William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 62 of 169)
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affecting and sublime illustration of his divine
character ? It is that moment when, in the
spirit of self-sacrifice, denying every fauroan
passion, and casting away every earthly tit*
terest, he bore the agony and shame ot the
cross. Thus aU great virtues bear the im-
press of self-denial ; and were God's present
constitution of our nature and life so reversed
as to demand no renunciation of desire, the
chief interest and glory of our present being
would pass away. There would be nothing
in history to thrill us with admiration. We
should have no consciousness of the power
and greatness of the soul. We should love
feebly and coldly, for we should find nothing
in one another to love earnestly. Let us not,
then, complain of Providence because it has
made self-denial necessary ; or complain oC
religion because it summons us to this work.
Rehgion and nature here hold one language.
Our own souls bear witness to the teachmg
of Christ, that it is the "narrow way" (J
self-denial "which leadeth unto life."

My friends, at death, if reason is spared to
us and memory retains its hold on the past*
will it gratify us to see that we have lived not
to deny but to indulge ourselves, that we huvQ
bowed our souls to any passion, that we gave
the reins to lust, that we were palsied by
sloth, that through love of gain we hardened
ourselves against the claims of humanity,
or through love of man's favour parted with
truth and moral independence, or that in any-
thing reason and conscience were sacrificed
to the impulse of desire, and God foigfotten
for present good ? Shall we then find com-
fort in remembering our tables of luxuiy, our
pillows of down, our wealth amassed and
employed for private ends, or our honottrs '
won by base compliance with the world?
Did any man at his death ever regret his
conflicts with himself, his victories over ao-
petite, his scorn of impure pleasures, or ms
sufferings for righteousness* sake ? Did any
man ever mourn that he had impo%*erisbed
himself by integrity, or worn out his frame
in the service of mankind ? Are these die
recollections which harrow the soul and
darken and appal the last hour ? To whom
is the last hour most serene and full of hope?
Is it not to him who amidst perils and allure-
ments has denied himself, and taken up the
cross with the holy resolution of jesm

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Matthew x\\. 34: " Then said Jcsos unto his dkdpks.
If any man will come a^^rr me, let him deny himself, ami
take op kb crocs, and foUow me."

In the preceding discourse I spoke of the
just limits and moral dignity of self-denial.
I resume the subject because it throws much
light on the nature of true virtue, and helps
us to distinguish moral goodness from quali-
ties which resemble it. Clear conceptions on
this point are inestimable. To love and seek
excellence we must know what it is. and
separate it from counterfeits. For want of
just views of virtue and piety, men's admiration
and efforts are often wasted, and sometimes
carry them wide of the great object of human
life. Perhaps truth on thi» subject cannot be
brought out more clearly than by considering
the nature of self-deniiU. Such will be the
aim of this discourse.

To deny ourselves is to deny, to withstand,
to renounce whatever within or without inter-
feres «iith our conviction of right or with the
will of God. It is to suffer, to make sacrifices
for duty or our principles. The question now
offers itself, What constitutes the singular
merit of this suffering ? Mere suffering, we
all know, is not virtue. Evil men often endure
pain as well as the good, and are evil still.
This and this alone constitutes the worth and
importance of the sacrifice, suffering, which
enters into self-denial, that it springs from and
manifests moral strength, power over our-
selves, force of purpose, or the mind's resolute
determination of itself to duty. It is the proof
and result of inward energy. Difficulty, hard-
ship, suffering, sacrifices, are tests and mea-
sures of moral force, and the great means of
its enlargement. To withstand these is the
same thing as to put forth power. Self-denial,
then, is the will acting with power in the choice
and prosecution of dutv. Here we have the
distinguishing glory of self-denial, and here
wc have the essence and distinction of a good
and virtuous man.

The truth to which these views lead us,
and which I am now solicitous to enforce, is
this, that the great characteristic of a virtuous
or religious mind is strength of moral purpose.
This force is the measure of excellence. The
very idea of duty implies that we are bound to
adopt and pursue it with a stronger and more
settled determination than any other object,
and vinuc consists in fidelity to this primary
dictate of conscience. We have virtue only
as far as we exert inward energy, or as far as
we put forth a strong and overcoming will in
obeying the law of God and of our own
minds. Let this truth be deeply felt. Let
us not confide in good emotions, m kind feel-
ings, in tears for the su.Tering, or in admira-
tion of noble deeds, llicse are not goodness

in the moral and Christian sense of that word.
It is force of upright and holy purpose,
attested and approved by withstanding trial,
temptation, allurement, and suffering; it is
this in which virtue consists. I know nothing
else which an enlightened conscience ap-
proves, nothing else which God will accept.

I am aware that if I were called upon to
state my ideas of a perfect character, I should
give an answer that would seem at first to
contradict the doctrine just expressed, or to
be inconsistent with the stress which I have
laid on strength of moral purpose. I should
say, that perfection of mind, like that of the
body, consists of two elements — of strength
and beauty ; that it consists of firmness and
mildness, of force and tenderness, of vigour
and grace. It would ill become a teacher of
Christianity to overlook the importance of
sympathy, gentleness, humility, and charity,
in his definition of moral excellence. The
amiable, attractive, mild attributes of the
mind are recommended as of great price in
the sight of God, by him who was emphati-
cally meek and lowly, in heart. Still I must
say that all virtue lies in strength of character
or of moral purpose ; for these gentle, sweet,
winning qualities rise into virtue only when
pervaded and sustained by moral energy. On
this they must rest, by this they must be con-
trolled and exalted, or they have no moral
worth. I acknowledge love, kindness, to be
a great virtue; but what do I mean by love
when I thus speak? Do I mean a constitu-
tional tenderness? an instinctive sympathy?
the nattural and almost necessary attachment
to friends and benefactors? the kindness
which is inseparable from our social state,
and which is never wholly extinguished in
the human breast ? In all these emotions of
our nature I see the kind design of God ; I
see a beauty ; I see the germ and capacity of
an ever-growing charity. But they are not
virtues, they are not proper objects of moral
approbation, nor do they give any sure
pledge of improvement. This natural ami-
ableness I too often see in company with
sloth, with uselessness, with the contempti-
ble vanity and dissipation of fashionable life.
It is no ground of trust, no promise of fide-
lity in any of the great exigencies of life.
The love, the benevolence which I honour as
virtue, is not the gift of nature or condition,
but the growth and manifestation of the
soul's moral power. It is a spirit chosen as
excellent, cherished as divine, protected with
a jealous care, and especially fortified by the
resistance and subjection of opposite propen-
sities. It is the soul determining itself to
break every chain of selfishness, to enlarge
and to invigorate the kind affections, to iden-
tify itself with other beings, to sympathize
not with a few, but with all the living and


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rational children of God, to honour others'
worth, to increase and enjoy their happiness,
to partake in the universal goodness of the
Creator, and to put down within itself every
motion of pride, anger, or sensual desire in-
consistent with this pure charity. In other
words, it is strength of holy purpose infused
into the kind aflections, which raises them
into virtues, or gives them a moral worth not
found in constitutional amiableness.

I roid in the Scriptures the praises of
meekness. But when I see a man meek or
patient of injury through tameness, or insen-
sibility, or want of self-respect, passively
gentle, meek through constitution or fear, I
look on him with feelings very different from
veneration. It is the meekness of principle;
it is mildness replete with energy ; it is the
forbearance of a man who feels a wrong but
who curbs an;^^, who though injured resolves
to be just, who voluntarily remembers that
his foe is a man and a brother, who dreads
to surrender himself to his passions, who in
the moment of provocation subjects himself
to reason and religion, and who holds fast
the great truth, that the noblest victory over
a foe is to disarm and subdue him by equity
and kindness, — ^it is this meekness which I
venerate, and which seems to me one of the
divinest virtues. It is moral power, the
strength of virtuous purpose, pervaiding meek-
ness, which gives it all its title to respect.

It is worthy of special remark, that without
this moral energy, resisting passion and im-
pulse, our tenderest attachments degenerate
more or less into weaknesses and immoralities ;
sometimes prompting us to sympathize with
those whom we love in their errors, prejudices,
and evil passions ; sometimes inciting us to
heap upon them injurious praises and indul-
gences; sometimes urging us to wrong or
neglect others, that we may the more enjoy or
serve our favourites ; and sometimes poison-
ing our breasts with jealousy or envy, be-
cause our affection is not returned with equal
warmth. The principle of love, whether exer^
cised towards our relatives or our country,
whether manifested in courtesy or compas-
sion, can only become virtue, can only acquire
purity, consistency, serenity, dignity, when
imbued, swayed, cherished, enlarged by the
power *of a virtuous will, by a self-denjring
energy. It is inward force, power over our-
selves, which is the beginning and the end of

What I have now said of the kind affeo^
tions is equally true of the religious ones.
These have virtue in them only as far as they
are imbued with self-denying strength. I
know that multitudes place religion in feeling.
Ardent sensibility is the measure of piety.
He who is wrought up by preaching or
sympathy into extraordinary fervour, is a

saint ; and the less he governs himself in his
piety, the more he is looked upon as inspired.
But I know of no religion which has moral
worth, or is acceptable to God. but that which
grows from and is nourished by our own
spiritual, self-denying energv. Emotion
towards God, springing up without our own
thought or care, grateful feelings at the
reception of signal benefits, the swelling of
the tool at the sight of nature, tenderness
awakened by descriptions of the love and
cross of Christ, these, though showing high
capacities, though means and materials of
piety, are not ^ themselves acceptable reli-
gion. The religious character which has true
virtue, and which is built upon a rock, is that
which has been deUberately and resolutely
adopted and chAished as our highest duty,
and as the friend and strengthener of all
other duties; and which we have watched
over and confirmed by suppressing inconsis-
tent desires and passions, bv warring against
selfishness and the love of the world.

There is one fact very decisive on this sub-
ject. It is not unconunon to see people with
strong religious feeling who are not made
belter by it ; who at church or in other meet-
ings are moved perhaps to tears, but who
make no progress in self-government or
charity, and who gain nothing of elevation
of mind fai their common feelings and trans-
actions. They take pleasure in religious
excitement, just as others delight to be in-
terested by a fiction or a play. They invite
these emotions because they suppose them to
aid or ensure salvation, and soon relapse into
their ordinarv sordidness or other besetting
infirmities. Now, to give the name of Religion
to this mockery is the surest way to dishonoiu"
it. True religion is not mere emotion, is not
something communicated to us without our
own moral effort. It involves much self-
denial. Its great characteristic is not feeling,
but the subjection of our wills, desires, habits,
lives, to the will of God, from a conviction
that what He wills is the perfection of virtue,
and the true happiness of our nature. In
genuine piety the mind chooses as its supreme
good the moral excellence enjoined by its
Author, and resolutely renounces whatever
would sully this divine image, and so disturb
its communion with God. This religion,
though its essence be not emotion, will gra-
dual^ gather and issue in a sensibility deeper,
intenser, more glowing than the blind enthu-
siast ever felt ; and then only does it manifest
itself in its perfect form, when, through a
self-denying and self-purifying power, it rises
to an overflowing love, gratitude, and joy
towards the Universal Father.

In insisting on the great principle that reli-
gion, or virtue, consists in strength of moral
purpose, in the .soul's resolute determination

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of itsdf to dutv, I am satisfied that I express
a truth which has a witness and confirmation
m the breast of eveiy reflecting man. We
all of us feel that virtue is not something
adopted from necessity, something to which
feeling impels us, something which comes to
us from constitution, or accident, or outward
condition ; but that it has its origin in our
moral freedom, that it consists in moral
energy; and accordingly we all measure
virtue by the trials and difficulties which it
overcomes, for these are the tests and mea-
sures of the force with which the soul adopts
it. Every one of us who has adhered to duty,
when duty brought no recompense but the
con>iction of well-doing, who has faced the
perils of a good but persecuted cause with
unshrinking courage, who has been conscious
of an inNvard triumph over temptation, con-
scioiis of having put down bad motives and
exalted good ones in his own breast, must
remember the clear, strong, authentic voice,
the accents of peculiar encouragement and
joy, with which the inward judge has at such
seasons pronounced its approving sentence.
This experience is universal, and it is the
voice of nature and of God in confirmation
of the great truth of this discourse.

I fear that the importance of strength in
the Christian character has been in some
degree obscured by the habit of calling cer-
tain Christian graces of singular worth by the
name of passive virtues. This name has been

fven to himiihty, patience, resignation ; and
fear that the phrase has led some to regard
these noble qualities as allied to inaction, as
wanting energy and determination. Now
the truth is that the mitid never puts forth
greater power over itself than when, in great
trials, it yields up calmly its desires, affec-
tions, interests to God. There are seasons
when to be still demands immeasurably
higher strength than to act. Composure is
often the highest result of power. Think
you it demands no power to calm the stormy
elements of passion, to moderate the vehe-
mence of desire, to throw off the load of
deieclioo, to suppress every repining thought,
when the dearest hopes are wither^!, and to
turn the wounded spirit from dangerous
m-eries and wasting grief to the quiet diS'
charge of ordinary duties? Is there no
power put forth when a man, stripped of his
property, of the fruits of a life's labour, quells
discontent and gloomy forebodings, and se-
renely and patiently returns to the tasks which
"Providence assigns? I doubt not that the
all-seeing eye of God sometimes discerns the
sublimest human energy under a form and
countenance which by their composure and
tranquillity indicate to the hiunan spectator
only passive virtues.
The doctrine of this discourse is in every

view interesting. To me it goes farther than
all others to explain the present state. If
moral strength, if inward power in the choice
and practice of duty, constitute excellence
and happiness, then I see why we are placed
in a world of obstructions, perils, hardships,
whjrduty is so often a " narrow way," why
the warfare of the passions with conscience
Is so subtle and unceasing ; why within and
without lis are so many foes to rectitude ; for
this is the very state to call forth and to build
up moi^ force. In a world where duty and
inclination should perfectly agree, we should
indeed never err, but the Uving power of
virtue could not be developed. Do not com-
plain, then, of life's triak. Through these
you may gain incomparably higher good than
indulgence and ease. This view reveals to
us the impartial goodness of God in the
variety of human conditions. We sometimes
see individuals whose peculiar trials are
thought to make their existence to them an
evil. But amon^ such may be foimd the
most favoured children of God. If there be
a man on earth to be envied it is he who,
amidst the sharpest assaults from his own
passions, from fortune, from society, never
falters in his allegiance to God and the in-
ward monitor. So peculiar is the excellence
of this moral strength, that I believe the
Creator regards one being who puts it forth
with greater complacency than He would look
on a world of beings innocent and harmless
through the necessity of constitution. I know
not that human wisdom has arrived at a juster
or higher view of the present state than that
it is intended to call forth power by ob-
structioti, the power of intellect by the diffi-
culties of knowledge, the power of con-
science and virtue by temptation, allurement,
pleasure, pain, and the aitemations of pros-
perous and adverse life. When I see a m;m
holding faster his uprightness in proportion
as it is assailed, fortifying his religious trust
in proportion as Providence is obscure, hoping
in the ultimate triumphs of virtue more surely
in proportion to its present afflictions ; cherish-
ing philanthropy amidst the discouraging
experience of men's unkindness and unthank-
fulness ; extending to others a sympathy which
his own sufferings need but cannot obtain;
growing milder and gentler amidst "what
tends to exaspeiate and harden ; and through
inward principle converting the very incite-
ments to evil into the occasions of a victorious
virtue, — I see an explanation, and a noble
explanation, of the present state. I see a
good produced so transcendent in its nature
as to justify all the evil and suffering under
which it grows up. I should think the for-
mation of a few such minds worth all the
apparatus of the present world. I should
say that this earth, with its continents and

T 3

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oceans, its seasons and harvests, and its suc-
cessive generations, was a work worthy of
God, even were it to accomplish no other end
than the training and manifestation of the
illustrious characters which are scattered
through history. And when I consider how
small a portion of human virtue is recorded
by history, how superior in dignity as
well as in number are the unnoticed, un-
honoured saints and heroes of domestic and
humble life, I see a light thrown over the
present state which more than reconciles me
to all its evils.

The views given in this discourse of the
importance of moral power manifested in
great trials, may be employed to shed a
glorious and perhaps a new hght on the cha-
racter and cross of Christ. But this topic can
now be only suggested to your private medita-
tion. There is, however, one practical applica-
tion of our subject which may be made in a
few words, and which I cannot omit. I wish
to ask the young who hear me. and especially
of my own sex, to use the views now offered in
judging and forming their characters. Young
man, remember that the only test of good-
ness, virtue, is moral strength, self-denying
energy. You have generous and honoiu^ble
feelings, you scorn mean actions, your heart
beats quick at the sight or hearing of cou-
rageous, disinterested deeds, and all these are
interesting qualities ; but remember they are
the gifts of nature, the endowments of your
susceptible age. They are not virtue. God

and the inward monitor ask for more. The
question is. Do you strive to confirm into i)er-
manent principles the generous sensibilities <tf
the heart ? Are you watchful to suppress the
impetuous emotions, the resentments, the
selfish passionateness which are warring
against your honourable feelings ? Especially
do you subject to your moral and religious
convictions the love of pleasure, the apperites,
the passions which form the great trials of
youthful virtue? Here is the field of conflict
to which youth is summoned. Trust not to
occasional impulses of benevolence, to consti-
tutional courage, frankness, kindness, if you
surrender yourself basely to the temptations of
your age. No man who has made any ob-
servation of life but will tell you how often he
has seen the promise of youth blasted ; intel-
lect, genius, honourable feeling, kind affection,
overpowered and almost extinguished through
the want of moral strength, through a tame
yielding to pleasure and the passions. Place
no trust in your good propensities, unless these
are fortified, and upheld, and improved by
moral energy and self-control. — ^To all of us,
in truth, the same lesson comes. If any man
will be Christ's disciple, sincerely good, aiKl
worthy to be named among the friends of
virtue, if he will have inward peace and the
consciousness of progress towards Heaven,
he must deny himself, he must take the cross,
and follow Christ in the renimciation of every
gain and pleasure inconsistent with the wiU
of God.


PROVBRBS xir. 9 ; *' Foots nrake a mock at sin.**

My aim in this discourse is simple, and may
be expressed in a few words. I wish to guard
you against thinking lightly of sin. No folly
is so monstrous, and yet our exposure to it is
great. Breathing an atmosphere tainted with
moral evil, seeing and hearing sin in our daily
walks, we are in no small danger of over-
looking its malignity. This malignity I would
set before you with all plainness, believing
that the effort which is needed to resist this
enemy of cur peace is to be called forth by
fixing on it our frequent and serious attention.
I feel as if a difficulty lay at the veiy
threshold of this discussion, which it is worth
our while to remove. The word Sin, I ap-
prehend, is to many obscure, or not suffi-
ciently plain. It is a word seldom used in
common life. It belongs to theology and
the pulpit. By not a few people sin is sup-
posed to be a property of our nature, bom
with us; and we sometimes hear of the child

as being sinful before it can have performed
any action. From these and other causes
the word gives to many confused notions.
Sin, in its true sense, is the violation of duty,
and cannot, consequently, exist before con-
science has begun to act, and before power
to obey it is unfolded. To sin is to resist our
sense of right, to oppose known obligation,
to cherish feelings or commit deeds which we
know to be wrong. It is to withhold from
God the reverence, gratitude, and obedience
which our own consciences pronounce to be
due to that great and good Being. It is to
transgress those laws of equity, justice, can-
dour, humanity, disinterestedness, which we
all feel to belong and to answer to our various
social relations. It is to yield ourselves to
those appetites which we know to be the
inferior principles of our nature, to give the
body a mastery over the mind, to sacrifice
the intellect and heart to the senses, to sur-
render ourselves to ease and indulgence, or

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to prefer outward accumulation and power to
strength and peace of conscience, to progress
towards perfection. Such is sin. It is volun-
tary wrong-doing. Any gratification injurious
to ourselves is sin. Any act injurious to oiu"
neighbours is sin. Indifference to our Crea-

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 62 of 169)