Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Channing, William Ellery
CHANNING, William Ellery, clergyman, b. in Newport, R. I., 7 April, 1780; d. in Bennington, Vt., 2 Oct., 1842. His boyhood was passed in Newport, where his first strong religious impressions were received from the preaching of Dr. Samuel Hopkins. As a youth, he appears, though small in person and of a sensibility almost feminine, to have been vigorous, athletic, and resolute, showing from childhood a marked quality of moral courage and mental sincerity. In his college life at Harvard, where he was graduated in 1798, he showed a singular capacity to win the ardent personal attachment of his fellows; and, though he was very young, his literary qualities seem even then to have been fully developed, his style being described by his classmate, Judge Story, as “racy, flowing, full, glowing with life, chaste in ornament, vigorous in structure, and beautiful in finish.” He was also conspicuous in the students' debating-clubs, and shared fully in the political enthusiasms of the day, refusing the commencement oration assigned him until granted permission to speak on his favorite theme. Among the authors of his choice at this time, Hutcheson appears to have inspired his profound conviction of “the dignity of human nature,” Ferguson (“Civil Society”) his faith in social progress and his “enthusiasm of humanity,” and Price (“Dissertations”) that form of idealism which “saved me,” he says, “from Locke's philosophy.” As a private instructor in Richmond, Va., in the family of D. M. Randolph, in 1798-1800, he felt “the charm of southern manners and hospitality,” and at the same time acquired an abhorrence of the social and moral aspects of slavery, then equally abhorred by the most intelligent men and women at the south. Here he became eagerly interested in political discussions growing out of the revolutionary movements in Europe, and a keen admirer of such writers as Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and especially Rousseau; but, as if by a certain unconscious reaction against these influences, he gave special study to the historical evidences of Christianity, to which class of evidences he ever after strongly adhered, and was confirmed in his purpose to prepare for the ministry. He also disciplined himself by a vigorously ascetic way of life — exposure to cold, hardship, and fatigue, with scant diet (leading to permanent “contraction of the stomach” with painful dyspepsia), insufficient clothing, and excessive devotion to study. The ill-effect of these practices, aggravated by the exposures of his return voyage to Newport, followed him through life, and “from the time of his residence in Richmond to the day of his death he never knew a day of unimpaired vigor.” After a short stay in Newport, where the influences of early life were renewed and deepened, he returned to Cambridge as a student of theology, with the title and petty income of “regent,” a sort of university scholarship. At this period Bishop Butler and William Law were the writers that chiefly influenced his opinions; and he is represented as having had a tendency to Calvinistic views, though “never in any sense a Trinitarian.” His first and only pastoral settlement was over the church in Federal street, Boston, 1 June, 1803, which he accepted, in preference to the more distinguished place in Brattle square, partly on the ground that a smaller and feebler congregation might not overtax his strength. Here he was shortly known for a style of religious eloquence of rare “fervor, solemnity, and beauty.” His views at this time — and indeed, prevailingly, during his later life — are described as “rather mystical than rational”; in particular, as to the controverted doctrine of Christ's divinity, holding “that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father.” Early in his ministry, however, Mr. Channing was closely identified with that movement of thought, literary and philosophic as well as theological, which gave birth to the “Anthology Club,” and to a series of journals, of which those longest-lived and of widest repute were the “North American Review” and the “Christian Examiner.” Essays published in these journals, especially those on Milton and on the character of Napoleon, gave him literary reputation in Europe as well as at home. The intellectual movement in question was marked by an increasing interest in questions of theological and textual criticism, and by a leaning toward, if not identification with, the class of opinions that began about 1815 to be currently known as Unitarian. Though Mr. Channing was disinclined to sectarian names or methods, though he never desired to be personally called a Unitarian, and would have chosen that the movement of liberal theology should go on within the lines of the New England Congregational body, to which he belonged from birth, yet he became known as the leader of the Unitarians, and may almost be said to have first given to the body so called the consciousness of its real position and the courage of its convictions by his sermon delivered in Baltimore, 5 May, 1819, at the ordination of Jared Sparks. This celebrated discourse may be regarded less as a theological argument, for which its method is too loose and rhetorical, than as a solemn impeachment of the Calvinistic theology of that day at the bar of popular reason and conscience. And a similar judgment may be passed, in general, upon the series of controversial discourses that he delivered in the succeeding years. For about fifteen years, making the middle period of his professional life — a life interrupted only by a few months' stay in Europe (1822-'3) and a winter spent in Santa Cruz (1830- '31) — Mr. Channing was best known to the public as a leader in the Unitarian body, and the record of this time survives in several volumes of eloquent and noble sermons, which constitute still the best body of practical divinity that the Unitarian movement in this country has produced. Very interesting testimony to the habit and working of his mind at this period is also to be found in the volume of “Reminiscences” by Miss E. P. Peabody (Boston, 1880). A sermon on the “Ministry at Large” in Boston (1835) strongly illustrates the sympathetic as well as religious temper in which he now undertook those discussions of social topics — philanthropy, moral reform, and political ethics — by which his later years were most widely and honorably distinguished. From organized charity the way was open to questions of temperance and public education, which now began to take new shapes; and from these, again, to those that lie upon the borderground of morals and politics — war and slavery. Regarding the last, indeed, which may be taken as a type of the whole, it does not appear that he ever adopted the extreme opinions, or approved the characteristic modes of action, of the party known as abolitionists. But his general and very intense sympathy with their aims was of great moral value in the anti-slavery movement, now taking more and more a political direction. Of this the earliest testimony was a brief but vigorous essay on slavery (1835), dealing with it purely on grounds of moral argument; followed the next year by a public letter of sympathy to James G. Birney (“The Abolitionists”), who had just been driven from Cincinnati with the destruction of his press and journal; and again, in 1837, by a letter to Henry Clay on the annexation of Texas, a policy which the writer thought good ground to justify disunion. The event that, more than any other, publicly associated his name and influence with the anti-slavery party was a meeting held in Faneuil Hall, 8 Dec., 1837, after the death of Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was shot while defending his press at Alton, Ill., when for the first time Mr. Channing stood side by side, upon the public platform, with men in whom he now saw the champions of that freedom of discussion which must be upheld by all good citizens. His later writings on the subject are a letter on “The Slavery Question” (1839) addressed to Jonathan Phillips; a tract on “Emancipation” (1840), suggested by a work of J. J. Gurney's on emancipation in the British West Indies; and an argument (1842) on “The Duty of the Free States,” touching the case of the slaves on board the brig “Creole,” of Richmond, who had seized the vessel and carried her into the port of Nassau. His last public act was an address delivered in Lenox, Mass., 1 Aug., 1842, commemorating the West India emancipation. A few weeks later, while on a journey, he was seized with an attack of autumn fever, of which he died. Interesting personal recollections remain, now passing into tradition, of Channing's rare quality and power as a pulpit orator, of which a single trait may here be given: “From the high, old-fashioned pulpit his face beamed down, it may be said, like the face of an angel, and his voice floated down like a voice from higher spheres. It was a voice of rare power and attraction, clear, flowing, melodious, slightly plaintive, so as curiously to catch and win upon the hearer's sympathy. Its melody and pathos in the reading of a hymn was alone a charm that might bring men to the listening, like the attraction of sweet music. Often, too, when signs of physical frailty were apparent, it might be said that his speech was watched and waited for with that sort of hush as if one was waiting to catch his last earthly words.” Numerous writings of Dr. Channing were published singly, which were gathered shortly before his death (5 vols., Boston, 1841), to which a sixth volume was added subsequently, and also, in 1872, a volume of selected sermons entitled “The Perfect Life.” All are included in a single volume published by the American Unitarian association (Boston). A biography was prepared by his nephew, W. H. Channing (3 vols., Boston, 1848). Translations of Channing's writings “have been, either wholly or in part, published in the German, French, Italian, Hungarian, Icelandic, and Russian languages.” While in America he is best known as a theologian and preacher, his influence abroad is said to be chiefly as a writer on subjects of social ethics. — His brother, Walter, physician, b. in Newport, R. I., 15 April, 1786; d. in Boston, Mass., 27 July, 1876, entered Harvard in 1804, but left in 1807 on account of the “rebellion” of that year, and afterward received his degree out of course. After studying medicine in Boston and Philadelphia, he received his diploma from the University of Pennsylvania, and then studied in Edinburgh, and at Guy's and St. Thomas's hospitals in London. He began to practise in Boston in 1812, and in the same year became lecturer on obstetrics at Harvard. He was appointed in 1815 to fill the new chair of obstetrics and medical jurisprudence, and held it till his resignation in 1854. He became, in 1821, Dr. James Jackson's assistant as physician of the newly established Massachusetts general hospital, and continued there for nearly twenty years. He published “Address on the Prevention of Pauperism” (1843); a “Treatise on Etherization in Childbirth, illustrated by 581 Cases,” which attracted much attention both here and abroad, and had a marked effect on that branch of medical science (Boston, 1848); “Professional Reminiscences of Foreign Travel,” “New and Old,” and “Miscellaneous Poems” (1851); “A Physician's Vacation, or a Summer in Europe” (1856); “ Reformation of Medical Science” (1857); and has contributed largely to periodical literature. — Another brother, Edward Tyrrel, educator, b. in Newport, R. I., 12 Dec., 1790; d. in Cambridge, Mass., 8 Feb., 1856. He studied at Harvard, but, like his brother Walter, became involved in the college rebellion of 1807, and was not graduated with his class, but afterward received his degree. He subsequently opened a law-office in Boston, but gave his attention chiefly to literature, and was a member of the club of young men who, in the winter of 1814-'5, projected a bimonthly magazine, whose chief managers were to be Pres. Kirkland, Jared Sparks, George Ticknor, Mr. Channing, Richard Henry Dana, and John Gallison. About this time William Tudor returned from Europe with a matured plan for a quarterly review, and, the two projects having been united, the first number of the “North American Review” appeared in May, 1815. Mr. Channing succeeded Jared Sparks as its editor in 1818, and conducted it with the aid of his cousin, R. H. Dana, till October, 1819, when he was appointed Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory in Harvard. This post he held till 1851, and during that time had great influence over the literary taste of the students, giving direction to the reading of an entire generation of prominent men in all departments of thought. He continued to be one of the foremost contributors to the “North American Review” till his death. His style was much admired for its strength and purity; his taste was severe and critical, and he was a brilliant conversationalist. He published a life of his grandfather, William Ellery, in Sparks's “American Biographies,” and a volume of lectures on rhetoric and oratory, given to the senior class at Harvard, appeared after his death, with a memoir by R. H. Dana, Jr. (Boston, 1856). — William Ellery's son, William Francis, physician, b. in Boston, Mass., 22 Feb., 1820, studied at Harvard, but, determining to follow medicine, was graduated in that department at the University of Pennsylvania in 1844. During 1841-'2 he was assistant on the first geological survey of New Hampshire, and in 1847 served in a similar capacity to the survey of the copper region of Lake Superior. From 1842 till 1843 he was associated with Dr. Henry I. Bowditch in the editorship of “The Latimer Journal” in Boston. Dr. Channing has devoted considerable attention to inventing, and he was connected with Moses G. Farmer in the perfecting of the American fire-alarm telegraph from 1845 till 1851, and the process patented in 1857 is now in general use. In 1865 he patented a ship-railway for the inter-oceanic transit of ships, and in 1877 invented a portable electro-magnetic telephone. He has contributed various articles to the “American Journal of Science,” and has published, with Prof. John Bacon, Jr., “Davis's Manual of Magnetism” (Boston, 1841); “Notes on the Medical Application of Electricity” (1849); and “The American Fire-alarm Telegraph,” a lecture delivered before the Smithsonian institution (1855). — William Ellery's nephew, William Henry, clergyman, son of Francis Dana Channing, b. in Boston, 25 May, 1810; d. in London, 23 Dec., 1884, was graduated at Harvard in 1829, and at the divinity-school in 1833. He was settled as Unitarian minister in Cincinnati in 1839, and became warmly interested in the schemes of Fourier and others for social reorganization. He removed to Boston about 1847, afterward to Rochester and to New York, where, both as preacher and editor, he became a leader in a movement of Christian socialism, while he tended toward a very elevated and somewhat mystical interpretation of the liberal theology of his day. In opinion he was probably more rationalistic than his uncle, the editing of whose life and correspondence (1848) made his chief literary task, but was even more rapt and fervent in his pulpit exercises. These, on principle, he always conducted without notes, to which practice may be ascribed, in part, not only an eloquence of singular spontaneity and power, but a style that frequently became rather rhapsody than argument. As a platform-speaker, on the numerous occasions which (about 1840-'50) created a new era in American oratory, his eloquence has never been surpassed. He was also a frequent contributor to public journals, representing different phases of the intellectual or social interests he had at heart, including the “Present,” which was his personal organ of communication with the public. Besides the memoir of his uncle, he published a translation of Jouffroy's “Ethics” and a memoir of his cousin, James H. Perkins, of Cincinnati, and was chief editor of the memoirs of Margaret Fuller d'Ossoli (Boston, 1852). During a stay in England, about 1854, he became greatly distinguished and admired as a preacher, and in 1857 was established as successor to Rev. James Martineau in the ministry of Hope street chapel, Liverpool. In 1862, being powerfully drawn to America by the civil war, in which the fate of southern slavery was then clearly seen to be involved, he accepted the charge of the Unitarian church in Washington, D. C., and afterward, when the church building was offered and employed as a military hospital, he was chosen chaplain of the house, in which capacity he served about two years. After the war his life was chiefly spent in England, his last visit in America being in 1880, the centenary of his uncle's birth. Mr. Channing was a singularly fervid and consistent idealist, with a buoyant hopefulness of temperament, a sympathetic sweetness and warmth of disposition, and a native piety, which class him rather among saints or mystics than with the active agents of practical reform; yet nothing could be more definite, or, in his own view, more practical, than the specific objects for which he labored. The strongest personal impression of himself, except with those who were close and near friends in his earlier life, he has probably left in England. His only son, who had a distinguished record at Oxford, is a member of parliament. His elder daughter, now dead, was the wife of Sir Edwin Arnold, the poet. His life has been written by Octavius B. Frothingham (Boston, 1886). — Walter's son, William Ellery, author, b. in Boston, Mass., 10 June, 1818, was educated in Round Hill school, Northampton, at the Boston Latin-school, where he had Charles Sumner for an instructor, and at Harvard, but was not graduated. He went to Illinois in 1839, and, after living for eighteen months in a log hut built by himself on a prairie, he removed to Cincinnati, where he was for a short time connected with the “Gazette.” He returned to Massachusetts in 1842, married a sister of Margaret Fuller, and settled in Concord, Mass. He was on the editorial staff of the New York “Tribune” in 1844-'5, and in 1855-'6 was one of the editors of the New Bedford “Mercury.” He began in 1836 to write verses for the Boston “Journal,” in which he also published a series of essays on Shakespeare. His contributions to the “Dial,” in 1841-'4, include an unfinished series of psychological essays, called “The Youth of the Poet and Painter.” He has published five volumes of poems (1843-7); “The Woodman” (Boston, 1849); “Near Home” (1858); and “The Wanderer” (1872). He has also written two volumes of prose, “Conversations in Rome between an Artist, a Catholic, and a Critic” (Boston, 1847); and “Thoreau, the Poet Naturalist” (1873). — Edward, the son of William Ellery Channing, the younger, b. in Dorchester (now Boston), 15 June, 1856, was graduated at Harvard in 1878. In 1883 he was appointed instructor in history in Harvard college. He is the author of the following books: “Town and County Government in the English Colonies of North America” (Baltimore, 1884); “Narragansett Planters” (Baltimore. 1886); and the article “Companions of Columbus” in Justin Winsor's “Narrative and Critical History of America.” He is a member of the Massachusetts historical society, of the American antiquarian society, and of the Military historical society of Massachusetts.