Our Unitarian Heritage: William Ellery Channing

a sermon by the Rev. Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, November 5, 2017



When I was a ministerial intern in Springfield, Illinois, I was invited to guest preach one Sunday at Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, St. Louis, Missouri. As I discussed the opportunity with my mentor, the Rev. Martin Woulfe, he asked what my topic would be. “Spirituality and Health,” I said. “Oh,” he replied, “There’s a member there who thinks it is important we don’t forget the contribution of William Ellery Channing. If you can find a way to work a mention of Channing into your sermon, she’ll hand you a $20 bill.”


I didn’t find a way to insert Channing, so she didn’t hand me a crisp new Andrew Jackson, that Sunday.


William Ellery Channing was born in 1780 in Newport, Rhode Island. His family were staunchly Congregationalists, and enthusiastically supported the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and the utter depravity of humanity, beliefs that expected the vast majority of humanity to suffer the eternal punishment of hell. Early on Channing had a hard time reconciling those doctrines with the goodness he saw in people. He went to Harvard, which was developing a reputation as a liberal school. After graduation he came for a few years to Richmond to teach the children of a wealthy slave owner. He attended Harvard Divinity School before being called as minister at Federal Street Church in downtown Boston. It is now known as Arlington Street Church.


In Boston, he put his liberal education to good use, preaching a religious perspective that looked to reason as a source of spiritual knowledge, that sought a less emotional approach to faith. This liberal approach became so associated with Harvard and the churches of Boston that it came to be called “the Boston religion.” Unlike his forebears, Channing found no reason in the Bible itself to believe, as the Calvinists did, that humanity could not better itself or that salvation was only for the Elect, a select group chosen by God, through the function of God’s overwhelming grace. He didn’t invent it, but he came to associated with the phrase “salvation by character.”


Now, in 1648 the Puritan churches of Massachusetts and Connecticut had put together a document that has come to be known as “The Cambridge Platform,” a book of church organization and discipline that had come to be necessary because of the distance from England and the need for ministers in the young colonies. These Puritans came to be known as Congregationalists because of this Platform, which derived from scripture the supremacy of the local congregation in matters of governance – congregational polity – but also the cooperative engagement and mutual support of congregations with each other. The broad strokes of the Cambridge Platform still inform Unitarian Universalist life. One feature that came out of the Platform’s call for cooperation between congregations was the practice of pulpit exchange. Ministers, after preaching a sermon at their own congregation, would take it on the road, so to speak. It was practical to do this because sermons before the late 20th Century tended to be quite long. Ministers who guest preached at other congregations didn’t have to write as many sermons as they would if they only preached in their own congregation. But it also kept the congregations connected by knowing and hearing each other’s ministers. By the early years of the 19th Century, tensions were developing between the more orthodox congregations and the more liberal ones. More and more liberal ministers were being left out of the pulpit exchange rotation. If you think about it, how could they not be? They were preaching something very different from what had been received from their Puritan grandparents. The liberal ministers came to be called “Unitarians” by their detractors as a way of declaring their beliefs to be aligned with the heretics Arius or Socinus. This oversimplified what the liberal ministers were all about but was effective as a wedge.


It was William Ellery Channing who led the movement to embrace the pejorative and take control of the Unitarian narrative. The setting he used for this was the ordination of Jared Sparks on May 5, 1819 at the First Independent Church in Baltimore, now known as First Unitarian Church. Last weekend I was in Maine participating in the ordination of a member of my seminary class. It was a great day for my friend, those who love her, and the ordaining congregation. But none of us understood the ordination sermon to be a movement-defining event. But Channing knew he was speaking under unusual circumstances. Here is how he described his project in that sermon:


The peculiar circumstances of this occasion not only justify, but seem to demand a departure from the course generally followed by preachers at the introduction of a brother into the sacred office. It is usual to speak of the nature, design, duties, and advantages of the Christian ministry; and on these topics I should now be happy to insist, did I not remember that a minister is to be given this day to a religious society, whose peculiarities of opinion have drawn upon them much remark, and may I not add, much reproach. [1]


Channing and all those gathered knew this was not just church as usual. Channing’s more than 20-page, hour-and-a-half-long sermon, indeed, set an enormous task for itself. First Channing presented a methodology for reading scripture in the liberal manner, using the same techniques of analysis used to understand any cultural product. Then he used that method to argue five controversial points of doctrine. Those were:


  • That God was One rather than a Trinity;
  • That Jesus was fully human, rather than both human and divine as claimed in ancient creeds;
  • That God was morally perfect, which belied such doctrines as Original Sin and the eternal suffering of some while others were elected to salvation;
  • A rejection of the idea that Jesus’ death atoned for human sin;
  • That Christian virtue sprung from the moral nature natural in humans, defined by love of God, love of Christ, and moral living.


Remember that the Unitarians where not yet a separate denomination or association than the Congregationalists when Channing preached this message, and this is explosive stuff! The church that day was filled not only with ministers but reporters, and within hours reports of this liberal Christianity were on their way to a waiting nation. If there ever had been any chance of the liberal “Unitarians” and orthodox Congregationalists reconciling, restoring a mutual communion, or pretending that there was one, Channing’s Baltimore sermon – or its publicity – rendered it much less likely. And for a quarter century the controversies and the divorce between the two faith groups marched onward. When the dust settled, one quarter of Massachusetts’ Churches of the Standing Order were Unitarian and no longer in communion with the orthodox Congregationalists.


Of the points that William Ellery Channing made in that earth-shaking sermon, few are of much concern to 21st-Century Unitarian Universalists as a denomination. They are all concerns primarily of emergent liberalism within early 19th-Century Christianity, and today’s Unitarian Universalism is rarely focused for long exclusively on that specific heritage theology. Textual analysis and biblical studies are in a much different place now than in Channing’s day. The conception and question of whether God is one or three is simply not a Unitarian Universalist issue today, even though it is part of our history and individual Unitarian Universalists may have their own convictions on such questions. The nature of Jesus is a debate that, for many UUs and for Unitarian Universalism as a whole, just feels so 4th Century. The moral perfection of God and questions of atonement through the death of a first-century rabbi and revolutionary are expressions in the language of another time. But the fifth point begins to feel more like the religious humanism that developed in the 20th Century and remains in varied ways in the UU landscape: virtue springs from human experience and is a human value.


Jack Mendelsohn, who was the thirteenth minister to serve in Channing’s Arlington Street pulpit in Boston wrote:


To Channing, the spirit in liberal Christianity was a hunger for more freedom, more justice, more fairness, more inclusion, and more fulfillment for ever more people. He lifted his voice against slavery, strengthening the abolitionist cause. And he supported Horace Mann’s ideas for a revolutionary American approach to public education, Joseph Tuckerman’s ideas for the creation of a new American profession—social work among the victims of urban poverty—and some of the liveliest harbingers of early American feminism, including Elizabeth Peabody, a pioneer of early childhood education.


Knowing that contemporaries would mock him as an unredeemed romantic about human nature, he put them on notice and paved the way for 20th-Century religious humanism: “I do and I must reverence human nature. I shut my eyes on none of its weakness and crimes. But injured, trampled on, and scorned as our nature is, I still turn to it with intense sympathy and strong hope. And I thank God that my own lot is bound up with that of the human race.”[2]


Yet, in 1838, Channing gave a lecture titled “Self-Culture” in which being bound up with the human race sometimes feels too individual and not enough “bound up.” He describes self-culture as “…the care which every man owes to himself, to the unfolding and perfecting of his nature.”[3] In that lecture he says that politics, education, art and literature could all be means of personal spiritual development and prosperity, and that this self-culture is the practice of likeness to God. The New England intellectual, activist, preacher, and labor organizer Orestes Brownson, who had converted to Unitarianism in response to Channing’s famous sermon “Likeness to God,” understood Channing’s emphasis on the individual as inadequate mechanism for powering social change. Brownson wrote in The Laboring Classes, 1840, “Self-culture is a good thing, but it cannot abolish inequality, nor restore men to their rights. As a means it is well, as an end it is nothing.”[4] Indeed, Channing’s assessment of human potential was apparently too rose-colored a picture for Brownson, who ended up leaving Unitarianism.


And there are ways in which Channing clung to aspects of the Calvinism, the Puritanism of his ancestors. He was troubled by his own “effeminacy,” as he worded it, and by unwanted sexual fantasies. And so he slept on the bare floor and walked through cold and damp without adequate care, harming his health.[5] Some of the ancestral Puritan harshness he clung to. And still, the emphasis on the capacity of the individual that he preached was an essential corrective to the Calvinist condemnation of the majority of humanity that Channing grew up with. In large part, our First Principle – the inherent worth and dignity of every individual – is a development from Channing’s high placement of human value and perfectibility. In that earth shaking Baltimore sermon, Channing said:


To all who hear me, I would say, with the Apostle, Prove all things, hold fast that which is good. Do not, brethren, shrink from the duty of searching God’s Word for yourselves, through fear of human censure and denunciation. Do not think, that you may innocently follow the opinions which prevail around you, without investigation, on the ground, that Christianity is now so purified from errors, as to need no laborious research. There is much reason to believe, that Christianity is at this moment dishonored by gross and cherished corruptions.[6]


Or in the words of Walt Whitman in the preface to Leaves of Grass:


Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.[7]


Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] http://www.americanunitarian.org/unitarianchristianity.htm

[2] https://www.uuworld.org/articles/william-ellery-channings-public-faith

[3] http://www.americanunitarian.org/selfculture.htm

[4] http://uudb.org/articles/williamellerychanning.html

[5] https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/movesus/workshop4/unwanted-emotions

[6] http://www.americanunitarian.org/unitarianchristianity.htm

[7] http://www.bartleby.com/39/45.html


© 2017 by Rev. Paul Oakley