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Essays: English and American. rn The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

William Ellery Channing

Introductory Note

WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING, the chief apostle of New England Unitarianism, was born at Newport, Rhode Island, April 7, 1780. He graduated from Harvard in 1798, and five years later became minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston, where he remained for thirty-seven years. He died October 2, 1842.

Channing was still a child when, in 1785, King’s Chapel in Boston, in revising its liturgy, eliminated the doctrine of the Trinity. For the next fifty years the movement went on, separating the Congregational churches in New England into Trinitarian and Unitarian. A sermon preached by Channing in Baltimore in 1819, at the ordination of Jared Sparks is generally regarded as the formulation of the Unitarian creed, and throughout his life Channing continued a leader in the denomination.

To the tolerance, the culture, and the high civic and private virtue that characterized the typical Unitarian of that time, Channing added an emotional and spiritual quality, and an interest in philosophy, that make him not merely the greatest of the Unitarian leaders, but in important respects the first of the Transcendentalists. “The Calvinists,” it has been said, “believed that human nature is totally depraved; the Unitarians denied this, their denial carrying with it the positive implication that human nature is essentially good; the Transcendentalists believed that human nature is divine” (Goddard). Judged by this test, Channing belongs to the third group, for it is in his passionate faith in the divinity of human nature, apparent in the following lectures “On the Elevation of the Laboring Classes,” as in his writing and preaching in general, that one finds the characteristic mark of his spirit and the main secret of his power.