Sunday, November 20, 2011

Rev. Chauncey Giles, Leader of the Swedenbourgian Church in America

       Rev. Chauncey Giles was the leader of the New Jerusalem Church (Swedenbourgian) in the United States. He was born in Massachusetts in 1813 and educated at Williams College. He spent a number of years as a struggling school teacher moving from town to town in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He was so dissatisfied with teaching that at one time he attempted to become a dentist. He then tried giving public lectures on chemistry – a subject about which he knew nothing. He attempted to demonstrate some experiments, but ended up burning his hand and inhaling chlorine gas. He finally found his true calling when he became a clergyman in Cincinnati. After eleven years, he moved to New York. In 1875, he was elected President of the General Conference of the Church of the New Jerusalem in the United States and continued in that position until his death in 1893. For a number of years, he was also editor of the New Jerusalem Messenger.

Eunice and Chauncey Giles, about 1883

       In 1877, Giles began was having health problems and decided he could no longer continue all of his duties. He decided he required a lighter work load and accepted the call to become pastor of the New Church Society in Philadelphia. He took up his position in Philadelphia in early 1878 and moved his family to 3609 Hamilton St. He wrote that: “[w]e are delightfully situated here. West Philadelphia is a city in the country. The streets are like green lanes. Many of the houses have beautiful gardens with shrubbery and flowers. We have some city sounds, but they are not numerous and loud enough to drown the sounds of birds and other country notes. We have enjoyed the quiet and beauty of our home very much.” In March, 1878, he reported that “I am often asked if I feel at home, and I am compelled to answer, ‘No.’ I know I am at home and I am satisfied, but there is so great a difference between Philadelphia and New York that it will take time to accommodate myself to all the new ways and feel contented. The people are very kind and do all in their power to make me feel at home. There are many people of culture here, and I think they are more sociable than they were in New York. I really think we have received more invitations to dine and take tea since we came here than we did in the fourteen years in New York.”
       Soon after his arrival in Philadelphia, Giles made several trips to London and to Paris where he helped a group trying to establish the New Church of Jerusalem in France. This trip consumed much of 1878 and for the next few years he continued spending several months a year in Europe. In later years, he traveled to a number of cities in the U.S. often in connection with annual meetings of the General Conference. The trips to Europe were made possible by the generosity of anonymous donors which also allowed him and Mrs. Giles to spend summers at Lake George.
       After he returned to the U.S. and his home in Philadelphia, he wrote to a friend in Europe inviting her to come for a visit. By this time, the Rev. and Mrs. Giles seem settled into their new setting. In December, 1878, he wrote: “We have a good cheerful fire in the grate, my study lamp gives a soft and pleasant light, and we can offer you an easy chair. There is also a basket of delicious fruit, a present from the Sunday school, on my desk, and on the side table there is a very large and beautiful bouquet, covering nearly the whole of the table, a present from the ladies of the society. Come, you shall share in them all. Mrs. Giles will lay aside her book, and I will put away my writing, and we will have a good talk.”
       Building a successful congregation must not have been an easy task. Years later, his daughter wrote that: “Among its members were many earnest and devoted New Churchmen who, because of tenacious and opposite opinions held by other equally sincere members, had refrained from active participation in the affairs of the Society, so that conflict might be avoided. Some who had come into the Church from the Quakers wished little or no ritual; others there were who liked a more elaborate service. Some would like to join the General Convention and work with the Church at large; others opposed it. Mr. Giles's one aim was useful work in harmony for the Church.” Giles brought the congregation together to raise money first for church windows then for a new organ.
       During the years 1879-1881 the Church lacked a regular meeting place. However, by 1881, they had collected sufficient funds to purchased land at the corner of 22nd and Chestnut Streets where they built the church that still stands today. When the building was completed in 1883, Giles reported that “[t]he completion of this church and the Sunday School building and their dedication to the Lord will be in one way the crowning success of my life. I do not know of anyone who thought it to be possible when I came here. I do not think anyone even dreamed of it, but there they stand, an ornament to the city and a beautiful and convenient home for our society.” By this time, the Church had a number of prominent members who lived in Powelton. (See my previous blog, Swedenborgians in Powelton.)

       In the spring of 1882, Giles was able to buy 3502 Hamilton St. with help from friends. Years later, his daughter wrote that “[f]or the first time in his life [he] owned a home of his very own. This fact was a constant source of gratitude. I have heard my mother say that it is the only material blessing for which he ever prayed. The home was a comfort to them both in their declining years and a blessing most deeply appreciated.”

       In 1885, Giles was having increasing health problems associated with rheumatism, bronchitis, and a broken rib. Therefore, the Church hired William L. Worcester as his assistant. Worcester was ordained in late 1885 and later succeeded Giles as pastor. He lived with the Giles family until 1899 when he married Edith Burnham, daughter of William and granddaughter of George Burnham (3401 Powelton Ave.), and moved in with her parents.  The Burnhams were prominent members of the New Church.
       Giles published several books and a large number of sermons. He also wrote stories for children in “an attempt to embody some useful truths in a form to interest the young.” These were published in “The Wonderful Pocket” (available for download from Google books).

       Chauncey Giles died at his home in 1893. Mrs. Giles continued living there until her death in 1912. Mr. Giles’s obituary in the New Church Messenger noted that “[i]n the removal of Mr. Giles we have taken from us the most widely known man of the New Church. He was beyond all comparison the leader in the work of the New Church propagandism, and has doubtless said, published, and done more for making known to the world the doctrines of the New Church than any other man in its history.” In 1897, the Philadelphia Church added a new chancel and dedicated it to his memory.

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