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Channing, William Ellery (1780-1842)

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William Ellery Channing
William Ellery Channing

Biographical Summary

In Newport, Rhode Island, William’s father died when he was thirteen. His mother’s father, William Ellery—who had signed the Declaration of Independence—then helped to care for him. When William graduated as class orator, tiny Harvard College was limited to just a few buildings.

A traumatic experience followed when Channing became the tutor of children in Richmond, Virginia. Inner torment arose from his wrestling with traditional religious demands which so disturbed his body-mind as to affect his health then and thereafter. Having decided to become a minister, he joined the First Church in Cambridge, then served by Dr. Abiel Holmes. When he was twenty-three, in 1803, he was ordained by the Federal Street Church in Boston—now the Arlington Street Church—which he served until his death.

He proclaimed his growing liberalism when he delivered his address on Unitarian Christianity at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore in 1819. At what has been called the Pentecost of Unitarianism, he articulated a manifesto of the movement of liberal Christians. His rigorous repudiation of the Calvinisitic doctrines of human depravity, predestination, and eternal damnation united with his invigorating affirmation of human freedom and human dignity.

In 1820, he invited colleagues to his parsonage to form an organization uniting liberal clergy. They formed the Berry Street Conference, which led in 1825 to the adoption of a constitution for the American Unitarian Association.

During his lifetime he contributed in notable ways to philosophy, literature, education, and social reform.

Complete Biography

William Ellery Channing was the third child of William and Lucy (Ellery) Channing, and was born at Newport, R.I., on the 7th of April, 1780. His mother, a lady of uncommon strength and excellence of character, was the daughter of William Ellery, who graduated at Harvard College in 1747, and was afterwards a distinguished patriot in the American Revolution and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. His father, distinguished alike for his intellectual and moral qualities, was graduated at the College of New Jersey in 1769, and subsequently settled as a lawyer in Newport, his native place. In 1777 he became attorney-general of the State, and upon the adoption of the Federal Constitution was appointed to the office of district attorney for the district of Rhode Island.

At the age of twelve William Channing was sent to New London to prepare for college. Here he lived with his uncle, the Rev. Henry Channing, then the minister of the Congregational church in that place, and attended a school taught by Mr. (afterwards the Rev. Dr.) Seth Williston. While he was here (September 21, 1793) his father died. About this time, also, a revival of religion took place in his uncle’s congregation, in which his biographer tells us that “the mind of William received such deep and lasting impressions that he dated back to that period the commencement of a decidedly religious life.”

William Ellery Channing
William Ellery Channing

From New London Channing went to Cambridge, where he entered Harvard College in 1794, being then in his fifteenth year. Throughout his whole college course he distinguished himself as a scholar. Upon his graduation the first honor, the English Oration, was assigned to him; but, as the faculty had forbidden the introduction of political questions into the exercises of Commencement Day, he declined to speak under this restriction. A subsequent interview with the president, however, so modified the case that he fulfilled the appointment in a manner that showed the independence as well as the brilliancy of his mind.

From Cambridge he returned to his mother in Newport without having formed any definite plan for the future. He seems, however, soon to have made up his mind to be a minister, and, not having the means of supporting himself while studying theology, he accepted an invitation from David Meade Randolph, of Richmond, Va., then on a visit at Newport, to take the place of tutor in his family. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1798 he went to the South to meet this engagement. Here he found much to interest him, though he was very painfully impressed by the institution of slavery, and in one of his letters he declared that this alone would prevent him from ever settling in Virginia.

Channing remained at the South about a year and a half, and during this time, owing partly to his intense application to study in connection with his duties as a teacher and partly to his mental and spiritual unrest, he lost his health, and returned to Newport in July, 1800. When Channing left home, he was hale and vigorous, but, when he returned, his friends were shocked to find that he was little more than the shadow of a man. From this time his life was a perpetual conflict with physical infirmity.

He remained at Newport a year and a half, pursuing his studies and having for his pupils a son of Mr. Randolph, and his own youngest brother. He became acquainted at this time with the Rev. Samuel Hopkins, to whose character he on more than one occasion paid grateful tribute. In the beginning of 1802, he returned to Cambridge, to fill the office of regent in the college. He was licensed to preach in the autumn of 1802, it is believed by the Cambridge Association. His theological views at that time were probably not very well defined, though it would seem, from the following statement made by him at a later period in life, that he was not even then a Trinitarian:

There was a time when I verged toward Calvinism, for ill-health and depression gave me a dark view of things. But the doctrine of the Trinity held me back. When I was studying my profession, and religion was the subject of deepest personal concern with me, I followed Doddridge through his ‘Rise and Progress,’ till he brought me to a prayer to Jesus Christ. There I stopped, and wrote to a friend that my spiritual guide was gone where I could not follow him. I was never in any sense a Trinitarian.

Mr. Channing’s first efforts in the pulpit attracted great attention. The churches in Brattle Street and Federal Street in Boston were each desirous to secure his services. He was ordained and installed minister of the Federal Street Church on the 1st of June, 1803, the Rev. Dr. Tappan, professor in Harvard College, preaching the sermon, and his uncle, the Rev. Henry Channing, of New London, delivering the charge.

Mr. Channing always felt a deep interest in the affairs of the nation, as well as in the triumph of liberal principles in religion. In the War, all of his sympathies were decidedly with the Federal party, as was indicated by two sermons preached on the occasion of the National and State Fasts, both of which were published. In 1814 he delivered a discourse, in King’s Chapel, on the fall of Bonaparte, which created a profound impression.

In 1815 the Unitarian controversy took shape in the publication, first in the Panoplist and then in a distinct pamphlet, of an article extracted from Bel-sham’s Life of Lindsey, and entitled “American Unitarianism.” Dr. Channing immediately addressed a letter to the Rev. Samuel Cooper Thacher, deploring the publication of what he deemed so unworthy a representation of the views of the Boston ministers. This brought a letter to him, on the controverted points, from the Rev. Dr. Worcester, of Salem, to which he replied. In 1819 he delivered a discourse at the ordination of Mr. Jared Sparks in Baltimore, which marked an important epoch in the history of Unitarianism in this country, as it led to a controversy in which was enlisted, on both sides, a very high degree of ability. In 1826 he preached a sermon at the opening of the new Unitarian church in New York, of a very decisive and earnest tone, which was published.

In 1814 Mr. Channing was married to his cousin, Ruth Gibbs, of Newport. About this time he began his summer visits to Rhode Island, where Mrs. Gibbs, his mother-in-law, who resided in Boston during the winter, retained a country-seat. He became the father of four children, one of whom, the first born, died in infancy.

In 1820 he was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Harvard College.

In 1822 his society and friends urged him to rest for a year from his labors; and, at their suggestion, he sailed in May of that year, accompanied by his wife, for England. Here he made many valuable acquaintances, among whom were Wordsworth and Coleridge.

From England he passed into France, and thence through Switzerland into Italy. He reached home in the fall of 1823, and resumed his ministerial duties with increased alacrity and ardor.

In the spring of 1824, Mr. Ezra Stiles Gannett became associated with him in the pastoral charge. In consequence of this arrangement Dr. Channing relinquished a portion of his salary, and from time to time, as he saw how the duties of his colleague multiplied, he gave up the remainder, “until the pecuniary tie between himself and his congregation became almost nominal.”

Dr. Channing, besides attracting great attention by his occasional discourses and other contributions to our literature, was identified with many of the prominent benevolent projects of the day. He took a deep interest in the temperance reform, and delivered an address in 1837 before the Massachusetts Temperance Society, in which he discussed the causes and remedies of intemperance with great ability. He rendered important aid to his friend, Dr. Tuckerman, in the establishment of the ministry for the poor. The cause of prison reform, also, had his hearty sympathy, and as much of his attention as he was able to bestow upon it. In 1838 and 1840 he delivered lectures on self-culture and on the elevation of the laboring classes, which were republished and gained a wide circulation in England.

William Ellery Channing
Statue in Touro Park, Newport, Rhode Island.
Courtesy of the Channing Memorial Church.

Dr. Channing sympathized strongly with the antislavery movement. As early as 1828 he wrote to a friend in England, expressing his deep interest in the subject and his earnest desire that some plan might be devised by which the slaves in this country should be emancipated. In the autumn of 1830 he sailed for Santa Cruz for the benefit of his health, and remained there until May of the next year. Here he saw much to confirm his previous impressions in respect to slavery, and on his return manifested a strong desire that something should be done to arouse the public mind on the subject. While in the West Indies, he commenced a work on slavery which was not published until 1835. In 1837 he published a letter on the threatened annexation of Texas, addressed to Henry Clay. In the autumn of the same year he was instrumental in procuring a public meeting in Faneuil Hall, to bear testimony against the murder of the Rev. Mr. Lovejoy, at Alton, while defending the building containing his press, which was devoted to anti-slavery. But, while his mind dwelt with perhaps greater intensity on this subject than almost any other, he declared his disapprobation of all extreme measures, and relied upon the power of argument and persuasion rather than reproachful epithets or violent dealing.

In the summer of 1842 Dr. Channing went to pass a few weeks at Lenox, Mass. While here, he made his last public effort in the delivery of his well-known address on West Indian emancipation. He left Lenox in September, intending to return through the passes of the Green Mountains, but was attacked at Bennington by a fever, which, after a little more than three weeks, terminated his life. On Sunday, October 2, the last day of his life, he listened to a portion of Scripture containing some of the words of Jesus, with great apparent satisfaction. Says one who was watching at his bedside:

In the afternoon he spoke very earnestly, but in a hollow whisper. I bent forward, but the only words I could distinctly hear were, “I have received many messages from the Spirit.” As the day declined, his countenance fell, and he grew fainter and fainter. With our aid he turned himself towards the window which looked over valleys and wooded summits to the east. We drew back the ‘curtains, and the light fell upon his face. The sun had just set, and the clouds and sky were bright with gold and crimson. He breathed more and more gently, and without a struggle or a sigh the body fell asleep. We knew not when the spirit passed.

The body was immediately conveyed by the family to Boston, and on the afternoon of Friday, October 7, his funeral was attended at the Federal Street Church, and a discourse delivered on the occasion by the Rev. Dr. Gannett. The burial took place the same evening at Mount Auburn.

First-Person Accounts of William Ellery Channing

It would be gratifying to multiply testimonies to Dr. Channing’s character, but a few tributes from those who knew him must suffice. Dr. Orville Dewey wrote in 1848:

My acquaintance with Channing commenced nearly thirty years ago, just as I was entering my profession. I passed several weeks with him in his family at that time, and for more than a year often officiated in his pulpit, as his health then, and indeed ever after, permitted him to preach but seldom. He usually attended church, however, and it was not a little trying for a young man to preach with such a presence as his in the pulpit. He was, however, a most considerate as well as sincere critic. I remember his saying of Buckminster that he was the most tolerant critic on preaching among his brethren. But Channing’s judgment on every subject certainly had singular weight, not only from its intrinsic worth, but because it was not eagerly put forward. It came in as a kind of reserved force that decides everything. At any rate, it was rather a formidable thing to have in the pulpit. “I could not help thinking of him who sat behind me,” said one, “though my text was ‘forgetting things that are behind and pressing forward to things that are before.’” I remember his first criticism on me was, “You address yourself too much to the imagination, and too little to the conscience.” Indeed, I always felt his presence to be the sharpest inspection or the keenest trial of my thoughts. His mind was constantly strained to the highest tension—he seemed not to know how to let it down to ordinary chit-chat.

For myself I do not well know what more rare or remarkable could cross a young man’s path than intercourse with such a mind as his. It was a new thing in my experience, and has stood alone ever since. For weeks I listened to him and studied him as my sole business. In a quiet and low tone, with little variety of intonation, without passion, without a jest, without laughter, without one commonplace remark, he went on, day after day, either pursuing some one theme, as he often did for days, or, if descending to ordinary topics, always surveying them from the loftiest point of view, and always talking with such mental insight and such profound emotion as penetrated the heart through and through. There was a kind of suppressed feeling about him, far more touching than any other manifestation could be.

It was, indeed, altogether a most remarkable thing—his conversation; and yet I do not know that I would have purchased it at the price he paid for it. He stood alone—I found him embosomed in reverence and affection, and yet living in a singular isolation. No being was ever more simple, unpretending, and kindly-natured than he, and yet no such being surely was ever so inaccessible—not that he was proud, but that he was venerated as something out of the earthly sphere. Scarcely any of his professional brethren, even those for whom he had the highest esteem, had any familiarity or any proper freedom with him. Even Henry Ware, possessing in so many respects a kindred nature, said: “I go to Channing, I listen to him: I go away. That is all.” One felt it necessary to sit bolt upright in conversing with him, and to strain his mind as to a task. It was long before I could lounge upon his sofa, as I talked with him, and say what I pleased. Nobody, I imagine, ever said, on entering his study, “How d’ye do, Channing?” His own family always, and most affectionately, called him William; but the freer intercourse, the fonder leanings of friendship, never went with him, I believe, beyond that charmed circle. I shall be curious to note, in his forthcoming biography, whether in his letters he ever addressed anybody as “My dear John” or “My dear Phillips.” I doubt whether he did; and yet he did not like isolation or formality. His presence, his spirit, made a kind of sanctuary around him.

And yet, I must repeat, nothing could be less intentional or less desired on his part. Nothing could exceed his simplicity, his freedom from all pretension and affectation. Dr. Channing did not care to be called Doctor, but he still less cared to make an ado about it. He did not like an ado about anything. I may say, perhaps, that there was a kind of apathy in him about little things, and things which to others possibly were not little. He seemed often insensible to the feelings of others, partly from abstraction, no doubt, and partly because he could not enter into their feelings about himself. I was amused sometimes, when persons were introduced to him, with many bows and extraordinary demonstrations of respect, to see him apparently as unconscious of it as the chair he sat in. Yet he was a courteous receiver. It was not possible for a nature like his to be discourteous, though it might be abstracted. I think he unbent with children more easily than with others. Though not specially fond of children, yet he was always most tender and affectionate to them; and I have, more than once, seen my own driving him about the parlor for a horse, holding on to the skirts of his coat for reins. The notion which some persons entertained that he was unnecessarily attentive to his own health was altogether erroneous. I know that his extremely delicate constitution needed singular care. If he changed his coat five times a day, as he did sometimes, to him it was necessary. Doubtless his habits of retirement might sometimes lead him to make mistakes that looked like a morbid care of himself. A parishioner of his told me that he called upon him one April day—one of those days when the soft south-west wind breathes over the earth the promise of spring—and he said to Mr. Channing, who seemed unwell and in low spirits, “Why do you not go out, sir, and take a walk?” Channing simply pointed through his study-window to the spire of Park Street Church, which was in sight, and said, “Do you see that vane?” “Yes,” was the reply, “I see it: it has been stuck fast and pointing to the north-east for a fortnight.” This information dissolved the spell, and the invalid—for he was never otherwise—went out and enjoyed a delightful walk.

I ought to add that Channing’s interest in everything relating to the general progress and welfare of the world was one of singular intensity. The way in which he noted every indication and signalized every fact and scrutinized every opinion that bore upon this subject, many must remember. And in his mind conservative and liberal principles were strongly bound together. He watched every project of reform with a lively and sympathizing interest, and yet he was equally cautious, and more than one disappointment was experienced by the reformers of the day because to their projects he could not give in his entire adhesion.

Ephraim Peabody said:

Of those qualities by which I was most impressed, one was the great interest which he took in the young. He had himself preserved, through all the experience of manhood, the fresh, warm, sympathetic heart of youth. He loved to have the young around him. He entered into their feelings, and treated their opinions with a most respectful attention. In a singular degree, while he urged on them the most rigid standard of duty, he was patient and encouraging; and, while he set before them the higher ends, he knew how to stimulate and encourage the feeble and faltering to attain them.

As one’s intercourse continued, the next point which appeared most prominently was, I think, the love of truth—a peculiar openness of mind to new views, a readiness in appreciating them, and a strong craving to reach the truth. I remember his saying that, when he was young, a great difficulty with which he had to contend was the way in which new subjects fastened upon and tyrannized over his mind, depriving him of sleep, interfering with his health, until he was able, as it seemed to him, to see through and understand them. His mind was judicial. Conversation with him was not a conflict of wits, but an instrument for investigating truth; not an argumentative controversy, but an inquiry. On leaving him, you felt that you had not been learning how to maintain a side, but that you had penetrated deeper into the subject of discussion. He was, by taste, temper, and habit, conservative; but he kept himself always in the attitude of a learner, of one who desired and wished to reach higher and clearer views of truth. This preserved the youth of his mind, made him hospitable towards new ideas and pleasant to opinions unlike his own. But these very qualities and the extended inquiries to which they gave rise, whenever he became satisfied that he had reached the truth, made his convictions most profound and earnest. What he believed he believed with his whole mind and heart.

In his search after truth there was a remarkable blending together of the intellectual and moral faculties. His was not so much a conscientious intellect as an intellectual conscience. The simplicity, directness, and wisdom which characterized his views were greatly owing to this harmonious action of his whole spiritual nature. He shrank from any injustice to the opinions of others, and from statements and arguments in which truth is sacrificed to point and effect, as most men shrink from direct falsehood in words or dishonesty in action.

But the quality which, above all others, manifested itself on increasing acquaintance with him, was the devotional habit of his mind. I do not mean to compare him with others, but in him the sentiment of devotion was so remarkable that I should select it as perhaps the most striking point of his character. It was as simple and unostentatious as possible, but it was habitual and all-controlling. As you came to know him well, you felt that his mind kept habitually within the circle of light which shines down from above. It appeared not in any single thing that he said, but in his whole way of thinking and conversation. I remember finding him once in his study, reading the Confessions of Saint Augustine. He told me that he made it a practice every day to read by himself, during a certain time, some strictly devotional book.

Perhaps that which gives the highest idea of his character was the fact that he occupied a constantly growing place in your respect, as you knew him more intimately. There have been great orators who were very ordinary men—persons whose whole moral and intellectual life seemed condensed into their occasional public speeches, and who between these public displays, moved on a low level of thought and purpose. With Dr. Channing it was the reverse. His writings were not exceptions to his life, but the natural, unforced, and often incidental expression of his ordinary and common state of mind. His common conversation was more genial and varied, but it was pitched on the same moral key with his writings. There was no break or jar between his public and private life. Never were writings more thoroughly natural. They flowed off from the level of his mind. His conversation, though varying to meet the occasion and sympathies of the moment, was of the same quality with his books.

Dr. Channing possessed one characteristic of greatness in a remarkable degree—the power of sacrificing that which was secondary and unimportant to that which was central and essential. It was in part owing, I imagine, to his health. He was so frail that it seemed a wonder that he lived from year to year. He was capable of enduring but little labor. Among the many calls upon him he was obliged to choose, and he conscientiously devoted his whole strength to what he deemed the most important thing of the time. He allowed no secondary matter to turn him aside from this. The result was that, in spite of a state of health which most men would have regarded an absolute sickness, he produced works which seem to have made a permanent impression on the age. This characteristic ran into all that he did. He was compelled to avoid many occasions where his services were wanted. This often subjected him to severe criticism, and all the more that, trusting to his rectitude of purpose, he never made excuses or apologies for the course he took. His life was a public one, but he had no sensitiveness to public opinion, so far as it affected himself. I do not believe that there is a line in all his writings which ever received a different coloring from any thought of its influence on his own reputation. He so put himself aside in this respect that he seemed like an impersonal teacher. He wrote not for himself, but as one dedicated to truth and human welfare and God’s service.

He was essentially a thinker. A history of his life would be a history of his thoughts. He gained information more from men than books. His society was sought by the most eminent men in different departments of life. He loved to have intercourse with all kinds of men, and especially with those whose ways of thinking were unlike his own. He had a singular faculty of drawing from them their information and their views, and in his way he probably understood them better than if he had been acquainted with them only through books. Owing to this, his intercourse with strangers had a peculiarity which sometimes made him misunderstood and which often disappointed them. They went to visit an eminent man. They found him anxious not to exhibit himself, not to delight them, but to draw from them what was peculiar in their own views. In this way, notwithstanding his retired life, he had a very large acquaintance with mankind, and to his personal acquaintance with leading minds of the most various description I attribute the general breadth and clearness of judgment which he exhibited on the more perplexed social and moral questions of the time.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing’s Address

Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing’s Platform

“Remarks on Associations,” by William Ellery Channing

“Lecture I: 1825,” by Virgil E. Murdock