William Henry Channing, nephew of the great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, was a Unitarian minister, editor, social activist, and Transcendentalist. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1833, accepted a Unitarian pulpit in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1838, and became editor of the Western Messenger in 1839. He edited the Present from 1843 to 1844 and the short-lived Spirit of the Age in 1849. He frequently visited the Brook Farm Community and established the Religious Union of Associationists in Boston, Massachusetts in 1847.
W. Henry Channing, 1810–1884
Channing has been written about as follows by Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the first historian of American Transcendentalism.
The so-called Minor Prophets of the Old Testament owed that designation to the brevity, rather than to the insignificance of their utterances. They were among the most glowing and exalted of the Hebrew bards, less sustained in their flight than their great fellows, but with as much of the ancient fire as any of them. It is proper to say as much as this to justify the application of the title to the men who claim mention now as prominent in the transcendental movement.
William Henry Channing is not quite fairly ranked among minor prophets, even on this explanation, for he has been copious as well as intense. A nephew of the great Doctor Channing—a favorite nephew, on account of his moral earnestness, and the close sympathy he felt with views that did honor to human nature and glorified the existence of man,—he grew up in the purest atmosphere that New England supplied—the most intellectual, the most quickening. He was born in the same year with Theodore Parker, and but three months earlier, and was native to the same spiritual climate. He was educated at Harvard, and prepared for the ministry at Cambridge Divinity School, where the new ideas were fermenting. He was graduated the year before Parker entered. His name was conspicuous among the agitators of the new faith. He was a contributor to the “Dial.” In 1848 he published the Memoirs of his uncle, in three volumes, proving his fitness for the task by the sincerity in which he discharged it. In 1840 he translated Jouffroy’s Ethics, in two volumes, for Ripley’s “Specimens of Foreign Standard Literature.” In 1852 he took part in writing the Memoirs of Margaret Fuller, the second volume being chiefly his work. “The Life and Writings of James H. Perkins,” of Cincinnati, a pioneer of rationalism at the West, came more fitly from his pen than from any other. In the “Western Messenger,” which he edited for one year; the “Present,” and the “Spirit of the Age,” short-lived journals, of which he was the soul; in the “Harbinger,” to which he was a generous and sympathetic contributor—he exhibited a fine quality of genius. The intensity of his nature, his open-mindedness, frankness, and spiritual sensitiveness, his fervency of aspiration and his outspokenness, made the office of settled pastor and steady routine preacher distasteful to him. He was a prophet who went from place to place, with a message of joy and hope. Meadville, Cincinnati, Nashua, Rochester, Boston, and New York, were scenes of his pastoral service. His preaching was every where attended by the clearest heads and the deepest hearts. In New York his society was composed of free elements altogether, come-outers, reformers, radicals of every description. His command of language, his free delivery, his musical voice, his expressive countenance, his noble air, his extraordinary power of kindling enthusiasm, his affluence and boldness of thought, his high standard of character, made him in his prime an enchanting speaker.
Very early in his career Mr. Channing committed himself to the transcendental philosophy as interpreted by the French School, for he possessed the swiftness of perception, the felicity of exposition, the sensibility to effects, the passion for clean statement and plausible generalization that distinguish the French genius from the German and the English. The introduction to Jouffroy’s Ethics contained the principles of the French school of philosophy, which, to judge from his approving tone, he had himself accepted:
That Psychology is the basis of Philosophy.
That the highest problems of Ontology may be solved by inductions from the facts which Psychology ascertains.
That Psychology and the History of Philosophy reciprocally explain each other.
With these ideas firmly fixed in his mind he went forth on a prophetic mission, to which he remained unfalteringly true.
We saw him first at a convention in Boston called by the reformers who demanded the abolition of the gallows. There were several speakers—Edwin H. Chapin, then in the days of his moral enthusiasm, Wendell Phillips, already known as an agitator and an orator—all spoke well from their different grounds, but the image of Channing is the most distinct in mind to-day. His manner, attitude, speech, are all recalled. The arguments he used abide in memory. He wasted words on no incidental points of detail, but at once took his stand on the principle of the idealist that man is a sacred being, and life a sacred gift, and love the rule of the divine law. Chapin thundered; Phillips criticized and stung; Channing burned with a pure enthusiasm that lifted souls into a celestial air and made all possibilities of justice seem practicable. He did not argue or denounce; he prophesied. There was not a word of scorn or detestation; but there were passages of touching power, describing the influence of gentleness and the response that the hardest hearts would give to it, that shamed the listeners out of their vindictiveness. On the anti-slavery platform his attitude was the same. There was no more persuasive speaker.
In the controversy between the Unitarians of the transcendental and those of the opposite school, Mr. Channing’s sympathies were with the former, but he took no very prominent public part in it. He was averse to controversy; questions of sectarian opinion and organization had little interest for him. His mind lived in broad principles and positive ideas; the method he believed in was that of winning minds to the truth by generous appeals, and so planting out error. Against everything like injustice or illiberality, his protest was eager, but he was willing to leave polemics to others; what he said was in the strain of faith in larger and more inclusive beliefs. He had a passion for catholicity, which came partly from his temperament, and partly from the eclecticism he professed. His word was reconciling, like his influence, which was never associated with partisanship.
Mr. Channing was early attracted to the bearings of the spiritual philosophy on the problems of society, the elevation of the working classes, the rescue of humanity from pauperism and crime. As an interpreter of Christian socialism his activity was incessant. He took part in the discussions that led to the experiment of Brook Farm, and was acquainted intimately with the projecting of it, having himself entire faith in the reorganization of society on principles of equity. Had circumstances permitted—he was then minister to a church in Cincinnati, and much occupied with professional duties—he would have connected himself with the Brook Farm Association. As it was, he visited it whenever he could, spending several days at a time. In 1844, when the union was formed with the New York Socialists and the leaders went out to enlighten and stimulate public sentiment on the subject, Mr. Channing did faithful work as a lecturer. He was president of the Boston Union of Associationists, and wrote a book on the Christian Church and Moral Reform. From the first, being of a speculative, philosophical and experimental turn of mind, he entertained more systematic views than were common among New England socialists, but the principle of love was always more to him than opinions or schemes. His views coincided with Fourier, but his heart was Christian. On the failure of the associated plans of his friends, and the cessation of interest in Socialism on this side of the Atlantic, his thoughts turned towards the Christian Church as the providentially appointed means of obtaining what the Utopians had failed of reaching. He was never a Churchman; never abandoned the views that made him an independent preacher; but he never lost faith in the ministry; his hopes turned toward the institutions of religion as having in them the ideal potencies he trusted; he looked for faith and love in the Gospel, and sought to draw out the lessons of charity that were inculcated by Jesus; to deliver these from the hands of the formalists and sectarians; to make peace between parties and churches; to discover common ground for all believers to stand and labor on—was his aim. Had his faith not been inclusive of all forms of the religious sentiment, he might, in England, where he resided so long, have been a broad-churchman. But Christianity, in his view, was but one of many religions, all essentially divine, and he could not belong to any church less wide than the church universal.
During a portion of the civil war, Mr. Channing was in Washington preaching the gospel of liberty and loyalty, and laboring in the hospitals with unflagging devotion, thankful for an opportunity to put into work the enthusiasm of his passionate soul. Later, he revisited his native country, and showed his interest in the cause of religious freedom and unity.