William Ellery Channing: Born Again Unitarian

William Ellery Channing was one of the founding fathers of American Unitarianism, and is among the three or four most important figures in the history of Unitarian-Universalism. His nephew, the Unitarian minister William Henry Channing, published a large biography of W.E. Channing in 1880 on the centenary of his birth. Among the interesting events that W.H. Channing narrates is an account of his uncle’s experience of “new birth.” Born again experience doesn’t get a lot of attention in UU circles, including those that focus on our spiritual ancestors, but Channing’s was hardly the only such instance. Here’s is the account taken from “The Life of William Ellery Channing, D.D.” Note not only the content and circumstances of the new birth, but also the curious gendered turn Channing’s mind took immediately after the experience. On the one hand it is a reflection of the sexism of his times; on the other, he seems to have been born again into a sense of himself as needing to, on some level, embody and carry forth decidedly feminine religious virtues.

The Life of William Ellery Channing, D.D., The Centenary Memorial Edition. By His Nephew, William Ellery Channing. Published in Boston by the American Unitarian Association. Printing by University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge. Copyright 1880. pp. 32-33 (from the copy bought in May 1880 by the Unitarian minister Samual Devens):

And this leads to what was his most vital experience in college. The more his character and mind matured, the more earnestly did he devote himself to aspirations after moral greatness. He read with delight the Stoics, and was profoundly moved by the stern purity which they inculcated. But the two authors who most served to guide his thoughts at this period were Hutcheson and Ferguson. It was while reading, one day, in the former, some of the various passages in which he asserts man’s capacity for disinterested affection, and considers virtue as the sacrifice of private interests and the bearing of private evils for public good, or as self-devotion to absolute, universal good, that there suddenly burst upon his mind that view of the dignity of human nature which was ever after to “uphold and cherish” him, and thenceforth to be “the fountain light of all his day, the master light of all his seeing.” He was, at the time, walking as he read, beneath a clump of willows yet standing in the meadow a little to the north of Judge Dana’s. This was his favorite retreat for study, being then quite undisturbed and private, and offering a most serene and cheerful prospect across green meadows and the glistening river to the Brookline hills. The place and the hour were always sacred in his memory, and he frequently referred to them with grateful awe. It seems to him that he then passed through a new spiritual birth, and entered upon the day of eternal peace and joy. The glory of the Divine disinterestedness, the privilege of existing in a universe of progressive order and beauty, the possibilities of spiritual destiny, the sublimity of devotedness to the will of Infinite Love, penetrated his soul; and he was so borne away in rapturous visions, that, to quote his own words, as spoken to a friend in later years, “I longed to die, and felt as if heaven alone could give room for the exercise of such emotions; but when I found I must live, I cast about to do something worthy of these great thoughts; and my enthusiasm at that age, being then by fifteen, turning strongly to the female sex, I considered that they were the powers which ruled the world, and that, if they would bestow their favor on the right cause only, and never be diverted by caprice, all would be fitly arranged, and triumph was sure. Animated with this view, which unfolded itself with great rapidity and in many bearings, I say down and wrote to this lady,” –laying his hand upon his wife’s arm, who was listening by his side–“But I never got courage to send the letter, and have it yet.” This holy hour was but the first wind-flower of the spring, however, the opening of a long series of experiences by which he was to be led up to perfect consecration. It is a significant fact, that in this time of exaltation, when the young moral knight-errant took his vow of fidelity and was girt with the sword of love, his heart should have instinctively sought the concert in action of woman. This faith in her power of disinterested virtue, so early felt, grew always stronger; and if disappointment in the characters and deeds of men made him ever falter for a moment in this generous aims, he found his hope and heroism renewed by woman’s purity and earnestness.

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Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarianism

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