William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 55 of 169)
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CkARACT^R OP CHRIST.



itaijy sfaall come from the east and the Tvest,
and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac,
and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven ; but the
cbikfaen of the kingdom" (that is the Jews)
"sfaoU be cast out." Here all the hopes
which the Jews had cherished of an exclusive
or peculiar possession of the Messiah's king-
dom were crushed ; and the reception of the
despised Gentile world to all his blessings, or,
in other words, the extension of his pure re-
ligion to the ends of the earth, began to be
prodaimed.

Here I pause for the present, and I ask you
whether tne character of Jesus be not the
most extraordinary in history, and wholly in-
explicable on human principles. Review the
ground over which we have gone. Recollect
that he was bom and grew up a Jew, in the
midst of Jews, a people biiming with one
passion, smd throwing their whole souls into
the expectation of a national and earthly
deliverer. He grew up among them in
poverty, sechision, and labours fitted to
contract his thoughts, purposes, and hopes;
and yet we find him escaping every influence
of education and society. We find liim as
untoud:ml by the feelings which prevailed
universally around him, which religion and
patriotism concurred to consecrate, which the
mother breathed into the ear of the child,
and which the teacher of the synagogue
strengthened in the adult, as if he had been
brought up in another world. We find him
conceiving a sublime purpose such as had
never dawned on sage or hero, and see him
possessed with a consciousness of sustaining
a relation to God and mankind, and of being
invested with powers in this world and the
world to come such as had never entered the
iiuman mind. Whence now, I ask, came the
conception of this character?

Will any say it bad its origin in imposture ;
that it was a fabrication of a deceiver ? I
answer, the character claimed by Christ ex-
cludes this supposition by its very nature. It
was so remote from all the ideas and antici-
p)ations of the times, so unfit to awaken sym-
pathy, so unattractive to the heathen, so
exasperating to the Tew, that it was the last
to enter the mind of an impostor. A deceiver
of the dullest vision must have foreseen that
it voukl expose him to bitter scorn, abhor-
rence, and persecution, and that he would be
left to* carry on his work alone, just as Jesus
always stood alone, and could find not an
iodlvklual to enter into his spirit and design.
WBat alhxrements an unprincipled, self-seek-
\n% matt could find to such an enterprise, no
common ingenuity can discover.

I affirm next, that the sublimity of the
character claimed by Christ forbids us to
Ciape it to imposture. That a selfish, de-
sigi^Dg, depraved mind could have formed



241

the idea and purpose of a work unparal-
leled in beneficence, in vastness, and in moral
grandeur, would certainly be a strange depar-
ture from the laws of the human mind. T
add, that if an impostor could have lighted
on the conception of so sublime and wonder-
ful a work as that claimed by Jesus, he could
not — I say, he could not— have thrown into
his personation of it the air of truth and
reality. The part would have been too high
for him. He would have overacted it of
fallen short of it perpetually. His true cha-
racter would have rebelled against his assumed
one. We should have seen something strained,
forced, artificial, awkward, showing that he
was not in his true sphere. To act up to a
character so singular and grand, and one for
which no precedent could be found, seems to
me utterly impossible for a man who had not
the true spirit of it, or who was only wearing
it as a mask.

Now, how stands the case with Jesus?
Bred a Jewish peasant or carpenter, he issues
from obscurity and claims for himself a divine
office, a superhuman dignity such as had not
been imagined ; and in no instance does he
fall below the character. The peasant, and
still more the Jew, wholly disappears. We
feel that a new being, of a new order of mind,
is taking a part in human affairs. There is
a native tone of grandeur and authority in his
teaching. He speaks as a being related to the
whole human race. His mind never shrinks
within the ordinary limits of human agency.
A narrower sphere than the world never enters
his thoughts. He speaks in a natural spon-
taneous style of accomplishing the most ardu-
ous and important change in human affairs.
This unlaboured manner of expressing great
thoughts is particularly worthy of attention.
You never hear from Jesus that swelling;
pompous, ostentatious language which almost
necessarily springs from an attempt to sustain
a character above our powers. He talks of
his glories as one to whom they were familiar,
and of his intimacy and oneness with God as
simply as a child speaks of his connection with
his parents. Hespeaksof saving and judging the
world, of drawing all men to himself, and of
giving everlasting life, as wespeak of theordinary
powers which we exert. He makes no set
harangues about the grandeur of his ofliiceand
character. H is consciousness of it gives a hue
to his whole language, breaks out in indirect,
undesigned expressions, showing that it was the
deepest and most familiar of his convictions.
This argument is only to be understood by
reading the Gospels with a wakeful mind and
heart. It does not lie on their surface, and it
is the stronger for lying beneath it. When I
read these books with care, when I trace the
unaffected majesty which runs through tlia
life of Jesus, and see him never falling below

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CHARACTER Ot^ CHRIST.



his sublime claims amidst poverty and scorn,
and in his last agony, I have a feeling of the
reality of his character which I cannot express.
I feel that the Jewish carpenter could no more
have conceived and sustained this character
under motives of imposture, than an infant's
arm could repeat the deeds of Hercules, or his
unawakcned intellect comprehend and rival
the matchless works of genius.

Am I told that the claims of Jesus had their
origin not in imposture but in enthusiasm;
that the imagination, kindled by strong feeling,
overpowered the judgment so far as to give
him the notion of being destined to some
strange and unparalleled work? I know that
enthusiasm, or a Jcindled imagination, has
great power ; and we are never to lose sight of
it, in judging of the claims of religious teachers.
But I say first, that, except in cases where it
amounts to insanity, enthusiasm works in a
greater or less degree according to a man's
previous conceptions and modes of thought.
In Judea, where the minds of men were burning
with feverish expectation of a Messiah, I can
easily conceive of a Jew imagining that in
himself this ardent conception, this ideal of
glory, was to be realized. I can conceive of
his seating himself in fancy on the throne of
David, and secretly pondering the means of
his app>ointed triumphs. But that a Jew
should fancy himself the Messiah, and at the
same time should strip that character of all
the attributes which had fired his youthful
imagination and heart, — that he should start
aside from all the feelings and hopes of
his age, and should acquire a conscious-
ness of being destined to a wholly new
career, and one as unbounded as it was
new, — this is exceedingly improbable ; and
one thing is certain, that an imagination so
erratic, so ungovemed, and able to generate
the conviction of being destined to a work
so immeasurably disproportioned to the power
of the individual, must have partaken of in-
sanity. Now, is it conceivable that an indi-
vidual, mastered by so wild and fervid an
imagination, should have sustained the dig-
nity claimed by Christ, should have acted
worthily the highest part ever assumed on
earth? Would not his enthusiasm have
broken out amidst the peculiar excitements
of the life of Jesus, and have left a touch of
madness on his teaching and conduct ? Is it
to such a man that we should look for the
inctilcation of a new and perfect form of vir-
tue, and for the exemplification c^ humanity
in its fairest form ?

The charge of an extravagant, self-delud-
ing enthusiasm is the last to be fastened on
Jesus. Where can we find the traces of it
m his history? Do we detect them in the
calm authority of his precepts ; in the mild,
nractical, ancf beneficent spirit of his reli-



gion; in the unlaboured simplicity of the
language with which he unfolds his high
powers, and the sublime trutlis of religion;
or in the good sense, the knowledge of human
nature, which he always discovers in his esti-
mate and treatment of the different clasess of
men with whom he acted ? Do we discover this
enthusiasm in the singular fact that, whilst
he claimed power in the futtire worid, and
always turned men's minds to Heaven, he
never indulged his own imagination, or stimu-
lated that of his disciples, by gi\'ing vivid
pictures or any minute description of that
unseen state? The truth is that, remarkable
as was the character of Jesus, it was distin-
guished by nothing more than by calmness and
self-possession. 'This trait pervades his other
excellencies. How calm was his piety !
Point me, if you can, to one vehement, pas-
sionate expression of his religious feelings.
Does the Lord's Prayer breathe a feverish
enthusiasm? The hatutual style of Jesus on
the subject of religion, if introduced into
many churches of his followers at the present
day, would be charged with coldness. The
calm and the rational character of his piety
is particularly seen in the doctrine which he so
earnestly inculcates, that disinterested love and
self-denying service to our fellow-creatures are
the most acceptable worship we can offer to
our Creator. His benevolence, too, though
singularly earnest and deep, was composed and
serene. He never lost the possession of him-
self in his sympathy vrith others ; was never
hurried into the impatient and rash enterprises
of an enthusiastic philanthropy ; but did good
with the tranquillity and constancy which mark
the providence of God. The depth of hfes
caUnness may best be understood by considet^-
ing the opposition made to his claims. Hfa
labours were everywhere insidiously watched
and industriously thwarted l^ vindictive foes,
who had even conspired to compass through
his death the ruin of his cause. Now a
feverish enthusiasm, v^ich fancies itself to
be entrusted with a great work of God. is
singularly liable to impatient indignatkon
under furious and malignant opposition. Ob-
stacles increase its vehemence; it becomes
more eager and hurried in the accomplish-
ment of its purposes in proportion as they
are withstood. Be it therefore remembered
that the malignity of Christ's foes, though
never surpassed, and for the time triumphant,
never robbed him of self-possession, roused
no passion, and threw no vehemence or pre-
cipitation into his exertions. He did not
disguise from himself or his followers the
impression made on the multitude by his
adversaries. He distinctly foresaw the vio-
lent death towards which he was fast ap^
proaching. Yet, confiding in God and in the
silent progress of his truth, he possessed bis



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CHABACTRR OF CHRIST,



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soyl ia peace. Not orAj was he calm, but
his caUnoess rises into sublimity when we
consider the storms which raged around him.
and the vastness of the prospects in which
his spirit found repose. I say. then, that
serenity and self-possession were peculiarly
the attributes of Jesus. I affirm that the
singular and sublime character claimed by
Jesus can be traced neither to imposture nor
to an ungovemed. insane imagination. It
can only be accounted for by its truth, its
rcaJity.

I began with observing bow our long fami*
Itarity with Jesus blunts our minds to his sin-
gular excellence. We probably have often
read of the character which he claimed,
without a thought of its extraordinary nature.
But I know nothing so sublime. The plans
and labours of statesmen sink into the sports
of children when compared with the work
which Jesus axmounced, and to which he
devoted himself in life and death, wdth a
thorough consciousness of its reality. The
idea of changing the moral aspect of the
whole earth, of recovering all nations to the
pMtre and inward worship of one God, and to
a spirit ci divine and fraternal love, was one
of which we meet not a trace in philosopher
or legislator before him. The human mind
had given no promise of this extent of view.
The conception of this enterprise, and the
calm, unshaken expectation of success, in
one who had no station and no wealth, who
cast from him the sword with abhorrence,
and who forbade his disciples to use any
weapons but those of love, discover a won-
derful trust in the power of God and the
power of love ; and when to this we add that
Jesus looked not only to the triumph of his
pure faith in the present world, but to a
mighty and beneficent power in Heaven, we
witness a vastness of purpose, a grandeur of
thought and feeling, so original, so superior
to the workings of all other minds, that no-
thing but our familiarity can prevent our con-
t^nplation of it with wonder and profound
awe. I oonlesst when I can escape the dead-
ening power of liabit, and can receive the
fuU import of such passages as the following,
—"Come unto me, all ye that labour and
ae heavy hukm, and I will give you rest,"—
''I am come to seek and to save that which
WIS kwrt," — •• He that oonfesseth me before
men, him will I confess before my Father in
Hoiven." — •• Whosoever shall be ashamed of
ne beCore men, of him shall the Son of Man
be ashamed whep he cometh in the glory of
the Father with the holy angels," — " In my
Father's house are manv mansions ; I go to
prepare a (dace for you ; ' — I say, when I can
succeed in realising the import of such pas-
Slgis. I feel tnyse^ listenii^ to a being such
•• iMver before and never since spoke hi



human language. I am awed by the con-
sciousness of greatness which these simple
words express; and when I connect tnis
greatness with the proofs of Christ's miracle<i
which I gave you in a former discourse, I am
compelled to exclaim with the centurion,
•'Truly this was the Son of God."

I have thus, my friends, set before you one
view of Jesus Christ which shows him to have
been the most extraordinary being who ever
hved. I invite your attention to another;
and I am not sure but that it is still more
striking. You have seen the consciousness
of greatness which Jesus possessed ; I now
ask you to consider how, with this conscious-
ness, he lived among men. To convey mv
meaning more distinctly, let me avail myself
of an imaginary case. Suppose you had
never heard the particulars of Christ's his-
tory, but were told in general that, ages ago,
an extraordinary man appeared in the world
whose mind was wholly possessed with the
idea of having come from God, who regarded
himself as clothed with divine power and
charged with the sublimest work in the uni-
verse, who had the consciousness of sustain-
ing a relation of unexampled authority and
beneficence, not to one nation or age but to all
nations and all times,— and who anticipated
a spiritual kingdom and everlasting power
beyond the grave. Suppose you should be
told that, on entering the world, he found not
one mind able to comprehend his views, and
felt himself immeasurably exalted in thought
and purpose above all around him, and siiiv
pose you should then be asked what appc»ar-
ance, what mode of life, what tone, what air,
what deportment, what intercourse with the
multitude seemed to vou to suit such a cha-
racter, and were probably adopted by him r
how would you represent him to your minds?
Would you not suppose that, witli this pecu-
liar character, he adopted some peculiar
mode of life, expressive of his superiority to
and separation from all other men ? Would
you not expect something distinctive in his
appearance? Would you not expect him to
assume some badge, and to exact some
homage? Would you not expect that, with
a mind revolving such vast thoughts, and
raised above the earth, he would look coldly
on the ordinary gratifications of men? that,
with a mind spreading itself over the world
and meditating its subjection to his truth, he
would take little interest in ordinary indivi-
duals? and that possessing, in his own doc-
trine and character, a standard of sublime
virtue, he would attach little importance to
the low attainments of the ignorant and
superstitious around him? Would you not
make him a public character, and expect to
see him labouring to establish his ascendency
among public men ? Would you not expect

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CHARACTER OF CHRIST.



to see bis natural affections absorbed in his
universal philanthropy ; and would not pri-
vate attachments seem to you quite incon-
sistent with his vast superiority and the
immensity of his purposes ? Would you not
expect him to avail himself of the best
accommodations the world could afford?
Would you not expect the great Teacher
to select the most sacred spots for his teach-
ing, and the Lx)rd of all to erect some con-
spicuous seat from which should go forth the
laws which were to reach the ends of the
earth? Would you not, in a word, expect
this extraordinary personage to surround
himself with extraordinary circiunstances, and
to maintain a separation from the degraded
multitude around him ?

Such, I believe, would be the expectation
of us all ; and what was the case with Jesus ?
Read his history. He comes with the con-
sciousness of more than human greatness to
accomplish an infinite work; and where do
you find him ? What is his look ? what his
manner? How does he converse, how live
with men? His appearance, mode of life,
and intercourse are directly the reverse oif
what we should have suppc»ed. He comes
in the ordinary dress of the class of society in
which he had grown up. He retreats to no
solitude, like John, to strike awe, nor seeks
any spot which had been consecrated in
Jewish history. Would you find him? Go
to the house of Peter the fisherman. Go to
the well of Samaria, where he rests after the
fatigues of his journey. Would you hear him
teach? You may find him, indeed, some-
times in the temple, for that was a place of
general resort ; but commonly you may find
him instructing in the open air, now from a
boat on the Galilean lake, now on a mount,
and no>»' in the streets of the crowded city.
He has no place wherein to lay his head, nor
will he have one. A rich ruler comes and
falls at his feet. He says, "Go. sell what
thou hast, and give to the poor, and then
come and follow me." Nor was this alL
Something more striking remains to be told.
He did not merelv live in the streets, and in
the houses of fishermen. In these places,
had he pleased, he might have cleared a
space around him, and raised a barrier be-
tween himself and others. But in these
places, and everywhere, he lived with men
as a man, a brother, a friend, sometimes a
servant ; and entered, with a deep, imexam-
pled sympathy, into the feelings, interests,
wants, sorrows of individuals, of ordinary
men, and even of the most depressed, de-
spised, and forsaken of the race. Here is
the most striking view of Jesus. This com-
bination of the spirit of humanity in its low-
liest, tenderest form, with the consciousness
of unrivalled and divine glories, is the most



wonderful distinction of this wonderful chd*
racter. Here we learn the chief reason why
he chose poverty, and refused every pecu-
liarity of manner and appearance. He did
this because he desired to come near to the
multitude of men, to make himself accessible
to all, to pour out the fulness of his sympathy
upon all, to know and weep over their sorrows
and sins, and to manifest his interest in their
affections and joys.

I can offer but a few instances of this sym-
pathy of Christ with human nature in all its
varieties of character and condition. But how
beautiful are they I At the very opening of
his ministry we find him present at a marriage
to which he and his disciples had been called.
Among the Jews this was an occasion of
peciiUar exhilaration and festivity; but Jesus
did not therefore decline it. He knew what
affections, joys, sorrows, and moral influences
are bound up in this institution, and he went
to the celebration, not as an ascetic, to frovm
on its bright hopes and warm congratulations,
but to sanction it by his presence and to
heighten its enjoyments. How little does
this comport with the solitary dignity which
we should have pronounced most accordant
with his character, and what a spirit <^
humanitv does it breathe 1 But this event
stands almost alone in his history. His chief
sympathy was not with them that rejoice, but
with the ignorant, sinful, sorrowful ; and with
these we find him cultivating an habitual in-
timacy. Though so exalted in thought and
purpose, he chose uneducated men to be his
chief disciples; and he lived with them, not
as a superior giving occasional and formal
instruction, but became their companion,
travelled with them on foot, slept in their
dwellings, sat at their tables, partook their
plain fare, communicated to them his truth
m the simplest form ; and though they con-
stantly misunderstood him, and never received
his full meaning, he was never wearied with
teaching them. So familiar was his inter-
course, that we find Peter reproving him with
an affectionate «eal for announcing his ap-
proaching death, and we find John leaning
on his bosom. Of his last discourse to
these disciples I need not speak. It stands
alone among all writings for the union of
tenderness and majesty. His own sorrows
are forgotten in his solicitude to speak peace
and comfort to his humble followers.

The depth of his human sympathies was
beautifully manifested when children were
brought to him. His disciples, judging as
all men would judge, thought that he who
was sent to wear the crown of universal
empire had too great a work before him to
give his time and attention to children, and
reproved the parents who brought them ; but
Jesus, rebuking his disciples, called to him



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CHARACTER OP CHRIST. 245

the children. Never, I believe, did childhood siasm shows a strange unsoundness of mind,
awaken such deep love as at that moment I contemplate it with a veneration second
He took fhem in his arms and blessed them, only to the profound awe with which I look
and not only said that " of such was the up to God. It bears no mark of human in-
kingdom of heaven," but added, "He that vention — it was real. It belonged to and it
receiveth a little child in my name receiveth manifested the beloved Son of God.
me;" so entirely did he identify himself with But I have not done. May I ask your
this primitive, innocent, beautiful form of attention a few moments more? We have
htmian nature. not yet reached the depth of Christ's cha-

Thcre was no class of hiunan beings so racter. We have not touched the great prin-
low as to be beneath his sympathy. He not dple on which his wonderful sympathy was
roerdy taught the pubUcan and sinner, but, founded, and which endeared to him his
with all his consciousness of purity, sat down office of universal Saviour. Do you ask
and dined with them, and, when reproved by what this deep principle was? I answer, it
the malignant Pharisee for such companion- was his conviction ot the greatness of the
ship, answered by the touching parables of human soul. He saw in man the impress
the Lost Sheep and the Prodigal Son, and and image of the divinity, and therefore
said, "I am come to seek and to save that thirsted for his redemption, and took the
which was lost." tenderest interest in him, whatever might be

No j)er5onal suffering dried up this fountain the rank, character, or condition in which he
of love in his breast. On his way to the was found. This spiritual view of man per-
ctcss be heard some women of Jerusalem vades and distinguishes the teaching of
bewailing him, and at the sound, forgetting Christ. Jesus looked on men with an eye
his own grief, he turned to them and said, which pierced beneath the material frame.
"Womenof Jerusalem, weep not forme, but The body vanished before him. The trap-
weep for yourselves and your children." On pings of the rich, the rags of the poor, were
the cross, whilst his mind was divided be- nothing to him. He looked through them as
tween intense suffering and the contempla- though they did not exist, to the soul ; and



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 55 of 169)