Locating scriptural authority in Charles Chauncy's Universalism
Baysa, Michael I.
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Charles Chauncy remains an important transitionary figure between eighteenth century Puritan orthodoxy and nineteenth century liberal Congregationalism. Many historians imagined Chauncy as a figure caught between the revelatory experiences of the Great Awakening and the rational social ethos of the Revolutionary War. This framework has helped historians harmonize Chauncy’s traditional Calvinism and his progressive Universalism, especially as they understand Chauncy’s publications on Universalism: The Mystery Hid From Ages, The Benevolence of the Deity, and Five Dissertations. Read together, these three works comprise a Universalism canon that portrays Chauncy as a theologian compromising between two extremes: reason and revelation. Read separately, however, demands a more nuanced view of Chauncy beyond portrayals of him as a religious innovator or an indecisive theologian. Chauncy’s strict adherence to scripture complicates this paradigm. On the surface, Chauncy’s biblicism illustrates his adherence to Puritan methods of epistemology. A deeper analysis of scriptural authority’s shifting role in Chauncy’s canon demonstrates an individual negotiating his abiblical environment with the texts of scripture . While historians have demonstrated the ways in which hermeneutical decisions arise from the social and political situations faced by individuals like Chauncy, few have investigated the ways in which scripture also facilitates religious transitions, at times even the decline of its influence in social and political contexts. Chauncy’s inclusion and omissions of scripture in his publications demonstrated the ways in which eighteenth century biblical canon struggled to adapt to an eighteenth century context. Recognizing this, Chauncy grounded his Universalism on scripture by appropriating John Taylor’s exegetical approaches to rebut the abiblical Universalism of John Murray or the rationalist of deists like Thomas Paine. But by the nineteenth century, New England Congregationalism demonstrated the fruits of a Chauncy’s labors: a steep decline in reliance upon biblical authority. While Chauncy had demonstrated the possibility of a biblical foundation for his Universalism, he may have also inadvertently diminished the need for it as he compromised on biblical authority in his works on Universalism. These compromises foreshadowed the challenges to scriptural authority in the nineteenth century.