Berry Street Lecture, 1850
William Henry Channing
Note: The following is a report on the 1850 Berry Street Lecture, found in the Christian Inquirer, June 8, 1850. The full text has not been located.
"Mr. Channing’s Address before the Ministerial Conference.”
Mr. Channing thanked his brethren for the high privilege of addressing them on this occasion. It was one of the highest privileges in earthy life, to be able to lay before others the truth which was the light of one’s own life. He would try to improve this privilege by declaring, without reserve, the clearest hope that had been given him, the hope of a heavenly life on earth as the preparation for a heavenly life hereafter. It must be presumed, in days so earnest as our own, that no man would wish to trifle upon subjects of such deep importance; no one, certainly, should feel himself free to do so. For these were critical and stirring times of ours—times of judgment to the Christian nations. There were those all around us, in the old world and in the new, who could see no alternative between the old Catholic church on the one side, and pure Naturalism on the other. Pressed as we are to either of these extremes, the question must come home to us, is there no intermediate ground here, no safe position between these extremes? Our hearts assured us that there is such a ground; but could se see it clearly enough to assert it plainly and with confidence? He could answer, plainly, yes; and the thoughts he should offer would not be mere guesses or rash speculations, but the result of earnest and patient study, contemplation, prayers, and communion with many minds of ancient and modern times. He had something to say worth saying and worth hearing, and, more than either, worth carrying out into life. The great question of those who in this age earnestly seek the Divine manifestation in some living form, their great cry is: Is Christ dead? Is that grand symbol of the cross, which has glittered at sunrise and sunset in the mightiest cities of the earth, which has adorned the joys, and comforted the sorrows, and consecrated all the relations of human life, is that mighty symbol at last powerless? And there were some to answer, yes; that the era of Christianity, specially so called, had passed away, and that men should be born into a larger liberty than that of the church. For within these narrow church walls, as in a temple, had the human soul been confined—that form of glorified, transfigured humanity, which now breaks through these prison walls, and from amidst their ruins steps forth into the free light and air. And surely we must admit, at least, that the infidelity of this day is not the scoffing, sneering infidelity of the last century, but, in reality, rather a faith, larger than that acknowledged by many, so-called, Christians. And if the faith of so-called infidels trusts more in God and man than that of so-called Christians, then this so-called Christian faith must pass away into oblivion. But does this faith really transcend Christianity? No! it is Christianity; it is the Christ arisen; risen from the corruptions of barbarous ages, to claim his full rights on the earth, and to perfect his mission here. He would dwell for an instant on the manifold proofs that Christendom is really the centre of mankind. Could it be an accident that the nations called Christian are, in all that respects power and progress, so materially and wonderfully in advance of all other nations of the earth? Was it not, on the contrary, a most important and significant fact, a fact worthy our serious attention? And the same nations were also eminently superior in the social character pervading their institutions, laws, sciences, and bonds of human intercourse. These are all evidently inspired with one common life—the life of Love, the life of the Divine Humanity. This great idea, this love-bond, has manifestly pervaded all Christendom; but we are just beginning to feel and acknowledge its power—a power never more vital and active than it is now. And before us spreads out a future which Christendom is manifestly to possess, and which shall develop to its perfection this great Christian unity. And the centre of it must be the oneness of God, forcing himself into each man, into all men, and so making them all one with him, and thus one with one another. And thus is developed the idea of fraternity, brotherhood, the oneness of man with man—not individuals only, or communities or nations only, but the oneness of the interlinked and harmoniously cooperating race. Was this thought, this sentiment ever so vital before, or so thoroughly interlinked with the hearts of men, as it is now? Would it not be wise, then, to believe in the literal significance of the prophecy of a new heaven and a new earth—a heaven to be realized on earth—a command to man to live here in power, and beauty, and glory, putting away poverty, misery, and crime and so inhabiting a truly glorified earth? Were there not thoughts in our hearts, in the heart of all Christendom, seeking not utterance only by the tongue or pen, but for expression, also in deeds? It was, surely, an unexhausted and inexhaustible idea and hope. Such an inspiration, such a clear, controlling impulse, so thoroughly native in man, must be destined to be even more than fulfilled. It was thus certain that Christ and Christendom are verily to possess this earth, and to crown it with the beauty and glory of God. And we trace this grand fact and reality all back to that one man, that beloved Son of God, in whom the fullness of the Divine Love was first manifested; and we find that these ideas and hopes, which now animate and refresh us in our highest hours, were ever present to him, like the sunshine of God’s abiding presence. And thus we could take the two opposing forms of faith, the one, supernaturalism, regarding Christianity as an altogether exceptional dispensation to man; the other, Naturalism, making it purely progressive in the race, like any other natural impulse or movement; we could take these opposing views, and blend them by showing that one law of Divine Life, superhuman in its source, human in its relations and practical operation, was made manifest in the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, in the revelation of the Divine Life humanly revealed in and through him.
The view of the Divine Order of Society, which the speaker wished to present, could only be manifested from this high ground of faith in Christ as the Divine Man. He could speak on no other subject, here or elsewhere, than this, of the reorganization of Christian Societies after the Christian ideal of heaven on earth. It claimed the attention of every Christian minister. There was no call so urgent on any man as this, to contribute his best efforts, clearest thoughts, and most earnest prayers, to the diffusion and realization of this ideal of a Perfect Society. After passing through many and various stages of thought and doubt, he (…) God that any who doubted might obtain a hope and trust as clear, living, and earnest, as he had found, and from which he was able to speak. And he would pursue the inquiry as to the relations existing between Christ and Christendom, and this coming union of God and man on the earth. Once thoroughly conscious that the life beating in each was the great unitary life setting strongly through the race, from God, the centre and source, and we should feel that no hope or effort towards this great end could ever fail. Our highest thoughts of the Divine Being must include these elements of a state of such abiding and glorious love and joy as no words of our poor speech could express. And from this living centre of pure, perennial, eternal power, there must proceed a confirmation of perfect good in his creatures, until, in their completed perfection, he shall see the reflection of his own likeness. But before reaching this perfect state of joyful union with the Creator, there must be the progressive or transitional state of discord and suffering; and God must enter into the sacrifices and struggles of his creatures, and thus, in sympathy with them, appear to them as the Mediator; and thus he must, as a mediator, forever enter into all life and renew it. Looking at the history of man on this earth, from this ground, and was it not also clear that the natural world was framed that man might be surrounded with, as it were, a model of the Divine Beauty and Perfection, that might bring him to some conception of God, the Creator, the Maker, and thus, in the highest sense of these words, the Divine Poet or Artist. And thus we have the conception of God, manifested through the spiritual world, as the centre from which man lives; and also of God, manifested through the harmonies of the natural world, on the plane of human development; and to these we must add the idea of a race perfectly harmonized, through which man can alone enter into a full and satisfying union with the Father of all Spirits. For only in a perfect society could such a union be possible. And precisely this Christian hope of a perfect human unity is borne out by the clearest science to which man can attain.
But between the beginning of the race and this completed perfection, must come the intermediate period of trails and struggles; and, in this epoch of human history, Christ comes to sum up and concentrate in one human form the power and hope of good, of heaven itself, that he might be the promise and foretype of Heaven on Earth, or of the Divine life established in human society. And this great truth, declared by him, has been taught, in some form, by his church ever since. All the ages before Christ had cherished, wise, excellent, and loving spirits—but none having his fullness of inspiration. He alone, as the perfect incarnation of a man, could be truly called a Man, summing up all the manifestations of the past, and prefiguring in his character, as he promised in words, the only real heaven, which is such a harmonizing of all human wills as shall enable all men to recognize, at last, their own perfect unity with God. Christ died to rise again, and only then did his true mission begin, for which his life in the body was but the preparation. It is the truth of truths that he did so rise to sit at the right hand of God in power and glory, as the real ruler of this race, and to diffuse through the nations the pure law and life of love. Nothing can explain Christendom itself but this fact, that in Christ Jesus is thus bound up the highest life of this race on this planet. To look at Christendom in its past developments and present aspects, were summons enough to quicken one dead from his tomb. The Church and the State have been separately tending to the ideal of perfection, and we have reached, in this age, the point in which they must again combine, and realize all that has been longed for by Christian saints and prophets. Were not all these facts of providential appointment? The Christian Church, from the beginning, had always consisted of bodies of men and women united in the belief that they were leading a life not their own, but the life of inspiration from a higher vision, and that this life came from one great source. It was, indeed, the life of God flowing, through the Son of Man, into the human soul, and in just that degree in which all its affections were in harmony one with another. Through God in Christ men learned to know God in Christendom. This one great central thought has pervaded the Christian Church throughout all its communions; this life of love was not viewed as a life radiated from them as individuals, but communicated to them, through Christ and the Christian communion, from heaven and God. From its early, simple faith, the Church had passed through the developments of all the sects that could be formed on varieties of opinion, and was now tending again to a far more complex, manifold, rich, and living unity, than men have ever dared to hope for. And so, considering also the development of states and governments, were they not all found approaching the ideal of a Christian state, coming to the ground of justice between man and man, as brothers; and that the righteous power of states is of God and not of man.
The speaker proceeded to trace the parallelism between the corresponding forms of changes in Church and State, and their mutual approach to each other as they tended towards a more perfect social condition; and to show that we had now reached that period in which the State must become thoroughly practical, both blending harmoniously into the ideal of a perfect human society, the full expression of a divine, social life. The time had come, he urged, for a Christian Socialism, and his assertion could be enforced and justified from every point of view. He urged that we must either take the view that man had already exhausted his possibilities, or believe that this vision of a perfect society on earth is destined to become a reality. This light and hope was not of man but of God, and so it was to be received and judged. It was the light in which the nations were destined to walk in peace. The life of Jesus on earth, at one with God, with man, and with nature, was the destiny appointed for our race, and which ahs ever been in progress of fulfillment; and there was no hope of prophecy translated from the past, which should not thus become a grand and beautiful reality.
If this be the end which God proposes for humanity, the heaven that he will send down to earth, then it cannot be by a merely individual life of piety that we are to attain and enjoy the fullness of God. Only in the degree in which we are at one with each other, harmoniously united and cooperative, can we be at one with God. It was greater to recognize God in the social life, than even in the sacred experiences of the individual soul. Jesus said: "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them;” only in the degree in which we come together in unity can we feel the richness of the Divine inspiration, the power of the Divine Life. The single, finite, solitary mind could not receive, could not comprehend this life. Many souls must be blended together in love, in thought, in harmonious works, that the life of God might enter into each through all, as well as all through each. It is the great central reality of Christendom, and of the Christian church, that if you would have full communion with God, you must attain to a living, practical understanding of that mighty text: "that they all may be one; I in them, and thou in me, that they all may be made perfect in one.” This is the Divine Reality, compared with which all other realities are as nothing; the reality in which we are living, the reality of a present God, manifest in Christ, descending to dwell with us, Nothing could shut out this Divine spirit and life from our souls and from our society, but the discord and selfishness of our social relations, which prevent us from becoming a perfect social body, fit for the habitation of the Divine Soul. There must be one social brotherhood in which the Father may dwell; one family in heaven and earth, distributed and arranged in God’s own order; a social order even more harmonious and exact than that which balances and distributes chemical affinities, animal instincts, or the wonderful equilibrium between the sexes. Must not the same celestial wisdom equally balance the various mental powers and tastes? Has not God thus prepared the way for a perfect society? How then could any Christian church be worthy of its name, or be anything but barren and dead, that does not recognize and aspire to this social, Christian perfection? This social ideal involved certain necessary conditions of practical life, to some of which allusion was made; as, to the necessity for holding the land, like the common elements, in a common possession for the good of all, and for the purposes of the highest cultivation, instead of the present selfish, and often injudicious, unjust and socially injurious system of separate individual tenures. So, also, the necessity of cooperative labor in beautifying and cultivating the earth, and making it a living temple before God; the securing to each child a thorough education of body, mind and heart, a mutual guarantee against the approach of want, or the suffering of destitution, and the honoring and exalting all, according to their providential gifts and real worth. Such a society would know more and more of the fullness of that joy which God has prepared for us, and religions would become not a service of mere sentiment or form, but a service of work, of cooperation in the Divine work; the production of beauty and joy. Then should we understand truly the Prince of Peace, and know by experience that "law of liberty,” whose essence is the love of God. Turning from this sublime ideal, the speaker closed with an appeal to his brethren to make this idea of Christian fellowship and communion prominent in their preaching, their ministrations, and their pastoral intercourse, to enforce it against false fashions, factitious distinctions, selfish exclusions, and all that now opposes the diffusion of a true Christian fellowship. They should strive to make paramount the law of Christ, "in honor preferring one another,” and to subject it to all our customs and modes of social intercourse. Meanwhile these various problems of our social state, and the study of this transformation into the true Christian commonwealth, should engage our serious and hearty study and cooperation. No one could labor in this great work, who would not also live to see the day in which he should thank God for having embodied this hope of heaven and earth, and this labor of faith and love.