The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

V. Philosophers and Divines, 1720–1789

§ 3. Charles Chauncy; Edward Wigglesworth

Whitefield decidedly made a tactical blunder when he brought railing accusations against divines like Charles Chauncy (1705–1787), pastor of the First Church in Boston, and Edward Wigglesworth (1693–1765), professor of divinity in Harvard College. On his first visit to the colonies, Whitefield had made some unhappy remarks about the provincial univversities as “abodes of darkness, a darkness which could be felt,” and about the collegians at Cambridge as “close Pharisees, resting on head knowledge.” On his second visit, he added insult to injury by saying that on account of these “unguarded expressions” a few “mistaken, misinformed, good old men were publishing half-penny testimonials against the Lord’s Anointed.”

The reference here is, among others, to Wigglesworth. The latter, in his reply, does not deign to defend the college against the charge of being a seminary of paganism, but proceeds to attack its defamer: first, because of his manners, next, because of his ways of making money, and lastly, because of the evil fruits of enthusiasm. He grants that an itinerant, who frequently moves from place to place, may have a considerable use in awakening his hearers from a dead and carnal frame. But while such an exhorter may have a manner which is very taking with the people, and a power to raise them to any degree of warmth he pleases, yet in thrusting himself into towns and parishes he destroys peace and order, extorts money from the people, and arouses that pernicious thing—enthusiasm.

This attack was to be expected. The New England clergy, as chosen members of a close corporation, abhorred the disturbers of their professional etiqutte and were alarmed at poachers upon their clerical preserves. It not only threatened their social pedestals but it touched their pockets to have these “new lights” taking the people from their work and business and leading them to despise their own ministers.

This aspect of the Whitefield controversy shows that the causes of the opposition were largely social and economic, the same causes which worked—though in the other direction—in the opposition to the establishment of English episcopacy in the land. When the New England fathers had both “pence and power,” as Tom Paine would say, it was natural that they should not relish the loss of either, at the expense of high churchmen or low itinerants. But a cause deeper than the economic lay in this outraging of the spirit of the times. This was the age of reason, and the leaders of church and college prided themselves on being of a cool and logical temperament. Hence Wigglesworth’s most serious charge against Whitefield is that of irrationality. Enthusiasm, he explains, is a charge of a higher nature than perhaps people are generally aware of. The nature of enthusiasm is to make a man imagine that almost any thought which bears strongly upon his mind is from the Spirit of God, when at the same time he has no proof that it is. In short, to be of an enthusiastic turn is no such innocent weakness as people imagine.

This was Wigglesworth’s caveat to the public. Whitefield might have made it out a mere halfpenny testimonial had it not been succeeded by the formidable work of Charles Chauncy. This was the volume entitled Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (1743). That state, in the eyes of the pastor of the First Church in Boston, was, in one word, bad. The preaching of “disorderly walkers,” especially their well advertised preaching in other men’s parishes, it was argued, would lead, should it become the general practice, to the entire dissolution of our church state. But besides the evil effect upon the body politic, there was that upon the human body. With remarkable acumen, Chauncy points out the abnormalities in the practices of revivalism. The new lights, he recounts, lay very much stress on the “extraordinaries,” such as agitations, outcries, swoonings, as though they were some marks of a just conviction of sin. This is their inference, but the real fact is that the influence of awful words and fearful gestures is no other than “a mechanical impression on animal nature.” And the same natural explanation holds for the joy of the new lights. It may have its rise in the animal nature, for some have made it evident, by their after lives, that their joy was only a sudden flash, a spark of their own kindling. And when this is expressed among some sorts of people by singing through the streets and in ferryboats, from whatever cause it sprang it is certainly one of the most incongruous ways of expressing religious joy.

It must not be inferred from these strictures that Chauncy was a sour Puritan, averse to people’s happiness. The contrary was the truth. His objections lay in the superficial and ephemeral character of the religious emotions among the new lights. Their joy was evidently but the reaction of relief from the fearsome tenets of their preachers. The doctrines of total depravity and eternal damnation struck terror into the heart of the sinner. Now it was by a sort of incantation, by a promise of immediate assurance of salvation, that the itinerant removed this terror. It was, then, in a skilful way that Chauncy met such practices. The places where the revivalists had been at work were called the burnt-over districts. To prevent future conflagrations it was then necessary to start a back-fire. This Chauncy did by removing the unreasoning terror of the old doctrines. But it was necessary to do more. In place of the old faith, which, though a painful thing to hold, men were loath to abandon, there must be brought a new and emollient doctrine. New England’s nervous diathesis called for something to soothe the system. This came to be found in the exchange of pessimism for optimism; in the replacing of a dread judge by a benevolent deity, belief in whom would give a steady and lasting satisfaction. By 1784 Chauncy, as opposer of the new lights, had learned his lesson. The heart must be appealed to as well as the head. So his argument is built up from below, benevolence being first defined as “that quality, in the human mind, without which we could not be the objects of another’s esteem.”

With this hint taken from the learned English divine, Samuel Clarke, his American disciple shows how the old doctrines will dissolve of themselves. Out of the five points of Calvinism two were obviously inconsistent with benevolence. One of these was irresistible grace, as the correlate of irresistible power; the other was eternal damnation, as the correlate of total depravity. One reason, therefore, why Chauncy attacked the ranters was that they were reactionaries. But the cruel old penal view was bound to pass away of itself. Men’s minds had entered the deistic drift. The arguments of rationality became the telling arguments.

  • “Some later writers”—and the remark is evidently directed against Edwards—“might make the infinitely benevolent God, the grand and only efficient, who has so connected a chain of causes that His final result should be the everlasting damnation of a great number of the creatures His hands had formed.… But such metaphysical reasoning does not stand the test of experience. There is too much skill and contrivance displayed in the formation of this and other globes, too numerous the creatures formed with the capacities of enjoyment to lead to a jaundiced view of the Creator and His attributes. And so many creatures brought into existence according to a settled uniform course of nature, and with a variegated capacity for happiness, preclude the notion of an inscrutable or malevolent deity.”
  • This sort of argumentation reminds one of the discussion of Square and Thwackum on the eternal fitness of things. But with the exception of an occasional hack-writer like Thomas Paine, it was the method generally employed by scholars of the upper class. The method betrays a certain weakness in the middle of Chauncy’s work, since it must have gone over the heads of men of the class reached by Whitefield, son of the innkeeper, or by Tennant, promoter of log-cabin learning.

    Such an optimistic purview, embracing earth, sun, and moon, dry land and water, became stale, flat and unprofitable. The argument that things as they are, including disease and death, disclose no defect of benevolence in the deity, is not helped by the disclaimer that we “know not the intire plan of heaven and are able to see but a little way into the design of the Deity.” This was naught but the old argument of a learned ignorance, much used by the upholders of the scheme of inscrutable decrees.

    The strong part of Chauncy’s work lies in his attack upon absolute causation. The net of necessity in which the framer of the Berkshire divinity was caught, was escaped by Chauncy through an appeal to common sense.

  • “The abettors of this scheme,” argues the Bostonian, “must clearly and fully perceive its inconsistency with men being free agents, and that it totally destroys the idea of moral good and evil.… The argument may hold for beasts of the field, whose whole conduct is the effect of previous choice and pleasure; but for human beings the unbroken concatenation of causes would deprive them of free agency.”
  • And so would it be with that other prop of Puritanism, the belief in divine intervention.
  • An infinitely benevolent being might interpose, as occasion required, to prevent the mischief that would otherwise take place, but possibly the method of communicating good by general laws, uniformly adhered to, is, in the nature of things, a better adapted one to produce the greatest good, than the other method of interpositions continually repeated.
  • In a life that nearly spanned the eighteenth century, Chauncy affords an excellent example of the double reaction of the age of reason against the doctrines of irrationalism. His works had these two merits; they undermined the harsh doctrines of Calvinism which the new lights had utilized to strike terror into the hearts of the unthinking; and they afforded a substitute for sentimentalism, for, in place of violent joy, one could gain a placid contentment in the ways and works of Providence.