1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Channing, William Ellery
CHANNING, WILLIAM ELLERY (1780–1842), American divine and philanthropist, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on the 7th of April 1780. His maternal grandfather was William Ellery, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; his mother, Lucy Ellery, was a remarkable woman; and his father, William Channing, was a prominent lawyer in Newport. Channing had as a child a refined delicacy of feature and temperament, and seemed to have inherited from his father simple and elegant tastes, sweetness of temper, and warmth of affection, and from his mother that strong moral discernment and straightforward rectitude of purpose and action which formed so striking a feature of his character. From his earliest years he delighted in the beauty of the scenery of Newport, and always highly estimated its influence upon his spiritual character. His father was a strict Calvinist, and Dr Samuel Hopkins, one of the leaders of the old school Calvinists, was a frequent guest in his father’s house. He was, even as a child, he himself says, “quite a theologian, and would chop logic with his elders according to the fashion of that controversial time.” He prepared for college in New London under the care of his uncle, the Rev. Henry Channing, and in 1794, about a year after the death of his father, entered Harvard College. Before leaving New London he came under religious influences to which he traced the beginning of his spiritual life. In his college vacations he taught at Lancaster, Massachusetts, and in term time he stinted himself in food that he might need less exercise and so save time for study,—an experiment which undermined his health, producing acute dyspepsia. From his college course he thought that he got little good, and said “when I was in college, only three books that I read were of any moment to me: . . . Ferguson on Civil Society, . . . Hutcheson’s Moral Philosophy, and Price’s Dissertations. Price saved me from Locke’s philosophy.”
After graduating in 1798, he lived at Richmond, Virginia, as tutor in the family of David Meade Randolph, United States marshal for Virginia. Here he renewed his ascetic habits and spent much time in theological study, his mind being greatly disturbed in regard to Trinitarian teachings in general and especially prayer to Jesus. He returned to Newport in 1800 “a thin and pallid invalid,” spent a year and a half there, and in 1802 went to Cambridge as regent (or general proctor) in Harvard; in the autumn of 1802 he began to preach, having been approved by the Cambridge Association. On the 1st of June 1803, having refused the more advantageous pastorate of Brattle Street church, he was ordained pastor of the Federal Street Congregational church in Boston. At this time it seems certain that his theological views were not fixed, and in 1808, when he preached a sermon at the ordination of the Rev. John Codman (1782–1847), he still applied the title “Divine Master” to Jesus Christ, and used such expressions as “shed for souls” of the blood of Jesus, and “the Son of God himself left the abodes of glory and expired a victim of the cross.” But his sermon preached in 1819 at Baltimore at the ordination of the Rev. Jared Sparks was in effect a powerful attack on Trinitarianism, and was followed in 1819 by an article in The Christian Disciple, “Objections to Unitarian Christianity Considered,” and in 1820 by another, “The Moral Argument against Calvinism”—an excellent evidence of the moral (rather than the intellectual) character of Unitarian protest. In 1814 he had married a rich cousin, Ruth Gibbs, but refused to make use of the income from her property on the ground that clergymen were so commonly accused of marrying for money.
He was now entering on his public career. Even in 1810, in a Fast Day sermon, he warned his congregation of Bonaparte’s ambition; two years later he deplored “this country taking part with the oppressor against that nation which has alone arrested his proud career of victory”; in 1814 he preached a thanksgiving sermon for the overthrow of Napoleon; and in 1816 he preached a sermon on war which led to the organization of the Massachusetts Peace Society. His sermon on “Religion, a Social Principle,” helped to procure the omission from the state constitution of the third article of Part I., which made compulsory a tax for the support of religious worship. In 1821 he delivered the Dudleian lecture on the “Evidences of Revealed Religion” at Harvard, of whose corporation he had been a member since 1813; he had received its degree of S.T.D. in 1820. In August 1821 he undertook a journey to Europe, in the course of which he met in England many distinguished men of letters, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge. Both of these poets greatly influenced him personally and by their writings, and he prophesied that the Lake poets would be one of the greatest forces in a forming spiritual reform. Coleridge wrote of him, “He has the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love.”
On his return to America in August 1823, Dr Channing resumed his duties as pastor, but with a more decided attention than before to literature and public affairs, especially after receiving as colleague, in 1824, the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett. In 1830, because of his wife’s bad health, Channing went to the West Indies. Negro slavery, as he saw it there, and as he had seen it in Richmond, more than thirty years before, so strongly impressed him that he began to write his book Slavery (1835). In this he insists that “not what is profitable, but what is right” is “the first question to be proposed by a rational being”; that slavery ought to be discussed “with a deep feeling of responsibility, and so done as not to put in jeopardy the peace of the slave-holding states”; that “man cannot be justly held and used as property”; that the tendency of slavery is morally, intellectually, and domestically, bad; that emancipation, however, should not be forced on slave-holders by governmental interference, but by an enlightened public conscience in the South (and in the North), if for no other reason, because “slavery should be succeeded by a friendly relation between master and slave; and to produce this the latter must see in the former his benefactor and deliverer.” He declined to identify himself with the Abolitionists, whose motto was “Immediate Emancipation” and whose passionate agitation he thought unsuited to the work they were attempting. The moderation and temperance of his presentation of the anti-slavery cause naturally resulted in some misunderstanding and misstatement of his position, such as is to be found in Mrs Chapman’s Appendix to the Autobiography of Harriet Martineau, where Channing is represented as actually using his influence on behalf of slavery. In 1837 he published Thoughts on the Evils of a Spirit of Conquest, and on Slavery: A Letter on the Annexation of Texas to the United States, addressed to Henry Clay, and arguing that the Texan revolt from Mexican rule was largely the work of land-speculators, and of those who resolved “to throw Texas open to slave-holders and slaves”; that the results of annexation must be war with Mexico, embroiling the United States with England and other European powers, and at home the extension and perpetuation of slavery, not alone in Texas but in other territories which the United States, once started at conquest, would force into the Union. But he still objected to political agitation by the Abolitionists, preferring “unremitting appeals to the reason and conscience,” and, even after the prominent part he took in the meeting in Faneuil Hall, called to protest against the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, he wrote to The Liberator, counselling the Abolitionists to “disavow this resort to force by Mr Lovejoy.” Channing’s pamphlet Emancipation (1840) dealt with the success of emancipation in the West Indies, as related in Joseph John Gurney’s Familiar Letters to Henry Clay of Kentucky, describing a Winter in the West Indies (1840), and added his own advice “that we should each of us bear our conscientious testimony against slavery,” and that the Free States “abstain as rigidly from the use of political power against Slavery in the States where it is established, as from exercising it against Slavery in foreign communities,” and should free themselves “from any obligation to use the powers of the national or state governments in any manner whatever for the support of slavery.” In 1842 he published The Duty of the Free States, or Remarks Suggested by the Case of the Creole, a careful analysis of the letter of complaint from the American to the British government, and a defence of the position taken by the British government. On the 1st of August 1842 he delivered at Lenox, Massachusetts, an address celebrating the anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies. Two months later, on the 2nd of October 1842, he died at Bennington, Vermont.
Physically Channing was short and slight; his eyes were unnaturally large; his voice wonderfully clear, and like his face, filled with devotional spirit. He was not a great pastor, and lacked social tact, so that there were not many people who became his near friends; but by the few who knew him well, he was almost worshipped. As a preacher Channing was often criticised for his failure to deal with the practical everyday duties of life. But his sermons are remarkable for their rare simplicity and gracefulness of style as well as for the thought that they express. The first open defence of Unitarians was not based on doctrinal differences but on the peculiar nature of the attack on them made in June 1815 by the conservatives in the columns of The Panoplist, where it was stated that Unitarians were “perating only in secret, . . . guilty of hypocritical concealment of their sentiments.” His chief objection to the doctrine of the Trinity (as stated in his sermon at the ordination of the Rev. Jared Sparks) was that it was no longer used philosophically, as showing God's relatwn to the triple nature of man, but that it had lapsed into mere Tritheism. To the name “Unitarian” Channing objected strongly, thinking “unity” as abstract a word as “trinity” and as little expressing the close fatherly relation of God to man. It is to be noted that he strongly objected to the growth of “Unitarian orthodoxy” and its increasing narrowness. His views as to the divinity of Jesus were based on phrases in the Gospels which to his mind established Christ's admission of inferiority to God the Father, — for example, “Knoweth no man, neither the Son, but the Father”; at the same time he regarded Christ as “the sinless and spotless son of God, distinguished from all men by that infinite peculiarity — freedom from moral evil.” He believed in the pre-existence of Jesus, and that it differed from the pre-existence of other souls in that Jesus was actually conscious of such pre-existence, and he reckoned him one with God the Father in the sense of spiritual union (and not metaphysical mystery) in the same way that Jesus bade his disciples “Be ye one, even as I am one.” Bunsen called him “the prophet in the United States for the presence of God in mankind.” Channing believed in historic Christianity and in the story of the resurrection, “a fact which comes to me with a certainty I find in few ancient histories.” He also believed in the miracles of the Gospels, but held that the Scriptures were not inspired, but merely records of inspiration, and so saw the possibility of error in the construction put upon miracles by the ignorant disciples. But in only a few instances did he refuse full credence of the plain gospel narrative of miracles. He held, however, that the miracles were facts and not “evidences” of Christianity, and he considered that belief in them followed and did not lead up to belief in Christianity. His character was absolutely averse from controversy of any sort, and in controversies into which he was forced he was free from any theological odium and continually displayed the greatest breadth and catholicity of view. The differences in New England churches he considered were largely verbal, and he said that “would Trinitarians tell us what they mean, their system would generally be found little else than a mystical form of the Unitarian doctrine.”
His opposition to Calvinism was so great that even in 1812 he declared “existence a curse” if Calvinism be true. Possibly his boldest and most elaborate defence of Unitarianism was his sermon on Unitarianism most favourable to Piety, preached in 1826, criticizing as it did the doctrine of atonement by the sacrifice of an “infinite substitute”; and the Election Sermon of 1830 was his greatest plea for spiritual and intellectual freedom.
Channing's reputation as an author was probably based largely on his publication in The Christian Examiner of Remarks on the Character and Writings of John Milton (1826), Remarks on the Life and Character of Napoleon Bonaparte (1827-1828), and an Essay on the Character and Writings of Fénelon (1829). An Essay on Self-Culture (1838) was an address introducing the Franklin Lectures delivered in Boston September 1838. Channing was an intimate friend of Horace Mann, and his views on the education of children are stated, by no less an authority than Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, to have anticipated those of Froebel. His Complete Works have appeared in various editions (5 vols., Boston, 1841; 2 vols., London, 1865; 1 vol., New York, 1875).
Among members of his family may be mentioned his two nephews William Henry (1810-1884), son of his brother Francis Dana, and William Ellery, commonly known as Ellery (1818-1901), son of his brother Walter, a Boston physician (1786-1876). The former, whose daughter married Sir Edwin Arnold, the English poet, became a Unitarian pastor, for some time in America, and also in England, where he died; he was deeply interested in Christian Socialism, and was a constant writer, translating Jouffroy's Ethics (1840), and assisting in editing the Memoirs of Margaret Fuller (1852); and he wrote the biography of his uncle (see O. B. Frothingham's Memoir, 1886). Ellery Channing married Margaret Fuller's sister (1842), and besides critical essays and poems published an intimate sketch of Thoreau in 1873.
See the Memoir by William Henry Channing (3 vols., London, 1848; republished in one volume, New York, 1880); Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Reminiscences of the Rev. William Ellery Channing, D.D. (Boston, 1880), intimate but inexact; John White Chadwick, William Ellery Channing, Minister of Religion (Boston, 1903); and William M. Salter, “Channing as a Social Reformer” (Unitarian Review, March 1888).