William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 34 of 169)
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law. We speak of the patriot as sacrificing
himself to the public weal. Do we mean

that be sacrifices what is most properly him-
self, the principle of piety and virtue ? Do we
not feel that, however great may be the good
which through his sunerings accrues to the
state, a greater and purer glory redounds to
himself, and that the most precious fruit of
his disinterested services is the strength of
resolution and philanthropy which is accumu-
lated in his own soul ?

I have thus endeavoured to illustrate and
support the doctrme that spiritual freedom, or
force and elevation of soul, is the great good
to which civil freedom is subordinate, and
which all social institutions should propose as
their supreme end.

I oroceed to point out some of the means
by which this q)iritual liberty may be advanced;
and, passing over a great variety of topics, I
shall confine myself to two— Religion and

I begin with Religion, the mightiest agent
in human affairs. To this belongs pre-
eminently the work of freeing and elevating
the mind. All other means are comparatively
impotent. Thesenseof God is the only spring
by which the crushing weight of sense, of the
world, and temptation, can be withstood.
Without a consciousness of our relation to
God, all other relations will prove adverse to
spiritual life and progress. I have spoken of
the religious sentiment as the mightiest agent
on earth. It has accomplished more— it has
strengthened men to do and suffermore—than
all other principles. It can sustain the mind
against ali other powers. Of all principles
it is the deepest, the most ineradicable. In its
perversion, indeed, it has been fruitful of
crime and woe ; but the very energy which it
has given to thepassions, when they have mixed
with and corrupted it, teaches us the omnipo-
tence with which it is imbued.

Religion gives life, strength, elevation to
the mind, by connecting it with the Infinite
Mind ; by teaching it to regard itself as the
offspring and care of the Infinite Father, who
created it that He might communicate to it his
own spirit and perfections, who framed it for
truth and virtue, who framed it for Himself,
who subjects it to sore trials, that by conflict
and endurance it may grow strong, and who
has sent his Son to purify it from every sin,
and to clothe ft with immortality. It is
religion alone which nourishes patient, resolute
hopes and efforts for our own souls. Without
it we can hardly escape self-contempt and the
contempt of our race. Without God our
existence has no support, our life no aim, our
improvements no pomanence, our best labours
nosureandendunngresults, ourspirituai weak-
ness no power to lean np6a, and our noblest
aspirations and desires no pledge of being
realised in a better state. Struggling virtue has
no friend; sufieringvirtuenopromiseof victory,

L 3

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Take away God, and life becomes mean, and
man poorer than the brute. I am accustomed
to speak of the g^reatness of human nature ;
but it is great only through its parentage;
great because descended from God, because
connected with a goodness and power from
which it is to be enriched for ever; and
nothing but the consciousness of this connec-
tion can give that hope of elevation through
which alone the mind is to rise to true stren^
and liberty.

All the truths of religion conspire to one
end — spiritual liberty. All the objects which
^t offers to our thoughts are sublime, kindling,
exalting. Its fundamental truth is the exis-
tence of one God, one Infinite and Everlasting
Father; and it teaches us to look on the
universe as pervaded, quickened, and vitally
joined into one harmonious and beneficent
whole, by his ever-present and omnipotent
love. By this truth it breaks the power of
matter and sense, of present pleasure and
pain, of anxiety and fear. It turns the mind
from the visible, the outward and perishable,
to the Unseen, Spiritual, and Eternal, and,
allying it with pure and great objects, makes
it tree.

I well know that what I now say may seem
to some to want the sanction of experience.
By many religion is perhaps regarded as the
last principle to give inward energy and
freedom. I may be told of its threatenings,
and of the bondage which they impose. I
acknowledge that religion has threatenings,
and it must have them ; for evil, misery, is
necessarily and unchangeably bound up with
wrong-domg, with the abuse of moral power.
From the nature of things, a mind disloyal
to God and duty must suffer; and religion,
in uttering this, only re-echoes the plain
teaching of conscience. But let it be re-
membered that the single end of the threaten-
ings of religion is to make us spiritually free.
They are all directed against the passk>ns
which enthral and degrade us. They are
weapons given to conscience, with which to
fight the good fight and to establish its
throne within us. When not thus used, they
arc turned from their end ; and if by injudi-
cious preaching they engender superstition,
let not the fault be laid at the door of religion.

I do not indeed wonder that so many doubt
the power of religion to give strength, dignity,
and freedom to the mind. What bears this
name too often yields no such fruits. Here,
religion is a form, a round of pmyers and
rites, an attempt to projiitiatc God by flattery
and fawning. There, it is terror and sub-
jection to a minister or priest; and there, it
is a violence of emotion, bearing away the
mind like a whiriwind, and robbing it of
self-direction. But true religion disclaims
connection with these usurpers of its name.

It is a calm, deep conviction of God's paternal
interest in the improvement, happiness, and
honour of his creatures; a practical per-
suasion that He delights in virtue and not in
forms and flatteries, and that He especially
delights in resolute effort to conform our-
selves to the disinterested love and rectitude
which constitute his own glory. It is for this
religion that I claim the honour of giving
dignity and freedom to the mind.

The need of religion to accomI>lish this
work is in no degree superseded by what
is called the progress of society. I should
say that civilization, so far from being able
of itself to give moral strength and elevation*
includes causes of degradation which nothii^
but the religious principle can withstancL
It multiplies, undoiibtedly, the comforts and
enjoyments of life ; but in these I see sore
trials and perils to the souL These minister
to the sensual element in human nature, to
that part of our constitution which allies —
and too often enslaves— us to the earth. Of
consequence, civilization needs that propor-
tional aid should be given to the spiritual
element in man. and I know not where it is
to be found but in religion. Without this the
civilized man, with all his properties and
refinements, rises little in true dignity above
the savage whom he disdains. You tell noe
of civilization, of its arts and sciences, as the
sure instruments of human elevation. YoO
tell me, how by these man masters and bends
to his use the powers of nature. I know he
masters them, but it is to become in turn
their slave. He explores and cultivates the
earth, but it is to grow more earthly. He
explores the hidden mine, but it is to forge
himself chains. He visits all regions, but
therefore lives a stranger to his own soul. Itt
the very progress of civilization I see the need
of an antagonist principle to the senses, of a
power to free man from matter, to recall him
from the outward to the inward world ; and
religion alone is equal to so great a work.

The advantages of civilization have their
peril. In such a state of society opinion aiKl
law impose salutary restraint, and produpe
general order and security. But the power
of opinion grows into a despotism whi(^
more than all things represses original and
free thought, subverts individuality of cha-
racter, reduces the community to a spiritless
monotony, and chills the love of perfection.
Religion, considered simply as the principle
which balances the power of human opinion,
which takes man out of the grasp of custom
and fashion, and teaches him to refer himself
to a higher tribunal, is an infinite aid to morfd
strength and elevation.

An important benefit of civilizfttioh. dt
which we bear much from the political ecouo*
mist, is the division of labour, by wbtoh arts

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arc perfected. But this, by confiiung the
mind to an unceasing rotmd of petty opera-
tions, tends to break it into littleness. We
possess improved fabrics, but deteriorated
tnen. Another advantage of civilization is
that manners are refined, and accomplish-
ments multiplied ; but these are continually
seen to supplant simplicity of character,
strength of feeling, the love of nature, the
lo>e of inward beauty and gloiy. Under
outward courtesy we see a cold selfishness, a
spirit of calculation, and little energy of love.
I confess I look round on civilized society
with many fears, and with more and more
earnest desire that a regenerating spirit from
licavcn, from religion, may descend upon and
peirade it. I jMurticularly fear that various
causes are acting powerfuUv among ourselves
to inflame and madden that enslaving and
degrading principle, the passion for property.
For example, the absence of hereditary dis-
tinctions in our country gives prominence to
the distinction of wealth, and holds up this
as the chief prize to ambition. Add to this
the epicurean self-indulgent habits which otu*
prosperity has multiplied, and which crave
msatiably for enlaiging wealth as the only
means of gratification. This peril is in-
creased by the spirit of our times, which is a
spirit of commerce, industry, internal im-
provements, mechanical invention, political
economy, and peace. Think not that I would
disparage commerce, mechanical skill, and
especially pacific connections among states.
But there is danger that these blessings may
by perversion issue in a slavish love of lucre.
It seems to me that some of the objects
which once moved men most powerfully are
giadnallv losing their sway, and thus the
mind is left more open to the excitement of
wealth. For example, military distinction is
taking the inferior place which it deserves;
and the consequence will be, that the energy
and ambition which have been exhausted in
war win seek new directions; and happy
shall we be if they do not flow into the
channel of gain. ^ I think that political
eminence is to be less and less coveted ; and
there is danger that the energies absorbed by
it will be spent in seeking another kind of
dominion — the dominion of property. And
if such be the result, tvhat shall we gain by
what Is called the progress of society? What
shall we gain by national peace if men, in-
stead of meeting on the field of battle, wage
with one another the more inglorious strife
of dishonest and rapacious traffic? What
shall we gain by the waning of political am-
bition if the intrigues of the exchange take
place of those of the cabinet, and private
pomp and luxuiy be substituted for the splen-
dour of public life ? I am no foe to civiliza-
tKm. I rejoice in its progress. But I mean

to say that, without a pure religion to modify
its tendencies, to inspire and refine it, we
shall be corrupted, not ennobled by it. It is
the excellence of the religious principle, that
it aids and carries forward civilization, ex-
tends science and arts, multiplies the con-
veniences and ornaments of life, and at the
same time spoils them of their enslaving power,
and even converts them into means and
ministers of that spiritual fireedom which, when
left to themselves, they endanger and destroy.
In order, however, that religion should
yield its full and best fruits, one thing is
necessary; and the times require that 1
should state it with great distinctness. It is
necessary that religion should be held and
professed in a liberal spirit. Just as far as it
assiunes an intolerant* exclusive, sectarian
form, it subverts instead of strengthening the
soul's freedom, and becomes Uie heaviest
and most galling yoke which is laid on the
intellect and conscience. Religion miist b«
viewed, not as a monopoly of priests, ministei^
or sects; not as conferring on any man a
right to dictate to his fellow-beings ; not as
an instrument by which the few may awe the
many ; not as bestowing on one a prerogative
which is not enjoyed by all ; but as the pro-
perty of every human being, and as the great
subject for every human mind. It must be
regarded as the revelation of a common
Father, to whom all have equal <*'wess, who
invites all to the like immedi .c communion,
who has no favourites, who has appointed no
infallible expounders of his will, who opens
his works and word to every eye, and calb
upon all to read for themselves, and to follow
fearlessly the best convictions of their oWrt
understandings. Let religion be seized on by
individuals or sects as their special province ;
let them clothe themselves with Gw^b pre-
rogative of judgment ; let them succeed in
enforcing their creed bv penalties of law or
penalties of opinion ; let them succeed in
fixing a brand on virtuous men whose only
crime is free investigation ; and religion be-
comes the most blighting tyranny which can
estabhsh itself over the mind. You have all
heard of the outward enls which religion,
when thus turned into tyranny, has inflicted ;
how it has dug dreary dungeons, kindled
fires for the martyr, and invented instruments
of exquisite torture. But to me all this is
less fearful than its influence over the mind.
When I see the superstitions which it has
fastened on the conscience, the spiritual
terrcfrs with which it has haunted and sub-
dued the ignorant and susceptible, the dark
appalling views of God which it has spread
far and wide, the dread of inquiry which it
has stnick into superior understandings, and
the servility of spirit which it ha.'i made to
pass for piety, — when I sec all this, the fire.

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the scafToId. and the outward inquisition,
terrible as they are, seem to me Infenor evils.
I look with a solemn joy on the heroic spirits
who have met freely and fearlessly pain and
death in the cause of truth and human rights.
But there are other victims of intolerance on
whom I look with unmixed sorrow. They
are those who, spell-bound by earlv prejudice,
or by intimidations from the pulpit and the
press, dare not think; who anxiously stifle
every doubt or misgiving in regard to their
opinions, as if to doubt were a crime ; who
shrink from the seekers after truth as from
infection; who deny all virtue which does
not wear the Uvenr of then: own sect ; who,
surrendering to 6thers their best powers,
receive unresistingly a teaching which wai9
against reason and conscience; and who
trunk it a merit to impose on such as live
within their influence the grievous bondage
which they bear themselves. How much to
be deplored is it that religion, the veiy principle
which is designed to raise men above the judg-
ment and power of roan, should become the
chief instrument of usiupation over the soid.
Is it said that in this country, where the
rights of private judgment, and of speaking
and writing accoraing to our convictions, are
guaranteed with every solemnity by institu-
tions and laws, religion can never degenerate
into tyranny; that here its whole influence
must conspire to the liberation and dignity of
the mind ? I answer, we discover little know-
ledge of human nature if we ascribe to con-
stitutions the power of charming to sleep the
spirit of intolerance and exclusion. Almost
every other bad passion may sooner be put to
rest; and for this plain reason, that intole-
rance always shelters itself under the name
and garb of religious zeal. Because we liv^
in a country where the gross, outward, visible
chain is broken, we must not conclude that
we arc necessarily Iree. There are chains
not made of iron, which eat more deeply into
the soul. An espionage of bigotry may as
effectually close our lips and chill our hearts
as an armed and hiindred-eyed police. There
are countless ways by which men in a ftee
country may encroach on their neighbours
rights. In religion, the instrument is ready
made and always at hand. I refer to opinion
combined and organized in sects and swayed
by the clergy. We say we have no Inquisi-
tion. But a sect skilKilly organized, trained
to utter one cry, combined to cover with
reproach whoever may differ from themselves,
to drown the free expression of opinion by
denunciations of heresy, and to strike terror
into the multitude by joint and perpetual
menace,— such a sect is as perilous and palsy-
ing to the intellect as the Inquisition. It
serves the ministers as effectually as the
sword. The present age is notoriously secta-

rian, and therefore hostile to liberty. One
of the strongest features of our times is th6
tendency of men to run into associations, to
lose themselves in masses, to think and act in
crowds, to act from the excitement of niunbers,
to sacrifice individuality, to identify them-
selves with parties and sects. At sudi a
period we ought to fear— and cannot too
much dread— lest a host should be marshalled
under some sectarian standard, so numerous
and so strong as to overawe opinion, stifle
inquiry, compel dissenters to a prudent
silence, and thus accomplish the end, without
incurring the odium, of penal laws. We
have indeed no small protection against this
evil in the multiplicity of sects. But let us
not forget that coalitions are as practicable
and as perilous in church as in state; and
that minor differences, as they are called*
may be sunk for the purpose of loint exertion
against a common foe. Himpily, the spirit
of this people, In spite of all narrowing in-
fluences, is essentially liberal. Here lies our
safety. The liberal spirit of the people, I
trust, is more and more to temper and curb
that exclusive spirit which is the besetting
sin of their religious guides.

In this connection I may be permitted to
say, and I say it with heartfelt joy, that the
government of this Commonwealth has uni-
formly distinguished itself by the spirit of
religious freedom. Intolerance, however rife
abroad, has found no shelter in our halls of
legislation. As yet, no sentence of proscrip-
tion has been openly or indirectly passed on
any body of men for religious opinions. A
wise and righteous jealousy has watched over
our religious liberUes, and been startled by
the first movement, the faintest sign, of
sectarian ambition. Our Commonwealth can
boast no higher glory. May none of us live
to see it fade away I

I have spoken Mrith great freedom of the
sectarian and exclusive spirit of our age. I
would earnestly recommend liberality of feel-
ing and judgment towards men of different
opinions. But, in so doing. I intend not to
teach that opinions are of small moment, or
that we should make no effort for spreading
such as we deem the truth of God. I do
mean, however, that we are to spread them
by means which will not enslave ourselves to
a party or bring others into bondage. We
must respect alike our own and others' minds.
We must not demand a uniformity in religion
which exists nowhere else, but expect, and be
willing, that the religious principle, like other
principles of our nature, should manifest
Itself m different methods and degrees. Let
us not forget that spiritual, like animal Ufe,
may subsist and grow under various forms.
Whilst earnestly recommending what we deem
the pure aijd primitive faith, let U5 remember

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that those who difier in word or speculation
may agree in heart ; that the spirit of Chris-
tianity, though mixed and encumbered with
error, is stiU divine ; and that sects which
assign difierent ranlcs to Jesus Christ, ma^
still adore that godlike virtue which consti-
tute4 turn the glorious representative of his
Father. Under the disguises of Papal and
Protestant Cre^, let us learn to recognize
the lovely aspect of Christianity, and rejoice
to believe that, amidst dissonant forms and
voices, the common Father discerns and
accepts the same deep filial adoration. This
is true freedom and enlargement of mind — a
Uberty which he who knows it would not
barter for the widest dominion which priests
and sects have usoiped over the human soul.

I have spoken of Religion; \ pass to Go-
vernment, another great means of promoting
that spiritual liberty, that moral strength and
eIe\'ation, which we have seen to be our
supreme goxA. I thus speak of government,
not becattse it always promotes this end, but
because it may and should thus operate.
Civfl institutions should be directed chiefly to
a moral or spiritual good, and until this
truth is felt they will continue, I fear, to be
perverted into instruments ^ crime and
misery. Other views of their design. I am
aware, prevaiL We are sometimes told that
government has no purpose but an earthly
one ; that whilst religion takes care of the
soul, government is to watch over outward
and bodily interests. This separatipn of our
interests into earthly and ^iritu^ Sfpms to
me unfounded. There is a unity in "O^f whole
being. There is one great ^d for which
body and mind were created, and all the
relations of life were ordained ; one central
aim to which our whole being should tend ;
and this is the unfolding of our intellectual
and moral nature; and no man thoroughly
understands government but he who reve-
rences it as a part of God's stupendous
machinery for this subUme design. I do not
deny that government is instituted to watch
over our present interests. But still it has a
spiritual or moral purpose, because present
interests are, in an important sense, spiritual ;
that is, tbev are instruments and occasions of
virtue, calls to duty, sources of obligation,
and are only blessings when they contribute
to the health of the soul. For example,
propexty, the principal object of legislation,
IS the material, if I may so speak, on which
justice acts, or through which this cardinal
virtue is exercised and expressed ; and pro-
perty has no higher end than to invigorate,
hj calling forth, the principle of impartial

Government is the great otigan of civil
society, and we riiould appreciate the for-
mer more justly if we better understood the

nature suod foundation of the latter. I say,
then, that society is throughout a moral
institution. It is something very different
from an assemblage of animals feeding in
the same pasture. It is the combination of
rational beings for the security of right.
Right, a morad idea, lies at the very founda-
tion of civil communities ; and the highest
happiness which they confer is the gratifica-
tion of moral affections. We are sometimes
taught that society is the creature of compact
and selfish calculation; that men agree to^
live together for the protection of private in-
terests. But no. Society is of earlier and
higher origin. It is God's ordinance, and
answers to what is most godlike in our nature.
The chief ties thai hold men together in com-
munities are not self-inteiests, or compacts,
or positive institutions, or force. They are
invisible, refined, spiritual ties, bonds oif the
mind and heart. Our best powers and affec-
tions crave instinctivdy for society as the
sphere in which they are to find their life and
happiness. That men may greatly strengthen
and improve society by written constitutions,
I readify grant. There is, however, a con-
stitution which precedes aU of men's making,
and after which all others are to be fcnmed ;
a constitution the great lines of which are
drawn in our very nature ; a primitive law of
justice, rectitude, and philanthropy, which all
other laws are bound to enforce, and from
which aU others derive their validity and

Am I now asked how government is to
promote energy and elevation of moral prin-
ciple? I answer, not by making the various
virtues matters of legislation, not bv preach-
ing morals, not by establishing religion; for
these are not its appropriate ftmctions. It
is to serve the cause of ^iritual freedom, not
by teaching or persuasion, but by action;
that is, by rigidly conforming itself, in all its
measures, to the moral or Christian law; by
the most public and solemn manifestations of
reverence for right, for justice, for the general
weal, for the principles of virtue. Govern-

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 34 of 169)