William Ellery Channing: Unitarian Christianity

This is a refreshed version of a post that ran on the original version of Transient and Permanent, part of a series that looked at classic sources in Unitarianism. For some students of UU history these are probably a bit tired at this point, but there are still so many UUs unaware of them that it seems worthwhile to go back to the well again:

Many men who have sparked revolutions did not do so intentionally, and the first moment of their stepping into the stream of history cannot be precisely determined. This is not the case, however, for William Ellery Channing, the founding father of American Unitarianism. When he strode up to the pulpit at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore, 1819, he set in motion a carefully orchestrated set of events designed to permanently plant a stake for liberal religion in the United States. On hand were ministers (and journalists) from around the country brought in specifically to witness this historic moment, and within hours of Channing’s speech the sermon had been reported in newspapers and soon thereafter went to the printing presses. With a single sermon, Channing launched a movement that would rapidly become the darling of the country’s ruling elites and continue to produce many of the nation’s greatest writers, scientists, teachers, businessmen, and activists up until the present day–and even some notable ministers as well.

Because it was specifically written as a manifesto, impressively encompasses Channing’s religious views, and because he did not move significantly beyond it in his thinking over the remaining twenty-three years of his life, his “Unitarian Christianity” is an uncommonly complete presentation of the theology of a major Protestant thinker. It is useful, therefore, to spend some time unpacking what this famous essay has to say. Channing begins, as a good Protestant, with the Bible. His first concern is to treat of the nature of the scriptures. For Channing, the Bible is often poetic and metaphoric; it is a work of divine literature, not science. Furthermore, it is historically bound. While many American Protestants wanted to claim the Bible as a universal book whose instructions applied equally to all times, places, and situations, Channing recognized that it was the product of particular eras and peoples, and that the text was influenced not only by God but also by the human beings who wrote it.

Moving from the fact of the Bible to its proper hermeneutical approach, Channing begins to slowly wade out toward doctrines of a more specifically Unitarian provenance. The over-riding element in Channing’s thought is the use of reason. This in fact was the core of Unitarianism. Too often the name “Unitarian” has obscured even as it revealed, causing an excessive focus on the non-Trinitarian nature of Unitarian beliefs. For Unitarians, God’s singleness was a secondary aspect of their religion, a conditional derivation from their primary concern: the systematic application of human reason to the Bible and the doctrines of Christianity. This should not suggest that other sects lacked the use of reason, or that they rejected reason as a tool for religion. But the fact remains that for those denominations that affirmed some role for reason in their theology, reason itself was always a secondary aspect of their beliefs, with primary concerns swirling around such other issues as the nature of human sinfulness, God’s sovereignty, faith vs. works, or the literalness of the Bible. For Unitarianism, reason in religion was its raison d’etre. All of the other aspects of Unitarianism flowed from this single central concept. Naturally, therefore, Channing rated reason as a positive faculty given to humanity purposefully by God for our use in religion.

After establishing that reason is a gift and that God wouldn’t give us revelations we could not understand or instructions we could not carry out, Channing begins to rattle off the famous list of beliefs that struck the orthodox as heresies. Channing proclaims the unity of God, against the idea of the Trinity. He likewise affirms the unity of Jesus, against the notion of his dual nature as god and man. Jesus is held to be the greatest of all human teachers and a moral paragon, certainly uniquely special but less than truly supernatural. Channing’s God is revealed to be a loving parent, not a stern judge or a jealous tyrant. Against the ideas of complete depravity, original sin, and predestination Channing stresses human goodness and the inherent moral faculties that prevent the need for any irresistible grace from God. Finally, Channing proclaims the Unitarian beliefs in tolerance, open-mindedness, and non-dogmatism, and the conviction that revivalistic enthusiasms are errors that degrade the virtuousness of authentic piety.

Throughout Channing’s sermon it is easy to discern the religious context against which he is reacting. Channing’s Unitarian Christianity is in many ways a sort of inside-out Calvinism–though he arrived at his views through a long process of thought and Biblical study, he could’ve simply taken prevailing Calvinist views, made a list of their opposites, and arrived at his theology by a much quicker route. Channing’s thinking is a clear internalization of Enlightenment thought, as he stresses the orderliness, reasonableness, and intelligibility of the universe and its maker. He also possesses the Enlightenment optimism in human abilities and the belief in positive progress of ideas, religion, and nations through time, sentiments made even bolder by the rapid expansion of the vital young nation that declared its freedom just four years before his birth. Noteworthy also is his attack on revivals. 1819 was smack in the middle of the Second Great Awakening, whose tumultuous displays disturbed the rationalistic Unitarians (perhaps too they were put off by its association with the middle and lower classes–Unitarians were nothing if not blue-bloods). We might note that, while they are not called out by name, the Universalists were engaged in revival fervor during this very period.

To speak of Channing as the founding father of American Unitarianism does some injustice to forbearers such as Joseph Priestly and other earlier liberals, some of whom were explicitly connected to the British Unitarian church. Yet Channing really was the single individual who for the first time claimed the mantle of Unitarianism, codified a set of beliefs, and put in motion the wheels of denominational organization. Indeed, his peers saw him as the leader of their movement, and following generations of Unitarians have often looked to him as the font from which their own understandings originally flowed. His central ideas–reason, Biblical metaphoricalness, unity of God, humanity of Jesus, and goodness of humankind–would become the rallying points for mainstream Unitarians for the next 150 years.

Yet, before closing this brief overview of Channing and his thought, it is necessary to make a final remark about the rather Weberian irony of subsequent Unitarian history. Just as Calvinism sowed the seeds for secularism, and the American evangelical confidence in the Bible as the ultimate glue of Protestantism gave birth to the greatest flourishing of separate sects in history, so too Channing’s attempt to stake out room for reason, tolerance, clarity, and human ability swiftly led to sentimentality, de facto heresy trials, intuitionism, and eventually post-Christianity. Less than twenty years later Ralph Waldo Emerson would rise in the Harvard Divinity School chapel and deliver his scathing Unitarian jeremiad, touching off the Transcendentalist errand into the wilderness.

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1 Comment

Filed under Liberal Religious History, Unitarianism

One response to “William Ellery Channing: Unitarian Christianity

  1. Sophiagrrl

    Excellent post.. we just visited the Baltimore Church and I’ve been wanting to read the sermon finally. It makes me wonder more about how you would relate UU to post-Christianity, in specific.

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