Dr. William Ellery Channing (April 7, 1780 – October 2, 1842) was the foremost Unitarian preacher in the United States in the early nineteenth century and, along with Andrews Norton, one of Unitarianism's leading theologians. He was known for his articulate and impassioned sermons and public speeches, and as a prominent thinker in the liberal theology of the day. Caught between the opposing factions of Calvinism—conservative Protestantism—and the new more liberal thinking of the Transcendentalists, he was forced to take a stand in defense of the new direction that Christianity was taking in New England. His outspoken advocacy for humanity's more intimate relationship to Jesus Christ and God was soon heralded as the new denomination of Unitarianism.
His writings on slavery, war, labor problems, and education were extremely progressive and influenced many American authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and other proponents of Transcendentalism, like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. and William Cullen Bryant
Channing is sometimes referred to as the "Father of Unitarianism," although, initially, he deplored the idea of starting a new denomination, saying, "I desire, to escape the narrow walls of a particular church, and to live under the open sky, looking far and wide and seeing with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears."
Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island, to William and Lucy Ellery Channing. He was a descendant of Declaration of Independence signer William Ellery. He was also a descendant of the puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, whose progeny numbered among them many notable Americans. His father graduated from Princeton University in 1769. His mother's father, William Ellery had graduated from Harvard College in 1747. Thus, two contrasting academic traditions—the conservative Protestantism of Princeton and the liberalism of Harvard—competed for attention in the young boy's life.
Channing lived with his uncle's family in Cambridge, for four years while attending Harvard and graduated in 1798. After graduation, he spent two years in Richmond, Virginia, working as a tutor for a wealthy family. His health suffered from this time onward in his life, and he struggled immensely with the rigors of his public calling. Returning to Harvard in 1802, he became a "regent" and proctor and began studying for the ministry. In 1814, he married his cousin, Ruth Gibbs.
In 1803, Channing was installed and ordained as pastor of what was then called the Arlington Street Church and what is presently known as the Federal Street Church in Boston. (It was at this church that the Massachusetts State Convention met and ratified the United States Constitution on February 7, 1788.) Channing, who drew large crowds at his sermons, served as pastor there until his death in 1842.
Increasingly caught between the religious tensions in New England that were fomenting between the new liberals and the traditionalists, Channing, who held moderate views, felt forced to align himself with the developing liberal faction.While Channing regarded the views of the Transcendentalists as extreme, he was to have a powerful affect on their rise in American life and culture.
Channing became the primary spokesman and interpreter of Unitarianism when he preached at the ordination sermon of Jared Sparks in Baltimore, in 1819. His sermon, titled Unitarian Christianity, expounded upon the distinctive tenets of the Unitarian movement, one of which was the rejection of the Trinity. Other important tenets were the belief in human goodness and the subjection of theological revelation to the light of reason. The new religious nomenclature, "Unitarian" referred to the belief in one God, as opposed to God in three persons (the Trinity).
In later years, Channing addressed the topic of slavery, although members of his own congregation did not agree with his abolitionist stand. He wrote a book in 1835, titled, Slavery, in which he condemned slavery as an "unspeakable evil." However, he was also opposed to war and dreaded the idea of a Civil War, although his talks and pamphlets did much to prepare people to understand Abraham Lincoln. (The Abolitionist, 1836 and Open Letter to Henry Clay, 1837, Duty of the Free States, 1842.) His last public address, in August 1842, was on behalf of emancipation. He died the following October.
Channing died in Old Bennington, Vermont, where a cenotaph is placed in his memory. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Statues of Channing are located on the edge of the Boston Public Garden, across the street from the Arlington Street Church that he served. A pedestal on the base of one statue reads, "He breathed into theology a humane spirit."Channing Memorial Church, built in Newport, R.I. in 1880, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Two of Dr. Channing's nephews were prominent Transcendentalists:
In 1880, a younger Unitarian minister in Newport, Charles Timothy Brooks, published a biography, William Ellery Channing, A Centennial Memory.
Channing's sermon on Unitarian Christianity in 1891, not only formulated the new creed of Unitarianism, but solidified his role as the leader of the new movement. Other influential sermons were, The Moral Argument against Calvinism delivered and printed in 1820, and Unitarian Christianity Most Favorable to Piety (1826) which emphasized the personal quality of Unitarian thought as expressed by the sentiment, "We regard Unitarianism as peculiarly the friend of inward, living, practical religion."
Unitarianism became the rallying point for the gathering opposition to the Congregational churches of New England, who were quick to call the ministry heresy. Although Channing resisted the role of head of a new church, his powerful preaching about the goodness of God, the essential virtue and perfectibility of humanity, and freedom of the will with its consequent responsibility for action brought a focus to the various sects and splinter groups forming at that time.
In 1820, Channing organized a conference of Unitarian ministers, which five years later fathered the American Unitarian Association. Additionally, he helped found the Unitarian Journal, Christian Register, and became one of its regular contributors.
In 1828 he gave another famous ordination sermon, entitled Likeness to God. The idea of the human potential to be like God, which Channing advocated as grounded firmly in scripture, was seen as heretical by the Calvinist religious establishment of his day. It is in this address which Channing first advocates the possibility for revelation through reason rather than solely from scripture.
In the late 1700s, liberal and conservative wings emerged in the Congregational churches of New England; the liberals affirming the unity of God and the conservatives affirming the Trinity. The movement grew in reaction to the Calvinistic doctrines that emphasized human sinfulness and the predestination of some souls to heaven and some to hell. The emerging religious thought of the era argued that such doctrines were inconsistent with the concept of a loving God, were unbiblical, and contrary to reason. After 1805, the dispute between liberals (soon to be called Unitarians) and conservatives (Congregationalists) became so bitter that many churches divided, and organized separate religious bodies. It was Channing, at Federal Street Church, who most powerfully championed and defined the new Unitarianism.
In addition to influencing religious thought during the nineteenth century, Channing had a profound influence on American literature which was seeking to find its own voice just as the new nation was seeking its own identity.
Channing Unitarianism, as it was sometimes referred to, provided a guidepost for New England writers such as Emerson, Bryant, and Longfellow. Channing's Remarks on American Literature, published in 1830, defined literature as "the expression of a nation's mind in writing." He sought to promote a uniquely separate form of American literature distinctive from England or the Colonies.
He goes on to say that what was needed at that time in history was a "literary Declaration of Independence: We think that the history of the human race is to be rewritten. Men imbued with the prejudices which thrive under aristocracies and state religions cannot understand it…it seems to us that in literature immense work is yet to be done. The most interesting questions of mankind are yet in debate. Great principles are yet to be settled in criticism, in morals, and in politics; and above all, the true character of religion is to be rescued from the disguises and corruptions of ages....We cannot admit the thought that this country is to be only a repetition of the old world" (Works 1903 edition, p. 134).
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