Channing – Frank Potter

William Ellery Channing -the Reluctant Radical

(1780 – 1842)

This talk, minus the three historic events due to the time limit, was given at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Dubuque by member Frank Potter on November 3, 2018.

This morning I will tell you about Rev William Ellery Channing who is  considered the most important minister in the Unitarian side of Unitarian Universalism. His doctorate was honorary from his alma mater, Harvard and people addressed him as Dr. Channing.  He lived from 1780 to 1842. He was born fourth of 10 children to a family in Newport, Rhode Island. The population was about 4,000.

Channing’s  father was the attorney general of Rhode Island. a lawyer with a private practice who was active in politics. He was a popular person. Famed Revolutionary War heroes and politicians met in their home – even George Washington once ate a meal there which awed the boy Channing. Channing’s mother was described as candid, energetic, assertive and had a big laugh. Unfortunately, we are not told a lot about her in the books that I read.

Like most upper crust families at that time, they had a few slaves who they released after the Revolutionary War.  What is surprising, is the family had very little money even though the father was attorney general and a lawyer. When he died, he had no assets other than their home. When son William and a brother went to Harvard later on the  relatives quietly paid their tuition. 

Young Channing enjoyed his childhood with the exception was the school head master’s frequently whippings of the pupils. (As a student of American history, I call you this was a very common practice into later in the 19th century .) Although he was small of stature, Channing was strong and energetic at least in his youth.

He started at Harvard at age 14, which  was the usual age then. The total enrollment was 170 students with three professors, three tutors and three buildings. In college he decided to go into the ministry. After graduating he took a tutoring job  for a plantation owners’ children in Richmond, VA. There he could study on his own in the free afternoons. Although he admired the family he lived with and the openness of the people in the South he saw the degradation that comes with slavery.

His focus and regimen were so intense during his nearly two years in Richmond that his health deteriorated and his family barely recognized him when he returned home. He was frail for the rest of his life. His was only 5-foot-tall at about a 100 lbs. (However, people were shorter then. I find the earliest date for male height as  1896 was 5’6”) The first-time  young Elizabeth Peabody heard him preach, she thought he had only a short time to live.

One cannot tell the story about Channing without looking at the society and religion then this time in  New England because this was the time when formal Unitarianism came into existence. The dominant church was Congregational in Massachusetts and Connecticut. The unitarians thinking persons were a part of this Congregational or Standing Order before they separated out.

This was the time before the large populations of Germans and Irish arrived. There were other Protestant sects and very few Catholic churches in the area.  The Standing Order was so dominant that the people paid their taxes to the Standing Orders’ parish. The reasoning was, that after all,  it is the church which influences the people’s behavior.

The primary type of service in New England Congregational churches then were Calvinist. The Congregational churches were from the line of the Puritans from England. The name puritans indicated they were not satisfied with the Church of England which gives one a hint that they were very serious  about religion. They were followers of the Paris lawyer, John Calvin, who took over a city in Switzerland which ran by his dictate. It was his organizational leadership and his concomitant theology encoded in religious institutes on people’s behavior which made him the most important religious person of his time. When people think of Protestant reformers they think first of Luther and then of Calvin.

Luther died in 1546 and Calvin died in 1664. Calvin died nearly two centuries before Channing’s time. Calvin is noted by many UUs today as the person who burned at the stake the famed theologian/physician Michael Servetus of Spain when Servetus innocently pointed out to Calvin that the Bible does not warrant a Trinitarian view.  Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone tells this story.

Here are five values of Puritanism which were the tenets of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism

  • Judgmental God (rewards good/punishes evil)
  • Predestination/Election (salvation or damnation was predetermined by God.)
  • Original Sin (humans are innately sinful, tainted by the sins of Adam & Eve; good can be accomplished only through hard work & self-discipline. Even then may not lead to Heaven)
  • Providence. (God provides)
  • God’s grace (God assisting those who don’t deserve it)

Some of you seniors may recall the famous newspaperman from Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, who defined a Puritan “As a person who has the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

We will need to spend some time looking at this theology of the time since that was what Channing had to sort through in his own mind and arrive where his words would result in a better life for the people to whom he ministered.

First, we should recognize the polity of the church and that was congregational which means the church can hire and fire its minister. The other type of polity is episcopal which means bishops are the leaders. Amongst other responsibilities they hire and assign clergy.

There were two main areas of debate within the Standing Order: 1) view of Christ as man versus God which is called Christology (krist’ ology) by the theologians and, 2) The nature of man. 

Orthodox Christians believed in the Trinity i.e. God was 3 in one. God, Jesus and Holy Spirit. Jesus was the same as God although still human.  When challenged how this can be, they call it a paradox. This is what I was told in my youth in First Congregational Church in Oakland, Iowa . To me paradox means that it seems contradictory but just the churches word for it.  Those who saw Jesus  little lower on the ladder than God had names such as Arian or Socinian which came taken from the early Christian fathers who held those views. These liberals were always in the minority so it was a criticism it you had one of these labels. Being a minority was dangerous through-out Christian history, when Christians in the majority would often burn, disembowel or if you were lucky exile non-conformists.

Also, if the name of unitarian came up that went along with these two labels it was a disparaging word. Incidentally, in early colonial history it was the Quakers who received the most severe approbation with some being put to death. Recall it was William Penn who became a Quaker and he allowed them into his land in what became Pennsylvania.  The other sect that people did not like was the Universalists-even the Unitarian thinkers did not like Unitarians with their view that God would not send people to an eternal Hell. If such an idea was true, the fear was that there would be chaos, crime, and debauchery.

As mentioned about Calvinism above, the  belief is that human nature is lacking and depraved  -we are just born that way. It may seem strange to some of you but that is still the basis of Christianity today. The other point was believing in John Calvin’s predestination. God had elected certain people for heaven but tough luck if it was not you and it was hard to determine who those people were. Most Protestants have moved beyond the predestination but you will still find the depravity along with the supernaturalism in sermons today.  They will still recite the Apostle’s creed as do all Christians. (i.e. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; ascended into heaven, etc.)

As I mentioned early, I was raised in a Congregational church and I did appreciate the experience. However, I could share about 20 minutes of those Puritan values which I articulated earlier that came through both of my parents whose ancestors came from Massachusetts. But I will just share my the usual experience that after hearing a sermon in in the church if I did not feel terribly guilty and had not promised myself that I would not sin the next week then I felt that there must have been something missing in the sermon that morning. I know. When I report this my “recovering” Catholic friends say they can outdo us in guilt,

But back to Channing.   Channing recalled being with his father in church one Sunday when the minister gave a fire and brimstone sermon. He heard his father commend the sermon to someone as they left.  When they got home, William expected his father to warn his mother of what terrible event that awaited them but instead his father sat in his chair, smoked his pipe, and read.  Channing got the lesson, his father appreciated that thee minister’s message should control other people’s behavior while his father’s was just fine.

Channing married his first cousin, Lucy Gibbs. They knew each other at a young age and when she kept turning down impressive suitors, he realized that she had her eyes on him. Ruth came from a very wealthy family. Unfortunately, none of what I read about  Channing said much about her other than   Channing said it would not  have been possible for him to think of a happier marriage than the one he had had.

Upon returning from tutoring the children in Virginia, Channing got the call to serve the Federal Street Church, in Boston. He did not consider himself up to the challenge and it took his brother to convince him to at least give it a shot. Channing did and  it became the only church he served in his 50-year career.  

Although looking frail in the pulpit and having a high voice that took a minute to get used to Channing was riveting. One anecdote was that a church member saw the church cleaning lady in the back intently watching Channing giving his sermon. He asked her about it and she replied, “Oh sir, I don’t understand a thing he is saying but he says it like I am just as important as he is.” Elizabeth Peabody said she and others felt he came across as he was talking to God.  It was said that when Channing met someone on the street and asked how they were and when the said fine he said he was very pleased to hear that and he meant it.

Ms. Peabody reported that once she told Channing that a parishioner had told her after one of his sermons  that they “should not allow Channing to say such things.” He told Ms. Peabody he was pleased to hear that since he felt that he must have said something worthwhile.

So why is Channing important to UUs? In fact, the he is our number one when it comes to the ministers. There are several reasons. First, he became the most famous minister of his time in the United States when Unitarians were dominate in the culture. His sermons were even popular in Europe.  He was the minister for the Transcendentalists and he mentored and encouraged people who became national leaders in education, social services. and mental health reform. In  fact, that was his driving force throughout his life, his personal mission as a minister  was to bring out the best in each person he related to. If they could assist others there would be no better reward to him. Here are just a few of the people who were in his congregation or he mentored outside it.

Horace Mann considered the father of public education. Mann. Mann came to Dubuque and had  side trip to Maquoketa to assist with improving school systems. Back then education was haphazard  with small numbers of students attending schools.  Here is a comparison of Channing’s words with Horace Mann’s.   Channing said, “I have lost that day in which I have done no good to my fellow man.”    Now listen to the person who he continued to encourage, Horace Mann, Mann said, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Elizabeth Peabody: She went on to be a teacher in Bronson Alcott’s innovative school in Boston. It does not sound innovative to us today but it was then. The school’s goal was to teach children to  think and understand concepts not just use memory and recitation, each student had their own slate to write on, did not corporal punishment, they had playground breaks. Ms. Peabody went on to establish the first English speaking kindergarten in the US.

Channing mentored Joseph Tuckerman as he worked to create social services in Boston. One area was to try new remedies for juvenile delinquency.  Channing was continuing to encourage those who tried to alleviate poverty saying charity and making life more difficult for poor people does not help them.  Channing drafted the documents to do away with debtor’s prison. 5 out of 6 people in jail in New England were in jail because they owed some company or person less than 20 dollars. Another person he encouraged Doretha Dix as she worked to improve conditions for the mentally ill.

He inspired the Transcendentalists although they were too theologically liberal even for him in some areas. Emerson said Channing was “is our bishop.”

The most significant contribution to the Unitarian denomination was a  sermon he gave formalizing the denomination and I will get to that. But to appreciate the power of his sermon and how it changed things we have to look at the theology of the times.

Theologically he was with those who believed that Jesus was more than human but less than God. Those were positions which were represented by similar Arian (Arius  died 336 CE) and Socinian (Faustus Socinus d. 1606 CE) perspectives. These were Christian theologians who were shunted out of the mainstream for being a little less supernatural in their perspectives.

Channing believed people were capable of improving their character and it saw it as his task as minister to give them sympathy, encouragement and hope. He saw God cheering for man’s progress and improving their character in life.

Let’s consider the conflict between Unitarian and Trinity Christology. There was tremendous thought and debate on this issue of the nature of God and Jesus.  However, Jack Mendelsohn in his book William Ellery Channing- The Reluctant Radical,” which is my primary source on this talk, said the clergy could not solve the problem because they were asking the wrong question, which should have been, “What is human nature and its ability to contribute to its own salvation.” or progress as ethical human beings. Thus, the concern should be the nature of man not the nature of God.

I would add that a majority of today’s Unitarian Universalists have moved pass this debate and have come out on the side of humanism over supernaturalism. For a more humanistic view see Unitarian minister Theodore Parker who was present when Emerson gave his famous talk that upset the orthodox (Calvinist) at the Harvard Divinity School Unitarians. In the 1900s the two Unitarian ministers who take us to the present humanist bent would be Curtis Reese and John Dietrich.

Christians believed in personal salvation as the goal then but as I read Channing what is dominant is his belief that human beings have the capability to improve their character. Channing said his role as a minister is to give his parishioners support and hope.  This was not the orthodox view at the time. The orthodox held on to their Puritan heritage that it is the fear of God and Hell is what motivates people to behave ethically and the role of the minister was to remind them of this.

Channing did not get much of his humanism as some other Unitarian clergy did from the German theologians who had studied the languages in the time of Jesus. The study of those languages, along with considering the information that archeology revealed, resulted in a realization that the early church fathers added things to the Bible which did not happen -in other words it was much if not mostly fiction in the Old and the New Testaments. For example, there probably was no Moses. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother had studied under theologians at a German university and learned this. He got to share this in person with Goethe who told him he did not really need to pass it on. Upon returning home he told his Ralph Waldo this. As far as I know, Emerson never commented on it but he would have been aware of it.  In addition, Emerson was studying Eastern religions and would have realized there were other views than the Christian one.

Unitarian Darwin’s Origin of Species came out in 1859 so this was after these theological debates, but it would spark conflict which we have even today with the Creationists challenging evolution.

Here was Channing’s comment on creeds: “Men differ in opinions as much as in its features -no two minds are perfectly accordant.  The shades of belief are infinitely diversified. Amidst this immense divide of sentiment, every man is right in his own eyes. Every man discovers errors in the creed of his brother. Every man is prone to magnify the importance of his own peculiarities, and do discover danger in the peculiarities of others. This is human nature.”

That paragraph along with recognizing the generational battles explains why UUs don’t have a creed which one is required to believe in. I would add the other problem with creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed of the other Protestant and Catholic church, is a significant minority of the members do not believe them but just go along for social/economic reasons.

Here are three major events in New England that were important in Unitarian history.

 First,  the war that ended the ongoing war between the orthodox and Unitarians took place in 1805 when Reverend Henry Ware, a Unitarian minister, was elected Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard. The orthodox started their own seminary which grew into Andover- Newton Seminary at Yale University.)

A second event occurred in 1818.  A  new minister was to be called First Church (Congregational) Dedham, Massachusetts. The parish was liberal while the church members were more orthodox or conservative. The parish voted and called a liberal minister and the conservative church members who dissented left the church left. (We need to remember that village taxes went to the churches at that time. The theory being it was Christianity that controlled people’s behavior. Kind a like the Christian fundamental thinking and the Islamic governments where the religious bodies run the government.)

The Massachusetts’ Supreme Court, with the majority of the justices being liberal, decided those who stayed in the church, although in the minority in possessing the assets were the bonafide owners. This set the format for the state: the liberal Unitarians ended  up with many of the churches although they were in a minority. The result was one Unitarian Church of every four orthodox churches. So today if you travel to many towns in Massachusetts you will see a Unitarian church on one side of the street and directly across a Congregational church. I can add that about a decade later in 1833, Massachusetts stopped their tax supported area religious denominations.

So far in this talk we have covered the two major events in American Unitarianism and that first was the hiring of a Unitarian thinking minister at Harvard, the second major event, was the separation of the Unitarians from the other Congregationalists by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

We now come to the third and last major event in the history of Unitarianism for this talk. This is William Ellery Channing’s sermon he gave on Wednesday May 5, 1819 in Baltimore. (We should realize this was just a year after the Dedham decision separating liberals from the orthodox churches .)  For years the orthodox clergy were criticizing the liberals, i.e. unitarians,  by calling them what was a disparaging term “Unitarian” as opposed to the  majority orthodox Christians thinking “Trinitarians.”

Channing had carefully prepared his sermon which was for the ordination of Jared Sparks, a minister he had mentored.  The title of Channing’s sermon was “Unitarian Christianity.”  The subtitle of his sermon was “Prove all things, hold fast that which are good” which was from the Bible. In the sermon Channing  considered four points: 1) interpreting scripture, 2) the unreasonableness of Trinitarian dogma and 3) the dual personality of Jesus, i.e. God versus man which he argued were entwined, 4th) discussing his view of the moral nature of God.

The significance of the sermon was that clergy and their followers accepted the identity of heretofore a negative adjective, Unitarian.

Today these debates hold little interest for us. However, after Channing’s sermon it was distributed nationally and it was not until eleven years later any essay had more copies circulated nationally that this one. Fierce debates continued.

Channing hated gloomy Calvinism because it suppressed the opportunity for growth of the human spirit. He said a reading of the pronouncements of the church  in its history were often closer to offering  Hell than Heaven. He said the ancient position that a person whose behavior including speech that was hostile to an infinite God would receive an infinite punishment through eternity was not just. He believed that the supreme object is religious practice is not to avoid punishment, but to cultivate and communicate virtue. He also said:

We believe all virtue has its foundation in the moral nature or man, that is, his conscience, or their sense of duty, and is the power for forming their temper and life according to conscience. We believe that these moral faculties are the grounds of responsibilities, and the highest distinction of human nature, and no act is praiseworthy, any father that it springs from their exertion.

Channing was distressed with the belief that charity results in making the poor poorer, i.e. the less we assist the poor the sooner they will rise from it.  He advised that the reason we assist the poor is that they are people.

Channing became the religious leader in the Unitarian movement and it was not just in Massachusetts but the wave went West as far as Illinois and south to South Carolina. Ironically, although Channing’s sermons led to the split, he is the last person who wanted any distraction and its concomitant stress from human betterment. But he felt obligated to challenge the Calvinism which he saw as stymying their spiritual growth.

In his last 20 years he became more radical and outspoken but still not as radical as the Transcendentalists who he has mentored.

Emerson thought Channing was “tame” but he also said “in our wantonness, we often flout Dr Channing and say he is getting old; but as soon as he is ill, we remember he if our Bishop, and we have not done with him yet.”

Channing was not perfect of course. He recognized his strength was not on one to one in conversations.  He had difficulty with every day chit-chat.

At one time he made a hostile comment  to someone about the Irish hordes. However, probably his most cherished spiritual friend was the Catholic priest in Boston. Channing helped him establish the first Catholic church in Boston. When Channing died the Catholic Church was the one that rang their bell for him.

Channing had his most difficulty with his congregation over the subject of slavery. Boston was a commerce town with a deep harbor for the slave trade and cotton from the south. As I mentioned, Channing, as always took his time to set out his views. He became progressively outspoken about it. It was most likely not just because he hated to criticize people, including slave holders,  but may also have been difficult because his Federal Street Church membership included many of Boston’s most powerful industrialists whose wealth depended on the slave trade.

He eventually wrote his pamphlet in 1825 on Slavery and it was published and sent far and wide. He made it clear that while he was against slavery, he was also opposed to the radical rhetoric of the abolitionists. Most everyone at the time was against William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionists.  Unitarian John Quincy Adams said that  Channing’s pamphlet was inflammatory and  the attorney general of Massachusetts said it cited insurrection. Channing was continuously criticized savagely by both the Southerners and in the Liberator published by William Lloyd Garrison.

His friend  Lydia Maria Child beat him to a public position with her book  An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833).  As soon as Channing read the book, he walked some distant to her home in Boston and commended her.  Child did lose her readership in her magazine she published and it had to cease printing. Tam of our congregation once gave us a talk on Ms. Child.

What must have been one of the saddest events in Channing’s life was when his  close friend, Rev Charles Fallon, a very distinguished scholar who Channing has steered into the Unitarian ministry died at sea, Channing’s Board at the Federal Street church would not let them hold his funeral service in their church because Fallon was a strong abolitionist. This happened in the last year of his tenure serving that same Federal Church.  This had to be kick in the gut to Dr. Channing – 50 years of attempting to help people progress in their moral character and his church said “sorry.”  Dr Channing never gave another sermon after this.

In October 1852 he came down with typhoid fever and soon succumbed.

 Later in his in his ministerial career Channing said, “The idea of God sublimes and awful as it is, is the idea or our spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity…. God is another name for human intelligence raised above all error and imperfection, and extended to all possible truth…. We see God around us, because he dwells in us.”

Channing will always be important to UUs since he was the minister who outlined the tenants of the Unitarian position and then accepted the title Unitarian. He was ceaseless in his effort to assist people with his goal of helping them improve their  own character while they too were making a better world for everyone- especially the disadvantaged. He was the mentor to the Transcendentalists and the inspiring cheerleader for those leaders in education and social services. He was probably  the most spiritual minister among both Unitarians and Universalists.