William Henry Channing was the only son of Francis Dana Channing, who was the oldest of a remarkable family of brothers, whose influence in different spheres has been widely recognized. The oldest, he was also regarded as one of the ablest; but his early death left him comparatively unknown to this generation. He graduated at Harvard in 1794, became a lawyer, like his father before him, and died in 1810. William Henry Channing was born that very year in Boston, on May 25, and, being thus half-orphaned, was educated under the sole care of his mother, Susan (Higginson) Channing. She was the daughter of Stephen Higginson, member of the Continental Congress of 1783 and a prominent Federalist. She was a woman of uncommonly fine presence, great strength of character, and unceasing activity of mind; and there was, during their whole joint lives, the most constant intellectual intercourse between her and her son.
Through his father, he was allied with the prominent families of Gibbs and Ellery in Rhode Island and with R. H. Dana and Washington Allston in Massachusetts. Through his mother, he was more or less closely connected with the families of Cabot, Cleveland, Jackson, Lee, Lowell, and Perkins; and, as these again were variously linked by intermarriage, he grew up in a rather tangled network of relationship, which, however, included many good sources of personal influence. Even his own closer family circle has proved sufficiently bewildering to the world outside; for four of the elder Channing brothers left each one son, and three of those sons were named William, varying only in their middle names. Rev. William Henry Channing was the son of Francis D. Channing; Dr. William Francis Channing, M.D.—one of the two joint inventors of the telegraphic fire-alarm—was the son of Rev. William E. Channing, D.D.; and William Ellery Channing—the Concord poet—of Dr. Walter Channing, M.D. It is not strange that these three cousins should often have been confused with one another, although they were singularly unalike.
William Henry Channing was born, as has been said, in Boston; and, although he rarely lived there after early life, yet no man ever shared more intensely the feeling of local pride said to characterize the natives of that city. Merely to hear the exulting filial reverence with which, in his speeches, he would enunciate the words “a Boston boy,” carried one back to the days of Hancock and Sam Adams. Yet it was hard to imagine any one remoter from the typical Bostonian of the novelists. Whatever Howells’s Arbuton was, Channing was not. In truth, he scarcely seemed in look or temperament to belong even to New England. The Massachusetts soil has a curious faculty of producing a certain sporadic type of men, who seem semi-tropical, indeed half Oriental, in their temperament; men of dark complexion, black hair, brilliant eyes, impetuous nature, fervid eloquence. The names of Rufus Choate and John Weiss will readily occur as examples of this type; the late Samuel Johnson, author of Oriental Religions, was another; and William Henry Channing was another. Strikingly handsome in his youth and always of distinguished appearance, active and versatile in habits, stainless in morals, ready of speech, overflowing in sympathy, eager to do and dare, he was regarded from the beginning as a person of singular promise; and, though that large promise was never quite fulfilled, yet it seems only fitting that one whose aspirations were so boundless should have a claim on a series of successive worlds for his entire development.
He was prepared for college at the Lancaster (Massachusetts) Academy—one of his teachers being the late George B. Emerson—and at the Boston Latin School; and he became a member of the celebrated Harvard class of 1829, which was fortunate in having Holmes for its poet laureate. His college rank, though not high, was respectable. He completed his studies at the Harvard Divinity School in 1833, and soon became identified with a band of young Unitarian clergymen who took parishes at the West and established a periodical known as the Western Messenger. Others of this circle were James Freeman Clarke and C. P. Cranch; and, though they almost all ultimately returned eastward, yet the effect of their early impulse was permanently felt in liberalizing a denomination then in some danger of narrowing itself. One of the most gifted of these young missionaries and the nearest to Channing in sympathy was his cousin James Handasyd Perkins, whose biographer he became (1849), and the memory of whose good deeds still lingers in Cincinnati. Channing himself was ordained in that city in 1835, and was afterwards pastor of several different parishes in the United States, and city missionary in one or two cities, up to the time of his removal to England in 1857.
It is perhaps difficult to say, in looking back, why his pastorates were so varied. He was very eloquent in the pulpit, preaching always without notes; and, in the social part of a minister’s duty, his sympathy and his time were always at the disposal of others. Perhaps his extreme unselfishness worked against him. He was not, like some clergymen, easily tempted from a poor parish to a rich one: he was far more likely to leave the prosperous for the poor one. Give him but a sphere of utter self-devotion, with next to no salary, and he was for the time content. For a long time he toiled among the poor of New York, in active connection with Lydia Maria Child and Margaret Fuller and Horace Greeley. Then he devoted years of toilsome labor to preparing the memoir of his uncle, the Rev. Dr. Channing (1848), and to that of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852), of which he was the chief editor. But beyond all these interruptions came that growing out of his devotion to “the reforms of the day,” as they were habitually called in that seething period between 1840 and 1850. Of several of these reforms he was pre-eminently the prophet, the inspirer, the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Anti-slavery, Peace, Temperance, Woman’s Rights—he seemed without a peer, in his own line, upon the platform of each, and indeed suggested Carlyle’s Eastern saint, who had fire enough in him to burn up all the sins of the world. Eloquence, Emerson said, was dog-cheap on the anti-slavery platform; but William Channing was incontestably the most eloquent man there, except Phillips. Channing could not take an utterly cold audience and heat it, as Phillips could; but given a certain degree of heat, and Channing could bring it to a white intensity before which even Phillips must yield.
The movement for social reform known at first as “Association,” and then more technically as “Fourierism,” gave him, not only a new theme, but also a new interest: he suffused it with all his enthusiasm, put garlands and singing robes about it, and passed as with winged feet over all in it that was inadequate or unworthy. He accepted it, not as a far-off ideal only, but as something that could be put at once in practice by proper effort. Later, when the prospect of immediate organization vanished, he only expanded his ideal more widely—wove the thought of Association into all his philosophy, combined it with all he had learned from Plato and Swedenborg, and preached it to the end of his days. The Combined Order! the Divine Humanity! the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth! the At-one-ment between God and Man!—who that heard him preach can help recalling the halo that these words carried round them in his eager prophesying? And if his eloquence, like the flame of a torch in the wind, sometimes mounted upward so ardently as to lose for a moment all visible contact with its socket, it was always brought back to earth again by that intense love of mankind which was the point of departure of all its soarings.
When he left this country for England in 1857, it was to take the place left vacant by James Martineau at Liverpool. There was no more distinguished position in the liberal pulpit than this, and he held his own in it. His thrilling eloquence reached, to an extent that surprised his friends, the English mind, which is commonly held to be conservative. He was profoundly interested in English public affairs—what question was there, indeed, which did not interest him profoundly?—and especially in all that related to social progress and the condition of the poor. Yet it is impossible to deny that he led, during the last twenty-four years, a divided life. Half his heart was in England, half in America. The English life suited his health; he enjoyed its opportunities for study; his wife liked it; and his children, having been educated there, preferred England as a residence. His only son was an Oxford graduate, afterwards prominent as a Liberal member of Parliament; his elder daughter became the wife of Sir Edwin Arnold, a man whose great knowledge and poetic temperament made his society always delightful. As his younger daughter grew up, she developed literary and artistic tastes, for which London afforded excellent opportunities, though she in later life preferred to reside in her native country, where she later died. All these things anchored him in England; and yet he never for a moment ceased to be, in feeling or habits, first and chiefly an American. He accordingly made repeated visits to this country, preaching and lecturing, and sometimes remaining many months at a time. The longest of these visits was during the Civil War, when he was for some time minister of the Unitarian society at Washington, D.C., and chaplain of the United States Senate. To say that he took an interest in the Union cause is inadequate. He gave every thought of his life to it at the most stirring period—preaching to his people, praying in the Senate chamber, visiting the battlefields, nursing in the hospitals, caring for the freed slaves who flocked into the city. He was personally intimate with leading statesmen—Chase in the Senate, Garfield in the House—and led a busy and useful life.
At a later period he visited Boston to give a course of Lowell Lectures, and he preached in various pulpits for a whole winter. Efforts were made by influential persons to obtain for him a suitable professorship in the Harvard Divinity School. It is possible that he would have accepted some such position; but it was not his habit to fix his plans very definitely, and it is not safe to say confidently what he would have done. Again he visited this country on occasion of the Channing Centennial at Newport, R.I. Between these visits he grew perceptibly older; but his heart, his voice, his eloquence, his sympathetic ardor, were always the same.
At the beginning it had seemed as likely that he might devote himself to literature as to preaching; and his early translation of Jouffroy’s Ethics—a version which was for a time a textbook in Harvard College—indicated a tendency to systematic philosophical thought. But his semi-autobiographical fragment, “Ernest the Seeker,” in the Dial, indicated that his life would rather be devoted to the inspiring of spiritual appetite than to the providing of food; and so it proved. He established a short-lived periodical called The Present, and published a few sermons, but his chief literary work was done as a biographer; and this, except in the case of a Boswell or two, leaves no permanent fame. He chronicled the thoughts of others instead of elaborating his own; “saved other names, yet left his own unsung.” Besides the memoirs of Dr. Channing, James Perkins, and Margaret Fuller Ossoli, he edited (1873) a volume of unpublished sermons by his uncle William, giving to them the title of The Perfect Life. It was a remarkable proof of the great qualities of the elder clergyman that he held always the absolute loyalty of the younger. William Henry Channing had far more the temperament of genius than his uncle: he had more fire, more self-abandonment, more varied knowledge, and in some directions a richer mind; yet he was always ready to subordinate himself to this object of reverence. Had he been less ready, he would probably have achieved a wider fame.
He was an omnivorous reader, especially in English, French, and German; and he had, like Coleridge—whom he in several respects resembled—a great habit of annotating and marking his books, often with the aid of a system of signs which he himself had devised. He was also a great taker of notes and copyist of passages; and, when it was done, books and memoranda would perhaps be laid away indefinitely.
The great difficulty of his life was to keep up with his own acquisitions and make use of his own treasures. With thoughts and materials enough to set up a dozen writers, he never showed that preponderance of the executive nature which develops the author out of the mere literary man.
During the very last years of his life his health and strength were perceptibly weakened; and he died December 23, 1884, at the age of seventy-four. His name will long be identified with the fervid eloquence that impressed so many, with the flame of perpetual aspiration, and the beauty of a life spent largely for others. He will be remembered as the intimate friend of the great reformatory leaders of the last half-century. To have been singled out and recorded by Emerson, in the darkest days of the anti-slavery agitation, as “The evil time’s sole patriot,” might fairly fill the measure of many a man’s ambition.
— By Thomas Wentworth Higginson