William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 2 of 169)
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the noblest men into cloisters or caverns, in-
fected them with the fatal notion that there
was an hostility between their relations to
God and their relations to his creatures, and
of course persuaded them to make a sacrifice
of the latter. To this we owe system^ of
theology degrading human nature, denying
its power and grandeur, breaking it into sub-
jection to the priest through whom alone God
is supposed to approach the abject multitude,
and placing human virtue in exaggerated
humiliations. The idea of God, the grandcU
of all. and which ought above all to cl^va^
the soul, has too often depressed it and led
good minds very far astray, a consideration
singularly fitted to teach us tolerant views of
error, and to enjoin caution and sobriety in
religious speculation.

I hope that I shall not be thought wont-
ing in a just tolerance, in the strictures now
ofiered on those sjrstems of theology and
philosophy, which make God the only i^ower
in the universe and rob man of his di.i;nity.
Among the authors of these may be found
some of the greatest and best men. To this
class belonged Hartley, whose work on Man
carries indeed the taint of materialism and
necessity, but still deserves to be reckoned
among the richest contributions ever made to
the science of mind, whilst it breathes the
profoundest piety. Our own Edwards was
as eminent for religious as for intellectual
power. The consistency of great error with
great virtue is one of the lessons of universal
history. But error is not made harmless
by such associations. The false theories of
which I have spoken, though not thoroughly
beheved, have wrought much evil. They
have done much, I think, to perpetuate those
abject vie\*-s of human nature, which keep it



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where il is. which check men's aspirations,
and reconcile them to their present poor
modes of thought and action as the nxed
unaUcrable lau-s of their being.

Afany religious people fall into the error,
which I have wished to expose, through the
belief that they thus glorify the Creator.
•' The glory of God," they say, '* is our chief
"end ;" and this is accomplished as they sup-
pose by taking all power from man and
transferring all to his Maker. We have here
an example of the injury done by imperfect
apprehension and a vague, misty use of Scrip-
ture language. The " glory of God" is un-
doubtedly to be our end ; but what does this
consist in? It means the shining forth of his
perfection in his creation, especially in his
spiritual offspring; and it is best promoted
by awakening in these their highest faculties,
by bringing out in ourselves and others the
image of God in which all are made. An en-
lightened, disinterested human being, morally
strong, and exerting a wide influence by the
power of virtue, is the clearest reflection of
the divine splendour on earth, and we glorify
God in proportion as we form ourselves and
others after this model. The glory of the
Maker lies in his work. We do not honour
Him by breaking down the human soul, by
connecting it with Him only by a tie of slavish
dependence. By making Him the author of
a mechanical universe, we ascribe to Him a
low kind of agency. It is his glory that He
' creates beings like Himself free beings, not
* -slaves; that He forms them to obedience, not
by physical agency, but by moral influences ;
that He confers on them the reality, not the
show of power ; and opens to their faith and
devout strivings a futurity of progress and
glory without end. It is not by darkening
and dishonouring the creature, that we
honour the Creator. Those men glorify God
most, who look with keen eye and loving
heart on his works, who catch in all some
glimpses of beauty and power, who have a
spiritual sense for good in its dimmest n)ani-
festations, and who can so interpret the
world, that it becomes a bright witness to the
Divinity.

To such remarks as these it is commonly
objected, that we thus obscure, if we do not
deny, the doctrine of Entire E)ependence on
God, a doctrine which is believed to be emi-
nently the foundation of religion. But not
so. On the contrary, the greater the creature,
the more extensive is his dependence; the
more he has to give thanks for, the more he
owes to the free gift of his Creator. No
matter what grandeur or freedom we ascribe
to our powers, if we maintain, as we ought,
that they are bestowed, inspired, sustained
by God ; that He is their life ; that to Him we
owe all the occasions and spheres of their



action, and all the helps and incitements by
which they are perfected. On accotmt of
their grandeur and freedom they are not lesj
his gifts; and in as far as they are divine,
their natural tendency is not towards idola-
trous self-reliance, but towards the gmteful,
joyful recognition of their adorable source.
The doctrine of dependence is in no degre-.
impaired by the highest views of the human
soul.

Let me further observe, that the doctrine of
entire dependence is not, as is often taught,
the fundamental doctrine of religion, so that
to secure this, all other ideas must be re-
nounced. And this needs to be taught, be-
cause nothing has been more common \%itb
theologians than to magnify oiir dependence,
at the expense of everything elevated in our
nature. Man has been stripped of freedom,
and spoken of as utterly impotent, lest he
should trench on God's sole, supreme power.
To eradicate this error, it should be under-
stood, that our dependence is not our chief
relation to God. and that it is not the ground
of religion, if by religion we imderstand the
sentiment of faith, reverence, and love to-
wards the Divinity. That piety may exist, it
is not enough to know that God alone and
constantly sustains all beings. This is not a
foundation for moral feelings towards Him.
The great question on which religion rests, is,
What kind of a universe does He create and
sustain ? Were a being of vast power to give
birth to a system of unmeasured, unmitigated
evil, dependence on him would be anythint;
but a ground of reverence. We should hate
it, and long to flee from it into non-existence.
The great question, I repeat it, is, What is tlic
nature, the end, the purpose of the creation
which God upholds? On this, and on tlu-
relations growing out of this, religion wholly
rests. ' True, we depend on the Creator ; and
so does the animal; so does the clod; and
were this the only relation, we should be no
more bound to worship than they. We
sustain a grander relation, that of rational,
moral, free beings to a Spiritual Father. Wi
are not mere material substances, subjected
to an irresistible physical law, ormereanima
subjected to resistless instincts ; but are soul \
on which a moral law is written, in which i
divitie oracle is heard. Take away the mor. t
relation of the created spirit to the univers:
spirit, and that of entire dependence woul i
remain as it is now; but no ground and n >
capacity of religion would remain ; and th<
splendour of the universe would fade away.

We must start in religion from our owj
souls. In these is the fountain of all divir*
truth. An outward revelation is only po.^
sible and intelligible, on the ground of con-
ceptions and principles, previously furnished
by the soul. Here is our primitive teacher



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nnd light. Let tis not disparage it. There
are, indeed, philosophical schools of the
present day, which tell us that we are to
start in all our speculations from the Absolute,
the Infinite, But we rise to these conceptions
from the contemplation of our own nature ;
nnd even if it were not so, of what avail
would be the notion of an Absolute, Infinite
existence, an Uncaused Unity, if stripped of
all those intellectual and moral attributes,
which we learn only from our own souls?
What but a vague shadow, a sounding name,
is the metaphysical Deity, the substance with-
out modes, the being without properties, the
naked unity, which performs such a part in
some of our philosophical systems r The
only God whom our thoughts can rest on,
and our hearts can cling to, and our con-
sciences can recognize, is the God whose
image dwells in our own»souls. The grand
ideas of Power, Reason, "Wisdom, I^ve,
Rectitude, Holiness, Blessedness, that is, of
all God's attributes, come from within, from
the action of our own spiritual nature. Many
indeed think that they learn God from marks
of design and skill in the outward world;
but our ideas of design and skill, of a deter-
mining cause, of an end or purpose, are
derived from consciousness, from our own
souls. Thus the soul is the spring of our
knowledge of God.

These remarks might easily be extended,
but these will suffice to show, that in insisting
on the claims of our nature to reverence, I
have not given myself to a subject of barren
rpeculation. It has intimate connections with
rcligion; and deep injury to religion has been
the consequence of its neglect. I have also
felt and continually insisted, that a new
reverence for man was essential to the cause
of social reform. As long as men regard one
another as they now do, that is as little better
than the brutes, they will continue to treat
one another brutally. Each will strive, by
craft or skill, to make others his tools. There
can be no spirit of brotherhood, no true
peace, any further than men come to under-
stand their affinity with and relation to God
and the infinite purpose for which He gave
them life. As yet these ideas are treated as
a kind of spiritual romance; and the teacher
who really expects men to see in themselves
and one another the children of God, is
smiled at as a visionary. The reception of
this plainest truth of Christianity would revo-
lutionize society, and create relations among
men not dreamed of at the present day. A
union would spring up, compared with which
our present friendships would seem estrange-
ments. Men would know the import of the
word Brother, as yet nothing but a word to

'titudes. None of us can conceive the
^ of manners, the new courtesy and



sweetness, the mutual kindness, doferenc*,
and sympathy, the Ufc and energy of eftbrts
for social melioration, which are to spring up,
in proportion as man shall penetrate beneath
the body to' the spirit, and shall learn what
the lowest human being is. llien insults,
wrongs, and oppressions, now hardly thought
of, will give a deeper shock than we receive
from crimes, which the laws punish with
death. Then man will be sacred in roan's
sight ; and to injure him ^vill be regarded as
open hostiUty towards God. It has been
under a deep feeling of the intimate connec-
tion of better and juster views of human
nature with all social and religious progress,
that I have insisted on it so much in the fol-
lowing tracts ; and I hope that the reader will
not think that I have given it disproportioned
importance.

I proceed to another sentiment, whicli is
expressed so habitually in these writings, as
to constitute one of their characteristics, and
which is intimately connected with the pre-
ceding topic. It is reverence for Liberty, for
human rights; a sentiment which has g'rov.n
with my growth, which is striking deeper
root in my age, .which seems to me a chief
element of true love for mankind, and which
alone fits a man for intercourse with his fellow-
creatures. I have lost no occasion for ex-
pressing my deep attachment to liberty in
all its forms, civil, political, religious, to
liberty of thought, speech, and the press, and
of giving utterance to my abhorrence of all
the forms of oppression. This love of freedom
I have not borrowed from Greece or Rome.
It is not the classical enthusiasm of youth,
which, by some singular good fortune, has
escaped the blighting influences of intercourse
with the world. Greece and Rome are names
of little weight to a Christian. They are
warnings rather than inspirers and guides.
My reverence for human liberty and rights
has grown up in a different school, under
milder and holier discipline. Christianity has
taught me to respect my race, and to repro-
bate its oppressors. It is because I have
learned to regard man imder the light of this
religion, that I cannot bear to see him treated
as a brute, insulted, wronged, enslaved, made
to wear a yoke, to tremble before his brother,
to serve him as a tool, to hold property and
life at his will, to surrender intellect and con-
science to the priest, or to seal his lips or
belie his thoughts through dread of the civil
power. It is because I have learned the es-
sential equaUty of men before the con^mon
Father, that I cannot endure to sec one man
establishing his arbitrary will over another by
fraud, or force, or wealth, or rank, or super-
stitious claims. It is because the human
being has moral powers, because he carries
a law in his own breast, and was made to



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gorem lumself. that I cannot endure to see
him taken out of his own hands and fashioned
into a tool by another's avarice or pride. It
is because I see in him a great nature, the
divine image, and vast capacities, that I de-
n^uKi for bim means of self-development,
spheres for free action ; that I call society not
to fetter, but to aid his growth. Without
intending to disparage the outward, temporsd
advantages of hbcrty, I have habitually re-
garded it in a higher light, as the birthright
of the soul, as the element in which men are
to pot themselves forth, to become conscious
of what they are, and to fulfil the end of
their being.

Christianity has joined with all history in
in^iring me with a peculiar dread and abhoi>
rence of the fission for power, for dominion
over roen. There is notning in the view of
our divine teacher so hostile to his divine
spirit, as the hist of domination. This we are
accustomed to regard as eminently the sin of
the Arch-fiend. ** By this sin fell the angels."
It is the most Satanic of all human passions,
and it has inflicted more terrible evils on the
human family tlian all others. It has made
the names of king and priest the most appal^
ling in histoiy. There is no crime which has
not been perpetrated for the strange pleasure
of treading men under foot, of fastening
chains on the body or mind. The strongest
ties of nature have been rent asunder, ner
holiest feelings smothered, parents, children,
brothers murdered, to secure dominion over
man. The people have now been robbed of
the necessaries of life, and now driven to the
fidd of slaughter like flocks of sheep, to make
one man the master of millions. Through
this passion, government, ordained by God
to defend the weak against the strong, to
exalt right above might, has up to this time
been the great wrong-doer. Its crimes throw
those of private men into the shade. Its
murders reduce to insignificance those of the
bandits, pirates, highwaymen, assassins,
against whom it undertakes to protect so-
ciety. How harmless at this moment ate all
the criminals of Europe, compared with the
Russian power in Poland. This passion for
pou-er. which in a thousand forms, with a
thousand weapons, is warring against human
liberty, and which Christianity condemns as
its worst foe, I have never ceased to repro-
bate with whatever strength of utterance God
has given me. Power trampling on right,
whether in the person of king or priest, or in
the shape of democracies, majorities, and re-
publican slaveholders, is the saddest sight to
bim who honours human nature and desires
its enlargement and happiness.

So fe^ul is the principle of which I have
spoken, (bat I have thought it right to re-
conun^td restrictions on power, and a sim-



plicity in government, be]rond what most
approve. Power, I apprehend, should not be
suffered to run into great masses. No more
of it should be confided to rulers, than is ab-
solutely necessary to repress crime and pre-
serve public order. A purer age may warrant
larger trusts; but the less of government now
the better, if society be kept in peace. Ther*:
should exist, if possible, no office to madden
ambition. There should be no public prizt
tempting enough to convulse a nation. One
of the tremendous evils of the world, is the
monstrous accumulation of power in a few
hands. Half a dozen men may, at this mo-
ment, light the fires of war through the world,
njay convulse all civilized nations, sweep earth
and sea with armed hosts, spread desolation
through the fields and bankruptcy through
cides, and make themselves relt by some
form of suffering through every household in
Christendom. Has not one politician recently
caused a large part of Europe to bristle with
bayonets ? And ought this tremendous power
to be lodged in the hands of any human
being? Is any man pure enough to be
trusted with it? Ought such a prize as this to
be held out to ambition? Can we wonder at
the shameless profligacy, intrigue, and the
base sacrifices of public interests, by which it
is sought, and, when gained, held fast ? Un-
doubtedly great social changes are reouired to
heal this evil, to diminish this accumulation of
power. National spirit, which is virtual hos-
tility to all countries but our own, must yield
to a growing humanity, to a new knowledge
of the spirit of Christ. Another importam
step is. a better comprehension by communi-
ties, that government is at best a rude ma-
chinery, which can accomplish but very
limited good, and^which, when strained to
accomplish what individuals should do for
themselves, is sure to be perverted by selfish-
ness to narrow purposes, or to defeat througl-
ignorance its own ends. Man is too ignoran'
to govern much, to form vast plans for states
and empires. Human policy has almos
always been in conflict with the great laws o*
social well-being *, and the less we rely on i
the better. The less ofpower, given to mar.
over man, the better. I speak, of course, o'
physical, political force. There is a powei
which cannot be accumulated to excess^— I
mean moral power, that of truth and virtue,
the royally of wisdom and love, of magnani
mity and true religion. This is the guardiar
of all right. It makes those whom it acts on.
free. It is mightiest when most gentle. In
the progress of society this is more and more
to supersede the coarse workings of govern-
ment. Force is to fall before it.

It must not be inferred from these remarks,
that I anl an enemy to all restraint. Restraint
in some form or other is an essential law of



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our nature, a necessary discipline, running
through life, and not to be escaped by any
art or violence. Where can we go, and not
meet it? The powers of nature are, all of
Ihem, limits to human power. A never-
ceasing force of gravity chains us to the
earth. Mountains, rocks, precipices, and
seas forbid our advances. If we come to
society, restraints multiply on us. Our neigh-
bour's rights limit our own. His property is
forbidden ground. Usage restricts our free
action, fixes our manners, and the language
we must speak, and the modes of pursuing
our ends. Business is a restraint, setting us
wearisome tasks, and driving us through the
same mechanical routine day after day. Duty
is a restraint, imposing ciu-bs on passion, en-
joining one course and forbidding another,
with stem voice, with uncompromising autho-
rity. Study is a restraint, compelling us, if
we would learn anything, to concentrate the
forces of thought, and to bridle the caprices
of fancy. All law, divine or human, is, as
the name imports, restraint. No one feels
more than I do the need of this element of
human life. lie who would fly from it must
live in perpetual conflict with nature, society,
and himself.

But all this does not prove, that liberty, free
action, is not an infinite good, and that we
should seek and guard it with sleepless
Jealousy. For if we look at the various re-
straints of which I have spoken, we shall see
that liberty Is the end and purpose of all.
Nature's powers around us hem us in, only
to rouse a free power within us. It acts that
we should react. Burdens press on us, that
the soul's elastic force should come forth.
Bounds are set, that we should clear them.
The weight, which gravitation fastens to our
limbs, incites us to borrow speed from windsand
steam, and we fly where we seemed doomed
to creep. The sea, which first stopped us,
becomes the path to a new hemisphere. The
sharp necessities of life, cold, hunger, pain,
which chain man to toil, wake up his faculties,
and fit him for wider action. Duty restrains
the passions, only that the nobler faculdes
and aflections may have freer play, may
ascend to God, and embrace all his works.
Parents impose restraint, that the child may
learn to go alone, may outgrow authority.
Government is ordained, that the rights and
freedom of each and all may be inviolate. In
study thought is confined, that it may pene-
trate the depths of truth, may seize on the
great laws of nature, and take a bolder range.
Thus freedom, ever-expanding action, is Uie
end of all just restraint. Restraint, without
this end, is a slavish yoke. How often has it
broken the young spuit, tamed the heart and
the intellect, and made social life a standing
pool I We were made for free action. This



alone is life, and enters into all that is good
and great. Virtue is free choice of the right ;
love, the free embrace of the heart ; grace,
the free motion of the limbs ; genius, the free,
bold flight of thought ; eloquence, its free and
fervent utterance. Let me add, that social
order is better preserved by liberty, than by
restraint. The latter, unless most wisely and
justly employed, frets, exasperates, and pro-
vokes secret resistance ; and still more, it is
rendered needful very much by that unhappy
constitution of society, which denies to mul-
titudes the opportunities of free activity. A
community, which should open a great va-
riety of spheres to its members, so that all
might find free sxno^ for their powers, would
need little array of force for restraint Li-
berty would prove the best peace-officer. The
social order of New England, without a
soldier, and almost without a poUcc, bears
loud witness to this truth. These views may
suffice to explain the frequent recurrence of
this ^opic in the following tracts.

I will advert to one topic more, and do it
briefly, that I may not extend these remarks
beyond reasonable bounds. I have written
once and again on War, a hackneyed sub-
ject, as it is called, yet, one would think, too
terrible ever to become a commonplace. Is
this insanity never to cease ? At this moment,
whilst I write, two of the freest and most
enlightened nations, having one origin, bound
together above all others hy mutual depen-
dence, by the interweaving of interests, are
thought by some to be on the brink of war.
FiJse notions of national honour, as false
and unholy as those of the duellist, do most
towards fanning this fire. Great nations, like
great boys, place their honour in resistin^r
insult and in fighting well. One would think
the time had gone by in which nations
needed to' rush to arms to prove that they
were not cowards. If there is one truth,
which history has taught, it is, that commu-
nities in all stages of society, from the most
barbarous to the most civilized, have suffi-
cient courage. No people can charge upon
its conscience that It has not shed blood
enough in proof of its valour. Almost any
man, under the usual stimulants of the camp,
can stand fire. The poor wretch, enhsted
from a dram-shop and turned into the ranks,
soon fights like a "hero." Must France,
and England, and America, after so manj
hard-fought fields, go to war to disprove the
charge of wanting spirit? Is it not time
that the point of honour should undergo
some change, that some glimp)ses at least of
the true glory of a nation should be caught
by rulers and people ? " It is the honour of
a man to pass over a transgression," and so it
is of states. To be wronged is no disgrace.
To bear wrong generously, till every means



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of concniafion is exhausted; to recoil with
manly dread from the slaughter of our fellow-
creatures; to pmt confidence in the justice
which other nations will do to our motives ;
to have that consciousness of courage which
will make us scorn the reproach of cowardice;
to feel that there is something grander than
the virtue of savages ; to desire peace for the
vodd as well as ourselves, and to shrink



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 2 of 169)