Charles Chauncy and the American Ideal

I’ve been doing a bit of research on the Charles Chauncy / Jonathan Edwards exchange over the revivals. Each figure represents the Old Light / New Light cause respectively. I am particularly interested in Chauncy’s rhetoric. The bulk of the exchange took place during the 1730s and 1740s. Interestingly, when Chauncy criticized the revivals, he sought to link the revivals to the heretical movements of the century prior – focusing specifically on Anne Hutchinson. Chauncy argues that there are incredible similarities to the 17th century enthusiast groups and those popping up in the 18th century revivals. Subtly, Chauncy links himself to the forefathers who fought for the faith and defeated the heretics, and linked his opponents to those heretics.

There were various issues floating around these dicussions, such as the role and prominence of women (Anne Hutchinson became a key example for him), as well as, more interestingly, that both had a tendency to level-out society. Chauncy was worried that this levelling would undo the social hierarchy that was so entrenched as the proper ordering of culture. In short, Chauncy argument is what we might anachronistically call an argument against a position as “un-American.” Alan Heimart notes Chauncy’s rhetoric and even claims that Chauncy was ultimately concerned with communism! Heimart notes, “By 1774 all Liberals, Chauncy among them, were once again warning that enthusiasm, whether religious or political, endangered the very basis of American happiness” (Heimart, Religion and the American Mind, 250-251.). Whereas Ben Franklin lauded the revivals because of their social effect, Chauncy denounces them for the same reason. The levelling effect of the revivals worried Chauncy, and the rise of popular and anti-clerical religion was, no doubt, the fruit of a movement that eventually came to define America rather than undo it.

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4 thoughts on “Charles Chauncy and the American Ideal

  1. I’m not too familiar with this era. But it seems that many important issues in government and theology, were being worked out in the era even of Edwards.

    For example: would it be inaccurate to say that in effect, Chauncy’s opponents, the “Edwardians,” won in 1776? When the “Establishment Clause” – no official church for the new nation of America – effectively stonewalled any very firm or powerful church hierarchy. One that would have united church and state. As they had been united in England.

  2. Kyle,

    I was very impressed by your observations and questions, which are addressed in part in my forthcoming book on Edwards. I would like to know your thoughts further. See Jonathan Edwards’s Apologetic for the Great Awakening (with particular attention to Charles Chauncy’s criticisms) by Reformation Heritage Books, 2011. It is a revision of my dissertation, and should come out by April.

    All the best,

    Bob

    • Bob, thanks, I’ll keep an eye out for it. I usually read every Edwards book that comes out, if I can, so I’m sure I’ll get it. My post was based on an article I have submitted to Church History. I won’t hear back for several more months about it, but the Chauncy / Edwards interactions run throughout the background of the article. Congratulations on landing a publisher for your dissertation, I submitted mine to one in June and have yet to hear back. You have to love publishers!

  3. Pingback: Charles chancy | Migrainemanual

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