In the early 1600s, the Anglican Church came under criticism from all manner of dissenters offering a wide variety of opinions on how the church should change. The Puritan beliefs are probably the best remembered, and the Puritan zeal to change the church appealed mightily to a young minister named Charles Chauncy.
Born in 1592 in England, Charles Chauncy became a vicar in the Anglican Church. But Chauncy was drawn to the Puritans – the group of religious reformers that wanted to work within the church.
In broad strokes, the Puritan beliefs rejected the Catholic traditions and ceremony incorporated into the Anglican Church. Puritans wanted to return to a purer form of religion that stressed the need for a more pious life. They also wanted a more personal relationship with God that put ministers on the same footing as everyone else.
But the Puritans themselves disagreed over particulars, and Chauncy had some radical ideas for the times.
For example, how often and when should churches offer communion services? Chauncy supported evening communion. How should ministers administer baptism? Chauncy believed the ceremony did not involve merely sprinkling holy water over a person. Rather, he believed in complete immersion in the water – even for infants.
Twice Chauncy was taken to task for his outspoken opinions while in England. Once he was even briefly imprisoned. Both times he recanted his positions, but he maintained a simmering anger at being called to heel by church authorities. After his second run-in, a fellow clergyman wrote in a letter:
“Mr. Chauncy… mends like sour ale in summer. He held a fast on Wednesday last, and … he with another preached some six or eight hours. The whole tribe of Gad flocked thither, some three-score from Northampton; the Lord Say, with his lady, honoured them with their presence.”
With Chauncy gaining a following for his positions, the church was apparently planning once again to confront him when he decided it was best to leave England for America. He arrived in Plymouth in 1638 and ministered there for two years. Then his brash nature led to his departure – this time to Scituate, Mass. Another church member reported on the news in a letter to England:
“Mr. Chancy and the church [at Plymouth] are to part…. At a day of fast… he openly professed he did as verily believe the truth of his opinions as that there was a God in heaven, and that he was settled in it as the earth was upon the center. … I profess how it is possible to keep peace with a man so adventurous and pertinacious, who will vent what he list and maintain what he vents, it’s beyond all the skill I have to conceive.”
Chauncy’s Persistent Puritan Beliefs
But Chauncy persisted in trying to explain the rightness of his opinions, publishing The Doctrine of the Sacrament, with the Right Use Thereof.
In Scituate, Chauncy found a more welcoming community that at least tolerated (for the most part) his theories on baptism. Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop recorded in his journal in 1642:
Mr. Chauncy of Scituate persevered in his opinion of dipping in baptism and practiced accordingly, first upon two of his own, which being in very cold weather, one of them swooned away.
In at least one instance, Chauncy nearly got pulled into the water during a baptism in the panic over drowning, Winthrop recorded. In another, Chauncy agreed to give a mother a letter that allowed her to have her baby baptized in Boston, using a less traumatic ceremony.
Chauncy also vehemently criticized the half-way doctrine. Many Puritan Congregational Churches allowed the baptism of children of non-baptized members and accepted them into the church. This allowed the church to maintain greater numbers and political influence. But critics argued it allowed non-believers into the church as well.
Charles Chauncy at Harvard
With offers to return to England, Chauncy was on the verge of taking his Puritan beliefs back across the Atlantic when he was presented with an interesting proposition. Harvard College President Henry Dunster had to resign because of his position on yet another of the Puritan beliefs. Dunster came out in favor of Baptism for adults only. Some argued that infants were not capable of being baptized because they, as innocents, could not have had a religious experience that called them to accept the church. Dunster shared the view and was asked to leave Harvard.
The young college then offered the Rev. Chauncy the position of president. The job came with a stipulation, however. Chauncy would have to silence his most controversial views on Puritan beliefs and focus on running the college.
The scholarly and erudite Chauncy was well-suited to his new task. In 1654, now in his 60s, Chauncy the firebrand became Chauncy the academic bureaucrat. He flourished for more than 15 years as president of a growing Harvard College. The chief controversy of his tenure, if you can call it a controversy, was his insistence that the salary of the president should be increased – a pursuit as futile as his other passions.
This story last updated in 2023.