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Chauncy, Charles (1592–1672)

A notice of the ancestor of all the Chauncys in the United States is not out of place because, although a clergyman by profession, he was said to be eminent as a physician—there were few in the country in the seventeenth century who could be so denominated—moreover he disseminated among his pupils a knowledge of the medicine of the day, acquired in England, at a time when such instruction was badly needed in our new civilization.

Charles Chauncy was born in Yardley-Bury, Hertfordshire, England, in November, 1592, coming of an old English family. He was a scholar at the Westminster school at the time of the Gunpowder Plot and barely missed being blown up; was graduated B. A. at Cambridge University in 1613, became a fellow of Trinity College, and was professor of Hebrew, and afterwards of Greek there, leaving to become vicar at Ware, Hertfordshire (1627–1633); moving on to the vicarage of Marston St. Lawrence, Northamptonshire (1633–1637). Cambridge conferred the M. A. degree on him in 1617 and S. T. B. in 1624. This was when he was a scholar and before his puritanical opinions had made him obnoxious to his ecclesiastical superiors. In 1629 he was brought before the high commission accused of asserting in a sermon that "idolatry was admitted into the church" and that "an increase of atheism, popery, and Arminianism" existed in that body. Again in 1834 he was charged with opposing the erection of an altar rail as "a snare to men's consciences." For this he was sentenced to suspension and imprisonment until he should publicly acknowledge his offense; in addition he was made to pay the heavy costs of his trial. His courage failing him he made a recantation in open court, a step that he never ceased to regret. A long "Retractation" written in 1637 was not published until 1641, when he was in America. A climax was reached in the fall of 1637 when Chauncy refused to read Archbishop Laud's book of "Lawful Sunday Sports" and he set sail for the land of the free, arriving in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in January, 1638. How thankful we should be for these quarrels about religion, for they gave us trained scholars and scientists with which to start our institutions of learning in America. Very likely Chauncy missed the relatively advanced civilization of his mother country, for after living in Plymouth and Scituate for sixteen years, three years in Plymouth as an assistant to Mr. Raynor, and thirteen in Scituate as pastor of a church which developed a schism and was poorly supported, he was about to sail for England, tarrying for a while in Boston, the port of departure, when he was offered the presidency of Harvard College, made vacant by the death of the first president, Henry Dunster, October 24, 1654. This he accepted in November of that year and served the college until his death, February 19, 1672. That his scholarship was appreciated appears from the statement of Cotton Mather, who said that when Chauncy had been a year or two in town "the church kept a whole day of thanksgiving to God for the mercy which they had enjoyed in his being there."

The good man was industrious, rising at four in the morning winter and summer and spending the morning hours in study and devotion; he published numerous sermons and some Latin and Greek verses. It may have been due to the regretted recantation of his views early in his career that his opinions were not subject to change, for he remained set in opposing the baptism of the children of noncommunicants, and preached constantly against wearing of the hair long, calling it "a. heathenish practice." Toward the close of his life (1662) he published "Antisynodalia Scripta Americana," in opposition to the synod of 1662, which sanctioned the admission to the church of all batized persons, even if they had not professed a "change of heart." The utilitarianism of the day is sadly illustrated by the tradition that his writings passed into the hands of his stepdaughter, whose husband, being a pieman, used them to line his pastry.

He left six sons, all graduating from Harvard and all becoming preachers. Mather said they were physicians, also, like their father. Several physicians studied with Chauncy, notably Thomas Thacher (q. v.). Chauncy did much for Harvard College and for Massachusetts and he was an early instructor in medicine.

Amer. Med. Biog., James Thacher, Boston, 1828.
Appleton's Cyclop. Amer. Biog., New York, 1887.
Dict'n'y Amer. Biog., F. S. Drake. Boston, 1872.
Encyclop. Brittan., 11th edit'n, New York, 1910.
Nat'l Cyclop. Amer. Biog., New York, 1896, vi, 411.