Channing, William Ellery

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CHANNING, WILLIAM ELLERY , American Unitarian minister. Channing was born on April 7, 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island, of a distinguished family. He entered Harvard College in 1794, graduated in 1798, and was elected a regent of Harvard in 1801. He began his lifelong ministry at Boston's Federal Street Congregational Church in 1803. Channing defended the liberal Congregationalist ministers in 1815 against an attack in The Panoplist by Jedidiah Morse, who accused them of covertly holding the views of the English Unitarian Thomas Belsham, who held that Christ was strictly human in nature, with human imperfections. Channing replied that the liberals were Arians and hence believed that Christ's character included intellectual, ethical, and emotional perfection. Thrust into prominence by this defense, Channing was asked to prepare a manifesto for the liberals, which he did in "Unitarian Christianity," his 1819 ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore. This sermon unified the liberals around Channing's leadership; yet when the American Unitarian Association was organized in 1825, he refused the office of president, because he did not want Unitarianism to become a sect.

Channing was the outstanding representative of early American Unitarian theology in the period prior to the Transcendentalist controversy. He emphasized the authority of reason and revelation, the unique and infallible authority of Jesus, human educability to a Christlike perfection, and human essential similarity to God. His thought includes a modified Lockean philosophy, an Arian Christology, and an optimistic view of human nature.

John Locke's influence is present in Channing's arguments for the rational character of revealed religion and his emphases on miracles and fulfilled prophecies as evidences for the truth of Christianity. In his 1819 sermon "Unitarian Christianity," he called for a careful use of reason in interpreting scripture. Channing held that reason judges even the claim of a revelation to authority. Reason approves the claim of the Christian scriptures to authority. Rationally interpreted, these scriptures yield the doctrines of the unipersonality and moral perfection of God.

Channing modified his Lockean epistemology when he became acquainted with the Scottish common-sense philosophy of Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson, and Francis Hutcheson. In his opinion, Richard Price corrected Hutcheson's thought in a way that more effectively met the arguments of David Hume, thus making room for new ideas other than those derived from sensation and reflection. Disagreements exist, however, about the extent to which Channing's later thought became more akin to that of the Transcendentalists.

Channing's Arian Christology and his optimistic view of human nature were closely related. He viewed Christ as morally perfect. He based his Christology on scriptural evidences of Christ's perfection and his own belief in the freedom of the will. Christ exemplified the perfection to which others can attain. In order to account for Christ's flawless moral perfection, Channing inferred from it Christ's preexistence; yet he maintained that others should aspire to, and can achieve, a similar perfection.

Channing advocated prison reform and opposed alcoholism and other social evils, but he was reluctant to speak out openly against slavery. He acknowledged the fairness of rebukes for his silence. In 1835 he published Slavery, which had a marked effect in arousing public opinion against the slave system; thereafter his outspoken opposition to slavery cost him friends and support. His writings during this period show that his optimism and his rejection of the doctrine of depravity in no way blinded him to the reality of sin.

Channing's essays made him famous on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. These, along with his sermons, lectures, and Slavery, were translated into German, French, Hungarian, and other languages. Channing became ill on a vacation trip and died at Bennington, Vermont, on October 2, 1842.


Works by Channing

The most accessible editions are The Works of William Ellery Channing, 6 vols. (Boston, 1903), and The Works of William E. Channing, D. D., with an Introduction; New and Complete Edition, rearranged; To Which Is Added, The Perfect Life (Boston, 1886).

Works about Channing

Conrad Wright has written a balanced introduction to Channing's thought in "The Rediscovery of Channing," chapter 2 of his The Liberal Christians: Essays on American Unitarian History (Boston, 1970). The most complete study of Channing's philosophy and theology is Robert L. Patterson's The Philosophy of William Ellery Channing (New York, 1952), with detailed, informative footnotes. Channing's concern for social issues is emphasized by Jack Mendelsohn in Channing: The Reluctant Radical (Boston, 1971). The most recent study is Andrew Delbanco's William Ellery Channing: An Essay on the Liberal Spirit in America (Cambridge, Mass., 1981).

John C. Godbey (1987)

William Ellery Channing

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William Ellery Channing

William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), an American minister, was a key Unitarian theologian for the mid-19th century.

William Ellery Channing came from what is known as "the best New England stock." That is, his ancestors arrived in New England early and soon distinguished themselves by their industry and decorum. He was born on April 8, 1780, in Newport, R.I., to William and Lucy Ellery Channing. He graduated from Harvard College in 1798. He spent some time as a tutor, and in 1802 he returned to Harvard to study for the ministry. Because he showed great promise, Harvard appointed him regent, a less lofty post than the title suggested. He acted as a proctor to the students, but the job left him time for books and helped him support himself. The next year he was ordained as minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, where he remained until his death. He married his cousin Ruth Gibbs in 1814.

In a sense, leadership and eminence came to Channing not through aggressively seeking it but because he was born at the right time. Theology was in crisis during Channing's prime. Almost from the beginning there were two warring parties in New England. The Calvinists believed in a jealous God, the depravity of mankind, and the absence of free will. The anti-Calvinists believed in a merciful God, the potential redemption of all mankind, and the existence of free will. As the 19th century proceeded, the fight between the parties sharpened. Channing, after much deliberation, sided with the anti-Calvinists.

In Baltimore in 1819 Channing preached a sermon entitled "Unitarian Christianity." It was a masterly manifesto for the Unitarian cause and formulated the creed of Unitarianism; it consequently consolidated Channing's leadership. Other influential sermons followed. "The Moral Argument against Calvinism" was delivered and printed in 1820. "Unitarian Christianity Most Favorable to Piety" (1826) emphasized the relevance of the movement and its personal basis: "We regard Unitarianism as peculiarly the friend of inward, living, practical religion."

In 1820 Channing organized a conference of Unitarian ministers, which 5 years later fathered the American Unitarian Association. He helped found the Unitarian journal, Christian Register, and became one of its outstanding contributors.

For his increasing audience Channing prepared some essays which discussed the social and cultural questions of the time. He especially campaigned for a genuine American literature. In his essay "The Importance and Means of a National Literature" (1830) he called for cultural independence from England and for a new literature which would reflect the hopeful, expansive attitude that he himself took in theology. The tract was read the more respectfully because Channing himself had written on English literature in both English and American magazines and was friendly with some of the best British writters of his period.

Channing grew increasingly interested in politics, believing that political reform, like religious reform, had to start from within. He aimed his political efforts at humanitarian causes: the abolition of slavery, the crusade against drinking, and the improvement in the conditions of the poor. In the slavery dispute he appealed to the conscience of Southerners instead of attacking them. He believed a harmonious and happy nation could be achieved through appealing to man's innate goodness. Though his own congregation disagreed with his stand against slavery, his last public address, in August 1842, was on behalf of emancipation. He died the following October.

Further Reading

A satisfactory modern biography is Arthur W. Brown, Always Young for Liberty: A Biography of William Ellery Channing (1956). Other works include Channing's Life … with Extracts from His Correspondence, edited by W. H. Channing (3 vols., 1848); J. W. Chadwick, William Ellery Channing, Minister of Religion (1903); and Madeleine Hook Rice, Federal Street Pastor: The Life of William Ellery Channing (1961).

Additional Sources

Delbanco, Andrew, William Ellery Channing: an essay on the liberal spirit in America, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Edgell, David P., William Ellery Channing, an intellectual portrait, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983, 1955.

Eliot, Charles William, Four American leaders, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977, c1906.

Mendelsohn, Jack, Channing, the reluctant radical: a biography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1971. □

Channing, William Ellery

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Unitarian clergyman and author; b. Newport, Rhode Island, April 7, 1780; d. Bennington, Vermont, Oct. 2,1842. He belonged to a prominent New England family. Five years after his graduation (1798) from Harvard, he was ordained a minister in the Congregational Church. Shortly afterward he became pastor of Federal Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts, where he remained until his death. In 1814 he married his cousin Ruth Gibbs. Channing's sermon at Jared Spark's ordination (1819) in Baltimore, Maryland, earned him the title "apostle of Unitarianism." He soon became involved in the controversy that divided the Congregationalists of New England into the so-called orthodox Calvinists and the opposition group, or Unitarians. In 1820 he organized a conference of liberal Congregational ministers, and five years later he formed the American Unitarian Association (see unitarian universalist association). Channing's form of religious liberalism emphasized humanitarianism and toleration rather than doctrinal novelties. His sermons and writings exercised considerable influence over American authors such as R. W. Emerson, W.C. Bryant, H. W. Longfellow, J. R. Lowell, and O. W. Holmes. For Channing, all questions were moral questions. He was ahead of his time in his views on temperance, labor problems and public and adult education. He considered slavery an evil to be wiped out at the earliest possible opportunity. A pacifist, Channing organized the Massachusetts Peace Society to destroy the romantic glamour of war.

Bibliography: d. p. edgell, William Ellery Channing: An Intellectual Portrait (Boston 1955).

[j. q. feller]

Channing, William Ellery

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Channing, William Ellery (1780–1842). American Christian pastor, originally a Congregationalist: in the schism between conservatives and liberals, Channing espoused the liberals, rejecting the Trinity and the radical consequence of original sin. He is thus regarded as a leading Unitarian thinker, but he said that he belonged only to ‘the community of free minds’. He supported social reform, though not at first the abolition of slavery. Rebuked for this, he published Slavery (1835), which became a key text for the opponents of slavery.