What is True Channing Unitarianism?

William Henry Channing

Berry Street Essay, 1870


Read before the Ministerial Conference

May 31, 1870


On Wednesday, at 9 ½ A.M., there was a meeting of the Ministerial Conference in the vestry of theArlington Street Church. Prof. E. J. Young called the meeting to order and nominated Dr. Palfrey, of Belfast, for Chairman. He was elected, and opened the session by prayer. Rev. Mr. Foote, of King's Chapel, was elected Secretary of the Conference.

Rev. W. H. Channing then read an address. He referred to his former association with the Conference, and the length of time that has passed since he was last here. He then proceeded to speak of his association with William Ellery Chaining. We often hear in these days the expression "Channing Unitarianism." What is its true and proper meaning? The speaker here read extracts from Dr. Channing's writings, his description of the Liberal Christian character, containing an earnest protest against the use of creeds of human authorship as a test and limit of Christian fellowship.

Each religious organization, each portion of the Christian Church, helps the world's spiritual growth, and works successfully for the establishment of the kingdom of God in the world, in exact proportion to its fidelity to its own essential or distinctive principles. Referred to the Benedictines, Moravian, Methodists, Friends, and others in illustration. What is the distinctive quality, the essence of Unitarianism? It was in its origin, and is in its true type a reform of theology on ethical grounds. It is a protest against an immoral and demoralizing theology. Unitarianism finds the goodness of God revealed in the goodness and excellence of the human nature which is from Him. It teaches that in the spirit and nature of man God is reported, and that if we seek Him we do really find Him.

What we most need to-day is best indicated in the very words of Dr. Channing. We need a real and thorough religious revival. We need a revival of faith in the central, organizing principle of our religions belief, the essential goodness of human nature. We are to distinguish between what is incidental, transient and evil in human nature, and that which is essential, inseparable and everlasting. The speaker then showed that all the great religious teachers of the world, the seers of the ages before Christ and since, have held essentially this same great doctrine of the Divine relations of man, and the abiding in him of the life of the Infinite Father of all. Man is the union of the finite and Infinite, a revelation of the relations between them. Revealed in this truth of the essential goodness of the nature of man, is the truth of the infinite goodness of God. Unitarianism stands on the ground of the very highest thought and philosophical culture of the world. It gathers up into a wondrously vital presentation the loftiest inspirations of the old teachers, and finds in them the same great truth of the natural union of God with the human spirit, and His indwelling there. The personality of man reveals the Infinite Personality of God. Religion is passing away from ns in the influence of a gospel of law. This is nothing new. The experiment has been tried again and again. Wherever this doctrine of the supremacy of law has been accepted, it has paralyzed the religious nature and the highest Intellectual activity of those who have accepted it. This was the curse that came upon China. It was the influence of this very idea of law that stopped the free flowing of mental and religious life in that country. Other illustrations were given. We are but just entering upon the era of this peril. We shall yet see far more of its destructive influence.

The lecturer's studies have brought him to the conviction that Jesus was providentially born out of the centre of the religious life of the Essenes, a people who were devoted to this very truth of the indwelling of God in the human soul. He did not remain within the circle of their culture, but he began there. But it was his profoundest conviction that you cannot explain that wonderful life of Jesus, the most real life that ever was lived on earth, except by regarding it as a totally new experience of this relation of the human soul to God and of His indwelling in it. Thinks the writings of Philo furnish an important key to the understanding of early Christian thought, and of the central truths of Christ's teaching. After life-long study of Christianity, and the most thorough comparison of it with all the great religions of the world, he is to-day more than ever a Christian—a Christian, not on the ground of miraculous evidences, of what is termed supernatural, but on the ground of the Divine quality of the life of Jesus, and of the revelation of the nature of God which comes to us through him. Must say that he fully believes in the certain coming of the kingdom of God, a divine society on earth; believes in it just as Jesus announced it. There is general disturbance and tendency to breaking up everywhere in Europe. Science is passing away in the growing dominion of Naturalism. Very trying times are before us, and the only church that can endure through these times of trial will be one that embodies Christianity as a living power and form of civilization. Never was more a Christian socialist than to-day.  The Church ought to pervade and guide the tendency to co-operation, make it Christian, fill it with the transforming life of the .religion of Jesus. Believes in the possibility of moral miracles which shall change the world.

After a short recess there was some talking about Mr. Channing's Address.  A vote of thanks  was passed, and then several voices called on Dr. Bellows to speak. In response the Doctor thought that Dr. Channing had a wonderful endowment of common sense. He was like Mr. Emerson in this, that he had a most shrewd insight into the affairs of common life. He was not only a close observer of men and things, but he had a remarkable understanding of practical matters.

To his mind it is not the ends at which Christianity aims which make it original and give it peculiar value. The goodness of God manifested in the goodness of man is truly, as our brother so excellently set forth, the aim of all the great religions. But the distinctive value of Christianity is in the character of the means by which this great end is to be attained. He thought it indispensable that we recognize the historic development and order of the world's religious life as it is manifested in the Church. The experience of the world thus far reveals that when we try to think of the goodness of God apart from His manifestation in Jesus Christ there is a tendency to Pantheism. The great truth which is pointed to and signified by the world's centuries of experience and by the results of its highest thought, is the humanity of God. The thought of other centuries had something providential in it, too. Men and women lived in those times, and God was with them. The traditions of the past are not to be despised or lightly put aside as if unworthy of regard. God poured His life into the world through the soul of Jesus Christ, in a Way and degree absolutely unparalleled anywhere else. Other religions are providential, indeed, but rudimentary and transient, while Christianity is central, universal and everlasting.

Rev. Messrs. Nicholls and Channing and Dr. Palfrey and others continued the discussion.