God is One: William Ellery Channing

Unitarian history differs from that of most denominations. If you want to know the history of Methodism you begin with John Wesley. George Fox founded the Quakers, John Calvin the Presbyterians, Joseph Smith the Mormons. The Unitarians, though, do not begin with any one person. The movement goes back to the earliest days of Christianity. Unitarian ideas can be traced back to Jesus or Socrates, Arius and Pelagius. In Europe all through the middle ages we find groups struggling toward Unitarianism. The movement became organized in the middle 1500’s and such names as Michael Servetus, Sebastian Castellio, Faustus and Laelius Socinus, Francis David, and King John Sigismund are prominent.

In this country we find Unitarianism a significant trend in the 1700’s. Joseph Priestley emigrated to the United States from England in 1794 and founded a Unitarian church in Philadelphia. It was attended by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. King’s Chapel in Boston converted from Anglican to Unitarian in 1786. The American Unitarian Association was organized on May 25, 1825. By coincidence the British Unitarian Association was organized that same day. By 1825 Unitarian was flourishing. The theology became more developed and streamlined.

I.

When the Association was organized in 1825 there was no doubt who was its chief spokesman. William Ellery Channing was the most respected preacher of his day. The Unitarians loved him and the Calvinists dreaded him.

Now I want to describe the life and works of William Ellery Channing. Let’s see if we can put flesh and blood on that most remarkable man.

Channing was born in Newport, R.I. in April 1780 of a strict Calvinist family. He was reared under the severe preaching of Dr. Samuel Hopkins, an old school Calvinist. Once young Ellery attended church with his father and listened to Dr. Hopkins expound the wrath of God, the depravity of human nature, the evil of life, and how we all are in imminent danger of going into everlasting hellfire. Young Channing trembled for his life. On the way out of church the elder Channing said to Dr. Hopkins, “Sound doctrine, Sir, sound doctrine.”

Ellery noted the comment but he also noticed that his father whistled a pleasant tune on the way home. He saw the gentleness of his father, the manner in which he loved and trusted other people. That struck him as inconsistent because obviously the father didn’t act as if people were totally depraved nor did he seem to fear being sent to hell just any time. The episode had a lasting effect on his thinking.

From the beginning, young Channing was interested in theology and logic, though he was only an average student in most regards. He loved to climb the rigging of the Newport ships. He enjoyed good health and loved sports. He liked to fly his kite and once spent a night in a haunted house.

Channing was affected all his life by his early training. In his home he saw a belief in the goodness of people coupled with suspicion of the lower classes; humanitarianism with a tolerance of slavery; high personal morality with an acceptance of the rum and slave trade.

Channing entered Harvard University, then a small school with 173 students. At Harvard he became embroiled in politics and found himself the leader of several student groups. He was intensely patriotic. He led the student group in a petition to President John Quincy Adams about the wickedness of the French. He said in the petition,

When we contemplate the French, our youthful blood boils within us. In defense of America we now solemnly offer the unwasted ardor and unimpaired energies of our youth to the service of our country.

His youthful blood apparently still was boiling within him at commencement time when he was asked to be class orator and deliver the commencement address. He was forbidden to make any reference to politics but that didn’t deter young Channing. He railed against the French and in closing turned on the faculty. Facing them squarely he stormed, “But that I am forbid, I could a tale unfold which would harrow up your souls.” And with that declaration, to the applause of his listeners, he concluded his college career.

Channing lived for a time in Virginia, where he went for his health. He came into contact with slavery, a system which so revolted him that his health suffered severely and he had to return to the north to recover. He went to Cambridge and then accepted a call to the Federal Street Church, the original name of the Arlington Street Church in Boston. He long had questioned the Trinity but now a genuine religious conversion took place. He wrote, “What liberty is so valuable as liberty of the heart?” His first sermon was preached on the text, “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, give I thee.” Everyone agreed that here was a bright shining star on the Boston firmament and that he would go far. The old Calvinists began to hesitate about him. Channing became the center for the moderates. He appealed for more rational and less emotional, more moderate and less dogmatic, religion. A new phrase, “Boston religion,” began to bring shivers to the souls of the good Calvinists.

II.

Unknown to Channing, a storm was brewing under his very nose. The Calvinists turned from scorn to hatred, from fear to violence. In 1815 the skies began to darken, the storm clouds gathered. The first shot was fired by the Rev. Jedidah Morse—father of Samuel F. B. Morse, who became Unitarian. Jedidah Morse complained that “Boston religion” was in fact nothing other than Unitarianism, a movement of some note in England and suspected in this country. Morse issued a pamphlet which he felt contained the more odious doctrines of Unitarianism. Samuel Thatcher next fired away, insisting that the Bostonians were afraid to admit their real—i.e, their Unitarian—belief, for fear their infidelity would lose them their positions. Thatcher concluded with a call to all true Christians to separate from the infidels and deny communion to them.

Channing denied the charges and for three years the new religion remained on the defensive. Then in May 1819 the full fury of the storm broke. One Jared Sparks was to be ordained in Baltimore and he asked Channing to preach the ordination sermon. Channing used the text, “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” That sermon is one of the two most famous sermons ever preached in this country, the other being Emerson’s Divinity School Address.

It was a powerful attack on the Trinitarian doctrine. Every word of it was a denunciation of the Calvinist position. Respectable Protestant ministers turned pale at the very thought of Unitarianism. One prominent minister threatened to excommunicate any person who attended Dr. James Freeman’s sermons at King’s Chapel. He declared that the boys ought to break his windows and stone him through the streets.

But Boston then was a center of liberalism and Channing’s sermon was received with enthusiasm. Biblical scholars took their pens and scratched away during the small hours of the morning in their studies to rush to the aid of Channing. The new liberalism spread like wildfire through Harvard and horrified the orthodox ministers of New England.

Channing then rose to heights of moral stature seldom found. His philosophy led him into all sorts of political and social crusades. He preached a thanksgiving sermon urging the overthrow of Napoleon; he organized the Massachusetts Peace Society. He gave important lectures at Harvard and received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology.

His reputation increased, church attendance and membership grew so large that a new church had to be built, and his salary was raised to the astonishing level of $1,200 a year. He was a generous man and gave money away as fast as he gained it and almost never had any for himself.

His fame grew but his energies remained in the liberal fight for righteousness. One incident of note occurred in 1823. A young man who was just then beginning to study for the ministry wrote to his Aunt Mary—a staunch Calvinist who could hardly have been gratified by the letter—that “Dr. Channing is preaching sublime sermons every Sunday morning in Federal Street, one of which I heard last Sunday, and which infinitely surpassed Everett’s eloquence.” The young man proceeded to take up theological studies under Dr. Channing. The young man’s name was Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Channing wrote more when an associate for him was appointed. In one sermon he said,

I am shocked at the imprisonment of the honest debtor; and the legislation, which allows a creditor to play the tyrant over an innocent man would disgrace, I think, a barbarous age. I cannot but remember how much of the guilt of the convict results from the general corruption of society.

People didn’t like that. One layman wrote,

When Dr. Channing used to preach about God and the soul, about holiness and sin, we liked him; that was Christianity. But now, he is always insisting on some reform, talking about temperance or war. We wish he would preach the Gospel.

Channing next took up his energies against slavery. He railed at the slave holders and he became politically dangerous. The wealthy people of Boston stood to lose much by freeing the slaves. Channing lent his enormous prestige to Abolitionism, a movement heretofore thought to be led by crackpots. The other leaders could be dismissed as fanatics, flighty women, or backwoods parsons. But the Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing, minister of the distinguished Federal Street Church and acknowledged leader of the American Unitarian movement, was unassailable.

III.

Channing continued his appeal to conscience and reason but slavery was neither a reasonable nor a conscionable business. Yet Channing condemned the use of force in dealing with the slave holders. “The North has but one weapon,” he wrote, “moral force.” Channing exerted all the moral force his now frail body would permit. He spoke, lectured, preached, and went everywhere his time permitted. Finally, in October 1842 he succumbed to typhoid fever.

His opponents said of him that just before he died he saw the error of his Unitarian ways and recanted. That was patently false, however, and was given no credence. In death his reputation increased. Lowell and Whittier wrote odes to him. Ministers in America and England preached sermons. His written works were collected and went at once through 22 large editions. Channing’s writings began to affect the country more and more. Such men as George Bancroft and Beethoven were influenced by his writings.

Now, what judgment do we draw about this man? What were his works? He succeeded in refuting the Trinity. He was the founder of the American Unitarian Association. He wrote pamphlets, books, and preached sermons against all sorts of social evils: against the use of alcohol, child labor, exploitation of women. He was fearless and courageous to an extreme. So great was his preaching that at one time there was not a church in Boston that was not Unitarian.

Why is he so revered as the guiding light of American Unitarianism? His theology in many ways would not commend itself to us. He was not a great pastor and often lacked social tact. He was short and thin physically. He had few close friends. Then why do we honor him as one of our great prophets?

IV.

Channing pleaded for reason in religion. He regarded Christianity as the one religion above all others. It could be brought to its full bloom by the use of reason. Just as the Wesleys brought Christianity to the people on an emotional basis, so did Channing present it so that it was intellectually acceptable. Religion, he said, must first of all appeal to the rational faculty. Channing stayed in front of the crowd, always ahead, always leading.

His preaching was bold and courageous. His enormous contemporary reputation was well deserved. Well might Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and other great people of the day come to him for stimulation. Channing was far more than a comfortable purveyor of truisms, the sedative of the bourgeois conscience. He had a lasting effect on the great minds of the day. Harriet Martineau said after meeting him, “You felt you were in a presence in which nothing that was impure, base, or selfish could breathe at ease.”

Dr. Channing’s peculiar gift seems to have been his ability to perceive more deeply than the mass of people, more deeply than the majority of intellectual leaders, but without losing their confidence. The freedom you and I have from religious dogma is mostly the result of his works. His fight for his principles was unyielding. Conscience, reason, tolerance, and respect: those guided Channing in all his thinking.

His fight for social justice never ended. His was one of the strongest voices against slavery. He fought against the rum trade and championed the cause of temperance. He worked for education of the working classes. He spoke the rights of all the underprivileged. He was inspiration to Julia Ward Howe, Bronson Alcott, Emerson, and all the great people Boston produced in that age.

Dr. Channing worked with feverish intensity for everything that was for the common good. He was able to perceive that good because his great learning came from knowing people, not just from books. He had an unyielding faith in human goodness as potential for improving society.

Channing killed forever the old Calvinism that filled people with the spirit of the devil and degraded them. He slew a religion that was destined to die if mankind was to live.

Channing was a man whose whole life demonstrated his faith in the natural goodness of people and in the power of reason and good will to solve human problems. Not once in his life did he ever take a public stand at variance with his truest thought in an attempt to avoid public displeasure or to curry favor.

When you visit Boston you must go to the Boston Public Gardens, just down from the State House. There you will see a statue of William Ellery Channing. He faces the front door of the Arlington Street Church, the old Federal Street Church which for so many years prospered under his guidance. It was there that Dr. Channing in May 1825 organized the American Unitarian Association.

The monument was erected by the citizens of Boston. On it is the tribute to his memory. The inscription reads,

He breathed into theology a new spirit, and proclaimed anew the divinity of man.

©2003 J. Frank Schulman. All rights reserved.The Rev. J. Frank Schulman presented a series of sermons on Unitarian history in September and October 2003, when he joined us as Minister in Residence with his wife, Alice Schulman. Frank passed away in January 2006.

Only 1 Comment So Far to “God is One: William Ellery Channing”

  1. Deborah Wilbrink Says:

    Thank you for posting this. I am on the trail of Rev. Dr. Schulman because he helped organize our fellowship in 1946. I’m writing the authorized history of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville [TN]. Schulman seems amazing, to think he served your church as well, towards the end of his life, says again that “we are not here to be idle.”

Add Your Comment

Please be respectful.

 

child

john

mugshot