me" (Griffin 109).
Chauncy was well within traditional Puritan belief at the outset of his ministry, but his emphasis on human abilities increased as his career progressed. Chauncy remade Puritan theology in his own fashion, changing it to a doctrine that man can make himself into whatever he wants.
Chauncy's theology can perhaps be best understood in contrast to Edwards, and one of the major differences between the two of them consisted of their view of God's purpose in creating the world. In his treatise A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, Edwards claimed that God's chief end in creation was to glorify Himself. He said,
"That if God himself be, in any respect, properly capable of being his own end in the creation of the world, then it is reasonable to suppose that he had respect to himself, as his last and highest end, in this work; because he is worthy in himself to be so, being infinitely the greatest and best of beings...If God has respect to things according to their nature and proportions, he must necessarily have the greatest respect to himself" (Brand 58).
In opposition, Chauncy argued, "It was the infinitely benevolent God who created the world not for his own glory but for man's own pleasure" (Griffin 192).
Chauncy's beliefs reflected the social utilitarian philosophy of the day, in that he reshaped the definition of God in order to conform God's nature to man's social goals. Chauncy believed that God's purpose was human happiness, and he could not believe that God would be glorified in the damnation of any humans: "A more shocking idea can scarce be given of the Deity, than that which represents him as arbitrarily dooming the greater part of the race of men to eternal misery" (Chauncy VIII).
Chauncy also did not believe in the transference of original sin, or that the guilt of one man's sin could be transferred to another person or generation. In contrast, Edwards stood firmly in the stream of orthodox Puritan thought when he compared Adam and all of mankind as one complex person, like a tree: "the hearts of all the branches of mankind, by the constitution of nature and the law of union, would have been affected just as the heart of Adam, their common root, was affected" (Marsden 455). However, Chauncy believe that the Fall did not transfer sin to Adam's descendants, but rather temptation to sin. He said,
"It is a moral inconsistency to affirm that the sin of one moral agent can be the sin of another, unless he has been, in one way or another, voluntarily accessory to it. Adam and his posterity being distinct moral agents, his sinning could not be their sinning. This would imply a falsehood, and a contradiction to the nature of things" (Jones 173).
Chauncy's humanistic training and Puritan background affected his philosophy: he believed that all humans are capable of thinking and acting rationally. Chauncy believed in the freedom of the will, viewing man as "an intelligent moral agent; having within himself an ability and freedom to will, as well as to do, in opposition to necessity from any extraneous cause whatever" (Griffin 113). Chauncy was influenced by the doctrine known as "supernatural rationalism," an idea developed in the works of Tillotson, Locke, and Clarke. Supernatural rationalism also found its origins in the moralistic emphasis of Cotton Mather, but Chauncy went a step beyond his Puritan forefather in claiming that the individual, guided by reason, was able to make "private judgments" about the truth of religious ideas. (Corrigan 34). While maintaining the belief that Christ's blood was necessary for redemption, Chauncy made morality and faith equal components of justification. He believed that "the marks of faith were reverence, moral living, and rational action" (Griffin 36).
The idea of the salvation of all men was perhaps Chauncy's most radical theory. In a letter entitled, Divine Glory Brought to View in the Final Salvation of All Men, Chauncy asked, "Do you not really think the glory of God, will be more advanced by the final happiness of the whole human kind, than the everlasting perdition of any?...Is it not undervaluing the blood of Christ, to suppose he died for any who will perish everlastingly?" (Chauncy 18) He also argued:
"Allowing then, our divine redeemer died for all, and that God, their heavenly father, is desirous of their everlasting felicity, it must follow, that all will, in due time, 'come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved.' What should hinder the future accomplishment of the divine will; or the final success of Christ's mediatorial undertaking? Our wishes are often frustrated: but God cannot be disappointed. Inasmuch as the Savior of the world has atoned for the sins of every creature, and God earnestly desires the salvation of all, it is inconceivable that any should perish everlastingly. His infinite power, wisdom and goodness forbid such a dishonourable supposition. If these attributes belong to God, he must be able and willing to reduce all men to a state of moral subjection to his authority. And if so, he certainly will not fail to do it, we may therefore, congratulate mankind upon their future prospects; and assure them of an entrance into heaven, as soon as they are qualified for its services and entertainments" (Chauncy 8).
Edwards, in contrast, argued:
"However Christ in some sense may be said to die for all, and to redeem all visible Christians, yea, the whole world, by his death; yet there must be something particular in the design of his death, with respect to such as he intended should actually be saved thereby. As appears by what has been shown, God has the actual salvation or redemption of a certain number in his absolute design, and of a certain number only; and therefore such a design only can be prosecuted in any thing God does, in order to the salvation of all men" (Brand 83).
Although Chauncy was considered unorthodox and some of his works claimed heretical, his purpose in rethinking Puritan doctrine not to radically alter Puritan philosophy, but rather to maintain a rational spiritual order in the church.
After publishing the body of his divinity and the preaching the last of 800 sermons, Chauncy died in the parsonage in Boston in 1787, slightly more than a month after his eighty-second birthday.