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Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing’s Platform

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II. Channing’s Platform 

by Conrad Wright

Two kinds of epoch‑making addresses may be distinguished. There is, on the one hand, the speech innocently delivered, with no thought that it will prove to be memorable. Thus the Gettysburg Address has lived while the major oration of that occasion has been forgotten. But there is also the address which is made memorable, at least in part, because those who planned the occasion were resolved that it should be made so. Channing’s Baltimore Sermon falls into this latter category. “Attending circumstances,” remarked one of’ the participants in the ceremonies of which Channing’s sermon was the climax, give them “a vast solemnity and weight.”[1] The address was memorable partly because the persons involved were determined, by a conscious, deliberate act, to make it a manifesto to which the religious community would have to give heed. It was not the isolated utterance of an individual but a party proclamation, and as such, it proved to be as brilliantly successful as its promoters could have hoped.

What was the party of which this sermon was the manifesto’? Its members referred to themselves as “liberal Christians,” and their territory of greatest influence was eastern Massachusetts. They were the heirs of two generations of theological liberals who had rejected New England Calvinism and rewritten Christian theology to conform to the rational doctrines and tolerant spirit of the Age of Reason. They were the intellectual successors of such men as Charles Chauncy, who was Jonathan Edwards’ most persistent opponent at the time of the Great Awakening; Jonathan Mayhew, one of the first ministers in New England to reject the doctrine of the Trinity; John Tucker of Newbury, vigorous advocate of the free mind, unbound by creeds or confessions of faith; and Jeremy Belknap, whose historical researches declared his conviction that the clergy were as much responsible for the nourishment of humane letters as of theological speculation.

The liberal Christians included the ministers of the most influential churches of Boston and nearby towns: Channing himself, at the Federal Street Church, where his intense spirituality found expression in a pulpit manner and form of address that stirred his listeners almost to the point of idolatry, James Freeman of the Stone Chapel, who had led the oldest Episcopal church in Boston into anti‑trinitarian congregationalism; Aaron Bancroft of Worcester, the father of an American diplomat and man of letters; and Charles Lowell, the father of another. In the congregations of such men were to be found the merchants, doctors, lawyers, and leaders of the community, characterized by one of the orthodox ministers as “a formidable host … combining wealth, talents and influence.”[2] Theirs was doubtless the confined stage of a provincial society; but within its limits, they were accustomed to exercise power and to make the decisions by which the communities of which they were the leading citizens were shaped.

It was something of an accident of history that these liberal Christians eventually came to be known as Unitarians. Anti‑trinitarian they were, to be sure; but they long refused the Unitarian label, since at that time it connoted a variety of anti‑trinitarianism which most of them rejected. Furthermore, their basic disagreement with orthodoxy was over human nature and the doctrines of grace, rather than over the doctrine of the Trinity. Calvinism asserted that the innate bent of all creatures is toward sin; that by an eternal decree God has predestined some to everlasting happiness and others to eternal torment; and that salvation comes to the elect as the unmerited gift of God’s Holy Spirit. The liberals, on the other hand, believed that men and women are born with a capacity both for sin and for righteousness; that they can respond to the impulse toward holiness as well as to the temptation to do evil; and that life is a process of trial and discipline, by which, with the assistance God freely gives to all, the bondage to sin may gradually be overcome. This view of human nature and human destiny, referred to in those days as “Arminianism,” was more optimistic than Calvinism, with its doctrines of original sin, election, and predestination. But it was a qualified and moderate optimism, as contrasted with later Unitarian assertions of the essential dignity of human nature, or Transcendentalist proclamations of the infinity of the soul.

Although a cleavage between the Calvinist and the Arminian wings of New England congregationalism may be traced back at least as far as the 1740’s, an open breach did not appear until 1805. Down to that date, despite recurrent debate and disagreement, traditional acts of fellowship between ministers of the two groups were not abandoned. Orthodox ministers still exchanged pulpits with their liberal colleagues and did not scruple to participate with them in ordinations and installations. Early in 1805, however, Henry Ware of Hingham, one of the liberals, was elected Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, despite the strident protests of the orthodox. This election was the signal to the orthodox that control of the college had passed from their hands. The growing strength of the liberal Christians seemed all too freely exercised; and prominent orthodox ministers, like Jedidiah Morse of Charlestown, decided that the only way to defend orthodoxy was to isolate the liberal Christians and thereby restrict their influence.

Morse was by all odds the most energetic and effective leader of the orthodox. His situation was complicated, however, by the existence of divisions within the orthodox camp itself. Out of the theological speculations of Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins there had emerged certain doctrinal innovations within the framework of Calvinism, commonly referred to as the “New Divinity,” or “Hopkinsianism.” Many moderate Calvinists, at least in eastern Massachusetts, were as distrustful of the New Divinity as they were of Arminianism. Morse’s grand strategy called for a reconciliation between moderate Calvinists and Hopkinsians, as well as a separation between them and the liberals. Although he failed in an attempt to organize a General Association of Ministers on orthodox principles, he was the key figure in drawing together the Hopkinsians and the moderate Calvinists in support of Andover Theological Seminary, founded in 1808. He also persuaded the two factions to merge their rival magazines. At the same time, the evangelical ministers began to limit their pulpit exchanges to members of their own group, even though this often meant the disruption of friendly relationships of long standing.

The years following the election of Henry Ware were punctuated by a series of dramatic conflicts. In 1808, John Codman’s decision to restrict his exchanges resulted in a bitter struggle in the Second Church in Dorchester, which attracted widespread attention and intensified party alignments generally. In 1815, Jedidiah Morse discovered in the biography of an English Unitarian clergyman evidence sufficient to convince him not only that the New England liberals were more unorthodox than they were willing to acknowledge but that they were engaging in a dishonest conspiracy of silence. In order to smoke out the opposition, Morse reprinted the crucial chapter of the biography in pamphlet form, with introductory comments intended to prove that the liberal Christians were really Unitarians in the English sense of the term. This publication was promptly reviewed by one of Morse’s parishioners who called upon the orthodox to separate in worship and communion from the liberals.

Repeatedly the liberals protested against this “system of exclusion,” as Channing termed it. The honor of religion, he declared, “can never suffer by admitting to Christian fellowship men of irreproachable lives, whilst it has suffered most severely from that narrow and uncharitable spirit which has excluded such men for imagined errors.” The cause of truth, he continued, “can never suffer by admitting to Christian fellowship, men who honestly profess to make the Scriptures their rule of faith and practice, whilst it has suffered most severely by substituting for this standard, conformity to human creeds and formularies.”[3] The consequence could only be the destruction of the traditional ecclesiastical institutions of New England, accompanied by bitterness and factional strife that would separate friends, divide churches, and even embitter family relationships.

By 1819, however, the liberals were forced to acknowledge that the situation would have to be accepted for what it was, and that, like it or not, they were becoming a distinct religious body. Channing’s Baltimore Sermon contributed much to this process of self‑discovery. Preached as it was by the most eloquent of the Boston ministers, who was known to deplore the sectarian spirit, its influence was incalculable.

If Channing was ready to call himself a Unitarian, lesser ministers were emboldened to follow. The activities of Jedidiah Morse forced the liberals to become a separate denomination; but it was Channing who persuaded them to accept this unwelcome distinction and gave them a party platform on which to stand.

It is worthy of comment that this party proclamation of the New England liberals was delivered in Baltimore, rather than in Boston. For this occasion, which was regarded by the participants as having especial solemnity and weight, half a dozen of the most prominent Boston ministers had to travel four hundred miles from home. Some of them preached along the way‑in New York, where a Unitarian church soon resulted, and in Philadelphia, where a struggling Unitarian church inspired by Joseph Priestley had been in existence for some years. The episode takes on the aspect of a foray of the leading Boston liberals into foreign territory. It has therefore a double significance: it signalized the acceptance by the liberals of their own distinctive theological and ecclesiastical position at home; it also declared their intention to carry the gospel of liberal Christianity to other parts of the land as well.

Although the ordination of Jared Sparks was the occasion for the first full‑scale expedition of Boston Unitarianism beyond its original limits, preliminary scouting parties had already sent back intelligence reports as to the prospects in various cities tlong the eastern seaboard. In October, 1816, James Freeman conducted services in Baltimore in a hired hall. The response may be judged from a letter written by Edward Hinkley to his college chum, Jared Sparks, then engaged in theological studies. “For some time past,” he wrote, “the theological doctors here have been making a great outcry against Unitarians and Unitarianism, that ‘star in the North of ill omen,’ as I heard Duncan call it. Dr. Freeman preached three Sundays in this city. Though he was obliged to preach in a ball‑room, he had a large and respectable audience.”[4]

Hinkley went on to say that one minister threatened to excommunicate any member of his church who went to hear Freeman but that plans were already being made for the construction of a Unitarian meetinghouse.

The years 1817 and 1818 saw Unitarianism in Baltimore in the process of organization. The First Independent Church of Baltimore was formed early in 1817; the cornerstone of its building was laid in June of that year, and the dedication exercises were held in October, 1818. Meanwhile, Hinkley had suggested to the promoters of the new enterprise that Sparks was “exactly the man” for them and had urged Sparks to come if called. “The parish will, I think, be large, and will, I know, be rich and respectable. . . . Mr. Williams tells me that as to the salary, $1,500 is the least sum that will be at first offered, that in case the minister should marry $2,000, with a dwelling, will be given.” As for opposition, he reported, little need be feared. “At first a few of the ministers might preach a sermon or two to prove the trinity, &c., and some bigots might call a Unitarian aninfidel, or deist, &c. But this sort of talk would be harmless to all but its authors, and would vanish ‘like the morning cloud or the early dew.’”[5]

In the fall of 1818, Sparks was invited to Baltimore to preach as a candidate. In his letters home, he was frank enough to admit that his pulpit delivery had not met with entire approval: “My speaking has been severely criticised and found fault with, but my sermons, as my best friends tell me, have given universal satisfaction.”[6] He received a unanimous call, in any event, and in February, 1819, set out for Boston to make arrangements for the ordination.

In a letter to Sparks, soon after his departure, one of the trustees of the church stressed the advantage in having the ordination “got up with some considerable shew of strength.”[7] In Baltimore, the trustees went ahead with plans for newspaper publicity and worked on arrangements so that “such a force of talents” as was expected for the ordination might be made available for other preaching engagements as well, and thereby be put on display to the advantage of the cause. In Boston, John Gorham Palfrey, a classmate of Sparks and the minister of the Brattle Street Church, welcomed him with a dinner party‑, and it is plausible to assume that the plans for the ordination came under discussion. A closely knit group of ministers, many of them intimate friends or sponsors of Sparks, then dominated both the pulpits of Boston and the government of Harvard College, so there was very much the atmosphere of a caucus about the whole proceedings. Of those invited to participate‑one might almost say, designated to participate‑four were leading Boston ministers: Channing and Palfrey, who made the trip, and Charles Lowell and Henry Ware, Jr., who found it necessary to beg off. The Harvard influence was especially marked: Channing and Eliphalet Porter of Roxbury were both Fellows of the Corporation, while Dr. Henry Ware was the Hollis Professor. President Kirkland himself, although not to be present at the ordination in May, was already helping by supplying the Baltimore pulpit for part of the time during Sparks’ absence.

The ordination took place on May 5, 1819, and reports quickly got back to Boston as to the events of the day. The most detailed account, in a letter from Samuel A. Eliot to Andrews Norton, conveys something of the sense of excitement that prevailed among those present, confident as they were that they were sharing in an historic occasion. “Wednesday at about 1/2 past 10,” he wrote, “the services commenced, & every body was very much interested & pleased. . . . The sermon was an hour & a half long, & was an effort of uncommon boldness & decision for Mr. Channing.” The preacher’s manner was “more than usually animated.” Mr. Palfrey’s right hand of fellowship and Dr. Ware’s ordaining prayer were singled out for special praise. Eliot felt that he had never attended a more interesting ordination service‑, it was “well worth coming 400 miles for, at least that & what was connected with it.” Certainly, he felt, the advance of truth in Baltimore was very perceptible, “notwithstanding the violent efforts of the clergy to obstruct it.”[8]

And so the group slowly dispersed homeward. On the way, Channing preached in New York, with the result that the First Congregational Society was organized there that very month. In Boston, the success of the expedition was the chief topic of conversation among the liberals. “The gentlemen who assisted at Mr. Sparks’ ordination have returned,” wrote Andrews Norton; “those whom I have seen, in fine spirits, and full of hope that correct opinions and feelings on the subject of religion will be more and more extended. Mr. Channing’s sermon is said to have been a very eloquent and able exposition and defense of the principles of rational Christians.”[9] Stephen Higginson, Jr., the steward of Harvard College, was even more exhilarated over the prospects. “Our success in New York,” he wrote to Sparks, “proves the correctness of my view as it regards that city & we should now spare no pains to supply them with preaching. . . . Next comes Hartford, Washington & Richmond‑& we must not sleep at our posts till the Truth is openlyadvocated in all our great cities.”[10]

In Baltimore, Sparks promptly arranged for publication of Channing’s sermon, and it was available in less than a month. A second Baltimore edition was required almost at once; and two editions, one of them unauthorized, were quickly issued in Boston. So great was the demand that it has been asserted that no pamphlet, save only Tom Paine’s Common Sense, had ever before circulated so widely in this country.

The Baltimore Sermon has sometimes been interpreted as an appeal for the use of reason in religion and as a condemnation of the popular orthodoxy of the day on the grounds of its irrationality. It is true that Channing believed that human reason can and must be used to establish certain basic truths of religion, such as the existence of God. But it is important to note that the thrust of the Baltimore Sermon is in quite a different direction. For Channing, as for the other liberals, the unassisted reason can establish doctrines of natural religion. But these doctrines must be supplemented by a special revelation, which is to be found in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments: “Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve or exception.” The distinctive doctrines of Christianity, such as the mediatorial role of Jesus Christ, could never have been established by the unassisted reason. Channing was sensitive to the charge that the liberals exalted reason above revelation, and the Baltimore Sermon made a special point of refuting that charge. Properly understood, it is a reminder that Unitarianism began as it biblical faith.

To be sure, Channing declared that reason must be used in the interpretation of Scripture; and he had a sublime confidence that no scriptural doctrine, rightly interpreted, will be found to be irrational. But for him, as for earlier anti‑trinitarians, the conclusive argument for rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity was that it is unscriptural. Accordingly, the theme of the Baltimore Sermon is that the Scriptures, correctly interpreted teach the doctrines of the liberal Christians, or Unitarians. Modern Unitarianism has moved so far from its original biblical basis that we are likely to underestimate its importance for Channing. He did not argue from Scripture, as one might be tempted to suppose, simply for purposes of strategy in opposing the orthodox of that day. He argued from Scripture because, for him as for the other liberals, the Bible was the sole Source of Christian truth.

The main ideas of the Baltimore Sermon are arranged under two headings. The first section outlines the principles to be adopted in the interpretation of the Scriptures; the second part deals with certain doctrines which the Scriptures, so interpreted, are found to contain. While the first section is the shorter, it is perhaps the more significant of the two, for it is it brief statement of methods of biblical criticism then regarded its novel, if not revolutionary. Stimulated by a sudden awareness of the riches of German critical scholarship, the liberals were trying to master new principles of biblical study. Their intellectual horizons had suddenly widened, and they were confident that new ways were opening before them for the solution of perennially intractable theological problems. No small part of the enthusiasm with which they attacked orthodoxy stemmed from their confidence that the science of biblical criticism assured the ultimate triumph of liberal Christianity.

The new principles of biblical scholarship for which Channing was an advocate must be seen against the background of an earlier tradition of scriptural interpretation. In the eighteenth century, the liberals were wont to complain that the orthodox, and especially the evangelical revivalists, were constructing Christian doctrine on the basis of isolated verses of the Bible wrenched entirely out of context. Any kind of absurdity, they complained, can be demonstrated on the basis of isolated prooftexts. The only proper method of determining what the Bible teaches on a given point is to collect all the relevant passages and compare them one with another. This was the method used by the English philosopher Samuel Clarke in his Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity(1712) and by the dissenting minister John Taylor of Norwich in his Scripture-Doctrine of Original Sin (1740). Charles Chauncy in turn copied Taylor’s methods and applied them to the doctrine of universal salvation in The Salvation of All Men (1784). The purpose in each case was to let obscure texts be clarified by clear and unambiguous ones; to allow the bold and unqualified language of one verse to be limited by the cautious phrasing of another; and to discover the inner logical consistency of the Scriptures which must pervade the whole, despite possible Surface contradictions.

From the point of view of Channing’s generation the limitations of Clarke’s method of scriptural interpretation were obvious. It assumed that the Bible itself provides the key to its own interpretation and, in theory at least, that every verse of the Bible is of equal validity. It rejected the notion that individual verses of the Bible can be understood in isolation from the whole tenor of Scripture; but it assumed that the Bible itself can be understood in isolation from the historical circumstances that produced it. And so the Baltimore Sermon emphasizes that “the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men,” and‑to use a modern expression‑limited by the culture that produced it. The Bible cannot be understood without a knowledge of the original tongues in which it was composed, the culture of the Jewish people and the special historical circumstances that occasioned particular books, and even the quirks of personality of some of the authors. Isolated passages of the Bible may be subject to a variety of alternative interpretations; the only way to determine which one is correct is to select “that which accords with the nature of the subject and the state of the writer, with the connexion of the passage, with the general strain of Scripture, with the known character and will of God, and with the obvious and acknowledged laws of nature.” In short, in the Bible, the revelation of God is refracted through human language and the circumstances of human history. To understand God’s will, we must make due allowance for that refraction; and to that end, all the resources of philology, of history, and of philosophy, both natural and moral, must be brought to bear on the sacred texts.

Even among the liberals, Channing was neither the pioneer nor the foremost practitioner of these methods of biblical scholarship. The pioneer was perhaps Joseph Stevens Buckminster, whose death in 1812 at the age of twenty‑eight cut short the career of a man regarded by his contemporaries as the most brilliant and gifted of all the liberals of his generation. Buckminster’s trip abroad in 1806 introduced him to a new world of theological learning, and his library of more than three thousand volumes, collected at that time, was one of the vehicles by which the latest biblical scholarship was conveyed to the New World. George Ticknor long afterwards declared that it was Buckminster “who first took the critical study of the Scriptures among us from the old basis . . . and placed it on the solid foundations of the text of the New Testament as settled by Wetstein and Griesbach, and elucidated by the labors of Michaelis, Marsh, and Rosenmüller, and by the safe and wise learning of Grotius, Le Clerc, and Simon.” In brief, Ticknor concluded, it has “hardly been permitted to any other man to render so considerable a service as this to Christianity in the Western World.”[11]

If Buckminster was the pioneer, Andrews Norton was without doubt the chief practitioner of the new scholarship. His abilities were recognized as early as 1813, when he was named Dexter Lecturer on Biblical Criticism at Harvard, an appointment previously held by both Buckminster and Channing. In 1819, he became Dexter Professor of Sacred Literature, and his inaugural “Discourse on the Extent and Relations of Theology” was in part a restatement of the principles of criticism that bears comparison with Channing’s sermon, delivered earlier the same year. As a teacher in the Divinity School until 1830, he helped to shape a curriculum centered in scriptural interpretation rather than dogmatic theology; and as a leader of the Unitarian body until his death in 1853, he stood for the most meticulous kind of scholarship and the highest standard of professional integrity. In a sense, one needs only to review the lifelong concerns and professional achievement of Norton to understand what Channing was driving at in the first section of the Baltimore Sermon.

The second part of Channing’s sermon, actually more than twice the length of the first, is devoted to an exposition of some of the doctrines to be derived from the Bible, “particularly those which distinguish us from other Christians.” The first of these is the Unity of God, as contrasted with the doctrine of the Trinity. Next is the Unity of Christ, in place of the doctrine of two natures in one person. The third point is the moral perfection of God, whose infinite goodness, justice, and mercy manifest his concern for the virtue and happiness of human beings. The Calvinistic doctrines of depravity, election, and eternal damnation are rejected as offering a false and dishonorable view of God. The fourth doctrine is the mediation of Christ: Channing acknowledges the existence of some differences of opinion among Unitarians on this score; but he insists that any doctrine of the atonement that implies that the death of Jesus was necessary to placate an angry God is absurd, unscriptural, and immoral. Finally, Channing explores the nature of true holiness, which he defines as love to God, love to Christ, and benevolence toward one’s fellow human beings.

It is worth noting that while Channing’s point with respect to these doctrines is that they are scriptural, he does not actually attempt to prove that they are so. This part of the sermon is not a demonstration of how the new principles of interpretation should be applied; it is rather a statement, offered without proof, of the conclusions that result when those principles are applied. Even the Note which Channing appended to the second edition of the sermon makes only a bare beginning in the direction of proof. This was, after all, an ordination sermon, not an introduction to the study of the New Testament; and it was quite long enough as it stood, even for a generation that did not boggle at lengthy discourses. For the detailed analysis which Channing did not give, one has to turn to certain of the controversial pamphlets published later that year. Most notable of these was Andrews Norton’s reply to Moses Stuart’s critique of Channing’s sermon. Norton’s tract was entitled “Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians” and was initially published in the Christian Disciple; in this form, it was sixty‑four pages long. A decade later, it was rewritten and enlarged to book length. It was reprinted as late as 1859 and served as the standard Unitarian treatment of the topic until a later generation of liberals lost interest in the original biblical basis for anti-trinitarian theology.

If Channing omitted exegesis and criticism from his sermon as ill suited to the occasion, he omitted other themes because they were not matters of disagreement between the liberals and the orthodox. In particular, he passed over all discussion of natural religion, its relationship to revealed religion, and the problem of Christian evidences. These themes, which he handled elsewhere, notably in his Dudleian Lecture two years later, were as characteristic of the thought of the early Unitarians as the doctrines actually discussed in the Baltimore Sermon. They were not, however, the distinguishing doctrines of the liberals.

Furthermore, the emphasis which Channing placed on the doctrines of the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ may be somewhat misleading. As we have already seen, the most persistent and irreconcilable disagreement between the liberals and the orthodox was over the nature and destiny of humanity. Channing touched on these issues in dealing with the moral perfection of God‑, but his attack on Calvinism was much more oblique than it was in other writings of his, such as “The Moral Argument against Calvinism” (1820) and “Unitarian Christianity Most Favorable to Piety” (1826). In the pamphlet warfare in 1819 and 1820, for every interchange between Moses Stuart and Andrews Norton on the doctrine of the Trinity, there were three between Leonard Woods and Henry Ware on the doctrine of human nature. The imbalance in Channing’s sermon was, in a sense, rectified in the pamphlets that followed.

The Baltimore Sermon must be read, therefore, as a typical, though incomplete, expression of the mind of the early Unitarians. But it is hardly fair to complain that Channing did not produce aSumma Theologica in twenty‑five pages octavo. He set for himself a specific objective, and there was no doubt in the minds of most of his congregation on that Wednesday morning in May, 1819, that he had succeeded in doing precisely what he had set out to do.


[1] Nathaniel Thayer, “Address to the Society,” in W. E. Channing, A Sermon Delivered at the ORdination of the Rev. Jared Sparks (Boston, 1819), p.32.

[2] Jedidiah Morse, An Appeal to the Public (Charlestown, 1814), p. vi.

[3] The Works of William Ellery Channing, D.D. (Boston, 1841), V. 376.

[4] Herbert B. Adams, The Life and Writings of Jared Sparks (Boston and New York, 1893), I, 126.

[5] Ibid., I, 127, 128.

[6] Ibid., I, 136-137.

[7] Charles H. Appleton to Sparks, February 23, 1819, MS., Harvard College Library.

[8] Samuel A. Eliot to Andrews Norton, May 6, 1819. MS., Harvard College Library.

[9] Andrews Norton to George Bancroft, May 24, 1819. MS., Harvard College Library.

[10] Stephen Higginson, Jr., to Jared Sparks, May 19, 1819. MS., Harvard College Library.

[11] George Ticknor, “Memoirs of the Buckminsters,” Christian Examiner, XLVII (1849), 186.