William Ellery Channing.

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

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their ranks, aspiring selfishly after gain and
pre-eminence. The blind multitude are for-
saking their natural leaden. The poor, who
are the majority, are contriving against the
rich. Still more, a dangerous fanaticism
threatens destnictioa to the worid under the
name of Reform ; society totters ; property is
shaken ; and the universal freedom of thought

and action of which so many boast, is the
precursor of social storms which only despo-
tism can calm. Such are the alarms of not a
few ; and it is right that fear should utter its
prophecies, as well as hope. But it is the
true office of fear to give a wise directk>n to
human effort, not to chill or destroy it. To
despair of the race, even in the worst times,
is unmanly, unchristian. How much more so
in times like the present f What I most lament
in these apprehensions is the utter distrust of
human nattire which they discover. Its highest
powers are thought to be given only to be
restrained. They are thought to be safe onW
when in fetters. To me, there te an approach
to impiety in thinking so meanly of God's
greatest work. Human nature is not a tiger
which needs a constant diain. In this case
it is the chain which makes the tiger. It is
the oppressor who has made man fit only for
a yoke.

When I look into the great movements of
the age, particularly as manifested in our own
country, tiiey seem to me to justify no over-
whelming fear. True, they are earnest and
wide spreading ; but the objects to wtiich they
are directed are pledges against extensive
harm. For example, ought the general dif-
fusion of science and literature and thought
to strike dread ? Do habits of reading bnsed
revolt? Does the astronomer traverse the
skies, or the geologist pierce the earth, to
gather materials for assault on the social
state ? Does the study of nature stir up re-
bellion against its Author? Is it the lesson
which men learn from history, that they aie
to better their condition by disturbing the
sute? Does the reading of poetry train us
to insurrection ? Does the diffusion of a sense
of beauty through a people incline them
to tumult? Are not works of genius and
the fine arts soothing influences? Is not a
shelf of books in a poor man's house some
pledge of his keeping the peace ? It is not
denied that thought, in its freedom, questions
and assails the holiest truth. But is truth so
weak, so puny, as to need to be guarded by
bayonets fix>m assault? Has truth no beauty,
no might ? Has the human soul no power to
weigh its evidence, to reverence its grandeur?
Besides, does not freedom of thought, when
most unrestrained, carry a conservative power
in itself? In such a state of things the err-
ing do not all embrace the same error. Whilst
truth is one and the same, falsehood is in-
finitely various. It is a house divided against
itself, and cannot stand. Error soon passes
away unless uphdd bv restraint on thought.
History tells us, and the lesson is invaluable,
that the physical force which has put down
free inquiry has been the main bulwark of the
superstitions and illusions of past ages.

In the next place, if we look at the chief

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di^e(^ion of the imivenal activity of the age,
we shall find that it is a conservative one, so
as to render social convulsion next to impos-
sible. On what, after all, are the main ener-
gies of this restlessness spent ? On property,
on wealth. High and low, rich and poor,
are running the race of acctmiulation. Pro-
perty is the prize for which all strain their
nerves; and the vast majority compass in
some measure this end. And is such a sodety
in danger of convulsion? Is tumult the way
to wealth ? Is a state of insecurity coveted
by men who own something and hope for
more? Are civil laws, which, after all, have
property for their chief concern, very likely
to be trodden under foot by its worshippers?
Of all the dreams of fear, few seem to roe
more baseless than the dread of anarchy
among a people who are possessed almost to
a man with the passion for gain. I am es-
pecially amused when, among such a people,
I sometimes hear of danger to property and
society from enthusiastic, romantic reformers
who preach levelling doctrines, equality of
wealth, ouaker plainness of dress, vegetable
food, and community-sjrstems where all are
to XxxX and divide earnings alike. What f
Danger from romance and enthusiasm in this
money-getting, self-seeking, self-indulging,
self-disp4a3ring land ? I confess that to me it
h a comfort to see some outbreak of enthu-
siasm, whether transcendental, philanthropic,
or religious, as a proof that the human spirit
is not wholly engulfed in matter and business,
that it can lilt up a little the mountains of
woridliness and sense with which it is so
borne down. It will be time enough to fear
when we shall see Oematicism of any kind
Btof^HDg ever so little the wheels of business
or pleasure, driving ever so little from man's
mind the idea of gain, or from woman's the
love of display. Are any of you dreading an
innovating enthusiasm? You need only to
step into the streets to be assured that pro-
perty and the world aie standing their ground
against the spirit of reform as stoutly as the
most worldly noan could desire.

Another view which quiets my fear as to
social order, from the universal activity of
the times, is the fact that this activity appears
so much in the form of steady labour. It is
one distinction of modem over andent times,
that we have grown more patient of toiL Our
danger is from habits of drudgery. The
citizens of Greece and Rome were above
work. We seem to work with something of
the instinct of the ant and the bee; and this
is no mean security against lawlessness and

Another circumstance of our times which
fevours a quiet state of things is the love of
comforts which the progress of arts and in-
dustry has spread over the community. In

feudal ages and ancient times the mass of the
population had no such pleasant homes, no
such defences against cold and storms, no
such decent apparel, no such abundant and
savotiry meals as fall to the lot of our popula-
tion. Now it must be confessed, though not
very flattering to human nature, that men
are very slow to part with these comforts even
in defence of a good cause, much less to
throw them away in wild and senseless dvil

Another element of security in the present
is the strength of domestic alfectk)n. Chris-
tianity has given new sacredness to home,
new tenderness to love, new force to the
ties of husband and wife, parent and child.
Social order is dear to us all, as encircling and
sheltering our homes. In ancient and rude
times the family bond was compaiativdy no
restraint. We should all pause before we put
in peril bdngs vdiom we hold roost dear.

Once more; Christianity !s a pledge of
social order which none of us suffidently

Size. Weak as its influence seems to be,
ere are vast numbers into whom it has
infiised sentiments of justice, of kindness, of
reverence for God, and of deep concern for
the peace and order of the state; Rapine
and oloodshcd would awaken now a horror
altogether unknown in ages in which this
mild and divine truth had not exerted its

With all these influences in £avour of
social influence, have we much to fear from
the free, earnest, univeraal movements of our
times? I believe that the very extension of
human powers is to bring with it new checks
against their abuse.

The prosperous part of sodety are, of
course, particularly lut>le to the fear of which
I have spoken. They see danger espedaUy
in the extension of power and freedom df
all kinds to the labomring classes of sodety.
They look with a jealous eye on attempts to
elevate these, though one would think that
to improve a man was the surest way to dis-
arm his violence. They talk of agrarianism.
They dread a system of univeraal pillage. They
dread a conspiracy of the needy against the
rich. Now the manual labourer has burden
enough to bear without the load of ground-
less suspidon or reproach. It ought to be
understood that the great enemies to sodety
are not found in its poorer ranks. The mass
may, indeed, be used as tools; but the stir-
ring and guiding powers of insurrection are
found above. Communities fall by the vices
of the prosperous ranks. We are referred to
Rome, which was robbed of her liberties and
reduced to the most degrading vassalage by
the lawlessness of the Plebdans, who sold
themselves to demagogues and gave the re-
public into the hands of a dictator. But what

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made the Plebeians on idle, dissolute, rapa- age, I look on scenes as shocking to tL«icalm

ciotts horde ? It was the system of universal and searching eye of reason and virtue ^ the

rapine which, under the name of conquest, tenth of August and the massacres of Septera-

had been carried on for ages by Patricians, ber. Bloodshed is, indeed, a terrible spectacle;

by all the powers of the state; a system but there are other things almost as fearful as

which glutted Rome with the spoils of the blood. There are crimes that do not make

pills^ed world; which fed her population with- us start and turn pale like the guillotine, but

out labour, from the public treasures, and are deadlier in then- workings. God forbid

corrupted them by public shows. It was that I should say a word to weaken the thrill
this which helped to make the metropolis of of horror with which we contemplate the

the earth a sink of crime and pollution such as outrages of the French Revolution 1 But

the world had never known. It was time that when I hear that Revolution quoted to frighten

the grand robber-state should be cast down tis from reform, to show us the danger of

from her guilty eminence. Her brutish potpa- lifting up the depressed and ignorant mass, I

lace whira followed Caesar's car with snouts must ask whence it came ; and the answer

was not worse than the venal, crouching is, that it came from the intolerable weight of

senate which registered his decrees. Let not misgovemment and tyranny, from the utter

the poor bear the burden of the rich. At want of culture among the mass of the people,

this moment we are groaning over the de- and from a corruption of the great too deep

pressed and dishonoured state of our coun- to be purged away except by destruction. 1

try; and who, let me ask, have shaken its am also compelled to remember that the

credit, and made so many of its institutions people, in this their singular madness, wrought

bankrupt ? The poor or the rich ? Whence liar less woe than kings and priests have

is it that the incomes of the widow, the or- wrought, as a familiar thing, in all ages of

phan, the aged, have been narrowed, and the world. All the miu-ders of the French

multitudes on both sides of the ocean brought Revolution did not amount, I think, by one

to the brink of want? Is it from an out- fifth, to those of the Massacre of St. Bartho-
break of popular fury ? Is it from gangs of lomew's. The priesthood and the throne, in

thieves sprung from the mob? We know one short night and day, shed more blood,

the truth, and |it shows us where the great and that the best blood of France, than was

danger to property lies. spilled by Jacobinism and all other forms of

Communities fall by the vices ot the great, violence during the whole Revolution. Even

not the small. The French Revolution is the atheism and infidelity of France were due

perpetually sounded in our ears as a warning chiefly to a licentious priesthood and a licen*

against the lawlessness of the people. But tious court It was religion, so called, that

^ence came this Revolution ? Who were dug her own grave. In offering this plea for

the regicides ? Who beheaded Loub the the multitude I have no desire to transfer to

Sixteenth? You tell me the Jacobins; but the multitude uncontrolled political power,

history tells a different tale. I will show you I look at power in all hands with jealousy,

the beheaders of Louis the Sixteenth. They I wish neither rich nor poor to be my masters,

were Louis the Fourteenth, and the Regent What I wish is the improvement, the elevation

who followed him, and Louis the Fifteenth, of all classes, and especially of the most

These brought their descendant to the guillo- numerous class, because the most numerous,

tine. The priesthood who revoked the edict because the many, are mankind, and because

of Nantz, and drove from France the skill and no social progr^ can be hoped but from

industry and virtue and piety which were the influences which penetrate and raise the mass

sinews of her strength ; the statesmen who of men. The mass must not be confined and

intoxicated Louis the Foiuteenth with the kept down through a vague dread of revo-

scheme of universal empire ; the profligate, lutions. A social order requiring such a

prodigal, shameless Orleans; and the still sacrifice would be too dearly bought. No

more brutalized Louis the Fifteenth, with his order should satisfy us but that which is in

court of panders and prosdtutes ; these made harmony with universal improvement and

the nation bankrupt, broke asunder the bond freedom.

of loyalty, and overwhelmed the throne and In the general tone of this Discourse it may

altar in ruins. We hear of the honors of the be thought that I have proposed to vindicate

Revolution; but in this, as in other things, the present age. I have no such thought,

we recollect the effect without thinking of the I would improve, not laud it. I feel its

guiltier cause. The Revolution was, indeed, imperfections and corruptions as deeply as

a scene of horror ; but when I look back on any. though I may be most shocked by fea-

tbe reigns which preceded it. and which made tures that give others little pain. The saddest

Paris edmost one great stew and gaming-house, aspect of the age. to me, is that which un-

and when I see altar and throne desecrated doutHedly contnbutes to social order. It is

J a lic««^ousnes8 unsurpassed in any former the absorption of the multitude of men in

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oatwardt material interests; it is the selfish
pnidence which is never tired of the labour
of accumulation, and which keeps men steady,
regular, respectable drudges from morning to
night. The cases of a few murders, great
crimes, lead multitudes to exclaim. How
wicked this age I But the worst sign is the
chaining down of almost all the minds of a
conmiunity to low, perishable interests. It is

needs nothing more than peace-makers, men
of serene, commanding virtue, to preach in
life and word the gospel of human brother-
hood, to allay the fires of jealousy and hate.
I have named discouraging aspects of our
time to show that I am not blind to the world
I live in. But I still hope for the human
race. Indeed, I could not live without hope.
Were I to look on the worid as many do,

a sad thought, that the infinite energies of were I to see in it a maee without a plan, a
the soul have no higher end than to cover the whirl of changes without aim, a stage for
ba<^, and fill the belly, and keep caste in good and evil to fight without an issue, an
society. A few nerves, hardly visible, on the endless motion without progress, a world
surface of the tongue, create most of the where sin and idolatry are to triumph for
endless stir around us. Undoubtedly, eating ever, and the oppressor's rod never to be
and drinking, dressing, house-building, and broken, I should turn frohi it with sickness
caste>keepmg. are matters not to be despised ; of heart, and care not how soon the sentence
nusst of them arc essential. But surely life of its destruction were fulfilled. History and
has a higher use than to adorn this body philosophy plainly show to me in human
which is so soon to be wrapped in grave- nature the foundation and promise of a better
clothes, than to keep warm and flowing the era, and Christianity concurs with these,
blood which is so soon to be cold and stagnant The thought of a higher condition of the
in the tomb. I rejoice in the boundless ac- world was the secret fire which burned in the
tirity of the age, and I expect much of it to soul of the great Founder of our religion,
be given to our outward wants. But over all and in his first followers. That he was to
this activity there should preside the great act on all future generations, that he was
idea of that which is alone ourselves ; of our sowing a seed which was to grow up and
inward, spintual nature; of the thinking, sj^read its branches over all nations — this
immortal soul; of our supreme good, our great thought never forsook him in life and
chief end, which is to bring out, cultivate, death. That under Christianity a civilization
and perfect our high^t powers, to become has grown up containing in itself nobler
wise, holy, disinterested, noble beings, to elements than are foimd in earlier forms of
unite ourselves to God by love and adoiution, society, who can deny? Great kleas and
and to revere his image in his children. The feelings derived from this source are now at
vast activity of this age of which I have work. Amidst the prevalence of crime and
spoken is too much confined to the sensual selfishness, there has sprung up in the human
and material, to gain and pleasure and show, heart a sentiment or principle unknown in
Could this activity be swayed and purified by earUer ages, an enlarged and trustful philan-
a noble aim, not a single comfort of life thropy which recognizes the rights of every
would be retrenched, whilst its beauty and human being, which is stirred by the terrible
l^race and interest would be unspeakably oppressions and corruptions of the world,
increased. and which does not shrink from conflict with

There is another dark feature of this age. evil in its worst forms. There has sprung
ItbthespiritofcoUision, contention, discord, up, too, a faith, of which antiquity knew

which breaks forth in religion, in politics, in
business, in private af&irs ; a result and ne-

nbthin|:, in the final victory of truth and
right, in the elevation of men to a clearer

ccssary issue of the selfishness which prompts intelligence, to more fraternal union, and

the endless activity of life. The mighty forces to a purer worship. This faith is taking its

which arc this moment acting in society are place among the great springs of human

not and cannot be in harmony, for they are action, is becoming even a passion in more

not governed by Love. They jar; they are fervent spirits. 1 hail it as a prophecy which

discordant. Life now has htths music in it. is to fulfil itself. A nature capable of such

It is not only on the field of battle that men an aspiration cannot be degraded for ever,

fight. They fight on the exchange. Business Ages rolled away before it was learned that

is war, a conflict of skill, management, and this world of matter which we tread on is in

too often fraud ; to snatch the prey from our constant motion. We are beginning to learn

neighbour is the end of all this stir. Reli- that the intellectual, moral, social world has

gion is war; Christians, forsaking their one its motion too, not fixed and immutable like

Lord, gather under various standards to gain that of matter, but one which the free will of

victory for their sects. Politics are war, men is to carry on, and which, instead of

breaking the whole people into fierce and un- returning into itself like the earth's orbit,

scrupulous parlies, which forget their coimtry is to stretch forward for ever. This hope

in conflicts for office and power. The age hghtens the mystery and burden of life.


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is a star which shines on roe in the darkest clouds by remote posterity, when me city

night ; and I should r^oice to rereal it to the where he dwelt may be known only by its

eyes of my fellow-creatures. ruins. There is, however, something* greater

I have thus spoken of the Present Age. in the age than its greatest men ; it ii the ap-

In these brief words what a world of thou^t pearance of a new power in the world, the

is comprehended — what infinite movements — appearance of the multitude of men on that

what joys and sorrows — ^what hope and de- stage where as 3^t the few have acted their

spair — what faith and doubt — what silent grief parts alone. This influence is to endure to

and loud lament — ^what fierce conflicts and the tod of time. What more of the present

subtle schemes of policy — what private and is to survive? Perhaps much, of which we

public revolutions 1 In the period through now take no note. The glory of an age is

which many of us have passed what thrones often hidden from itself. Perhaps some word

have been shaken — ^what hearts have bled — has been spoken in our day which we have

what millions have been butchered by their not deigned to hear, but which is to grow

fellow-creatures — what hopes of philanthropy clearer and louder through all ages. Perhaps

have been blighted*! And, at ^e same time, some silent thinker amongst us is at work in his

what magnificent enterprises have been closet whose name is to fill the earth. Perhaps

achieved — ^what new provinces won to science there sleeps in his cradle some reformer who

and art — ^what rights and liberties secured to is to move the church and the world, who is

nations I It is a privilege to have lived in an to open a new era in history, who is to fire

age so stirring, so pregnant, so eventful. It the human soul with new hope and new

is an age never to be forgotten. Its voice of daring. What else is to survive the age ?

warning and encouragement is never to die. That which the age has little thought of, but

Its impression on history is indeUble. Amidst which is living in us all ; I mean the Soul, the

its events, the American Revolution, the first Inunortal Spirit. Of this all ages are the un-

distinct, solemn assertion of the rights of foldings, and it is greater than all. We must

men. and the French Revolution, that volcanic not feel, in the contemplation of the vast

force which shook the earth to its centre, are noovements of our own and former times, as

never to pass from men's minds. Over this if we ourselves were nothing. I repeat it,

age the night will, indeed, gather more and v^ are greater than alL We are to survive

more as time rolls away ; but in that night otur age, to comprehend it, and to pronounce

two forms will appear, Washington and Na- its sentence. As yet, however, we are encom-

poleon, the one a lurid meteor, the other a passed with darkness. The issues of our

benign, serene, and undecaying star. Another time how obscure ! The future into which it

American name will live in history, your openswhoof us can foresee? To the Father

Franklin; and the kite which brought light- of all Ages I commit this future with humble,

ning from heaven wUl be seen saihng in the yet courageous and unfaltering hope.


Few men suspect, perhaps no man compre-
hends, the extent of the support given by
religion to the virtues of ordinary life. No
man, poiiaps, is aware how much our moral
and social sentiments are fed from this foun-
tain ; how powerless conscience would become
without the belief of a God ; how palsied
would be hiunan benevolence were there not
the sense of a higher benevolence to quicken
and sustain it ; bow suddenly the whole social
fabric would quake, and with what a fearful
crash it would sink into hopeless ruins, were
the ideas of a Supreme Being, of accountable-
ness, and of a futiue life, to be utterly erased
from every mind. Once let men thoroughly
believe that they are the work and sport of
chance — that no superior intelligence concerns
^self with human affairs ; that all their
improvements perish for ever at deeth; that
the weak have no guardian and the injured

no avenger; that there is no recompense for
sacrifices to uprightness and the public good ;
that an oath is unheard in heaven ; that secret
crimes have no witness but the perpetrator ;
that human existence has no purpose and
human virtue no unfailing friend ; that this
brief life is everything to us, and death is
total, everlasting extinction — once let men
thoroug^y abandon religion, and who can
conceive or describe the extent of the deso-
lation which would follow ? We hope, per-
haps, that human laws and natural sympathy
would hold society together As reasonably

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 32 of 169)