My ninth great grandfather Charles Chauncy (1592-1672) was a non-conformist Divine, at one time imprisoned for his views by Archbishop Laud, who emigrated to America and later became a long-serving President of Harvard College.


Harvard president Charles Chauncy

In “Highways and Byways in Hertfordshire” (1902), H. W. Tompkins mentions Charles Chauncy in connection with Ardeley Bury:

To mention Ardeley, or to think of Ardeley Bury, is to call to mind the Chauncys, a good Hertfordshire family, whose talents were exercised in several spheres of usefulness. First, though not foremost from the standpoint of literary or historic importance, was old Charles, somewhat renowned in his day as a Nonconformist divine. Where he was born I am unable to say ; he was baptised in the church here on 5th November, 1592. He was an indefatigable reader and student, and was eminent as an oriental and classical scholar. For some time he gave the benefit of his learning to the townsmen of Ware ; but managed to fall foul of Archbishop Laud, as so many pastors did, and was summoned to appear before the High Commission Court on two occasions. I believe the precise nature of his misdemeanours, theological or political, is known to the learned, with whom I leave them. However trivial we might deem them now, they were heinous offences in the eyes of Laud, and Charles Chauncy was deprived of his living and placed in prison. I am sorry to remember that he was but a weak-kneed brother, and presently, finding that to him, at least, stone walls did make a prison, he submitted in the most abject manner before the mitred bigot. For this humiliation he never forgave himself. In 1637 he landed at Plymouth in New England, where he became for a short time an assistant pastor, going from thence to a town called Scituate. There he preached for several years, and then, the Puritans having triumphed over their enemies, the men of Ware besought their pastor to return. But his work now lay elsewhere. He was almost on the point of embarking for England when he was invited to become President of Harvard College — a position for which he was eminently qualified — and in November, 1654, he was installed as the second President of that now famous institution. At Harvard he laboured for the rest of his life, and dying there in 1672, was buried at New Cambridge. He was a rare and racy preacher of the old sort, whose mouth uttered quaint sayings in abundance, and who kept tongue and pen alike busy. The Plain Doctrine of the Justification of a Sinner in the Sight of God, was one of his productions — doubtless a pithy, profitable, and long discourse, which probably no man or woman now in Hertfordshire has ever read, and which rests in a few libraries in a repose almost as deep as the bones of its author.

Charles Chauncy graduated from Cambridge in 1613, and became a fellow of his college, Trinity College, and professor of Hebrew and Greek. In 1627 he was appointed Vicar of Ware, Hertfordshire, and from 1633 to 1637 vicar at Marston St Lawrence, Northamptonshire.

Chauncy had Puritanical opinions that placed him in opposition to the church hierarchy, including its most senior member, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. He asserted in a sermon that “idolatry was admitted into the church” and he opposed, as a “snare to men’s consciences” placing a barrier – the altar rail – around the communion table. He was suspended by Archbishop Laud for refusing to perform his duty to read from the pulpit the “Book of Sports”, which set out permissible Sunday recreations. He was brought before the Court of High Commission in 1629 and again in 1634. In 1634 he was imprisoned. He made a formal recantation in 1637 which – it is said – he later regretted.

In 1638 Charles Chauncy emigrated to America. From 1638 to 1641 he was an associate pastor at Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, the Plymouth church community was dissatisfied with Chauncy’s advocacy of baptism of infants by immersion. From 1641 to 1654 he served as pastor at Scituate, Massachusetts. From 1654 until his death in 1672 he was President of Harvard College.

Charles Chauncy and his wife Catherine Chauncy nee Eyre (1604 – 1667) had six sons and at least two daughters. All six sons were said to have been “bred to the ministry and graduates of Harvard”. I have previously written about Ichabod, their third child and second son.

I think Charles Chauncy is close to the definition of a zealot: a person who has very strong opinions about something, and tries to make other people have them too. Chauncy only seemed to compromise reluctantly.

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