Meyer (1973) paints the Reverend Channing, venerated by the more definitively Transcendentalist Emerson and Fuller, not as an innovator, nor as a great thinker, but posits rather that, “Channing summed up well what many people were thinking and wanted to hear” (p. 173) – in other words, he represented the evolving nature of American thought in his day. Here was “the best of the Puritan past” moving towards “intelligent adaptability to change and a spirit of sensible optimism concerning the future of the still new nation” (ibid). The current study seeks to understand the social, political and religious contexts in which Channing formed his thoughts, as well as exploring the legacy of this remarkable individual.
Late eighteenth-century American Unitarianism had roots in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Socianism, a theological movement associated with John Locke and with the Latitudinarians. From here was derived an emphasis on “free will, moralism, the role and capacity of reason,” as well as the belief that “Christianity included only a very few fundamental doctrines necessary for salvation” (Marshall, 1998). This movement was ”explicitly undogmatic but centred on disbelief in the Trinity, (and) original sin” with emphasis on the prophetic role of Christ, the use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture over and above “creeds, traditions and church authority,” as well as a concern for “religious toleration” (ibid). Schneider (1938) posits three forces which influenced Channing’s formation which are of import to the question at hand. The first was Pietism, via Jonathan Edwards’s Calvinism, with its “renewed attention to questions of personal piety and devotion” (Guelzo, 1998). The second was natural religion (or natural theology), which “consists of truths about God which are either (1) self-evident or evident to sense perception, or (2) derived by deductively valid proofs the (ultimate) premises of which are self-evident or evident to sense perception” (MacDonald, 1998). The third force named by Schneider is republicanism (or liberalism), with consideration of “the importance of civic virtue and political participation, the dangers of corruption, the benefits of a mixed constitution and the rule of law” wherein “the paramount republican value is political liberty, understood as non-domination or independence from arbitrary power” (Lovett, 2008). Further influences on the young Channing include the Great Awakening (module 4), an “evangelical movement of the 1740's (which) played a key role in the development of democratic concepts in the period of the American Revolution,” believed to be “a precursor to the War of Independence” and the New Lights, who “believed that salvation was more important than religious training” (The Wikipedia). One cannot ignore the importance of another source, that of Enlightenment Rationalism and Scottish Common Sense Philosophy (module 4), which is taken as “a general confidence in the powers of the human intellect, in opposition to faith and blind acceptance of institutional authority, as a source of knowledge” (Markie, 1998).
Having considered some of the influences on Channing in the context of late eighteenth-century American Unitarianism, it follows to survey some of his most important writings. In his 1819 sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” Channing presents a defense of reason and its usefulness to the project of biblical study. An explanation of the Unitarian rejection of trinity is followed by a statement of belief in the “moral perfection of God,” aimed at undermining orthodox religion’s emphasis on sin and judgment. Channing goes on to argue for Jesus as a moral example to be followed and provides a discussion of the meaning of Christ’s death. After this, he provides exhortations on the virtues of loving God, Jesus and one’s fellow-humans. Taking up the charge of the reformer, he reiterates the ills of traditional forms of religion: “…sheltering under the name of pious zeal the love of domination, the conceit of infallibility, and the spirit of intolerance, and trampling on men's rights under the pretence of saving their souls” (Channing, 1819). The text is seen to have had an “integrating effect” on the Unitarian movement, giving definition to its liberal tendencies, in contradistinction to the Calvinists (Robinson, 2004).
In “Likeness to God” (1828), Channing discourses on the potential of humanity’s higher nature: “true religion consists in proposing, as our great end, a growing likeness to the Supreme Being”. He speculates that this ascension is the means by which we can “enjoy God (and) the universe” – an ambition compatible with the American “pursuit of happiness” (Schneider, p. 4). Channing’s kinship with Plato and the Idealists is evident in this work and his exhortation to preachers to “turn men's aspirations and efforts to that perfection of the soul, which constitutes it a bright image of God” (Channing, 1928) make this sermon a practical bridge en route to Transcendentalist thought.
In “Slavery” (1835), Channing attacks the policy of human beings as property, using arguments based on “Rights”, “Essential Equality” and the imago dei:
“He cannot be property in the sight of God and justice, because he is a Rational, Moral, Immortal Being; because created in God's image, and therefore in the highest sense his child; because created to unfold godlike faculties, and to govern himself by a Divine Law written on his heart, and republished in God's Word” (Channing, 1835).
Other important works not to be considered here which were also written by Channing include a pacifist sermon, “War” (1816), “Spiritual Freedom” (1830) and “Self-Culture” (1838). Rather, it follows from this brief digest of some of Channing’s writings and thought, to consider which contemporary religious, social, and political issues captured the attention of our subject.
As a student, being reared, as were his fellows at Harvard in a conservative, Brahmin milieu (module 4, p. 6), Channing was a Federalist and thus not sympathetic towards the ideals of the French Revolution. For a time during a visit to Richmond, he expressed socialist tendencies, decrying the “distinctions of property” which, if not borne out later in full extent, at least demonstrated a concern for “the place of government in American life” (Reinhardt, 156). During the next few years, while preparing for the ministry, he recanted these early political musings, recognizing government as a civilizing force, yet with the decline of Federalism and the rise of Jacksonianism, Channing ended up disillusioned, with rather eclectic views on politics (ibid, 157). This led him to search for repair to society in the development of the individual conscience, a project which was to be aided by the “coercive sovereignty” of the Republic, naturally providing justification, for Channing, for the War of 1812 (ibid, 158). This emphasis on the need for strong government was held in check by the promise of a time when (wo)men would rule themselves by virtue of their heightened consciences - until then, its role would be simply to “secure to us the unobstructed exercise of our powers in working out blessings for ourselves” (ibid, 160). As he became disenchanted with the abuses of government and its aid in securing monopolies for privileged classes, Channing advocated for “little government”, placing hope instead on a “transcendent individualism” (ibid, 160-61). In this he pursued the elevation of the laboring classes not by political action but by education, a manifestation of “Self-culture”, which sought “to make the man equal to his own support by awakening in him the spirit and the powers of a man” (ibid, 161-62). Channing’s concern for the underprivileged was best seen in his support for the abolitionist movement during his later years, as evidenced by his treatise, “Slavery” and his thoughts on the necessity of personal growth were important in the genesis of proto-feminist thought, notably in the writings of Fuller (Robinson, 84-85).
Having examined the influence of contemporary religious, social and political thought on Channing during various stages of his life, it follows to turn to a consideration of how the man’s writings exemplify both establishment Unitarianism and revolutionary Transcendentalism.
Ladu (1939) provides a clear understanding of Channing’s rapport to establishment Unitarianism and revolutionary Transcendentalism, highlighting his role as a bridge between the two. With respect to the former, he relates that Channing agreed with Unitarians in: their rejection of Calvinism, the unity of God, the dignity of humans, Jesus’ role as a moral exemplar, as well as his belief in a “spirit of free inquiry” (p. 130). However, as the group later tended towards formality in creed, Channing identified with them less and began criticizing them more. As a transition towards Transcendentalism, Channing is said to have migrated from the Unitarian belief that (wo)man is essentially good to the opinion that humans are divine (Ibid, 132). Thus he shared with the Transcendentalists a zeal for the individual project, although he differed from them notably in their rejection of miracles (ibid). More conservative than the later Transcendentalists in political thought, Channing inclined towards Republicanism rather than democracy, yet he maintained his dissimilarity from the religious establishment in his Platonic ideals, which he derived from reading such authors as Price and Madame de Staël. Channing held to “an idealistic version of Unitarianism against Locke and Priestley, and he used the doctrine that ‘almost every object in nature grows gradually, from a weak and low, to a mature and improved state of being’” (Schneider, 14). His pietism extended towards social concern, with the notion of duty following less along political lines (i.e., of service of to a republic out of greed) than religious. His notion of liberty, too, became distanced from the merely civic and took on the form of a personal morality whose aim was to combat the enemies of “republicanism, rationalism, and pietism,” which were, namely, “Slavery, bigotry, and worldliness” (Ibid, 19-20). Schneider sums up the transition: “Channing began virtually a pietist, with a socialized version of the theology of regeneration; he ended virtually a humanitarian, with a firm faith in human nature” (Ibid, 21).
Now, having investigated all these things, in order to learn more about the legacy of Channing, one might consider which of his writings most influenced New England Transcendentalists. The most direct link is made to “Likeness to God”, in which direct communion with God’s mind via self-knowledge is promoted and the divinity of humanity is highlighted in a redefinition of religion from the traditional to a more personal, Idealist conception:
“In truth, the beauty and glory of God's works are revealed to the mind by a light beaming from itself. We discern the impress of God's attributes in the universe, by accordance of nature, and enjoy them through sympathy. -- I hardly need observe, that these remarks in relation to the universe apply with equal, if not greater force, to revelation.” (Channing, 1828).
There is also nascent in this work a helpful notion of moral responsibility: ”It is the lawgiver in our own breasts, which gives us the idea of divine authority, and binds us to obey it.” It is this idea of conscience which leads, for some transcendentalists, to a theory of social reform.
Channing, William Ellery. “Unitarian Christianity” (1819). http://www.transcendentalists.com/unitarian_christianity.htm (accessed July 29, 2009).
Channing, William Ellery. “Likeness to God” (1828). http://www.americanunitarian.org/likeness.htm (accessed July 29, 2009).
Channing, William Ellery. “Slavery” (1835). http://www.americanunitarian.org/slavery.htm (accessed July 29, 2009).
Guelzo, Allen C. (1998). Pietism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 29, 2009, from http://www.rep.routledge.com.proxy.queensu.ca/article/K068.
Ladu, Arthur I. "Channing and Transcendentalism." American Literature Vol. 11 (1939): 129-137.
Lovett, Frank. (2008). Republicanism. In Edward N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved July 29, 2009, from http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/republicanism.
MacDonald, Scott (1998). Natural theology. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 29, 2009, from http://www.rep.routledge.com.proxy.queensu.ca/article/K107.
Markie, Peter J. (1998). Rationalism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 29, 2009, from http://www.rep.routledge.com.proxy.queensu.ca/article/P041.
Marshall, John (1998). Socinianism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 29, 2009, from http://www.rep.routledge.com.proxy.queensu.ca/article/DA069.
Meyer, D. H. "The Saint as Hero: William Ellery Channing and the Nineteenth-Century Mind." The Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 8 (1973): 171-185.
Reinhardt, John E. 'The Evolution of William Ellery Channing's Sociopolitical Ideas". American Literature, Vol. 26 (May 1954): 154-165.
Robinson, David M. "Margaret Fuller and the Transcendental Ethos: Woman in the Nineteenth Century." PMLA Vol. 97 (1982): 83-98.
Robinson, David M. (Ed.), William Ellery Channing: Selected Writings (Sources of American Spirituality). New York, 1985. Retrieved July 29, 2009, from http://www.americanunitarian.org/channing.htm.
Schneider, Herbert Wallace. "The Intellectual Background of William Ellery Channing." Church History Vol. 7 (March 1938): 3-23.
The Wikipedia. Great Awakening. Retrieved July 29, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_awakening.