Chapin, Edwin

Edwin Hubbell Chapin
Edwin Hubbell Chapin

Edwin Hubbell Chapin (December 29, 1814-December 26, 1880), Universalist minister, author, lecturer, and social reformer, was one of the most popular speakers in America from the 1840s until his death. He was revered for his eloquent tongue and passionate pleas for tolerance and justice.

Edwin was born in Union Village, New York, to Beulah Hubbell and Alpheus Chapin. The Hubbells and the Chapins had emigrated from England in the mid-1600s and settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Their descendants included doctors, soldiers, politicians, and clergy. A non-puritanical Calvinist, Edwin’s father played the violin, was a great conversationalist, and made his living as an itinerant portrait painter. His mother was a cultured woman from Bennington, Vermont. Because the family moved often, schooling was intermittent for Edwin and his two younger sisters, Ellen and Martha. Their parents, however, instilled in them a love for books. When Edwin was 11, the family settled for a while in the West End of Boston. Instead of attending school, he worked as an errand boy and wrote poems to amuse his friends. At 13 he joined a neighborhood drama club, where he recited poetry, sang songs, and played comic roles with relish.

His pious parents, fearing that Edwin would choose an acting career, enrolled him in Bennington Seminary in Bennington, Vermont, a boys’ academy noted for academic discipline. During his four years under the guidance of the gifted headmaster, James Ballard, Edwin blossomed into a witty, inspiring orator and poet. Although he could move an audience of townsfolk and fellow students to laughter and tears, no one predicted he would become a minister. After his graduation, he worked as clerk in the Bennington post office. As his employer and landlord was a lawyer, he began to think that he might want to pursue law as a career.

Chapin served eight months in two law offices in Troy, New York. While there, he enjoyed a brief stint as a political orator for Presidential candidate Martin Van Buren but disliked everyday legal drudgery. At the same time he was caught up in a religious revival. A Calvinist minister, thinking his ideas unsound, rebuffed his tentative application for advice about entering the ministry.

Depressed and discouraged, Chapin moved back with his family, who were then in Bridgewater, in central New York. From there he accompanied his father to nearby Utica. They lodged near the office of the Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate, a Universalist magazine. Wandering into its store one day, he was intrigued by the ideas in the books on display of a God of love rather than fear, so different from the deity of his Calvinist upbringing. After he began to work in a law office across the street, he continued to frequent the store. He met and talked with the magazine’s editor, Aaron Grosh, and with various Universalist clergymen, including Dolphus Skinner. He wrote poems, hymns and editorials for the Magazine and Advocate and was soon hired by the paper. He served as assistant editor, 1837-38. Converted by his exposure to the Universalist faith, and with Grosh’s encouragement, he revived his desire to be a minister. In 1838 he delivered his first sermon in Litchfield, New York.

Although he had no college education or theological training, and only a year’s exposure to Universalism, in 1838 Chapin was called to be pastor of the Independent Christian Church, in Richmond, Virginia, composed of both Universalists and Unitarians. Audiences flocked to hear the sermons and lectures of the young man with the powerful voice and magnetic personality. His tract, Universalism: What It Is Not, and What It Is, 1838, became widely popular. Universalism, he wrote, was not atheism, skepticism, or deism. Instead, “it teaches that all mankind will finally be saved from sin and its consequent misery.” Universalists did not “argue against punishment,—against future punishment,—but against the endless duration of sin and misery.” The same year, Chapin was ordained by the New York Central Association and married Hannah Newland of Utica, whom he had met at the Magazine and Advocate bookstore. She was his devoted companion for 42 years.

In 1839, on his way to the General Convention of Universalists, held in Portland, Maine, Chapin stopped in Charlestown, Massachusetts to attend the funeral of the minister Thomas F. King, father of Thomas Starr King. Having heard of Chapin’s eloquence, the church leaders invited him to speak that evening. Soon he received a call to fill the now-vacant pulpit. His acceptance was delayed for a year, while he searched for a replacement in Richmond. Before he accepted, he wrote the congregation a letter confessing that he could not find scriptural proof for the doctrine of universal salvation, although he believed it to be in the “spirit of Christ.” Also, he rejected the “doctrine of the trinity, of vicarious sacrifice to appease the wrath of God, of total depravity, original sin, etc. etc.” He made it clear that he was an independent thinker who served “God and humanity”and preached not a creed but “Liberal Christianity.” In spite of these reservations, he was enthusiatically welcomed by the congregation. Hosea Ballou, Hosea Ballou 2d, Thomas Whittemore, Otis A. Skinner, Sebastian Streeter, and Elbridge G. Brooks took part in his installation. He served the Charlestown church, 1840-45.

In Charlestown Chapin began to espouse the temperance, abolition, and anti-capital punishment causes of Theodore Parker, Horace Mann, William Lloyd Garrison, Charles Spear, and others. He was mentor and friend to Starr King, who “enjoyed a rich conversation with Bro. Chapin on philosophy and religion.” Out of the grief following the death of his first born child, Edward Channing Chapin (named for William Ellery Channing), he wrote the book The Crown of Thorns: A Token for the Sorrowing, 1847.

Chapin alternated between a frenzy of productive activities—installations, ordinations, college commencements, speaking in favor of social reforms, sermons, publications, service as chaplain of the Massachusetts legislature and as a member of the State Board of Education—and exhausted depression. His generous contributions to charity, support of his father, and his purchases of rare books often outran his income. Partly in order to increase his income, in late 1845 he became the colleague of the aging Hosea Ballou at the Second Universalist Church in Boston. Here his advocacy of reforms, notably temperance, alienated some conservative Universalists, who, under Ballou, had not been used to such preaching. He moved on after only two years.

In 1848 Chapin was installed at the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, where he remained for 32 years, preaching broad church Christianity and becoming the most popular preacher in the city. In 1852, when his congregation bought a larger church on Broadway, over 2,000 people came to the first Sunday evening service and hundreds were turned away. In 1866 the Fourth Universalist Society moved to a new building at 5th Avenue and 45th Street, The Church of the Divine Paternity.

Chapin’s preaching was described as hypnotic. He was for a quarter-century the star of the Lyceum circuit, devoting half his time to traveling from Maine to Illinois to deliver his lectures. These addresses, on subjects such as “Orders of Nobility,” “Modern Chivalry,” “Social Forces,” “Man and His Work,” “Woman and Her Work,” and “The Progress of Popular Liberty,” were more intellectual and polished, if a little less emotional than his sermons. When Starr King was on a program with him, he always asked to speak before Chapin did. Chapin’s fame was international. One of his most impassioned speeches was delivered to 3,000 people of different nationalities and languages at the 1850 Peace Congress at Frankfurt am Main. Even those who knew no English burst into applause, sensing the heartfelt eloquence.

Although seldom controversial in his sermons, Chapin was adamantly opposed to slavery. Despite his abhorrence of war and loss of life, he supported the Union side during the Civil War, which caused dissension in his church. Merchants in the congregation who had done business with Southern slave-holders objected to his public stance. In response to one attack, he told the members of the congregation that “While you have absolute control of your temple, you have no authority over my conscience.”

Chapin appealed to a broad audience which included people from many faiths. He was not interested in theological differences, but in commonalities and in the spiritual aspects of religion. He rejected a literal reading of the Bible. It was a book, he said, “where each his dogma seeks, and each his dogma finds.” He commended the moral principles set forth by Jesus Christ as the best path to salvation. He opposed his church adopting the sectarian Winchester Profession of Faith. Like the Restorationists, he believed that punishment of a limited duration might be required in the afterlife. Some complained that there was nothing especially Universalist in his sermons. He nevertheless rejected eternal damnation, believing that each person would eventually be saved by a loving God.

Chapin was enthralled by the scientific discoveries of his day. He could see no conflict between religion and science. “The more we learn of nature,” he said, “the more clearly is revealed to us this fact—that we know less than we thought we did . . . as science, as nature, opens upon us, we find mystery after mystery, and the demand upon the human soul is for faith, faith in high, yea, in spiritual realities.” “Faith is not the surrendering of our minds to that which is irrational and inconsistent,” however. “In that which conflicts with our reason we cannot have faith.” He thought that the faith we must have is “in realities that are not of time or sense.”

Chapin preached continually on the obligation to care for all people, stressing their innate worth. In 1869 his congregation raised funds to establish, in his honor, the Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm in New York City, open to anyone over 65. His wife was its first and long-time president. Bringing comfort and cheer to its residents was a favorite pastime for Chapin.

In his book Humanity in the City, 1854, Chapin observed, “There sits the beggar, sick and pinched with cold; and there goes a man of no better flesh and blood, and no more authentic charter of soul, wrapped in comfort, and actually bloated with luxury.” This teaches us, he reflected, “our duty and our responsibility in lessening social inequality and need.” Large cities heighten both good and evil, he wrote in Moral Aspects of City Life, 1853: “The close contact that excites the worst passions of humanity also elicits its sympathies—and noble charities are born of all this misery and guilt.” He believed his major role in life was to help alleviate this misery. “The preacher, especially in the city,” he said, “must be a true reformer, definite, emphatic, bold.” Although he criticized institutions, denounced manifest evils, and worked endlessly for social causes, he did not denounce individuals, believing moral persuasion more effective in changing behaviors and lives.

Chapin’s library of nearly 10,000 volumes included poetry, plays, folk-lore, legends, ballads, biographies, history, philosophy, progressive social thought, essays, orations, and practical Christianity, but little theology or Biblical criticism. He rarely used quotations or allusions in his talks. Instead, he used his reading to understand the great issues of life and faith.

At ease behind a podium, Chapin was shy and uncomfortable in social settings. He preferred the company of family and close friends (such as P. T. Barnum), where he was relaxed, witty, and jovial. He rarely visited parishioners, except the sick or grieving. He disliked small talk, and quickly disappeared after services and lectures to avoid meeting strangers and autograph seekers. Fortunately, his wife Hannah was even-tempered, cheerful, sociable, and a skilled manager of her husband’s business affairs.

In 1856 Chapin was given a Doctor of Divinity degree by Harvard College. He received an LL.D. from Tufts College in 1878. He was a trustee of Bellevue Medical College and Hospital and a member of the State Historical Society, the beneficent society called Order of Odd Fellows, and the prestigious Century Club, composed of “authors, artists, and amateurs of letters and the fine arts.”

Chapin preached his last sermon on Palm Sunday, 1880. His health had deteriorated for six years from progressive muscular atrophy, but he refused an assistant and resisted retirement until forced by debilitation. After a brief trip to Europe and a summer relaxing at the family cottage in Pigeon Cove, Cape Ann, Massachusetts, he steadily grew worse and died a few days before his 66th birthday.

The funeral service was conducted by James M. Pullman of the Church of Our Saviour (Sixth Universalist Society in New York City). The sermon was preached by his good friend, the Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher, who said later: “The audience at Chapin’s funeral was remarkable. It came the nearest being a representation of the Church Universal I ever saw . . . Not another minister in New York could draw such a diversity of people to his burial.” Other participants included Henry Whitney Bellows of the Church of All Souls, President Elmer H. Capen of Tufts College, Robert Collyer of the Unitarian Church of the Messiah, and Thomas Armitage of the 5th Avenue Baptist Church. Chapin was buried in Greenwood Cemetery. Seven months later Hannah died and was laid beside him. They were survived by three children.


Among Chapin’s many books and tracts are Duties of Young Men (1840), The Positions and Duties of Liberal Christians (1842), The Philosophy of Reform (1843), Three Discourses on Capital Punishment (1843), The Relation of the Individual to the Republic (1844), Hymns of Christian Devotion (1846, with John G. Adams), True Patriotism (1847), The Fountain: A Temperance Gift (1847), Duties of Young Women (1848), Discourses on the Lord’s Prayer (1850), Christianity, the Perfection of True Manliness (1854), The American Idea and What Grows Out of It (1854), A Discourse on Shameful Life (1859), A Discourse on the Evils of Gaming (1859), Living Words (1860), Providence and Life (1869), Lessons of Faith and Life (1877), The Church of the Living Word (1878), and The Church of the Living God (1881).

The only full-length biography of Chapin is Sumner Ellis, Life of Edwin H. Chapin (1882). There are biographical sketches in David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985) and Mark Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004). See also Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 1 (1979). Obituaries include The Sun (New York City, December 28, 1880), and the Universalist Register (1882).

Article by June Edwards
Posted May 24, 2006