Channing, William Ellery, Dd
Channing, William Ellery, D.D., an eminent Unitarian divine and philanthropist, was born at Newport, Rhode Island, April 7th, 1780; entered Harvard University in his 14th year; graduated at the age of 18; spent a part of the ensuing two years as a private tutor in Richmond, Va.; returned to Cambridge as regent (a subordinate office) in 1801; was settled as pastor of Federal Street Church, Boston, in June, 1803: visited Europe in 1822; began his celebrated essays on Milton, Napoleon, and Fénélon, which distinguish the commencement of his literary career, proper, in 1826; visited the West Indies in 1830; commenced his antislavery labors in 1835; and died Oct. 2, 1842.
To the American community in general Channing is chiefly known as a theologian, while on the other side of the Atlantic his fame is chiefly that of a literary man and a philanthropist. The common impression that he was the leader of the Unitarian movement in this country is false. By the publication of his celebrated sermon at the ordination of Mr. Sparks, in Baltimore, in 1819, the doctrinal position of Unitarianism was, more generally made known in the American community than at any former date. By this accident, and still more, perhaps, by the fact that his literary reputation elevated him above all others engaged in the movement, he became recognized as its head, although it could boast of earlier advocates and abler polemics. He is perhaps rather to be classed with Samuel Clarke and Locke, as a high Arian, than with Priestley, Belsham, and the Socinians generally. He is described by his biographers "as a member of the Church Universal of the lovers of God and lovers of Man." But he himself says that "he had long ceased to attach any importance to the rank or dignity of Christ, or to believe in the Trinity; that the idea of Christ's death being a satisfaction is nowhere taught in Scripture; and that evil spirits have no existence, Satan being merely a figurative personation of moral evil." Still, according to his peculiar views of religious faith and duty, Dr. Channing was a devout and serious man, who had a profound reverence for the authority of Scripture, and was accustomed habitually to view all things in connection with eternity.
With Unitarianism as a system or movement, he unquestionably did not feel satisfied in his later years. In 1837 he wrote as follows: "I feel that among liberal Christians the preaching has been too vague, has wanted unity, has scattered attention too much." In 1839 he thus expresses himself: "I would that I could look to Unitarianism with more hope. But this system was, at its recent revival, a protest of the understanding against absurd dogmas, rather than the work of deep religious principle, and was early paralyzed by the mixture of a material philosophy, and fell too much into the hands of scholars and political reformers; and the consequence is a want of vitality and force, which gives us but little hope of its accomplishing much under its present auspices or in its present form." As a preacher Channing was pre-eminent, though he had very few natural oratorical qualities. His presence in the pulpit was not commanding; he was small in stature, exceedingly emaciated, and enveloped in a superabundance of clothing; his cheeks were sunken, his eye hollow, and his voice feeble, though remarkably flexible. He generally read his discourses. Throughout his long ministry he was the most popular preacher in Boston. In philanthropic enterprise he was the Chalmers of America. His journals contain "long lists" of plans "for public works, benevolent operations, special reforms." These plans include, "Associations among Mechanics," a "Work to be written on ardent Spirits," "Fire Clubs," "Poor-houses," "Female Employment Societies," "Provisions of Wood on a large Scale," "Bake-houses for the Poor," "Associations for the Relief of the Sick, Old, Debtors," Societies for the Advice of Emigrants, for the Reformation of Prostitutes, the Improvement of Africans," etc. His liberality was not absorbed in devising plans of good, but his personal charities were great. His latest and maturest strength was devoted to the discussion of American slavery, and no writer has treated the subject with more candor or more impressive eloquence. His literary reputation, especially in England, was scarcely paralleled by that of any other American author of his time. He possessed the best elements of immediate success as a writer — a poetic temperament, and a style of remarkable transparency and power. The greatest faults of his style are repetition and expansion, the fine gold being often beaten out into very thin leaf. Channing's works were reviewed by Macaulay in the Edinburgh Review (vol. 69, p. 214), and a graphic sketch of him is given by Stevens in the Methodist Quarterly Review (Jan. 1849, art. 4), from which the present article is condensed. His Works have been published in Boston in 6 vols. 12mo (reprinted in England). Many of them have been translated into German (Berlin, 1850-55), also into French, with an Essay on his Life and Writings, by Laboulaye. — Memoirs and Correspondence of Changing (Bost. 1848, 3 vols. 12mo); Ware, American Unitarian Biography, 2:139; Sprague, Unitar. Pulpit, 360 sq.; British Quarterly, Nov. 1848, art. 1; Literary and Theological Review, 1:304; N. American Review, 41:366; Democratic Review (Bancroft), 12:524; Westminster Review (J. Martineau), 1, 317; Edinburgh Review, 69:214; Allibone, Dict. of Authors, 1:367.