William Ellery Channing, 1780-1842

The undisputed leader of American Unitarianism in the first half of the 19th century, William Ellery Channing has been called a Transcendentalist in feeling, if not in thought. Ordained minister of the Federal St. Congregational Church in Boston, at 23, Channing was a leader among those who were turning from Calvinism to a more liberal theology. His "Sermon delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Jared Sparks to the pastoral care of the First Independent Church in Baltimore, May 5, 1819," or the "Unitarian Christianity oration," earned him the title "apostle of Unitarianism." In 1820, he organized the Berry St. Conference of Ministers, which formed the American Unitarian Association in 1825. His thoughts on human dignity, freedom, the likeness of man's nature to God, man's capacity for reason and moral judgment, heretical thoughts to many of his contemporaries, had enormous impact on the next generation of Transcendentalists, including Emerson.

On his visit to Boston in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville called on Channing, who he considered "the most celebrated preacher and most remarkable author of the present time in America." Channing was, de Tocqueville noted in his diary "a small man, who has the air of being exhausted by work. His eyes, however, are full of fire, his manners warm-hearted. He has one of the most penetrating voices that I know. He received us with great kindness, and we enjoyed a long conversation."

Channing's address, "Self-Culture" (1838) highlighted the importance of the development of the individual, the moral, religious, intellectual, and social aspects of character. David Robinson, Channing's editor, considered Self-Culture "perhaps the classic definition of the idea in nineteenth-century America." Channing espoused humanitarianism and tolerance and advocated many social causes including anti-slavery, the elevation of the laboring classes, and education Although never a radical abolitionist, Channing wrote extensively about the evils of slavery (see below: Slavery, 1835). His complete works (in six volumes) were originally published in 1841-43. In 1813, Channing established The Christian Disciple (later The Christian Examiner), in Boston. Channing's Life…with Extracts from His Correspondence, edited by his nephew William Henry Channing, in 3 volumes, was published in 1848.

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