Biography William Ellery Channing

1780 to 1842 William Ellery Channing was born in 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island. Second in a family of nine children, Channing was acquainted early with sadness at the death of his father when the boy was only thirteen. Despite the precarious finances of the large family, William Channing was able to continue in school and eventually enrolled at Harvard.

In The Life of William Ellery Channing, D.D., William Henry Channing places his uncle's decision to enter the ministry in his senior year of college; he quoted, "In my Senior year,...the prevalence of infidelity, imported from France, led me to inquire into the evidences of Christianity, and then I found for what I was made. My heart embraced its great objects with an interest which has been increasing to this hour."

From Harvard, where he graduated in 1798, he went to Richmond, Virginia to work as a tutor in a family. The two years spent there he later remembered as both painful, for the spiritual struggle he underwent and the physical deprivation he subjected himself to, and beneficial, for the questions it gave him time to settle. Channing returned to New England, specifically to Boston, where in 1803 he assumed the pastorate of the Federal Street Church. He remained pastor there for the remainder of his life.

In his introduction to Selected Writings, David Robinson recounts a "well-known anecdote of Channing's boyhood":

"Taken one day by his father to hear a "famous preacher," he was introduced to the Calvinist vision of human depravity, of lost souls in a dark universe, in desperate need of "sovereign grace." The sombre terror of the sermon struck the sensitive boy deeply, and when his father later pronounced it "sound doctrine," young Channing was crushed: "It is all true then." But as the boy's anguish grew during the silent drive home, he was jarred when his father began to whistle. And when his father reached home and proceeded calmly to read his newspaper, the boy realized something: "No! his father did not believe it; people did not believe it! It was not true!"

Although obviously a simplification of Channing's rejection of Calvinist doctrine, the story is indicative of the liberalism of his character. The liberal movement that existed in New England in the early part of the nineteenth century was characterized by its denial of the doctrines of human depravity and election to grace.

Despite these differences, liberals remained a part of the church until 1819 when tension between the two groups reached a high point. This moment marked a turning point in the liberal movement and in Channing's career. At the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore, Channing delivered what would become a definitive oration entitled "Unitarian Christianity."

Though the name points to the Unitarian rejection of the Trinity, this represents only one of the movement's central tenets. Equally important is the belief in human goodness and the use of reason in religious matters - "we believe that all virtue has its foundation in the moral nature of man, that is, in conscience, or his sense of duty, and in the power of forming his temper and life according to conscience."

The 1820's were years which Channing spent solidifying his philosophical and religious creed and administering to his flock. The most liberal aspect of this creed was defined in "Likeness to God."

Again an ordination sermon, "Likeness to God" gave a structure to Unitarianism's belief in man's potential to be like God. Of this work Robinson writes "to understand the remarkable influence of "Likeness to God" we must remember how controversial, even heretical, the suggestion of a human similarity to God seemed to many in the 1820's" (Robinson, 145.)

With the publication of Discourses, Reviews, and Miscellanies in 1830, Channing moved away from the strictly theological focus of his earlier works. Throughout the decade that followed, Channing's writing moved to social reform, especially to slavery. Although never a radical abolitionist, Channing wrote about the evils of slavery, and the moral corruption it wrought on both slave and slave-holder.

His 1838 address, "Self-Culture", highlights the importance of the development of the individual, the moral, religious, intellectual, and social aspects of character. In his introduction to the text, David Robinson writes, "Channing's Self-Culture was perhaps the classic definition of the idea in nineteenth-century America." 2 If nothing else it, like an earlier Channing text, helped to put a name and a form to a developing American idea.

Return to William Ellery Channing and American Unitarianism 1. William Ellery Channing, Selected Writings, edited by David Robinson. Paulist Press. New York, 1985. [page 9]

2. ibid. [page 221]