William Ellery Channing

William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), an American minister, was a key Unitarian theologian for the mid-19th century.

William Ellery Channing came from what is known as "the best New England stock." That is, his ancestors arrived in New England early and soon distinguished themselves by their industry and decorum. He was born on April 8, 1780, in Newport, R.I., to William and Lucy Ellery Channing. He graduated from Harvard College in 1798. He spent some time as a tutor, and in 1802 he returned to Harvard to study for the ministry. Because he showed great promise, Harvard appointed him regent, a less lofty post than the title suggested. He acted as a proctor to the students, but the job left him time for books and helped him support himself. The next year he was ordained as minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, where he remained until his death. He married his cousin Ruth Gibbs in 1814.

In a sense, leadership and eminence came to Channing not through aggressively seeking it but because he was born at the right time. Theology was in crisis during Channing's prime. Almost from the beginning there were two warring parties in New England. The Calvinists believed in a jealous God, the depravity of mankind, and the absence of free will. The anti-Calvinists believed in a merciful God, the potential redemption of all mankind, and the existence of free will. As the 19th century proceeded, the fight between the parties sharpened. Channing, after much deliberation, sided with the anti-Calvinists.

In Baltimore in 1819 Channing preached a sermon entitled "Unitarian Christianity." It was a masterly manifesto for the Unitarian cause and formulated the creed of Unitarianism; it consequently consolidated Channing's leadership. Other influential sermons followed. "The Moral Argument against Calvinism" was delivered and printed in 1820. "Unitarian Christianity Most Favorable to Piety" (1826) emphasized the relevance of the movement and its personal basis: "We regard Unitarianism as peculiarly the friend of inward, living, practical religion."

In 1820 Channing organized a conference of Unitarian ministers, which 5 years later fathered the American Unitarian Association. He helped found the Unitarian journal, Christian Register, and became one of its outstanding contributors.

For his increasing audience Channing prepared some essays which discussed the social and cultural questions of the time. He especially campaigned for a genuine American literature. In his essay "The Importance and Means of a National Literature" (1830) he called for cultural independence from England and for a new literature which would reflect the hopeful, expansive attitude that he himself took in theology. The tract was read the more respectfully because Channing himself had written on English literature in both English and American magazines and was friendly with some of the best British writters of his period.

Channing grew increasingly interested in politics, believing that political reform, like religious reform, had to start from within. He aimed his political efforts at humanitarian causes: the abolition of slavery, the crusade against drinking, and the improvement in the conditions of the poor. In the slavery dispute he appealed to the conscience of Southerners instead of attacking them. He believed a harmonious and happy nation could be achieved through appealing to man's innate goodness. Though his own congregation disagreed with his stand against slavery, his last public address, in August 1842, was on behalf of emancipation. He died the following October.

Further Reading on William Ellery Channing

A satisfactory modern biography is Arthur W. Brown, Always Young for Liberty: A Biography of William Ellery Channing (1956). Other works include Channing's Life … with Extracts from His Correspondence, edited by W. H. Channing (3 vols., 1848); J. W. Chadwick, William Ellery Channing, Minister of Religion (1903); and Madeleine Hook Rice, Federal Street Pastor: The Life of William Ellery Channing (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Delbanco, Andrew, William Ellery Channing: an essay on the liberal spirit in America, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Edgell, David P., William Ellery Channing, an intellectual portrait, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983, 1955.

Eliot, Charles William, Four American leaders, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977, c1906.

Mendelsohn, Jack, Channing, the reluctant radical: a biography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1971.