William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 66 of 169)
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the universe is seen to be a boundless sphere
for discovery, for science, for the sense of
beauty, for beneficence, and for adoration.
There new objects to live for, which reduce
to nothingness present interests, are con-
stantly unfolded. We must not think of
Heaven as a stationary community. I think
of it as a world of stupendous plans and
efforts for its own improvement. I think of
it as a society passing through successive
stages of development, virtue, knowledge,
power, by the energy of its own members.
Celestial genius is always active to explore the
great laws of the creation and the everlasting
principles of the mind, to disclose the beau-
tiful in the universe, and to discover the
means by which every soul may be carried
forward. In that world, as in this, there are
diversities of intellect, and the highest minds
find their happiness and progress in elevating
the less improved. There the work of edu-
cation, which began here, goes on without
end ; and a diviner philosophy than is taught
on earth reveals the spirit to itself, and awakens
it to earnest, joyful effort for its own perfec-

And not only will they who are bom into
Heaven enter a society full of life and action
for its own development. Heaven has con-
nection with other worlds. Its inhabitants
are God's messengers through the creation.
They have great trusts. In the progress of
their endless being, they may have the care of
other worlds. But I pause, lest to those un-
used to such speculations I seem to exceed the
bounds of calm anticip>ation. What I have
spoken seems to me to rest on God's word
and the laws of the mind, and these laws are

On one more topic I meant to enlarge, but
I must forbear. They who are bom into
Heaven go not only to Jesus and an innumer-
able company of pure beings. They go to
God. They see Him with a new light in all
his works. Still more, they see Him, as the
Scriptures teach, face to face, that is, by
Immediate Communion. These new rela-
tions of the ascended spirit to the Universal
Father, how near ! how tender ! how strong 1
how exalting 1 But this is too great a subject
for the time which remains. And yet it is the
chief clement of the felicity of Heaven.

The views now given of the futiuie state
should make it an object of deep interest,
earnest hope, constant pursuit. Heaven is,
in truth, a glorious reality. Its attraction
should be felt perpetually. It should over-
come the force with which this world dniwr
us to itself. Were there a country on eartl

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uniting all that is beautifol in nature, all that
is great in virtue, genius, and the liberal arts,
and numbering among its citizens the most
illustrious patriots, poets, philosophers, phi-
lanthropists of our age, how eagerly should
we cross the ocean to visit it! And how
immeasurably greater is the attraction of
Heaven ! There live the elder brethren of
the creation, the sons of the morning, who
sang for joy at the creation of our race ; there
the great and good of all ages and climes ;
the friends, benefactors, deliverers, ornaments
to their race ; the patriarch, prophet, apostle,
and martyr; the true heroes of public, and
still more of private, life ; the father, mother,
wife, husband, child, who, unrecorded by
man, have walked before God in the beauty
of love and self-sacriticing virtue. There are
all who have built up in our hearts the power
of goodness and truth, the writers from whose

pages we have received the inspiration of
pure and lofty sentiments, the friends whose
countenances have shed light through our
dwellings, and peace and strength through
our hearts. There they are leathered toge-
ther, safe from every storm, tnumphant over
evU ; — and they say to us. Come and join us
in our everlasting blessedness ; Come and
bear part in our song of praise ; Share our
adoration, friendship, progress, and works of
love. They say to us, Cherish now in your
earthly life that spirit and virtue of Christ
which is the beginning and dawn of Heaven,
and we shall soon welcome you, with more
than human friendship, to our own immor-
talitv. Shall that voice speak to us in \-ain ?
Shall our worldliness and unforsaken sins
separate us, by a gulf which cannot be passed,
fronf the society of Heaven?


Discourse at tlie Ordination of the Rev, Jared Sparks.
Baltimore, 1819.

X THBS. t. 9z : " Prore »n things ; hold fast that which is


The peculiar circumstances of this occasion
not only justify, but seem to demand, a
departure from the course generally followed
by preachers at the introduction of a brother
into the sacred office. It is usual to speak of
the nature, design, duties, and advantages of
the Christian ministry ; and on these topics I
should now be happy to insist, did I not
remember that a minister is to be given this
day to a religious society whose peculiarities
of opinion have drawn upon them much re-
mark, and, may I not add, much reproach ?
Many good minds, many sincere Clirislians,
I am aware, are apprehensive that the solem-
nities of thb day are to give a degree of
influence to principles which they deem false
and injurious. The fears and anxieties of
such men I respect ; and, believing that they
are groimded in part on mistake, I have
thought it my duty to lay before you, as
clearly as I can, some of the distinguishing
opinions of that class of Christians in our
country who are known to sympathize with
this religious society. I must ask your
patiepce, for such a subject is not to be
despatched in a narrow compass. I must also
ask vou to remember that it is impossible to
exhibit* in a single discotu^e, our views of
every doctrine of Revelation, much less the
differences of opinion which are known to

subsist among ourselves. I shall confine my-
self to topics on which our sentiments have
been misrepresented, or which distinguish us
most widely from others. May I not hope to
be heard with candoiu- ? God deliver us all
from prejudice and unkindness, and fill us
with the love of truth and virtue !

There are two natural divisions under
which my thoughts will be arranged. I shall
endeavour to unfold, ist, The principles which
we adopt in interpreting the Scriptures. And
andly. Some of tlic doctrines which the
Scriptures, so interpreted, seem to us clearly
to express.

I. We regard the Scriptures as the records
of God's successive revelations to mankind,
and particularly of the last and most perfect
revelation of his will by Jesus Christ. What-
ever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught
in the Scriptiures. we receive without reserve
or exception. We do not, however, attach
equal importance to all the books in this
collection. Our religion, we believe, lies
chiefly in the New Testament. The dispen-
sation of Moses, compared with that of
Jesus, we consider as adapted to the child-
hood of the hiunan race, a preparation for a
nobler system, and chiefly useful iu>w as
serving to confirm and illustrate the Christitai
Scriptures. Jesus Christ is the only Masttf of
Christians, and whatever he taught, dlbcc
during his personal.ministiy or by bis ins|ured

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Apostles, we regard as of divine authority,
and profess to make the rule of our lives.

This authority which we give to the Scrip-
tures is a reason, we conceive, for studying
thl)^ with peculiar care, and for inquiring
aniiously into the principles of interpretation
by ^hich their true meaning may be ascer-
tained. The principles adopted by the class
of Christians in whose name I speak need to
be Explained, because they are often mis-
understood. We arc particularly accused of
maldng an unwarrantable use of reason in
the interpretation of Scriptiu^. We are said
to exalt reason above revelation, to prefer
our own wisdom to God's. Loose and un-
defined charges of this kind are circulated so
freely, that we think it due to ourselves, and
to the cause of truth, to express our views
with some particularity.

Our leading principle in interpreting Scrip-
ture is this, that the Bible is a book written
for men, in the language of men, and that
its meaning is to be sought in the same man-
ner as that of other books. We believe that
God, when He speaks to the human race,
conforms, if we may so say, to the established
rules of speaking and writing. How else
would the Scriptures avail us more than if
communicated in an unknown tongue?

Now all books and all conversation require
in the reader or hearer the constant exercise
of reason ; or their true import is only to be
obtained by continual comparison and infe-
rence. Human language, you well know,
admits various interpretations ; and every
word and every sentence must be modified
and explained according to the subject which
is disctissed, according to the purposes, feel-
ings, circumstances, and principles of the
writer, and according to the genius and
idioms of the language which he uses.
These are acknowledge principles in the
interpretation of human writings ; and a man
whose words we should explam without re-
ference to these principles would reproach us
justly with a criminal want of candour, and
an intention of obscuring or distorting his

Were the Bible written in a language and
style of its own. did it consist of words which
admit but a single sense, and of sentences
whc^Iy detached from each other, there would
be no place for the principles now laid down.
We ocmM not reason about it as about other
writings. But such a book would be of
little worth ; and perhaps, of all books, the
Scriptures correspond least to this descrip-
tion. The Word of God bears the stamp of
the same hand which we see in his works.
It has infinite connections and dependences.
Every proposition is linked with others, and
b to be compared with others, that its full
and precise import may be understood. No-

thing stands alone. The New Testament is
built on the Old. The Christian dispensation
is a continuation of the Jewish, the comple-
tion of a vast scheme of providence, requir-
ing great extent of view in the reader. Still
more, the Bible treats of subjects on which
we receive ideas from other sources besides
itself— such subjects as the nature, passions,
relations, and duties of man ; and it expects
us to restrain and modify its language by the
known truths which observation and experi-
ence furnish on these topics.

We profess not to know a book which de-
mands a more frequent exercise of reason
than the Bible. In addition to the remarks
now made on its infinite connections, we may
obser\'e, that its style nowhere affects the pre-
cision of science or the accuracy of definition.
Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and
figurative, demanding more frequent depar-
tures from the literal sense than that of our
own age and country, and consequently de-
manding more continual exercise of judgment.
We find, too, that the different portions of
this book, instead of being confined to general
truths, refer perpetually to the times when
they were written, to states of society, to
modes of thinking, to controversies in the
church, to feelings and usages which have
passed away, and without the knowledge of
which we are constantly in danger of extend-
ing to all times and places what was of tem-
porary and local application.— We find, too,
that some of these books are strongly marked
by the genius and character of their respec-
tive ^vriters, that the Holy Spirit did not so
guide the Apostles as to suspend the pecu-
liarities of their minds, and that a knowledge
of their feelings, and of the influences under
which they were placed, is one of the prepa-
rations for understanding their writings. With
these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden
duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetu-
ally, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the
letter to the spirit, to seek in the nattire of
the subject and the aim of the writer his true
meaning ; and, in general, to make use of what
is known for explaining what is difficult, and
for discovering new truths.

Need I descend to particulars to prove that
the Scriptures demand the exercise of reason ?
Take, for example, the style in which they .
generally speak of God, and observe how
habitually they apply to Him human pas-
sions and organs. Recollect the declarations
of Christ, that he came not to send peace
but a sword; that unless we eat his flesh
and drink his blood we have no life in us;
that we must hate father and mother, and
pluck out the right eye ; and a vast number
of passages equally bold and unlimited.
Recollect the un<^ualified manner in which
it is said of Christians that they possess all

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:i me veroai coauRaiciion ueiwccn meniai tvlmis^ oi rcaM^omg, lur ^acrincing ti

i James, and the apparent clashing of plain to the obscure, and the general straii^

rts of Pauls writings with the general Scripture to a scanty number of insulated tel*

5 and end of Christianity. I might We object strongly to the contempt^

i or J

things, know all things, and can do all things, so abundantly, but for violatmg the fund^
Recollect the verbal contradiction between mental rules of reasoning, for sacrificing tl
Paul and "
some parts

doctrines and end of Christianity. I might We object strongly to the contempt'
extend the enumeration indefinitely; and who manner in which human reason is
does not see that we must limit all these pas- spoken of by our adversaries, becai
iages by the known attributes of God, of Jesus leads, we believe, to universal scepti
Christ, and of human nature, and by the cir- If reason be so dreadfully darkened "
cujnstances under which they were written, so fall that its most decisive judgments o
as to give the language a quite different import gion are unworthy of trust, then Christi:
from what it wouki require had it been ap- and even natural theology, must be
plied to diflferent beings, or used in different doned ; for the existence and veracity^
connections ? God, and the divine original of Christi^iQity,

Enough has been said to show in what are conclusions of reason, and must sta/|d or
sense we make use of reason in interpreting fall with it. If revelation be at war with th
Scripture. From a variety of possible inter- faculty, it subverts itself, for the great ques-]
pretations we select that which accords with tion of its truth is left by God to be de^d
the nature of the subject and the state of the at the bar of reason. It is worthy of i-emark
writer, with the connection of the passage, how nearly the bigot and the sceptic approach J
with the general strain of Scripture, with me Both would annihilate our confidence in our
known character and will of God, and with faculties, and both throw doubt and confusion
the obvious and acknowledged laws of nature, over every truth. We honoiu* revelation too
In other words, we believe that God never highly to make it the antagonist of reason,
contradicts in one part of Scripture what He or to believe that it caUs us to renour je our
teaches in another; and never contradicts in highest powers.

revelation what He teaches in his works and We indeed grant that the use of reason in
providence. And we therefore distrust every religion is accompanied with datiger. But
interpretation which, after deliberate atten- we ask any honest man to look back on the
tion, seems repugnant to any established truth, history of the church, and say whether the
We reason about the Bible precisely as civi- renunciation of it be not still more dangerous?
lians do about the constitution under which Besides, it is a plain fact that men reason as j
we live; who, you know, are accustomed to erroneously on all subjects as on relig^jn.^
limit one provision of that venerable instru- Who does not know the wild and groundless^
ment by others, and to fix the precise import theories which have been framed in physical J
of its parts by inquiring into its general and political science? But who ever sup- 1
spirit, into the intentions of its authors, and posed that we must cease to exercise reason ^
into the prevalent feelings, impressions, and on nature and society because men have
circuntistances of the time when it was framed, erred for ages in explaining them ? We
Without these principles of interpretation, we grant that the passions continually, ap*
frankly acknowledge that we cannot defend sometimes fatally, disturb the rational fao* "*
the divine authority of the Scriptures. Deny in its inquiries into revelation. The ambiti**^
us this latitude, and we must abandon this contrive to find doctrines in the Bible ii3oo
book to its enemies. favoiu: their love of dominion. The }^^

We do not announce these principles as and dejected discover there a gloomy. sy?***^
original, or peculiar to ourselves. All Chris- and the mystical and fanatical a v> 5*»« >»•
tians occasionally adopt them, not excepting theology. The vicious can find exajf^^^^^j
those who most vehemently decry them when assertions on which to build the hj|p goo*^
they happen to menace some favotuite article late repentance, or of acceptance on ^9SP*
of their creed. All Christians are compelled terms. The falsely refined contrive to light:
to use them in their controversies with infidels, on doctrines which have not been settled d|
All sects employ them in their warfare with vulgar handling. But the passions do .net
one another. All willingly avail themselves distract the reason in religious any morib than
of reason when it can be pressed into the in other inquiries which excite strong and
service of their own party, and only com- general interest; and this faculty, of ooruxr:
plain of it when its weapons wound them- quence, is not to be renounced in religion.
selves. None reason more frequently than unless we are prepared to discard it univer-
those from whom we differ. It is astonish- sally. The true inference from the almost
ing what a fabric they rear from a few slight endless errors which have darkened tbedpgy
hints about the fall of our first parents ; and is. not that we are to neglect and disparage
how ingeniously they extract from detached oiur powers, but to exert them more paiieacly,
passages mysterious doctrines about the divine circumspectly, uprightly ; the worst ervots.
nature. We do not blame them for reasoning after all, having sprung up in that ^qp*^

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/ governed. We believe, on the other h and,
jit one of the great excellences of Chris-
ity is that it does not deal in minute regu-
tvi,>n, but that, having given broad views of
thei ^^^ enjoined a pure and disinterested
QQj^ it leaves us to apply these rules and
tw fy|S this spirit according to the prompt-
tajner^ the divine monitor within us, and
of CP^ ^^ ^^® elaims and exigencies
l)e Je ever-varying conditions in which
xQK^re placed. We believe, too, that
miction u not intended to supersede God's
' ■<u?r,j»odes of instruction ; that it b not in-
tend^ to drown, but to make more audible,
the voice of nature. Now, nature dictates
^he propriety of such an act as we are this
iay assembled to perform. Nature has
liways taught men, on the completion of an
i xnportaftit structure, designed for public and
[ lasting 'good, to solemnize its first appro-
priation to the purpose for which it was
■' freared by some special service. To us, there
i wis a sacredness in this moral instinct, in this
[Claw written on the heart; and in listening
[•reverently to God's dictates, however con-
• Tcyed, we doubt not that we shall enjoy his
acceptance and blessing.

I nave said we dedicate this building to the
teaching of the Gospel of Christ. But in
the present state 01 the Christian church,
these words are not as definite as they one
day will be. This Gospel is variously in-
terpreted. It is preached in various forms.
. Christendom is parcelled out into various
V sects. When, therefore, we see a new house
^ of worship reared, the question immediately
^ arises, To what mode of teaching Chris-
tianity is it to be devoted? I need not tell
my hearers, that this house has been
by that class of Christians who are
Unitarians, and that the Gospel will
l)e taught as interpreted by that body of
:rs. This you all know ; but perhaps
«nt have not attached a very precise
g to the word by which our particular
Christianity are designated. Uni-
been made a term of so much
and lias been uttered in so many
of alarm, horror, indignation, and
scorn, that to many it gives only a vague im-
ipression of something monstrotis. impious,
unutterably perilous. To such I would say,
that this doctrine, which is considered by
»me as the last and most perfect invention
Satan, the consummation of his blas-
phemies, the most cunning weapon ever
forged in the fires of hell, amounts to this,—
That there is One God, even the Father ; and
that Jesus Christ is not this One God, but his
son and messenger, who derived all his powers
and glories from the Universal Parent, and
who came into the world not to claim supreme
Jujoaage for himself, but to cany up the soul

to his Father as the Only Divine Person, the
Only Ultimate Object of religious worship.
To us, this doctrine seenis not to have sprung
from hell, but to have descended from the
throne of God, and to invite and attract us
tliither. To us, it seems to come from the
Scriptures, with a voice loud as the soimd of
many waters, and as articulate and clear as if
Jesus, in a bodily form, were pronouncing it
distinctly in our ears. To this doctrine, and
to Christianity interpreted in consistency with
it, we dedicate this building.

That we desire to propagate this doctrine,
we do not conceal. It is a treasure which
we wish not to confine to ourselves, which we
dare not lock up in our own breasts. We
regard it as given to us for others, as well as
for ourselves. We should rejoice to spread
it through this great city, to carry it into every
dwelling, and to send it far and wide to the
remotest setdements of our country. Am I
asked why we wish this diffusion ? We dare
not say that we are in no degree influenced by
sectanan feeling ; for we see it raging around
us, and we should be more than men were
we wholly to escape an epidemic passion.
We do hope, however, that our main purpose
and aim is not sectarian, but to promote a
piurer and nobler piety than now prevails.
We are not induced to spread our opinions
by the mere conviction that they are true;
for there are many truths, historical, meta-
physical, scientific, literary, which we have no
anxiety to propagate. We regard them as
the highest, most important, most efficient
truths, and therefore demanding a firm testi-
mony and earnest efforts to make them known.
In thus speaking, we do not mean that we
regard our peculiar views as essential to salva-
tion. Far n-om us be this spirit of exclusion,
the very spirit of antichrist, the worst of all
the delusions of Popery and of Protestantism.
We hold nothing to be essential but the
simple and supreme dedication of the mind,
heart, and life to God and to his vnXL This
inward and practical devotedness to the
Supreme Being, we are assured, is attained
and accepted under all the forms of Chris-
tianity. We believe, however, that it is
favoured by that truth-which we maintain,
as by no other system of faith. We regard
Unitarianism as peculiarly the friend of in-
ward, living, practical religion. For this we
value it—for this we would spread it ; and we
desire none to embrace it but such as shall
seek and derive from it this celestial influence.

This character and property of Unitarian
Christianity, its fitness to promote true, deep,
and living piety, being our chief ground of
attachment to it, and our chief motive for
dedicating this house to its inculcation, I
have thought proper to make this the topic
of my present discourse. I do not propose

X 3

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sod VmTARlAl4 CiiRI^tlANlTV

to prove the truth of Unitarianism by Scrip- where we live, books, events, the pleasure

tural authorities, for this argument would and business of life, the outward creation,

exceed the limits of a sermon, but to show our phvsical temperament, and hmumer-

its superior tendency to form an elevated able other causes, are perpetually poiulog

religious character. If. however, this position in upon the soul thoughts, views, «iid

can be sustained, I shall have contributed no emotions ; and these influences an so

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 66 of 169)