"Channing and the History of Christian Piety”[1]

Francis A. Christie, Professor of Church History, Emeritus, Meadville Theological School

Berry Street Essay, 1905

Read before the Ministerial Conference

May, 1905


[This paper was published after Christie retired, a number of years after he delivered his Essay.  Perhaps he only then got around to publishing it.  He may have expanded it for publication.  But its topic is precisely that recorded as his Berry Street subject.  Its strong similarity to the Essay seems very likely, indeed. - Paul Sprecher]

    There was a time when nothing could win acceptance as religion unless it could claim a venerable antiquity. Now the advocate of a thought must guarantee its novelty. The idea of progress disparages the quod semper creditum. An eager generation stands on tiptoe to catch the whisper of the moment that is to be. Mention as your warrant a name as old as Channing, and you may detect a certain polite reserve of manner. It appears on inquiry that Channing is not altogether modern. He entertained some belief in miracles and expressed a view of the nature of Jesus that is wholly antiquated. Now we will not deny progress or gainsay the claim that truth is the daughter of time, but the remoteness of a man depends on the perspective, and why should we adopt the perspectives of the history of doctrine? If we would be modern let us be sure that we have a thoroughly modern point of view.

When we expound the history of doctrine we find ourselves dealing with a secondary product of religious history, a product that is only intelligible when we see the deeper and primal element of which it was the intellectual result. The nineteenth century was proud of the discovery of a distinction between religion and theology and it gave primacy and originative power to religion or, to use a word of almost equal ambiguity, to piety. The distinction may be crudely used at times with the result of making religion a blind sort of feeling without vision of the object of feeling, but it is certainly clear by this time that religion is not essentially an intellectual exercise and that it cannot be won or inculcated moregeometrico. Religion lies in the mysterious capacity of the will to obey or to resist ideas that have the dynamic power of ideal obligation. Doctrine may postulate or logically infer the intellectual premises of this experience, but religion itself is the life responsive to great divine objects that are objects to the will rather than to the understanding and are experienced in a state of ideal exaltation of the inner self that is hardly scientific inquisitiveness. When we are considering the historical significance of a man it is important to know whether he belongs to the story of those who were busy with the intellectual explication of the primal experience, or was one who initiated a new intensity or a new enlargement of the religious experience itself. I have read an exposition of Martin Luther which makes him a name in the history of doctrine. The chapter devoted to him calculates with nicety the form of his doctrinal conceptions and leaves the impression that Luther was a somewhat confused and broken-down representative of scholasticism. When on the other hand Harnack discusses Luther’s place in religious history we discover a genius through whom society regained the essential Christian experience in its clear simplicity and, for all his doctrinal obstinacy, the emancipator of the Christian from servitude to ecclesiastical science. In the one version Luther is a name of subordinate rank; in the other he inaugurates a new era of life. On the one hand a Lutheran is a person defending certain problematic views; on the other hand, a Lutheran is a new type of man and Lutheranism a new form of social life.

So, as concerns Channing, one may have a cool indifference to some of his theological definitions or arguments and yet be exalted by him to an ideal fervor, receive from him an expanded conception of piety and become through him a new type of man. A man may belong to the foot notes of a history of doctrine and yet loom large in the records of social transformation. In the matter of Christology Channing might be mentioned with the ante-Nicene Fathers, and yet his notion of religion may be beyond the tiptoe reach of the most advanced doctrinarian.

For myself I think that Christianity as a story of religion proper falls into three stages, Catholicism, Protestantism and Channing, and I invite you to consider Channing’s place in the history of piety.

The first stage of Christianity as religion was Catholicism and while Catholicism contained much of the religion of Jesus we need not agree that Catholicism was the necessary evolution of the religion of Jesus. The historian knows nothing of mechanical necessity. For him a later stage of historic life is explained simply when it is shown to be the play of motives and interests that are present in the earlier stage. Our present-day study of religious history insists that we shall take a broad view of the social-religious complex, and in this broad view it is plain that what went on evolving was not some isolated abstraction known as pure and primitive Christianity but an antecedent widespread type of piety modified by the ethical spirit of Jesus and invigorated by the affinity to pagan myth of the Christian faith that Jesus died and rose again.

After the somewhat indeterminate conditions of the first two centuries, Christian piety began to develop steadily as a Christianized pagan religiosity. This mode of statement is not at all inconsistent with the common assertion that the starting point of Christian development is found in the missionary Paul. Paul’s suggestions and impulses are manifold, and the pagan society converted by him appropriated what in substance was already familiar under the form of various mystery cults. In the sixteenth century reformers seized upon Paul’s doctrines of atonement and justification by faith, but the ancient Greek society did not turn its selective attention upon these conceptions. Paul’s conception of faith as redemption was buried out of sight until the German mind revived it after Catholicism had run its course. Catholicism arose from other elements in Paulinism, elements strikingly related to the contemporary tendencies of pagan religiosity. Consciously or unconsciously Paul was a Greek to the Greeks. In that age of syncretism cults were tending to become universal forms of religion unlimited by nationality or descent. Paul universalized the new Palestinian fervor and emancipated it from Jewish racial bonds. These cults had myths of divine heroes that died and were alive again. Paul offered in the place of problematic myth the certain historic fact of Christ dying and risen and exalted to lordship. The cults of the world offered sacramental communion with the dying and resurgent divine hero, the gift of sacramental substances conferring immortality, the mystic appropriation of the god and his deathlessness by the initiate. Paul’s epistles glow with the enthusiasm of these conceptions presented in a Christian form, and these are the conceptions which the Greek world appropriated for its Christianized religiosity. These interests were fundamental and dominant, stronger than any other, more scientific interest.

The history of doctrine illustrates the superior power of these interests. To give supreme authority to the word of Jesus the apologists of the moralistic second century dropped the Jewish notion of Messiah and declared that the Logos spoke through Jesus. That position gave the supreme rational guarantee to the Christian preaching of one God, of moral service and of heavenly reward. It gave at first no more than this rational certainty. So far as that interest was concerned the Logos might have continued to be conceived as a half-god, an intermediate being. Something like Arianism would have been a justified result or else the view of Origen. But an interest more powerful than theoretic reason seized upon this Logos doctrine and insisted upon consubstantiality with God and the union of two natures in Christ. This more powerful interest was the craving for the redemption of resurrection, for deification, for union with a being whose absolute deity and eternity conferred on man eternity of being. For the fundamental aspiration of the Greek society was that which Paul met in the fifteenth chapter of First Corinthians, the yearning for incorrupt eternity of being. Redemption naturally included ethical values, but the redemption is expressed in terms physical rather than ethical. On the human personality lay the blight of finitude, the doom of death. That doom began—in the Christian version—with the sin of Adam, but attention seemed to rest upon the horror of the consequence rather than upon the guilt of its cause. The dogmatic movement is clear from these premises. If our redemption is given in Christ, there must be full deity in him, for only so is there assurance of an eternity of being, anaphtharsia, an exemption from finitude; there must be full humanity, for only so is given the guarantee of man’s eternalizing for the blessedness of that land which eager souls expect. So the sacraments which impart the God—man are more than symbol; they are a union of the material with the heavenly substance and confer the immortality of the God—man. So when Christianity became the state religion and the great hordes of the pagan population poured into the church we have but an extension of all this magical and sacramental kind of religiosity. The dogma became mere ritual. The scriptures were simply passages in the ceremonial. The ethical is overlaid with the passion for amulets and saints’ relics and images and pictures and whatever material forms might be thought to contain the virtue of a heavenly and immortal reality. Western Catholicism was indeed more alive to the ethical and gave a special development to the penitential discipline, but the ethical interest in which it originated was lost and penance found a substitute in indulgences, and indulgences were a substitute for moral obligation. The ethical view of western Catholicism is emphasized in its theological reflection as influenced by Augustine, but the Augustinian element was somewhat out of relation to the ritual life of the church and the history of mediaeval conflicts shows the triumph of the interests of sacramental ritual over the ethical Augustinian element. A separate western type of religiosity was not fully developed—unless it be in the "new devotion” of the Brothers of the Common Life and that was a symptom of transition to something new.

Such Catholicism was the first type of piety and two things were evident about it. In the first place, if indulged in seriously and completely, it was inimical to the welfare of society in its historic tasks. It enfeebled men for citizen-duty and was the foe of culture. When the lsaurian emperors wished to secure the Empire from barbarian attack they brought to the capitol and stationed on the frontier bodies of a more primitive Christian sect that in the isolation of Armenia had failed to share in this development of piety and had preserved the vigor and the social responsibility of strong men. And the divorce of such Catholic piety from the general life was evident by the fact that it generated a division of classes. He who would taste and feel and see the supernatural must sequester himself, must forsake the family vocation, must lead the ascetic, the angelic life, must be celibate, must be holy priest or holy monk. Only he was religious. The rest were religious dependents, religious only in a secondary degree. In the end the church meant essentially the corporation of the priests and monks.

In the second place, while ritual and memory preserved something of the ethical Jesus, it is apparent and was apparent that the religiosity so evolved was incongruous with the original spirit of Jesus and his company. There had been a departure from the essence of Christianity. Whenever a glimpse of the classic initial form of Christianity was regained there sprang up sects to protest against this erroneous and unwholesome divergence from the central and essential Christian principle. That which Jesus contributed to the world’s religious forces found itself in protest against a system of piety which was simply a more advanced stage of paganism. There was a restriction and suppression of man’s moral personality in its full dignity. There was a cleavage of the spiritual society. There was a discord between the spiritual and the materialistic. The redemption offered was magical and the realization of that redemption was postponed to another world. Evidently the historic development needed simplification and refining.

An opposition to this system inherited from antiquity is evident in the peoples of German stock whenever they lost their docile attitude of mere uncritical reception. With the slow maturing of German civilization the opposition gathered force and the crisis came with the German Luther. His personal struggle for confidence in God had revealed to him a simpler apprehension of piety, a reduction of Paulinism to the long buried essence of the spiritual side of Paul’s thought. Catholicism had made religion a thing of infusions and inspirations of divine reality into the man who had made himself receptive by the sacrifice of the human. The vast mass of spiritual dependents, inferior in religious privilege, esteemed incapable of the personal consciousness of supernatural communion were bidden to docility of obedience and assent. For the saint the embrace of God, for the mass the belief in a divine Providence.

Luther saw the infinite blessedness of this layman stage of faith, saw revealed in it such a richness of spiritual possession, such a glad security of God, such a dynamic force for the ethical life that all the privileges of monk and saint fell into the background. Catholic piety had lost the personal confidence of divine Friendship which belonged to the early cry of Abba Father. Luther kindled that early faith afresh. Religion was the message of God’s friendship for sinful man and man’s response in faith. The message is brought home to the soul by the unquestioned fact of Christ’s death for human sin, and the faith that accepted that message as a personal truth contained in itself all the joy, all the privilege, all the power of religion. The religious life was simply the attestation of that faith in conduct whatever the lot or calling. Lord and ploughman, prince and peasant, scholar and household drudge, each in his separate sphere was living the religious life without need of convent or ordination or ascetic preparations or supernatural infusions. Faith was redemption. No longer the division of classes, but a universal priesthood of faith. No longer the withdrawal of the religious from the sphere of historic tasks, but the beginning of an age when the historic task could be seen as the sphere of religion itself. No longer the crippling restriction of the human personality but the beginning of that era in which the ideal of religious life could meet and blend with all the high ideals of the human personality.

It is true that the exhibition of these results was slow and restricted. Luther’s reform and simplification, Luther’s re-conquest of a more natural and human piety was overlaid by all that petrification of dogma and scholasticism that religious warfare seems to have entailed for the temporary protection of the new piety. A change, however, had begun. The simplicity of simple trust in divine friendship had begun to triumph over the magical and sacramental. A new and nobler type of man of social life had been founded and the nineteenth century with its critical analysis of the past has enabled the simple essence of Lutheranism to begin afresh its more unhampered evolution. It is evident that Lutheranism seen in this light rouses the sympathy of the reader of Channing, and yet the sympathy has its limits. The Lutheran type of piety taken by itself is the attainment of peace for the self-accused spirit, but it lacks the positive energy of the life that reaches beyond the assurance of forgiveness to the full sanctioned activity of the human endowment. The word of God for Luther is the proclamation of Christ’s atonement, and the critical study of the origins of Christian beliefs makes a crisis for Lutheranism of tragic significance. That word of God which evoked the Lutheran piety of faith seems imperilled, and mere Lutheranism does not contain within itself a new and securer word of God to the soul that would fain bask in the sunshine of divine friendship. For the word of God that can reveal divinity and evoke faith and inspire the fulness of human perfection of life, a word of God undisturbed by the tragedy of historical criticism and indeed fortified by every advance of the science of religion we must go on to Channing and those for whom Channing spoke. The road to Channing lay through Calvinism.

The internal history of Protestantism, its history as a spiritual principle, may be said to lie in the changing conceptions of the word of God. In the age of controversial orthodoxy the word of God was presented in the Formula or the various confessions of Calvinism. Against this mere "notionism” mystics like Fox rebelled and asserted an inner word of the spirit. Pietism recalled the Lutherans to the insight that the word of God was such a revelation as evoked personal religious experience. Rationalism contended that the word of God was the universal human innate idea of God and duty and heavenly reward. Speculative idealism insisted that the word of God was the idea of the unity of finite and infinite spirit. Experience with all these suggestions would seem to show that the religious instinct is not so much concerned with the truth that gratifies the inquisitive understanding as that word of God which is redemptive to the sluggish soul and gives the joy and energy of supreme good for the spiritual race. Protestant piety seeks that present redemption. It desires the faith that leaps up when the vitalizing message of God is spoken in the deep seat of personal being, suffusing the heart with ideal joys and invigorating the will with the spontaneity of ideal endeavor.

That is Protestant piety, and the characteristic and almost definitive method of Protestantism for the evocation of that experience is that which the Augustinian Calvinist tradition used. The ultimate and complete illustration of that method is found in New England in the Eighteenth Century. There the whole community of such villages as listened to Edwards were convinced of the truth of the Calvinist version of the word of God and singularly responsive to its appeal. That word of God provocative of the highest human felicity was the Divine Sovereignty.

One thing binds Lutheranism and Calvinism together. For them both the spring of all religious activity is the personal realization of the forgiveness of sins. Apart from their differences of ecclesiastical organization and discipline the marked distinction is the rigor and distinctiveness of the logic by which this experience was induced in Calvinist circles. For the sake of argument against Erasmus Luther gave an extreme presentation of the Scotistic view of God as arbitrary will and harsh expression to the idea of predestination. When relieved of the necessity of further argument he seems to have relegated the topic to the background and to have made little practical use of it. He discountenanced the appeal to the sovereign majesty of the divine will and persuaded men by the known general provision of divine grace. Nor did Luther, like some of his followers, accentuate the horror of the life under the law so as to force his hearers to pass from a state of terror to a state of assurance. True, the antithesis of law and grace was the clue to all doctrine for him, but it remained a kind of abstract antithesis, a matter of theoretic analysis, and was not applied to the concrete personal life. His doctrine of grace was a comfort to the sinful Christian rather than a revivalistic appeal to depraved sinners.

In Calvinism, on the other hand, the doctrine of an inscrutable predestination was central and constant, and the antithesis of corruption and redemption was applied with more homiletic insistency. Edwards is the supreme instance of this Protestant preaching of redemption, because he discovered by his psychological acumen the method of presenting the doctrine so that numerous and radical conversions were the result. According to this view of piety, the Christian disposition began when God could be loved simply for the glory and beauty of his unmerited grace without any intervening claim of worth or effort to mar the adoration with a taint of personal interest or selfishness. In order to bring hearers to this absoluteness of selfless adoration it was necessary to convince them of their utter perversion and devilishness as men, and to accomplish that purpose Edwards and all consistent Calvinists had to take conscience away from man and make it simply an act of divine restraint. Man was painted as in himself the hater of all good simply coerced by an outer divine force into a certain decency of social demeanor. And not only was conscience denied to man as man but all its suggestions to the mind as to the nature of goodness and justice were discredited, that the purely arbitrary and capricious goodness of God might dawn upon the soul as a purely supernatural light, and that the disposition identifiable as regenerate and Christian might be a purely supernatural operation. Such Calvinism only made sharply explicit and pressed home on every man for personal realization the truth which belonged to all that was typically Protestant.

Let us not forget that purity and singleness of Christian character were the result of this drastic experience, but let us simply note that the method of inducing the Christian state was an outright denial of the faith in God with which Christianity began, and could not therefore be consonant with the permanent essence of Christianity, if Christianity had any continuity of essence at all. Let us note also that this method of evoking piety began to destroy piety itself. Hopkins followed the logic of it all and insisted that we could love only the elect and since we could not tell who were elect we could love our fellowmen only in a tentative way. The history of this piety is a history of social disunion and dissidence, the exhibition of a tendency to withdraw and sequester the few assured elects from the social whole and from the church circles that could not be consistently logical. There was a withdrawal too from the cultural task of humanity. The agents of this piety could not admit to the mind’s sphere of attention aught that would conflict with the monoideism of their regenerative supernatural light. There was a withering and crippling of the human personality. The Kingdom of God was a name simply for another world and all the intramudane Messianic ideal had dropped completely from consciousness. Here again was an illustration of the fact that this final consistent form of Protestantism had lost continuity with the earlier stages of Christianity as an historic movement.

The opposition to all this was long afoot, but opposition does not make succession. Rationalists opposed the Calvinist doctrine of God, and of man, but this opposition did not, as history shows, provide a further movement of Christianity which should maintain continuity with the past of its essential elements. In particular, Rationalism dropped completely the idea of redemption as the religious experience in its inmost aspect, while certainly, as an historic religious movement, Christianity is a religion of redemption. Catholicism in its typical aspect offered redemption in physical terms and by a process of sacramental administration. Protestantism in its clear expression offered a moral redemption by a process of divine co-action upon a resistant will. For the Catholic the redemptive gift was a substance. For the Calvinist the redemptive process was a reconstitution of the moral disposition.

The name of Channing seems to me to signalize a stage beyond these two, because he also offers redemption—something generative of salvation, something more than mere mandate of duty—and also because his apprehension here is consonant with the spirit of the beginning of the Christian movement and serves to restore the intramundane Messianic ideal with which the original Christian preaching of redemption was associated. The older church declared its doctrine of human nature only as it somewhat tardily developed the presupposition of its whole system of belief. The underlying premise thus explicated in the end was the utter ruin and impotence of man in himself and the doom inevitable to his nature as man until a foreign redemptive action should be enacted upon him. With only incidental protest this doctrine of man reigned through Catholic and Protestant times, the Greek current emphasizing the physical blight and doom, the Augustinian element emphasizing the moral hopelessness of human nature The Arminian made a tame modification. Channing made a revolutionary substitution. My whole intention is to say that in Channing’s intuition of the dignity of human nature there was not merely the substitution of one anthropology for another, not the mere insistence on human dignity in place of human depravity—not such mere substitution but the promulgation of a word of God of redemptive efficacy.

We have been saying that the Christian and indeed all highly ethical religions seek something more than a truth for the gratification of the inquisitive reason. They seek a Word of God that lays hold on the will and the higher emotions with some intense electrifying effect, so that inertia gives way to vitalized activity, apathy and listlessness are stirred to ideal exaltation, and the soul is assured of direct personal relation to the Eternal Power that is its absolute sovereign, such a relation, moreover, as is the assurance of an ultimate conformity to the nature absolute and adorable. The history of the pagan cults of the Roman Empire would seem to show something like a uniform law—the law of formal worship rising to personal communion or personal union with the divine power. This makes a broad contrast with the mere rationalistic moralism that merely argues the existence of a divine authority and infers the duty of moral obedience by the resources of a distinct and separated will.

Let us admit that Channing did not sharply and consistently present religion in the relation of these distinctions. The man who is the vehicle of great historic change is never so conscious of the bearings of his own thought and experience. In the great religious genius humanity takes a new step somewhat confusedly and somewhat unconsciously without full awareness of the reformative value of that step. So it was with Luther. So it was with Channing. At a late period of his life, when asked if he had ever experienced conversion, Channing answered: "I should say not, unless the whole of my life may be called, as it truly has been, a process of conversion.” In spite of this partial disclaimer, we have to remember one rather distinct spiritual crisis of his youth when, beneath the willow trees of a Cambridge meadow, reading Hutcheson’s account of man’s capacity for disinterested affection, there suddenly burst upon his mind his view of the dignity of human nature, when, to use the words of another, "the glory of the divine disinterestedness, the privilege of existing in a universe of progressive order and beauty, the possibilities of devotedness to the will of Infinite Love, penetrated his soul.” We who read Edwards’ account of the conversions in Northampton can see that this is exactly the disposition identified by Edwards as regenerate and evidence of redemption. And it is a mark of superiority over Edwards that Channing with all his delight of memory in that blessed moment of the revelation of spiritual light should not rely on its momentary exaltation but desire only to claim that the word of God then and there revealed had been the continual and progressive spring of his spiritual life.

It is due to the revivalism of Calvinist history that we have come to disuse the word and thought of redemption unless there is meant the crisis of some sudden and radical change that divides life into two authentic periods of nature and grace. But before Calvinism it was not so. With Luther it was not so, and with such a Lutheran pietist as Spener it was not so. For great examples of religious experience like these redemption was not a name for a momentary and distinct crisis. It was a more timeless truth of present imperfection and a perfecting made possible by non-empirical transcendent process. Every reader of Channing is aware that he belongs to the records of those who in fuller measure have experienced and expressed this redemptiveness of religion and, if this is the inner essence of all that calls itself evangelicalism, Channing surely is one of the most evangelical of Christian pietists.

For Catholicism, let us repeat, the word of God generative of such redemption was the truth conformed to pagan myth that Christ died and rose again-for our salvation. The truth was law for the implicitly believing mass. The privileged few sought sensible or supersensible enjoyment of union with the eternal substance thus made accessible ab extra to man. For Protestantism the word of God operative of redemption was that Christ died to make possible the forgiveness of sins and the bestowal of grace to the will that was else devoid of grace. Channing’s word of God of redemptive efficacy was the illuminating intuition that human nature was never without God, that human nature in itself contained as its constitutive essence a mysterious unison with the Perfection which is God’s nature. The word of God to which Catholicism and Protestantism appealed has been relegated by the history of thought to the realm of myth, so far as its objective reality is concerned. Channing’s word of God is not dependent upon history and does not stand or fall with some old interpretation of an historic event. The incongruities and irrationalities and cruelties of the older Christian system lay in the fact that its redemption was attached to an objective transaction hid in the recesses of a Roman province and the obscure past of Roman history. Channing restored to Christianity its imperilled claim of universality by discovering the truth that is redemptive in every human breast.

Christianity had offered a visitation of the divine spirit to man which should furnish blessedness of emotion, ethical character to will, and certitude of divine fellowship; but it made that visitation contingent upon faith in an historical event, or rather in an historical event subjected to an insecure interpretation. Channing proclaimed not a visitation so contingent but an indwelling of God evident to every soul that should contemplate the mysterious regnancy of the ideal element of its own being. The human soul was the oracle of the redemptive truth. "The reason why men see God in the outward creation is that their own nature has an affinity with Him and cannot be unfolded or find repose without Him. We comprehend and desire Him because we carry His image in our moral and intellectual powers and because these tend to this source.” "Man, though human by nature, is capable of conceiving the idea of God, of entering into strong, close, tender and purifying relations with God, and even of participating in God’s perfection and happiness. We hear this great truth unmoved. It is a truth to wake the dead. It ought to exalt our whole life into joy.”

Let us not ask of Channing the metaphysical explanation of this inner mystery by which man and God share one common character and one common energy of goodness. In the end it is the same mystery as Kant’s transcendental freedom, it is the everlasting mystery about which Pelagians and Augustinians have struggled vainly. Let us not ask why in man there should be the conflicting fact of evil, das radikale Böse, for which Kant again could posit only a transcendental cause. We are looking at Channing not as a metaphysician, not as a doctrinal thinker.

These he was not. He was the voice through which humanity spoke its new and larger faith, the oracle of revelation. It is for those who follow him to apply intellectual method for the explication of the sum of doctrines involved in his re-expression of the one central and saving truth of the soul. It is enough for us to see that a great throbbing inspiration of the Christian soul speaks in Channing, and that he told men anew how and where to find the redemption which is the essence of religion.

And that this was not a mere capricious individual surmise but an insight of more universal authority is shown by its powerful and inspiring appeal in antiquity to the loftiest Stoic moralists, by its struggle to assert itself in the interest of the aesthetic nature in the age of the Renaissance, by its definite conquest of the political mind in the eighteenth century, but the immense invigoration which it exercised in the beginning of the marvelous period of German thought of the period of Kant, Herder and Goethe. For all these oracles of modern humanity the triumph over evil was not by faith in some ancient enactment, nor by any mere heroic self discipline of penance or repentance, by nothing, indeed, that has its sphere in the outer and phenomenal. Redemption, they declared, is found by descending into the deeps of the inner nature and beholding the infinitude and absoluteness and universal authority of the worth that is regnant there, a worth decreed by the soul itself and yet a worth grounded in a supersensible world. That worth grows and is victor over all evil and unworth by the very consciousness of its infinite dignity. This, said Goethe, was the supreme height of religious evolution. Only when released from the long inbred contempt of self and reaching the reverence of himself could man attain the highest of which he was capable. Religion does not wait for the indorsement of theoretic reason before it shows its efficacy, and the efficacy of this redemptive word of God is attested by its powerful extension over our society in all those circles that, groping crudely for a metaphysical form of expression, proclaim a release from every ill and suffering through the consciousness of this divinity of the soul of man. The faith in a divine relationship and a divine possibility for man is experimentally proven to have a power of intensifying the spiritual personality and giving it the victory over evil.

And we can measure that power in part by its contrast. Certain schools of literature have fallen heir to the old theological contempt of man and have depicted human nature with gross and cynical realism simply as a bundle of coarse passions, and under the suggestibility of such a picture men have seemed to verify its truth. And as the poison of the old view was getting expelled from theology, political economy took it up and invented an economic man with the elimination of the morality which Charming affirmed as the essence of real men. This too has had a baneful suggestibility. As an English writer has said: "It is astounding to what an extent we have succeeded in turning this scientific monster into a reality.” Channing did not deny the fact of moral evil; he left it as a mystery coincident with the fact of moral freedom. But he saw man as man is given in his present stage of development—not as some abstraction of theological theory, nor as abstraction of the older political economy. He saw the actual concrete normal man who is a spiritual moral personality, and he saw that such a personality is the subject with which Christianity deals. He saw man as Jesus saw him, a being responsive in his own personality to that character which is perfect and complete in God. He saw a perfectible child of God and therefore a being already endowed for perfection. He meant by human nature not the brute that man may become by deserting the human possibility, but the man in the light of that distinguishing infinity of good which is bound up in his life and of the aspiration for communion with a changeless perfection of Being which should nourish, fortify and fulfill the yet imperfect measure of human perfection. He is saying, only more copiously and with an eloquence more profuse, what the Synoptic Jesus said in terse brevity when he condensed all religion in the bidding to become perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect.

If in this way Channing clearly reverted to the essential conception of the Christian religion as it was in its original moment, the coincidence of Channing’s apprehension of piety with the inspiration of the founder of Christian piety is shown in another striking characteristic. All previous piety and theology was conditioned by what was determined to be the essence of Christianity. For the Greek that essence was the appropriation of the incarnate, dead and resurrected Son of God for the eternalizing of man. For the Protestant it was the forgiveness of sins through the death of Christ. In both cases there was a striking loss of the intense Messianic expectancy of a perfect family of the Father of Love within the horizon of man’s world.

For Germany Ritschl made a change. If there is one fact more momentous than all others about Ritschl as a theologian it is that he determined the essence of Christianity in a manner different from all his predecessors. Ritschl found all Christian ideas and ideals phases of one central organizing conception, and that conception was the Kingdom of God, the life of a perfect spiritual community of love as the necessary form of life under a Father of love. Ritschl was fully conscious that in this new determination of the essence of Christianity he was a reformer of piety, giving religion a fresh appeal to the volitional creative self-assertive personality of modern man. He understood this central conception not strictly in the form presented by Jesus but in the form which the thoughts of Jesus must assume after the immanent criticism of history has operated upon it. Ritschl, that is, suppressed the miraculous and apocalyptic form and developed the intramundane and ethical form which Kant had introduced to modern thought.

Ritschl was a university scholar, a systematic theologian, and it was his office to suggest to modern Christianity the reformulation of Christian doctrines in the light of this new determination of the essential principle of Christianity when it resumes its sway not under the control of Paul but under the control of Jesus. Channing was not a university scholar, not a systematic theologian. He was a practical pietist and preacher, and he simply set about the realization in life of that which Ritschl wanted first accomplished in doctrinal system. Vast as the service is that Ritschl rendered, his efforts have one fatal defect. He conceived the claim of this kingdom of love as resting simply upon a miracle of historical revelation, and the historical study of his own followers has undermined that arbitrary claim of exclusive supernaturalism. Ritschl, like men of old time, conceived the redemptive word of God as brought ab extra to man, and such a conception always gives a problematic character to the redemptive revelation. But Channing has nothing to fear from the progress of historical criticism. The historical enunciation of the Christian principle is nothing isolated in time—nothing that stands or falls with the contingencies of history. In Channing’s view, Christianity is in continuous and everlasting generation, since the generative principle is in the mysterious supernaturalism of man’s own being. And Channing’s supernaturalism restores to the Christian soul the Kingdom of God as expectation and ideal. Since the character lawfully regent over the human spirit is the character of a Father of Love, the full expression of the quickened spirit of man is one family of love. "By revealing to us the greatness of that nature in which all men participate Christianity lays the foundation of a universal love.”

The older types of Christianity as they worked themselves out to full expression had produced spiritual castes. They had rent the unity of man by creating the most cruel and most odious of aristocracies—the aristocracy of religious privilege. In all the complex diversities of modern society one idea has been struggling to gain control of life with something of the irresistibility of a force of nature. It was the idea of Democracy. Channing’s resolution of religion to the Word seated in every human breast united this irresistible principle of Democracy as the human form of life with the essential principle of Christianity. Were we to tell the tale of Channing’s practical endeavors, it would not be a mere tale of pitying philanthropy. It would be the tale of the noblest efforts known to history to procure a civilization of equality in moral dignity and moral possibility. It would be the tale of Channing interpreting Democracy as Christianity and Christianity as Democracy. It would be the tale of his enthusiasm for a social reconstruction "founded on the essential truth that the chief end of the social state is the elevation of all its members, as intelligent and moral beings,” the tale of his yet unrealized system. of popular culture, democratizing the college by the inclusion of mercantile education, reforming all education by the union of manual labor with intellectual study, directing the united enthusiasm of the democratic state and the Christian church by the elevation of the industrial life to the dignity and the privileges of culture, engaging all for a crusade against war, slavery, intemperance, ignorance, inequality, injustice, and materialistic greed.

Channing Unitarianism meant an enthusiasm for a Christian civilization that should realize in full expression all men’s inherent dignity as children of God and members of a divine family of love. Here none of the old division into classes by the operation of a mistaken view of piety but a piety operative for the fusion of men in one equal brotherhood and thus operative for the spirit of Jesus as no other piety had been. Here none of the old atrophy of the human personality by the abstraction and withdrawal of piety from the secular and cultural tasks of men, but the full harmonious expression of human powers in a personality organized and controlled by surrender to the divinity regnant in its own ideals. All good, he said, became moral by union with this moral principle. On every side we are hearing now that the older Christianity as it is perpetuated makes divorce of the religious and the secular. He who would live a harmonious life in which the distinction is lost and religion is the guide and inspiration of our share in the tasks of civilization shall find his teacher in Channing.

The amazing corruptions of American life are not the denial of Channing’s gospel but the evidence that it has not been heard. How shall they believe on him of whom they have not heard, said Paul. Liberal Christianity has not yet fully given itself to the proclamation of this religious humanism. It has been fortifying itself by preliminary rectification of the general thought. It has—as a means to its end—been engrossed in Biblical criticism and following that path has explored the field of Comparative Religions. It has—as a means to its end—reformed the Cosmology, and it is to be feared that some have been so ensnared by the non-human aspects of the world’s history as to forget the sovereignty of the spiritual in man or to leave man’s redemption to the slow mercy of evolution. But the world reawakens. Society seems to insist in its new religious gatherings on this gospel of vast human potentiality through the intuition of the divinity linked with our being. The phenomenal world is a mechanism, but there is a world which is not but is to be. It is the kingdom of our ideals. The two worlds meet in the human heart. The disposition of the heart can transfigure the outer world of mechanism with the significance of our ideals, can make it the scene of the absolute and imperishable values of our ideals, can make it the temporal instrument of a kingdom which belongs not to time. We know not what we shall be until we do the creative deed, and the power to do the deed comes from faith. The faith is the faith that the essence of our moral personality is founded in God himself and that his creative energy is entrusted to our use.


[1] "Channing and Christian History,” Meadville Theological School Quarterly Bulletin, Vol. XIX, No. 3, April, 1925, pp. 3-19