About William Ellery Channing
Dr. William Ellery Channing (April 7, 1780 – October 2, 1842) was the foremost Unitarian (Arian) preacher in the United States in the early nineteenth century and, along with Andrews Norton, one of Unitarianism's leading theologians. He was known for his articulate and impassioned sermons and public speeches, and as a prominent thinker in the liberal theology of the day. Dr. Channing's religion and thought were among the chief influences on the New England Transcendentalists, though he never countenanced their views, which he saw as extreme.
Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island, a grandson of William Ellery, a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. Channing became a New England liberal, rejecting the Calvinist doctrines of total depravity and divine election.
Channing enrolled at Harvard College at a particularly troubled time, particularly because of the recent French Revolution. He later wrote of these years,
"College was never in a worse state than when I entered it. Society was passing through a most critical stage. The French Revolution had diseased the imagination and unsettled the understanding of men everywhere. The old foundations of social order, loyalty, tradition, habit, reverence for antiquity, were everywhere shaken, if not subverted. The authority of the past was gone".
He graduated in 1798 and was elected commencement speaker, though Harvard faculty prohibited him from mentioning the Revolution and other political discussions.
In opposition to traditional American Calvinist orthodoxy, Channing preferred a gentle, loving relationship with God. He opposed Calvinism for
… proclaiming a God who is to be dreaded. We are told to love and imitate God, but also that God does things we would consider most cruel in any human parent, "were he to bring his children into life totally depraved and then to pursue them with endless punishment" (Channing 1957: 56).
However, the struggle continued through two years during which Channing lived in Richmond, working as a tutor. He came to his definitive faith only through much spiritual turmoil and difficulty. In 1803, Channing was called as pastor of the Federal Street Church in Boston, where he remained for the rest of his life. He lived through the increasing tension between religious liberals and conservatives and took a moderate position, rejecting the extremes of both groups.
Nevertheless he became the primary spokesman and interpreter of Unitarianism when he preached the ordination sermon of Jared Sparks in Baltimore in 1819; it was entitled "Unitarian Christianity". In that address he explicated the distinctive tenets of the Unitarian movement, only one of which was the rejection of the Trinity. Other important tenets were the belief in human goodness and the subjection of theological ideas to the light of reason.
In 1828, he gave another famous ordination sermon, entitled "Likeness to God". The idea of the human potential to be like God, which Channing advocated as grounded firmly in scripture, was seen as heretical by the Calvinist religious establishment of his day. It is in this address which Channing first advocates the possibility for revelation through reason rather than solely from scripture.
Even at the end of his life he adhered to Arian belief in the preexistence of Christ:
"I have always inclined to the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ, though am not insensible to the weight of your objections" (Boston March 31 1832).
In later years Channing addressed the topic of slavery, although he was never an ardent abolitionist. In 1835 Channing wrote the book entitled, SLAVERY, James Munroe and Company, publisher. Channing, however, has been described as a "romantic racist" in Black Abolitionism: A Quest for Human Dignity by Beverly Eileen Mitchell (133-38). He held a common American belief about the inferiority of African slaves and held a belief that once freed, Africans would need overseers. The overseers (largely former slave masters) were necessary because the slaves would lapse into laziness. Furthermore, he did not join the abolitionist movement because he did not agree with their way of conducting themselves, and he felt that voluntary associations limited a person's autonomy. Therefore, he often chose to remain separate from organizations and reform movements. This middle position characterized his attitude about most questions, although his eloquence and strong influence on the religious world incurred the enmity of many extremists. Channing had an enormous influence over the religious (and social) life of New England, and America, in the nineteenth century.
Towards the end of his life Channing embraced immediate abolitionism. His evolving view of abolitionism was fostered by the success of British abolition in the British West Indies in 1834 and the lack of the expected social and economic upheaval in the post-emancipated Caribbean.
Channing died in Old Bennington, Vermont, where a cenotaph is placed in his memory. He is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Statues of Channing are located on the edge of the Boston Public Garden, across the street from the Arlington Street Church that he served, and facing Channing Memorial Church, built in Newport, Rhode Island in 1880 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. The same year, a younger Unitarian minister in Newport, Charles Timothy Brooks, published a biography, William Ellery Channing, A Centennial Memory.
Channing had a profound impact on the Transcendentalism movement, though he was never officially subscribed to its views. However, two of Channing's nephews, Ellery Channing (1818–1901) and William Henry Channing (1810–1884), became prominent members of the movement.