William Henry Channing

William Henry Channing was born in Boston, May 25, 1810. HIs father was Francis Dana Channing, the oldest brother of D. Channing, and a lawyer, who died the year of his son's birth. William Channing was educated under the auspices of his famous uncle, who largely met the expenses of it. He graduated from Harvard in 1829, and in 1833 from the Divinity School. After preaching in several places for brief periods, and spending a year in Europe, he was a minister-at-large in New York during the year 1837. In 1839 he went to Cincinnati as minister of the Unitarian church, but he remained there only two years. He wrote for and helped edit "The Western Messenger," and his contributions to "The Dial" were written during this period. He now passed through a period of critical mental and spiritual agitation, during which he questioned the fundamental truths of religion....

In 1842 Channing went to Brooklyn and preached for a short time, and in April of the next year he organized a Christian Union Church in New York, and had in his congregation such persons as Horace Greeley, Christopher Cranch, and Henry James. This movement was abandoned at thee end of 1845, and the next year he preached at Brook Farm, and for Theodore Parker in West Roxbury. While in New York Channing edited "The Present," during 1843-44; and he discontinued it in order to write the biography of Dr. Channing, which was published in six volumes, in 1848, and was very popular. With the beginning of 1847 Channing organized in Boston The Religious Union of Associationists, to which he preached until 1850. Many of the members of Brook Farm, and other socialists, joined it, and the congregation was interested and even enthusiastic. In 1849 Channing conducted an associationist journal called "The Spirit of the Age." He joined with Emerson and J. F. Clarke, in 1850, in preparing a biography of Margaret Fuller; and he not only wrote a part of it, but he was the editor of the whole. In 1853 he became the minister of the Unitarian church in Rochester, but in the autumn of the next year he withdrew, and a year later he went to Liverpool and settled over one of the leading Unitarian churches in that city.

During the Civil War Channing returned to the United States, and preached in Washington until 1865. He was the chaplain of Congress, labored in the hospitals, gave much of his time to the work of the Sanitary Commission and the Freedman's Bureau, and did valiant service in the cause of the union and for emancipation. He returned to England at the close of the war, preached for a time in London, and also in other places. In 1869 he gave before the Lowell Institute in Boston a course of twelve lectures on "The Progress of Civilization." A course on "The Laws of Human Life," was given before the Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, in 1871. He made several visits to the United States, lectured, peached, and talked, made a valiant effort to revive spiritual religion, and to inaugurate a new religious movement; but while he was gladly heard by many wherever he went, he had no gift for organization or for bringing his thought to bear definitely upon the facts of life. He was a great preacher and a saintly man, but he was visionary and impracticable. Emerson chose him as the one man good enough to baptize his children, and greatly admired his preaching. He was a most devoted transcendentalist, none more so; and one who lived in the realm of ideas and spiritual principles. He died December 23, 1884.

Frothingham said of William Channing, that he was supremely an idealist. "The ideal Church, the ideal State, the ideal Society, were ever before his fancy. Specific reforms seemed to him partial, incidental, fragmentary, unsatisfactory, as a patched garment. And yet no one was more faithful to the cause of anti-slavery, the rights of women, peace, temperance, and other reforms, than he. Their defects he overlooked, and what they promised was to him as a living reality that commanded his enthusiasm and loyalty." Lydia Maria Child wrote of him, in 1865: "He is the same infinite glow that he was when he took my heart captive twenty years ago." That word describes him admirably, for he was always in an infinite glow of enthusiasm concerning whatever elicited his interest. "A most delightful man," wrote Theodore Parker truly of him, "full of the right spirit; a little diseased in the region of consciousness, but otherwise of the most remarkable beauty of character; full of good tendencies, of noblest aspirations; an eye to see the evils of society, a heart to feel them, a soul to hope better things; a willingness to endure all self-denial to accomplish the end whereto he is sent."

Although Channing was not at any time a member of the Brook Farm community, he was one of its most loyal friends. He was an associationist in the fullest sense, and believed thoroughly in Christian socialism, which he preached with enthusiasm and devotion. That he positively rejected the individualism of Emerson, Alcott, and Thoreau may be seen from two or three of his letters, for he was a socialist even in his philosophy, as he was in his religion. He admired and defended Emerson's address of 1838, but to him its defect was its failure to recognize the common life of humanity. Writing to Emerson, he said,: "I have read with renewed interest, and several times reread, your address at the Theological School, and admit now, as I did when I heard it, that it says all that can be said from that point of view. It is a poem in its way. But I feel distinctly, my honored friend, in relation to this address, what I feel in relation to all that I have read of your writings, that there is one radical defect, which, like a wound in the bark, wilts and blights the leaf and bloom and fruit of your faith. You deny the Human Race. You stand, or rather seek to stand, a complete Adam. But you cannot do it."

In a letter to Theodore Parker about his "Discourse of Religion." Channing made the same criticism, although he expressed the greatest appreciation of the book. He found one radical defect in it, that it took account only of the individual, and ignored man in his social life. Channing expressed it as one of his deepest convictions "that the race is inspired as well as the individual; that humanity is a growth from the Divine Life as well as man; and indeed that the true advancement of the individual is dependent upon the advancement of a generation, and that the law of this is providential, the direct act of the Being of beings." He added that this was the ground of his Christian faith and of his reconciliation with the church. "The race is to me," he said, "a revelation of God more than any one man is, more than all separate men are.". . . Transcendentalism needs the correction he gave it. The highest products of human achievement, such as language, law, civilization, religion, and ethical development, are the results of social growth, and not of individual attainment."

George Willis Cooke, II, 25-29