1902 Encyclopedia > William Ellery Channing

William Ellery Channing
Unitarian theologian
(1780-1842)





WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING (1780-1842), was the ami of William Ckanning and Lucy Ellery, and was bom at Newport, Rhode Island, U.S., on the 7th of April 1780. The place of his birth is situated amidst scenery of great and varied beauty, the influence of which upon his mind may be traced in many allusions in his writings, and in the vivid admiration which he ever expressed for it in after-life. To the society of the town of Newport he owed but little ; it wa3 a bustling, crowded seaport, where a certain Puritanic strictness, inherited by tradition from the founders of the State, was kept up, not only in connection with, but too much as a salvo for, a considerable amount of laxity both of speech and practice. As a bathing-place it was a resort for strangers from other parts, and the interfusion of French and British officers tended to modify the peculiarities which the unmixed influence of retired sea captains, West Indian traders, and keen New England lawyers might have rendered too strong.

As a child, Channing was remarkable for a refined delicacy of feature and temperament, which made him an object of admiration and affection in the household. From his father he inherited a fine person, simple and elegant tastes, sweetness of temper, and warmth of affection ; from his mother (who appears to have been a remarkable woman) he derived the higher benefits of that strong moral discern-ment and straightforward rectitude of purpose and action which formed so striking a feature of his character. By both parents he was carefully instructed in those strict religious principles which were characteristic of the people of New England; and by both, but especially by his mother, was his moral training most sedulously cared for. Other influences, however, were in the meantime operating upon him. The excitement of the revolutionary war was inspiring him with a profound and ardent love of freedom. The sick chamber of an aunt of his father, who was a woman of much piety and sweetness, was the source of many serious and hallowed lessons of gentleness and good-ness. An amateur Baptist preacher, who was by trade a cooper, by refusing, though very poor, to manufacture any of the articles of his trade used for containing ardent spirits, gave him an impulse which he never lost in favour of temperance. A female servant, whose religious views were of a more cheerful cast than those prevalent in his circle, used to talk to him in a way that greatly engaged him, and probably sowed the germ of not a few of the ideas which afterwards regulated his modes of religious sentiment. Able and free-minded men, like Dr Stiles and Dr Hopkins, frequented his father's house, and the quiet and thoughtful boy listened to their conversations, and laid many suggestive words that fell from them to heart. While but a child he had begun to draw inferences from what he heard from the pulpit and elsewhere that were not quite such as his guardians would have wished him to draw ; and he " was even then quite a theo-logian, and would chop logic with his elders according to the fashion of that controversial time," as he himself tells us.
Whilst very young, he was sent to a dame's school, who exacted from the incipient republicans the title of Madam, and enforced her authority and her lessons by means of " a long round stick." From this he passed under the care of two excellent women, by whose instructions he profited greatly. His next step was to the school of a Mr Rogers, considered the best at that time in the town ; and in his twelfth year he was sent to New London to prepare for college, under the care of his uncle the Rev. Henry Channing. His career at school does not appepr to have been marked by any remarkable aptitude for letters ; on the contrary, his progress was at first somewhat slow, though after the few initiatory difficulties were overcome, he advanced rapidly, both in a knowledge of the classics and an appreciation of their excellencies. His disposition was thoughtful and retiring, though among his companions he showed no absence of relish for lively conversation or hearty amusement. A certain mingled dignity and sweet-ness gave him a commanding influence in the school, where he went by the name of " the Peacemaker," and " Little King Pipin," and where he was obeyed, though "small and delicate," with more readiness than mere physical strength could ever have commanded.

Shortly after he went to reside with his uncle, his father died. This event, however, though it produced a great change in the circumstauces of the family, was not allowed to interrupt the course of his studies. After the funeral he returned to the house of his uncle, where he remained till he had reached his fifteenth year, when he was removed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and entered at Harvard College as freshman in 1794. Before leaving New London he came under the influence of a religious revival which took place there, a circumstance to which he was accustomed to trace the commencement of a decidedly religious life.

The four years he remained at college seem to have been most profitably spent. Besides acquiring an extensive acquaintance with classical and general literature, he read largely and thought earnestly in the department of psychology and ethics. The books which appear to have exerted most influence upon his mind and opinions were Price's Dissertations, Hutcheson on Beauty and Virtue, and Ferguson on Civil Society. To the study of Shakespeare also (the interest in whose works was then newly awakened in that quarter) he owed much; and so deep was the impression made on him by the genius of the poet, that to the close of his life one of the greatest of his intellectual treats was furnished by recitations from his writings. By patient and well-directed assiduity he trained himself to the mastery of that copious and vigorous style of composi-tion to which his subsequent position in the world of letters is in no small measure due, and at the same time also laid the basis of his success as a public speaker, by the formal study of rhetoric, and by frequent practice in addressing assemblies of his fellow-students.

For a year and a half after leaving college in 1798, Channing was resident at Bichmond, in Virginia, as tutor in the family of Mr David Meade Randolph. Here he had time for study, which he employed chiefly on theo-logical subjects. In regard to many points, touching both the evidences of Christianity and its doctrines, his mind was burdened with doubt and anxiety; and so earnestly did he labour to attain satisfaction, that his constitution Bank under the incessant toil. "When, in 1800, he returned to Newport, his friends were shocked to find him changed to " a thin and pallid invalid and unhappily, at this time were sown the seeds of that depressed condition of health which continued through life his severest trial. He remained in the bosom of his family for another year and a half, engaged in the pursuit of his studies, and in preparing himself, by physical and moral as well as intellec-tual training, for the work to which he was looking forward —that of the ministry. In 1802 he returned to Cambridge, having been elected to the office of regent in Harvard University, a situation which, without exacting from him any large amount of service, secured to him the advantage of independence, and an opportunity of prosecuting his studies within reach of a valuable library, and under influ-ences favourable to success. In the autumn of 1802 he began to preach, having received approbation to do so from the Cambridge Association; and in the beginning of the following year he accepted the invitation of the Congrega-tional Church, Federal Street, Boston, to be their pastor. To this office he was ordained in June 1803.
Channing entered on his ministry with a deep and almost painful sense of the responsibility of the office he had assumed, and with an earnest desire to acquit himself faithfully of its obligations. His theological views were at this time probably not definitely fixed. We have his own assurance that he was not a Trinitarian, but he had not at this time severed himself from those holding orthodox views.

In 1808 he took part in the ordination of the Rev. J. Codman, a well-known minister of the Congregational order, when he delivered a sermon which was afterwards published. In this sermon, though the language and sentiments are such as any evangelical divine might use, there is nothing that certainly indicates that the author held any of the views peculiarly distinctive of evangelical orthodoxy unless it be the application of the title " Divine Master" to Jesus Christ, and the use of such expressions as that the blood of Christ was " shed for souls," and that for man's salvation " the Son of God himself left the abodes of glory and expired a victim on the cross." It is not thus that Unitarians, in England at least, are wont to speak of Christ and his death. But Channing never identified himself with any theological party. He called himself a Unitarian, and so in a sense he was, but his views were Arian rather than what are commonly known as Unitarian. He reverenced in Jesus Christ not only a sublimely perfect character, but a nature higher than that of man. He believed in His pre-existence in heaven, and that He came down from heaven for man's salvation ; and he taught that "the Scriptures ascribe the remission of sins to Christ's death with an emphasis so peculiar that we ought to con-sider this event as having a special influence in removing punishment, as a condition or method of pardon, without which repentance would not avail us, at least to that extent which is now promised by the gospel" (Sermon at the ordination of Rev. Jared Sparks). The truth is, that Channing was too much a lover of free thought, and too desirous to hold only what he saw to be true, to allow himself to be bound by any party ties. " I wish," he says, " to regard myself as belonging not to a sect but to the community of free minds, of lovers of truth, and followers of Christ, both on earth and in heaven. I desire to escape the narrow walls of a particular church, and to stand under the open sky in the broad light, looking far and wide, seeing with my own eyes, hearing with my own ears, and following Truth meekly but resolutely, however arduous or solitary be the path in which she leads" (Sermon at Installation of Rev. M. J. Motte). Thus refusing to be enclosed within the limits of party, and acting freely as respected religious association, he may be claimed as one whom men of all parties honour for his abilities, his integrity, and his work.

In 1814 Channing married his cousin, Ruth Gibbs, a union which brought him an increase of worldly substance, as well as a rich addition to his personal happiness. " Inwardly and outwardly," his biographer tells us, " his lot henceforward was singularly serene." He was now fast rising in reputation, both as a preacher and as a public man. Interested in all that concerned his country and the cause of humanity, his voice was heard on most of the questions that came before the American public, and always with marked and growing effect. He had begun also to command attention as a writer for the press. His Address on War, some of his sermons, and especially his able tract on The Evidences of Christianity, had given him a position of eminence among the writers of his country. In 1821 he received the title of D.D. from Harvard University. In 1822 he undertook a journey to Europe, in the course of which he visited Great Britain and some parts of the Continent. When in England he made the acquaintance of some distinguished men of letters, espe-cially Wordsworth and Coleridge, on both of whom he appears to have left a most favourable impression. Coleridge wrote of him, " He has the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love." On his return Dr Channing resumed his duties as a minister, but with a more decided attention than before to literature and public affairs. In 1824 he received as colleague the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, at whose ordination he preached one of his published discourses. From this time forward his energies were devoted, in addition to his pulpit labours, chiefly to the furtherance of great schemes of social reform. Of the anti-slavery cause he was throughout the firm, eloquent, and uncompromising advocate ; and in every question that bore upon the happiness of the people he took a lively interest. Of his publications, the most extensively read are his Remarks on the Life and Character of Napoleon Bonaparte, his Remarks on the Character and Writings of John Milton, his Essay on the Character and Writings of Fênelon, his Essay on Self-Culture, and his Essay on the Importance and
Means of a National Literature. He died in the sixty-third year of his age, on Sunday, the 2d of October 1842, whilst on a journey, at Bennington, Vermont, and was buried at Boston, on the 7th of that month. An extended memoir of him by his nephew, William Henry Channing, appeared in 1848 (republished in 1870). His Complete Works were published in 2 vols., London, 1865. (W. L. A.)








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