Thursday, October 29, 2020

Stay in Your Lane!: Charles Chauncy Against the Revivalists

Having been raised Roman Catholic, revivalism wasn't really part of my experience growing up. It's my understanding that my maternal grandfather was a deacon in the Methodist Church, and that he often sang at their revivals in the region of Missouri where I grew up. Some of my classmates were raised in Baptist or Assembly of God homes, and the stories they sometimes told of sermons that left them having nightmares seemed utterly alien to me. When I was 17 I joined the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA), where revivals and lurid sermons about heaven, hell, and the end times are unheard of as well. It was around that time, though, that my class in high school read Jonathan Edward's 'Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. It was a part of US history, and a genre of period literature we were expected to become familiar with. One part in particular has remained etched in my memory ever since.

The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. (Edwards 1741) 

If I remember correctly after about 28 years, 17 year old evangelical-in-a-mainline-church me thought that while this sermon was technically correct, the presentation was all wrong. The idea of God holding people individually in such disgust was jarring. At the same time, I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker the narrative that had us all as wretches without the grace of God.

"Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." (Romans 3:22-24 KJV)

After I made my transition into the evangelical world, it was a within an atypical tradition that emphasized immersion baptism as the point of salvation, and not a "sinner's prayer." Still, I heard quite a bit about how kids at Baptist and other evangelical Bible camps would often 'pray to receive Jesus' every year during the final night's altar call. They were made to feel bad about themselves, and to be sure of heaven they would seek to make peace with their God so that they could avoid hell for being sinners. For whatever it's worth, my bunch wasn't too dramatically different. Although we'd only baptize once, every year there was an altar call for kids to repent and 'renew' their 'relationship' with Christ.

This style of revivalistic preaching for repentance and salvation was not common in colonial North America until George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards started doing it. I've heard that Edwards was actually not a very fiery preacher, but that his words were convicting. Whitefield would announce his tour schedule, so-to-speak, in order to drum up excitement and get a good crowd when he arrived. They and the revivalists that followed found that established religion had become moribund, a shell of what they believed the power of Christianity should look like. It was outward form with no substance, to their minds. And so, they preached. Not everyone was thrilled about that.

Charles Chauncy served Boston's First Church for 60 years. Even for an era when pastorates could last a lifetime, that was a pretty impressive stretch of time. 

Under his watch, the congregation adopted liberal tendencies, including acceptance of the Half-Way Covenant to allow children's baptisms for all and rejecting confessions of faith as a requirement for church membership. But Chauncy was more concerned with challenges to congregational order than with theological hair-splitting. (McKanan 2017)

Chauncy was committed to order and stability, and the revival preachers were creating the very opposite of what he wanted. 

Chauncyy's Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (1743) represented American religious liberalism's first articulate response to the emotionalism, fear-mongering, and emphasis on individual (rather than social) salvation in evangelical revivalism. (Buehrens, 2011)

His problem was the disorder coming to the Standing Order through the Great Awakening. As he explained in 'Seasonable Thoughts':

And if in the first Days of Christianity when the State of Things was such as to require the travelling of the Apostles and others from Place to Place to preach the Gospel I say if in these Times even an Apostle thought it disorderly to go out of his own Line and enter upon other Men's Labours tis much more so in the present settled State of the Church The Pastor has now his special Charge He is devoted to the Service of the LORD Jesus CHRIST in a particular Place and over a particular People His Work as a Minister does not lie at large but is restrained within certain Boundaries I don't mean that he may not use his Office in other Places within the Rules of Order upon special Occasions and where there may be a just Call. (McKanan 2017)

Essentially, his argument was a mix of 'stay in your lane!' and 'hey you kids, stay off my lawn!' He argued from the Bible against a practice that was inconvenient to him and to other established preachers. I can feel for him in that he possibly felt that he'd followed the rules for years, and these louts were coming in breaking them all and dividing churches. 

It's hard for us now, I think, to appreciate the chaos that an itinerant preacher could bring to a community back then. Now revivals and similar religious events are held all the time with little or no notice in the wider region, even in small towns and rural communities. Now we have streaming content and multiple other ways to spend our free time and entertain ourselves, and a generally much lower anxiety about religion. Then, however, religious services were one of the key means to socialize and to distract oneself from the real world. In the aftermath of traveling preachers were left divided families and neighborhoods. 

The other significant point Chauncy repeatedly made in 'Seasonable thoughts' was that the revival preachers were just too darn proud. Such a Puritan argument to make.

And what is the Language of this going into other Men's Parishes Is it not obviously this The settled Pastors are Men not qualified for their Office or not faithful in the Execution of it They are either unfit to take the Care of Souls or grossly negligent in doing their Duty to them Or the Language may be we are Men of greater Gifts Superiour Holiness more Acceptableness to GOD or have been in an extraordinary Manner sent by him. (McKanan 2017)

In other words, the firebrand preachers were, as Chauncy saw it, setting themselves up as better than the local pastors. Generally, I think he's right about how they saw themselves. As indicated above, their preaching indicates a disdain for local religion, seeing it as dead or very nearly so. What mattered was a new life, starting with a dramatic personal experience of conversion. The Standing Order churches by this point were more about being converted over time into an honorable member of society.

At the same time, from the perspective of the revivalists, this was a matter of heaven or hell for people, more urgent than life or death. If what they believed about the Bible was true, then the only right thing to do would be to declare it near and far, high and low. This is the urgency of evangelism that conservative Christians continue to feel, when they reflect seriously on the implications of their faith.

Who will reward every man according to his works: That is, to them which through patience in well doing, seek glory, and honor, and immortality, everlasting life: But unto them that are contentious, and disobey the truth, and obey unrighteousness, shall be indignation and wrath. (Romans 2:6-8 GNV)

In the late 20th century the language of Christianity began to shift. Mainline Protestant churches spoke less and less of anything other than 'systemic sin,' and evangelicals shifted to talking about 'brokenness' rather than 'sin.' The harsh language became almost exclusively the domain of the fundamentalists, and evangelical preachers began declaring a therapeutic gospel. 

Within that context, another 'revival' began that had aspects similar to the first and second Great Awakenings as well as the Azusa Street Revival. The 'Toronto Blessing,' which reportedly began at the The Airport Vineyard Church in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1994 quickly spread to other churches around the world. The 'signs' that accompanied manifestations of this revival included being 'slain in the spirit' and speaking in tongues, both common to Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, but also 'laughing in the Spirit' or 'holy laughter.' In the late 1990s I accompanied a friend to a church that held services in this style, and found to be true what I'd heard about preaching being nearly absent, and the focus being almost entirely on singing until people started having powerful emotional experiences. 

Here's what I see distinguishing contemporary 'awakenings' from the sort that came before, including what Chaunce was protesting.

First, revivals of all varieties are now typically held in cooperation with an existing church. Even when a traveling ministry without local affiliations comes to town, attendees are typically already in line with the theology, and remain with their home churches. New congregations don't typically form in the aftermath of such a revival, and there's rarely much of a stir in the population over the topic.

Second, more often than not the visiting evangelists are there at the invitation of a local clergy person. It's understood that their role is to revive the church, not split it or make the regular pastor look bad.

Third, although some ministries will talk a great deal about sin, hell, and damnation, what I've observed is a tendency to emphasize the need people allegedly have for a savior, and the benefits of becoming a Christian. By talking about 'brokenness' instead of 'sin,' they are able to include people who have experienced trauma through no fault of their own in the category of those who will 'be saved.' This at least isn't as bad as what the old-time revivalists did. I dread to think of how many through the years felt torn down and degraded by hearing that what they were was vile in the eyes of God. Still, is it really any better for an lgbtq+ adolescent, for example, hear that they are 'broken' and that if they seek the love of another, it's sinful? I really don't think so.

Chauncy's position against the revivalists seems silly and self-serving to me. As a settled minister benefiting from the legally sanctioned Standing Order, the preaching of repentance by johnny-come-lately ministers could only work against him and those like him. He was protecting the status quo in the only way he could, since fines and jail time weren't readily available as they had been for his forebearers in the Old World. 

On another level, his complaints remind me of how rules lawyers nowadays in the Dungeons & Dragons community complain about how others don't follow the official rules precisely in their games. It's as if they're saying "your fun is wrong" to everyone having fun their own way. Telling someone that their religion is wrong, or their way of declaring it outside the established parameters is unacceptable, sounds like just about the same thing to me.


Buehrens, J. A. (2011). Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People's History. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Edwards, Jonathan and Smolinski, Reiner , Editor, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. A Sermon Preached at Enfield, July 8th, 1741." (1741). Electronic Texts in American Studies. 54. 

Geneva Bible, 1599 Edition (GNV). Published by Tolle Lege Press.

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.