of his character. From his earliest years he delighted in the beauty of the scenery of Newport, and always highly estimated its influence upon his spiritual character. His father was a strict Calvinist, and Dr Samuel Hopkins, one of the leaders of the old school Calvinists, was a frequent guest in his father’s house. He was, even as a child, he himself says, “quite a theologian, and would chop logic with his elders according to the fashion of that controversial time.” He prepared for college in New London under the care of his uncle, the Rev. Henry Channing, and in 1794, about a year after the death of his father, entered Harvard College. Before leaving New London he came under religious influences to which he traced the beginning of his spiritual life. In his college vacations he taught at Lancaster, Massachusetts, and in term time he stinted himself in food that he might need less exercise and so save time for study,—an experiment which undermined his health, producing acute dyspepsia. From his college course he thought that he got little good, and said “when I was in college, only three books that I read were of any moment to me: . . . Ferguson on Civil Society, . . . Hutcheson’s Moral Philosophy, and Price’s Dissertations. Price saved me from Locke’s philosophy.”
After graduating in 1798, he lived at Richmond, Virginia, as tutor in the family of David Meade Randolph, United States marshal for Virginia. Here he renewed his ascetic habits and spent much time in theological study, his mind being greatly disturbed in regard to Trinitarian teachings in general and especially prayer to Jesus. He returned to Newport in 1800 “a thin and pallid invalid,” spent a year and a half there, and in 1802 went to Cambridge as regent (or general proctor) in Harvard; in the autumn of 1802 he began to preach, having been approved by the Cambridge Association. On the 1st of June 1803, having refused the more advantageous pastorate of Brattle Street church, he was ordained pastor of the Federal Street Congregational church in Boston. At this time it seems certain that his theological views were not fixed, and in 1808, when he preached a sermon at the ordination of the Rev. John Codman (1782–1847), he still applied the title “Divine Master” to Jesus Christ, and used such expressions as “shed for souls” of the blood of Jesus, and “the Son of God himself left the abodes of glory and expired a victim of the cross.” But his sermon preached in 1819 at Baltimore at the ordination of the Rev. Jared Sparks was in effect a powerful attack on Trinitarianism, and was followed in 1819 by an article in The Christian Disciple, “Objections to Unitarian Christianity Considered,” and in 1820 by another, “The Moral Argument against Calvinism”—an excellent evidence of the moral (rather than the intellectual) character of Unitarian protest. In 1814 he had married a rich cousin, Ruth Gibbs, but refused to make use of the income from her property on the ground that clergymen were so commonly accused of marrying for money.
He was now entering on his public career. Even in 1810, in a Fast Day sermon, he warned his congregation of Bonaparte’s ambition; two years later he deplored “this country taking part with the oppressor against that nation which has alone arrested his proud career of victory”; in 1814 he preached a thanksgiving sermon for the overthrow of Napoleon; and in 1816 he preached a sermon on war which led to the organization of the Massachusetts Peace Society. His sermon on “Religion, a Social Principle,” helped to procure the omission from the state constitution of the third article of Part I., which made compulsory a tax for the support of religious worship. In 1821 he delivered the Dudleian lecture on the “Evidences of Revealed Religion” at Harvard, of whose corporation he had been a member since 1813; he had received its degree of S.T.D. in 1820. In August 1821 he undertook a journey to Europe, in the course of which he met in England many distinguished men of letters, especially Wordsworth and Coleridge. Both of these poets greatly influenced him personally and by their writings, and he prophesied that the Lake poets would be one of the greatest forces in a forming spiritual reform. Coleridge wrote of him, “He has the love of wisdom and the wisdom of love.”
On his return to America in August 1823, Dr Channing resumed his duties as pastor, but with a more decided attention than before to literature and public affairs, especially after receiving as colleague, in 1824, the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett. In 1830, because of his wife’s bad health, Channing went to the West Indies. Negro slavery, as he saw it there, and as he had seen it in Richmond, more than thirty years before, so strongly impressed him that he began to write his book Slavery (1835). In this he insists that “not what is profitable, but what is right” is “the first question to be proposed by a rational being”; that slavery ought to be discussed “with a deep feeling of responsibility, and so done as not to put in jeopardy the peace of the slave-holding states”; that “man cannot be justly held and used as property”; that the tendency of slavery is morally, intellectually, and domestically, bad; that emancipation, however, should not be forced on slave-holders by governmental interference, but by an enlightened public conscience in the South (and in the North), if for no other reason, because “slavery should be succeeded by a friendly relation between master and slave; and to produce this the latter must see in the former his benefactor and deliverer.” He declined to identify himself with the Abolitionists, whose motto was “Immediate Emancipation” and whose passionate agitation he thought unsuited to the work they were attempting. The moderation and temperance of his presentation of the anti-slavery cause naturally resulted in some misunderstanding and misstatement of his position, such as is to be found in Mrs Chapman’s Appendix to the Autobiography of Harriet Martineau, where Channing is represented as actually using his influence on behalf of slavery. In 1837 he published Thoughts on the Evils of a Spirit of Conquest, and on Slavery: A Letter on the Annexation of Texas to the United States, addressed to Henry Clay, and arguing that the Texan revolt from Mexican rule was largely the work of land-speculators, and of those who resolved “to throw Texas open to slave-holders and slaves”; that the results of annexation must be war with Mexico, embroiling the United States with England and other European powers, and at home the extension and perpetuation of slavery, not alone in Texas but in other territories which the United States, once started at conquest, would force into the Union. But he still objected to political agitation by the Abolitionists, preferring “unremitting appeals to the reason and conscience,” and, even after the prominent part he took in the meeting in Faneuil Hall, called to protest against the murder of Elijah P. Lovejoy, he wrote to The Liberator, counselling the Abolitionists to “disavow this resort to force by Mr Lovejoy.” Channing’s pamphlet Emancipation (1840) dealt with the success of emancipation in the West Indies, as related in Joseph John Gurney’s Familiar Letters to Henry Clay of Kentucky, describing a Winter in the West Indies (1840), and added his own advice “that we should each of us bear our conscientious testimony against slavery,” and that the Free States “abstain as rigidly from the use of political power against Slavery in the States where it is established, as from exercising it against Slavery in foreign communities,” and should free themselves “from any obligation to use the powers of the national or state governments in any manner whatever for the support of slavery.” In 1842 he published The Duty of the Free States, or Remarks Suggested by the Case of the Creole, a careful analysis of the letter of complaint from the American to the British government, and a defence of the position taken by the British government. On the 1st of August 1842 he delivered at Lenox, Massachusetts, an address celebrating the anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies. Two months later, on the 2nd of October 1842, he died at Bennington, Vermont.
Physically Channing was short and slight; his eyes were unnaturally large; his voice wonderfully clear, and like his face, filled with devotional spirit. He was not a great pastor, and lacked social tact, so that there were not many people who became his near friends; but by the few who knew him well, he was almost worshipped. As a preacher Channing was often criticised for his failure to deal with the practical everyday duties of life. But his sermons are remarkable for their rare simplicity and gracefulness of style as well as for the thought