William Ellery Channing

February 25, 2001

Rev. William Ellery Channing is one the outstanding Unitarians of the 18th Century... one of the "exemplars of history," to use a favorite phrase of our minister, Jan Knost. You may have heard the name Channing – particularly in relation to our district in the UUA, the Ballou-Channing District, which covers southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. But do you know about this man, William Ellery Channing? Who was he and why was he so significant in the history of our liberal religious movement and to social reform in America? Why is the biography about him by Jack Mendelsohn called Channing, the Reluctant Radical?

Channing was one of the founders of American Unitarianism and in 1819 was the first clergyman to publicly articulate a liberal Christianity without apology. He had a very long ministry, spanning nearly forty years, at the Federal Street Church in Boston, and made a huge impact on liberal thought in America. He was admired as well by intellectuals in Europe. Channing was above all a person of faith, who firmly believed in human freedom, especially freedom of the mind to seek the truth... as you heard in the responsive reading this morning.

What is fascinating to me about Channing was his complexity. He was a combination of human frailties and great strengths, contradictions and ambivalences, the prejudices of his class and race, yet an overwhelming belief in the God-given worth and dignity of every human being.

Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1780 and was raised there. He was the son of a prominent lawyer and was the grandson of William Ellery, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. When William was 13, his father died suddenly, leaving his wife and ten children with no money. However, his aristocratic relatives made sure young William had a Harvard education. He later served as minister to a wealthy Boston congregation. Given his background, you might not expect such a forceful, passionate preacher who often sided with the poor and dispossessed. Indeed, many Boston Unitarian clergy of the time fit the stereotype of being cold, passionless, elitist and timid in speaking out on social issues, particularly against the popular opinions of their well-heeled parishioners. But Channing not only preached about social reform, he was active on various boards and organizations working on reform. He was close a friend of Rev. Joseph Tuckerman, whose work as minister-to-the-poor opened up a new era in philanthropy.

In 1819, Channing was an established as a minister at the First Federal Church, where he had served since 1803. He was well regarded as an articulate and persuasive preacher both in Boston and beyond, when he was invited to preach the ordination sermon of Rev. Jared Sparks as the first minister in a newly formed Unitarian church in Baltimore, Maryland. At the time, the label "Unitarian" was avoided by many Boston ministers of liberal leanings, who were none-the-less quietly promoting Unitarian beliefs within their congregations. Such liberal ministers (including Channing) were being attacked as heretical by strict Calvinists. Although he, too, preferred to avoid controversy, Channing felt compelled to answer their charges in public. The occasion to do this was at Sparks’ ordination. This sermon, simply titled "Unitarian Christianity," gave Unitarians a platform and a spokesman... and became widely known as the Baltimore Sermon.

In it Channing made several major points. First, he outlined the principles which Unitarians used to interpret Scripture. The most obvious principle was "that a revelation from God must be adapted to the rational and moral nature which He conferred on man; that God can never contradict in his word what he has himself written on the human heart." Then Channing presented some conclusions that Unitarians drew from a rational analysis of the New Testament: 1) that the Trinitarian doctrine was unreasonable and non-Scriptural, 2) that the Jesus Christ has one, unified nature and 3) a belief in the "moral perfection of God." Such a God would not condemn people to eternal damnation... Predestination as preached by the Calvinists... but was a good, kind and benevolent God, who created people "for good and holy purposes." As such, God wants people to work towards their own moral virtue and perfection.

These may not seem like earth-shaking pronouncements in our times, but they were back then. In fact, Channing went on in this sermon to preach a rather traditional Christian message: that Jesus Christ was a perfect human being, that he was sent by God for humanity’s moral and spiritual deliverance, that human souls were immortal and that the resurrection was a real event. To us, this seems decidedly conservative... and, yes, Unitarian beliefs have changed dramatically over the next century and a half. But it is interesting that Channing gave the Baltimore sermon reluctantly, only after being pushed into it by rather vehement and nasty attacks from orthodox Christians. One of these men was the founder of Andover Theological Seminary, the evangelical preacher Jedediah Morse. (The institute later became part of the theological school I am now attending, Andover Newton! It’s somewhat ironic that so many Unitarian Universalists today are attending this school.) Channing’s sermon was so popular that the first run of 2,000 copies sold out quickly and it had to be reprinted several times.

What was this giant of Boston Unitarianism like? Physically, Channing was not imposing, standing a little over 5 feet tall. He was small, pale and thin, but with a strong enough preaching voice and a pleasing style. Although in his youth he had been muscular and athletic, he became chronically ill while in his early twenties due, Mendelsohn writes, through overwork and neglect of his own health. This condition left him forever thin, weakened and susceptible to illnesses and fatigue. His physical energies were limited, but his mental energies definitely were not. He often pushed himself hard and then needed to take long vacations to recuperate. The many tragedies in his life, including the untimely death of father and two siblings, seemed to deepen his soul, which shown through his large, expressive eyes. Some thought he had an unusually spiritual appearance. He was well read, intelligent, extremely eloquent and thoughtful, and hard working. Like the Transcendentalists who followed him, he received inspiration being in nature. He was a gentle soul and preferred to avoid confrontation, partly out of a reserved temperament, partly because he believed all people were worthy of respect. He was serious, and seldom smiled ... although after marriage to his first cousin, Ruth Gibbs, at age 34, his life seemed to be happier. But the lifelong delicacy of his health and the untimely death of many people who were close to him made him sensitive to the suffering of others.

As a young man, he had already worked out the principles upon which his ultimate moral system rested. These principles were: "start with what people find within their own nature; take hold of what is there, especially that unique mark of kinship with God, mind; labor ceaselessly for the mind’s improvement in knowledge and virtue; convince [them] that their precious dignity, because they are parts of God’s great whole, depends upon their toil for the good of all; believe that humans are born not to vegetate as self-centered, avaricious wretches, but to grow and glow with benevolence, sympathy, humanity, and understanding." (39)

Despite his overall liberalism in religion and social causes, Channing was subject to the elitism that afflicted many well-born, well-bred New Englanders. He was, in general, very naive about the social realities of the poor, being socially isolated from them. When it came to African Americans, whether slave or free, he held the same beliefs in the superiority of the white race that many other Northern whites held... even some of the abolitionists. And he believed that society could be reformed by improving the poor through "moral uplift" and self-improvement. It took him a long time to realize the necessity of economic reform and political activism. And this passionate preacher sincerely believed that just by speaking the truth persuasively enough, one could bring wealthy Bostonians around to support reforming... even if only in a paternalistic way. For many years, in a sincere effort to avoid causing controversy, he often took a moderate stand on social issues, which managed to alienate both sides.

The most outstanding example of this was his stand on slavery. In 1821, Channing preached a rather timid sermon against the system of slave-holding in the South. Although he was against slavery on moral and religious grounds, he preached gradualism in emancipation and monetary compensation to slave-owners for loss of their property. He also denounced the extremism of the abolitionists. In this way he managed to anger abolitionists, particularly William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Then, although his anti-slavery stance was known, Channing refused to join the Society because it demonized the Southern slave-holder.

It is a credit to Channing that he was able to examine and changed his views on slavery during his lifetime, although political circumstances in the nation also pushed his change of heart along. I attribute his development to his sensitivity, religious beliefs, and a willingness to engage in earnest dialogue with more moderate friends in the abolitionist movement. Also, his exposure to the evil effects of slavery first hand during an extended vacation in St. Croix had a great impact on his conscience.

One of these friends in the abolition movement was Lydia Maria Child, with whom he had frequent conversations. She later recalled: "At every interview, I could see that he grew bolder and stronger on the subject, while I felt I grew wiser and more just. At first I thought him timid... but I soon discovered that I formed this estimate from ignorance of his character. I learned that it was justice to all, not popularity for himself, which made him so cautious. He constantly grew upon my respect, until I came to regard him as the wisest, as well as the gentlest, apostle of humanity. I owe him thanks for preserving me from the one-sidedness into which zealous reformers are so apt to run." (221)

In 1834, Channing felt compelled to write a book which clearly staked out the moral and religious position against slavery... and which helped spread the cause of abolition beyond the small circle of committed radicals. The book won him acclaim among liberal and radical circles, but cost him the support by many of his congregants at the Federal Street Church. Some defended slavery as essential to social and political order... and as the basis of their continued prosperity through the cotton trade. Things became so tense that some parishioners snubbed him on the street when they passed. One parishioner, the state’s Attorney General James Austin, even accused him of encouraging slave insurrections.

During his nearly 40 years of ministry at the Federal Street Church, Channing spoke and wrote thoughtfully ... and often forcefully... on many issues. In addition to speaking out against slavery, he was an advocate for many social reforms and for world peace. He preached for an end to the state’s debtor imprisonment laws and for hospitals for the humane treatment of the mentally ill. He spoke for reform in the justice system and in treatment of prisoners, for improvement of public education, for women’s rights and against the excessive use of alcohol. Although sometimes a reluctant radical, Channing was a truly prophet and visionary for the 18th Century.

His brother Walter wrote about him when he lay dying at age 62 of typhoid fever that "while William was necessarily ‘a frail being’ like all others, he was also a most remarkable ‘manifestation of the Supreme... to me an object of reverence and love.’" His biographer, Mendelsohn wrote, "He was and remains an inspiration to all who would connect anew with their roots, to live the liberal faith they profess."

O, Spirit of Life: May we treasure such inspirations, such saints, such manifestations of the Supreme, both past and present. May we be feel connected anew to this solid root of Unitarianism. And may we be inspired by his example to live the liberal faith which we profess. Blessed be.