Channing: Reluctant Radical

Unitarianism as a religion in America has a founding date, and that is May 6, 1819; two hundred years and two weeks ago. It was on that day that William Ellery Channing of Boston preached his sermon “Unitarian Christianity” at the new Independent Church in Baltimore on the occasion of the ordination of its first minister. Though there had been a quiet movement within New England Congregationalism of rationalistic liberals for sixty years before that moment, that was the occasion in which American Unitarianism came out of the closet, accepted the name Unitarian which its opponents had been trying to hang on it, and issued a clear statement of its disagreement with the prevailing Calvinist mainstream.

Jack Mendelsohn subtitled his biography of Channing “The Reluctant Radical,” and I picked that as the title of this sermon because the phrase really captures something of the style of the man. The reading I just did gives the historical context.

Channing was born into an affluent family in Newport Rhode Island in 1780. He entered Harvard College at age 15, and graduated at the head of his class in 1798. After college, he took a position teaching two children in Richmond, Virginia, where he saw southern slavery first hand, though his family in Newport also owned slaves. He came back to Newport and soon decided to study for the ministry. He was appointed a regent or student supervisor at Harvard which allowed him to study theology. In 1802, when he had completed his ministerial studies, he was called to be the minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, ordained there, and held that position until his death in 1842.

For the first ten years of his ministry, Channing kept a low profile. But then he wrote and published a defense of the liberal approach he and many others within New England Congregationalism had been pursuing. Around that time, some citizens of Baltimore had approached the New Englanders about starting a liberal religious society in that city. A society was formed and money was raised to build a building. Jared Sparks was a protégé of Channing, and Channing recommended he apply to be minister of the new congregation. When he was called, it was only natural that Channing would preach the ordination sermon.

But it was not going to be the typical ordination sermon. It was going to be a sweeping statement of method and of points of doctrine. It was going to accept the term Unitarian and try to make it a positive one. Channing was going to make up for his reluctance to take on the orthodox establishment by setting forth positions that were bold and clear. Though it wore a velvet glove, there was an iron hand underneath.

The address was an hour and a half long. The new building, designed by a French Architect, was beautiful to look at but had abominable acoustics. So the only people who could actually hear Channing’s address were the twenty or so sitting closest to the pulpit. However, Channing and his supporters had arranged to print the whole address almost as it was being delivered. Ultimately more than fourteen thousand copies were printed.

An entry on Channing in the online dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist biography summarizes his impact this way: In his lifetime and long after it, Channing was the most influential American religious leader whose works were known beyond America. His books, translated into many languages, traveled the world and were read attentively by Alexis de Tocqueville, Ernest Renan, Hajom Kissor Singh, John Stuart Mill, Max Weber, Krizna Janos, and Queen Victoria.

What did he say in Baltimore? There were three parts to the address. The first part concerned how to read scripture. The second part concerned doctrine, and specified all the doctrines of orthodox Christianity with which Channing differed. And the third part concluded with a few observations on what ministers should do.

Before I start on my summary, it might be good to note the question of who Channing was arguing against. He described them in very general terms as “the popular system,” or just “Christianity.”

At some points, he is specific enough about the doctrines he is opposing that one can tell he is talking about one form or another of Calvinism. But he himself never says the word Calvinism. What that means is that, while he is trying to point out errors in doctrine, he wants to do it without resort to a lot of labels, so as to keep the offense level down.

As to the first part, how to read scripture, it is helpful to recall that St. Thomas Aquinas had maintained that humans have two sources for their knowledge of anything: reason, a God-given faculty of the human mind, and revelation, the ways, usually in the Bible, by which God reveals God’s self to humans.

Channing accepts this distinction and says that one of the complaints of the orthodox is that liberals are exalting reason above revelation. To this complaint, Channing answers that the leading principle in interpreting the Bible is that it is a book written for humans, in the language of humans, and one searches for meaning in it the same as in other books. If it were written in a language all its own, we wouldn’t need this approach, but then the book would be of little relevance to our lives.

Channing goes on to say that he doesn’t know a book which demands more of reason than the Bible. Just consider the style in which it is written. It doesn’t have the precision and accuracy of a book of science or history. The language of the Bible he describes with choice words: “singularly glowing, bold and figurative.” This demands more departures from the literal sense of the words.

Then, too, the Bible is an ancient document and much of refers to events which happened thousands of years ago, and modes of thinking long gone, feelings and images which are no more, so that we “are constantly in danger of extending to all times and places what was of temporary or local application.”

I have talked about this in my Easter sermons, how the New Testament writers, trying to make the case for Jesus as the Messiah, read the Hebrew Bible scriptures totally out of context. The same mistake is made by modern-day believers in the End Times. Scholars know that the Book of Revelations was about the oppressions of the first century Roman Empire and the apocalyptic parts of Daniel were about the particular Greek tyrant by whom the Jews of his day were persecuted. Knowing the historical context of these writings allows you a at least an educated guess at their meaning.

This is not a trivial point; in the present age, much more than in Channing’s day, there are many people who insist on reading into the ancient apocalyptic texts a prophecy of the end times to come, and they are assiduously trying to influence the course of history so as to bring about the wars they think will usher in the second coming of Christ.

Channing points out that many passages of scripture apparently contradict other parts of scripture, and in trying to work out that paradox, the reader must rely on what the reader knows about “the known character and will of God” and the “obvious and acknowledged laws of nature.”

Everybody, Channing says, employs reason in reading the Bible. That does not mean that everybody arrives at the same interpretation. Channing finds it astonishing that the orthodox can erect this vast myth about eternal damnation and original sin from a few verses about the Garden of Eden. I completely agree, and would add that Jewish writers wrote the book of Genesis and it was in Jewish hands for several centuries, but no Jewish writer ever came up with the idea of universal condemnation of the human race because Adam and Eve ate the apple. It took St. Paul and St. Augustine to do that.

Throwing out reason as a means of understanding religion, as the orthodox seem to be doing, leads to universal skepticism, “for the existence and veracity of God, and the divine origin of Christianity are conclusions of reason and must stand or fall with it.”

Almost a century before Channing spoke, liberal rationalists were confronted with the First Great Awakening, and the passions it aroused. Channing grants that the passions are often at war with reason, in religion as in every other field of human activity. We don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater: “the true inference from the almost endless errors which have darkened theology is not that we are to neglect and disparage our powers, but to exert them more patiently, circumspectly, uprightly.

But isn’t it hubris to assume that mortal beings with limited intelligence can know the infinite mind of God? If we find contradictions in the Bible, isn’t that because we don’t understand God in his subtlety? Channing answers that if we must accept the contradictions without resolving them, how can we make any sense of anything? For example, the Bible passages on Holy Communion clearly state that the bread and wine are the literal body and blood of Christ, though centuries of Protestant theology says no to this transubstantiation. If we must take every word at face value, we will end up with nonsense.

Back in the 1980s when Post-Modernism was all the rage in the universities, there was a riddle going around: what do you get when you cross a post-modern academic with the Godfather? You get someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand. Channing sums up his approach to scripture by saying he doesn’t believe God gives us revelations we can’t understand. “A revelation is a gift of light. It cannot thicken our darkness and multiply our perplexities.”

Channing then turns to specific areas of theological doctrine.

First, he believes in the unity of God. Years later, this point would result in a UU bumper sticker which reads “One God, at most.” If there is one meaning of the word Unitarian, it is a rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. That has been a consistent theme of all religious movements bearing the name Unitarian since Servetus was martyred for those beliefs in John Calvin’s Geneva in 1553. However, not all Unitarians would agree with all the doctrines Channing expressed in 1819.

Of course, Trinitarians say they are affirming the unity of God. They say there is one God in three “persons.”

What Channing said in Baltimore was that the doctrine of the Trinity, “subverts in effect” the unity of God even while acknowledging it in words. It posits three infinite and equal persons the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

“Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other's society.”

For Channing, the only true God is the Father, and he cites as proof of this that in the New Testament, Jesus refers to God as his, and our, heavenly Father.

The doctrine of the Trinity is notoriously hard to understand. If the Bible is supposed to be God’s revelation of God’s self, it would seem that a doctrine so contrary to common sense and so hard to grasp as the Trinity should be spelled out explicitly, but in fact there is no passage in the Bible, Channing says, that explicitly sets out the doctrine of the Trinity.

There is not only a silence on the Trinity in the Bible; there is a silence on it in the commentaries and writings of the early church. Christianity was born in a maelstrom of competing religions, and was forced to defend itself against Judaism, Roman paganism, mystery cults from Egypt and others. Channing says, “We are persuaded, that had three divine persons been announced by the first preachers of Christianity, all equal, and all infinite, one of whom was the very Jesus who had lately died on a cross, this peculiarity of Christianity would have almost absorbed every other, and the great labor of the Apostles would have been to repel the continual assaults, which it would have awakened. But the fact is, that not a whisper of objection to Christianity, on that account, reaches our ears from the apostolic age.”

Channing next point about the Trinity is that the idea diffuses devotion. When there are three objects of adoration, and one of them had been a flesh-and-blood person who actually walked the earth in a historical era, it is natural that this should siphon off some “interest” of the worshiper in the God who should be supreme.

And this is even more true when the function of Christ is conceived of as the advocate for humanity. This good cop, bad cop scenario (my words, not Channing’s) of orthodox Calvinism naturally makes the human believer more fond of Jesus than God the father.

The second point of doctrine Channing emphasizes is that besides believing in the unity of God, the Unitarians also believe in the unity of Christ, that is, they reject the orthodox notion that Jesus was fully divine and fully human at the same time. This dual nature effectively splits Jesus into two persons. Again, it is a doctrine so peculiar that one would expect it to be expressed somewhere in scripture, but the Bible is silent on it.

Trinitarians, Channing says, defend their view of Christ’s divinity by pointing to his role in atonement. Because God is an infinite being, the original sin of the first humans was infinite and is carried down to humans of the present day. The only way to atone for an infinite sin is the sacrifice of an infinite being. But this gets into the paradox I discussed in my Easter sermons: if Christ is divine, he is immortal, and how does an immortal being suffer and die?

Channing ‘s third point of doctrine is the moral perfection of God. He says that all Christians give lip-service to the idea of God as infinitely benevolent, compassionate and just, but that orthodoxy undercuts this picture by showing a God who is cruel and mean.

To Channing, God is the embodiment of morality, not a being above morality. God can dispense justice and punishment when necessary, but always with an end to cure the sinner. Channing insists on the parental character of God, mixing mercy and justice.

In a sense, Channing is looking beyond the moral peculiarities of God as evidenced in the Bible. The beneficent God whom Channing portrays cannot be squared with the God who would destroy the human race in the great flood or Sodom and Gomorrah, or visit misfortunes on the righteous Job to test his loyalty.

But he is also opposing the Calvinist view of God, without using the word: that system would “take from us our Father in heaven, and substitute for him a being, whom we cannot love if we would, and whom we ought not to love if we could.” He rejects that system’s teaching that humans at heart are “wholly depraved” so that even the innocent children who die before baptism can justly be sent to hell. He rejects the idea that “the elect” are saved from the cruelties of the system. Mostly, he objects to the idea of a God so heartless as to have set up such a system. “The false and dishonorable views of God, which have now been stated, we feel ourselves bound to resist unceasingly. Other errors we can pass over with comparative indifference. But we ask our opponents to leave to us a GOD, worthy of our love and trust, in whom our moral sentiments may delight, in whom our weaknesses and sorrows may find refuge. We cling to the Divine perfections.”

I spoke in my Easter sermons about Channing’s next point of doctrine, the mission of Jesus. Jesus was placed on earth to effect a moral deliverance. This was not a sacrifice of atonement, but a moral example. Jesus was not a substitute for humanity’s sins nor a sacrificial lamb. Still less does Jesus intercede for the human race or change the mind of a wrathful God.

“We earnestly maintain, that Jesus, instead of calling forth, in any way or degree, the mercy of the Father, was sent by that mercy, to be our Saviour; that he is nothing to the human race, but what he is by God's appointment; that he communicates nothing but what God empowers him to bestow; that our Father in heaven is originally, essentially, and eternally placable, and disposed to forgive; and that his unborrowed, underived, and unchangeable love is the only fountain of what flows to us through his Son.”

Jesus’s mission was to recall humans to virtue. Virtue is a central tenet of Channing’s religious scheme, and he closes his survey of doctrine with a few reflections on it.

“We believe that all virtue has its foundation in the moral nature of man, that is, in conscience, or his sense of duty, and in the power of forming his temper and life according to conscience. We believe that these moral faculties are the grounds of responsibility, and the highest distinctions of human nature, and that no act is praiseworthy, any farther than it springs from their exertion.”

Both Calvinism and the early Universalists believed that God’s will was irresistible and supreme, that all things were predetermined and that human free will was an illusion. Channing rejected these ideas: “We object, strongly, to the idea of many Christians respecting man's impotence and God's irresistible agency on the heart, believing that they subvert our responsibility and the laws of our moral nature, that they make men machines, that they cast on God the blame of all evil deeds, that they discourage good minds, and inflate the fanatical with wild conceits of immediate and sensible inspiration.”

What Channing outlined in the Baltimore sermon was a religion based on a single God who was the embodiment of reason, with a purely human Jesus as the moral example, whose character could be imitated by any worshiper. This was the start of what would come to be called salvation by character.

Yes, Channing’s beliefs seem rather orthodox in the context of today’s Unitarian Universalism. He believed in the resurrection of Christ, life eternal and a final day of judgment. But his forthright statement of opposition to the trinity, to sacrificial atonement, to the divine nature of Christ, set the new movement on a path it is still on today.


Reading: summary of context and message of “Unitarian Christianity” by unknown commentator

Context. The movement we now call Unitarianism in America arose as a set of liberal attitudes and values in the Congregational churches of New England in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. Calvinist orthodoxy taught that the Will of God was all-powerful, and that humankind was inherently depraved because of the original sin of Eve. Calvinists taught a doctrine of double predestination: some people were predestined to go to heaven, but most were predestined to go to hell. The Bible was the true word of God, and its revelations were more important sources of truth than the human faculty of reason. God existed in three persons, the Trinity, all of which had existed from all eternity; Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity during his lifetime, and was both fully human and fully divine. His death upon the cross atoned for the sins of Adam and all humans following Adam, and will effect eternal life for those who believe.

Liberal congregational ministers were questioning aspects of this doctrine from the 1750's onward, but wanted to remain within the Congregational fold. But after 1805, the orthodox ministers tried to expose the liberals and force them out of the denomination. It was the orthodox who first used the term Unitarian as a term of abuse.

Channing’s 1819 sermon was the manifesto of American Unitarianism. It was widely reprinted, and had the effect of gathering pro-Unitarian factions within the Congregational churches. In the decade 1820-30, many of those churches voted to call Unitarian ministers, and those churches are UU today. The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825, though Channing objected to forming a separate denomination.

Doctrines of note. Channing agrees that the Bible is authoritative, but insists that it must be read with the faculty of reason. He disavows the doctrine of the Trinity and views Jesus as one person, namely human. He affirms God as a benevolent power, and thus edges toward a Universalist position, but he clearly has room for hell in his system. He emphasizes the effect of Jesus on character development, and rejects the idea of an infinite atonement for infinite sin. He seems to maintain a belief in an afterlife, a second coming and a judgment day.

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