UU Minute #56

Reaction to the Great Awakening: Beginnings of American Liberal Religion

In the 1730s, the Great Awakening revivalist movement swept through the colonies, with itinerant preachers going town to town whipping up religious enthusiasm, emotional excess and fervor, and promoting a reactionary dogmatism. The Great Awakening produced a permanent division between its supporters who saw in the revival the hand of God, and its critics who saw only madness and raw emotion.

Against the Great Awakening, the liberal clergy increasingly united in defining reason and tolerance as the basis of religion, increasingly turned to liberal books and colleagues for support, and thus, became increasingly liberal.

Liberalization in New England churches occurred gradually. Rather than explicitly renounce doctrines with which they disagreed, preachers stopped emphasizing them, then stopped mentioning them at all, and only eventually came to consciously abandon them. Because of Congregational Polity, control of the church was in the hands of the local congregation – and if a congregation liked their minister, there was no higher authority to enforce orthodoxy.

So, some of the clergy began drifting leftward, bringing their congregations along. One of these was Charles Chauncy. In 1727, at age 22, Chauncy was ordained as an assistant minister of Boston's First Church, one of the most important in churches in New England. In 1762, at age 57, Chauncy became that congregation’s senior pastor. He served First Church in that capacity for 25 years more – in all, a 60-year career at First Church, until his death at age 82.

Charles Chauncy never called himself a Unitarian, but his ideas paved the way for those did, so we’ll learn more about Charles Chauncy in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Charles Chauncy

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