William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 84 of 169)
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Great principles must be expounded in ac-
commodation to different ages, capacities,
stages of improvement, and an intercourse
be established by which all classes may t)e
helped to apply them to their own particular
conditions. How shall Christianity be brought
to bear on the individual, and on societv at
the present moment, in its present struggles ?
This is the great question to be solved, and
the reply to it will determine the form which
the (!)hristian ministry is to take. I imagine
that, in seeking the solution of this problem,
it will be discovered that the ministry must
have greater freedom than in past times. It
will be discovered that the individual minister
must not be rigidly tied down to certain estab-
lished modes of operation, that he must not
be required to cast his preaching into the old
mould, to circumscribe himseUf to the old
topics, to keep in motion a machinery which
others have invented, but that he will do
most good if left to work according to his
own nature, according to the promptings of
the Holy Spirit within his own breast. I
imagine it will be discovered that, as justice
may be administered without a wig, and tho
executive function without a crown or sceptre,
so Christianitv may be administered in more
natural and less formal ways than have pre-
vailed, and that the minister, in growing less
technical, will find reUgion becoming to him-
self and others a more living reality. I ima-
gine that our present religious organizations
will silently melt away, and that hierarchies
will be found no more necessary for religion
than for literature, science, medicine, law, or
the elegant and useful arts. But I will chedc
these imaginings. The point from which I
started was, that CathoUcism might teach us
one element of an effectual ministry, that
the Protestant teacher needs and should seek
access to the individual mind. be3rond what
he now possesses ; and the point at which I
stop is, that this access is to be so sought and
so used as not to infringe religious liberty,
the rights of private judgment, the free ac-
tion of the individual mind. Nothing but
this Uberty can secure it from the terrible
abuse to which it has been exposed in the
Catholic Church.

In the free remarks which I have nowooade
on certain denominations of. Christians^ I
have been influenced by no utikindness or



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LEtTEk ON CATliOUCISM.



385



disfespcet towards the individuals who com-
pose them. In all sects I recognize joyfully
true disciples of the common Master. Catho-
licism boasts of some of the best and greatest
names in history, so does Episcopacy, so
PresbjTterianism. &c. I exclude none. I
know that Christianity is mighty enough to
accomplish its end in all. I cannot, how-
ever, speak of religious any more than of
political parties without betraying the little
respect I have for them as parties. There is
no portion of human history more humbling
than that of sects. When I meditate on the
grand moral, spiritual purp<^ of Christianity,
m which all its glory consists ; when I con-
sider how plainly Christianity attaches impor-
tance to nothing but to the moral excellence,
the disinterested, divine virtue, which was
embodied in the teaching and life of its
Founder; and when from this position I look
down on the sects which have figured and
now figure in the church ; when I see them
making such a stir about matters generally
so unessential ; when I see them seizing on a
disputed and disputable doctrine, making it
a watch-word, a test of God's favour, a bond
of communion, a ground of self-complacency,
a badge of peculiar holiness, a warrant for
condemning its rejectors, however imbued
with the spirit of Christ; when I see them
overlooking the weightier matters of the law,
and lajring infinite stress here on a bishop and
prayer-book, there on the quantity of water
applied in baptism, and there on some dark so-
lution of an incomprehensible article of faith ;
when I see the mock dignity of their exclusive
claims to truth, to churchship, to the promises
of God's Word; when I hear the mimic
thundeitiolts of denunciation and excommu-
nication which they delight to hurl ; when I
consider how their deep theology, in propor-
tion as it is examined, evaporates into words,
how many opposite and extravagant notions
are covered by the .same broad shield of
mystery and tradition, and how commonly
the persuasion of infallibility is proportioned
to the absurdity of the creed; — when I con-
sider these things, and other matters of like
import, I am lost in amazement at the amount
of arrogant folly, of self-complacent intole-
rance, of almost incredible blindness to the
end and essence of Christianity, which the
history of sects reveals. I have indeed pro-
found respect for individuals in all commu-
nions of Christians. But on sects, and on
the spirit of sects, I must be allowed to look
with grief, shame, pity — I had almost said
contempt. In passing these censures I claim
no superiority. I am sure there are thousands
of all sects who think and feel as I do in
this particular, and who, far from claiming
supeiior intellleence, are distinguished by
ftHiowlng out the plain dictates, the natural



impulses, and spontaneous judgments of con-
science and common sense.

It is time for me to finish this letter, which
indeed has grown under my hands beyond
all reasonable bounds. But I must add a
line or two in reply to your invitation to visit
you. You say that fCentucky will not ex-
clude me for my opinions on slavery. I rejoice
to hear it, not for my own sake, but for the
sake of the country. I rejoice in a tolerant
spirit, wherever manifested. What you say
accords with what I have heard of the frank,
liberal character of Kentucky. All our ac-
counts of the West make me desire to visit
it. I desire to see nature under new aspects ;
but still more to see a new form of society.
I hear of the defects of the West, but I
learn that a man there feels himself to be a
man, that he has a self-respect which is not
always to be found in older communities, that
he speaks his mind freely, that he acts more
from generous impulses, and less from selfish
calculations. These are good tidings. I re-
joice that the intercourse between the East
and West is increasing. Both will profit.
The West may learn from us the love of
order, and arts which adorn and cheer life,
the institutions of education and religion,
which lie at the foimdation of our greatness,
and may give us in return the energies and
virtues which belong to and distinguish a
fresher state of society. Such exchanges I
regard as the most precious fruits of the
Union, worth more than exchanges of pro-
ducts of industry, and they will do more to
bind us together as one people.

You press me to come and preach in your
part of^ the country. I should do it cheer-
fully if I could. It would rejoice me to bear
a testimony, however feeble, to great truths
in your new settlements. I confess, however,
that I fear that my education would unfit me
for great usefulness among you. I fear that
the habits, rules, and criticisms imder which
I have grown up, and almost grown old, have
not left me the freedom and courage which
are needed in the style of address best suited
to the Western people. I have fought against
these chains. I have laboured to be a free
man ; but in the state of the ministry and of
society here, freedom is a hard acquisition.
I hope the rising generation will gain it more
easily and abundantly than their fathers.

I have only to add, my young brother, my
best wishes for your usefulness. I do not ask
for your enjoyment. I ask for you something
better and greater, something which includes
it — even a spirit to live and die for a cause,
which is dearer than your own enjoyment.
If I were called to give you one rule which
yoiu* situation demands above all others, it
would be this. Live a life of faith and hope.
Believe in God's great purposes towards the

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386



LETTER ON CATHOLICISM.



human race. Believe in the mighty power of
truth and love. Believe in the omnipotence
of Christianity. Believe that Christ lived and
died to breathe into his church and into society
a diviner spirit than now exists. Believe in
the capacities and greatness of human nature.
Believe that the celestial virtue revealed in
the life and teaching of Jesus Christ is not
a bright vision for barren admiration, but is
to become a reality in your own and others*
souls. Carry to your work a trustful spirit.
Do not waste your breath in wailing over the
times. Strive to make them better. Do not
be disheartened by evils. Feel through your
whole soul that evil is not the mightiest
power in the universe — that it is permitted
only to call forth the energy of love, wisdom,
persuasion, and prayer for its removal. Settle
it in your mind that a minister can never speak
an eftcctual word without faith. Be strong in
the Lord and the power of his might. Allow
me to say, that I have a good hope of you.
I learned some time ago, from one of your
dear friends, that you comprehended the grant
deur of your work as a Christian minister.
I learned that the pulpit, from which a
divinely moved teacher communicates ever-
lasting truths, seemed to you more glorious
than a throne. I learned that you had come
to understand what is the greatest power



which God gives to men— the ,ifVcr of

acting generously on the soul of ^ >«rother;
of coromimicating to others a i^A4ae spirit, (A
awakening in others a heavenly life which is
to outlive the stars. I then felt that you
would not labour in vain. You have indeed
peculiar trials. You are dwelling far from
your brethren, but there is a sense of God's
presence more cheering than the dearest
human society. There is a consciousness of
working with God more strengthening than
all human co-operation. Therp is a sight,
granted to the pure mind, of the cross of
Christ, which makes privations and sufferings
in the cause of his truth seem light, which
makes us sometimes to rejoice in tribulation,
like the primitive heroes of our faith. My
young brother, I wish you these blessings.
What else ought I to wish for you?

This letter, you will perceive, is written in
great haste. The opinions, indeed, have been
deliberately formed ; but they probably might
have been expressed with greater caution. If
it will serve, in your judgment, the cause of
truth, freedom, and religjon, you are at hbertjr
to insert it in your wor£

Your sincere friend,

William E. Channing.
Boston, June, 1836.



THE SYSTEM OF EXCLUSION AND DENUNCIATION

IN RELIGION CONSIDERED.

1815.



Nothing is plainer than that the leaders of
the party called "Orthodox" have adopted
and mean to enforce a system of exclusion
in regard to Liberal Christians. They spare
no pains to infect the minds of their too easy
followers with the persuasion that they ought
to refuse communion with their Unitarian
brethren, and to deny them the name, cha-
racter, and privileges of Christians. On this
system I shall now offer several obseirations.
I begin with an important suggestion. I
beg that it may be distinctly understood that
the zeal of Liberal Christians on this point
has no other object than the peace and
prosperity of the church of Christ. We are
pleading, not our own cause, but the cause
of our Master. The denial of our Christian
character by fallible and imperfect men gives
us no anxiety. Our relation to Jesus Christ
is not to be dissolved by the breath of man.
Our Christian rights do not depend on
human passions. We have precisely the
same power over our brethren which they
have over us, and are equally authorized to
sever them from the body of Christ Still



more ; if the possession of truth give superior
weight to denunciation, we are persuaded that
our opposers will be the severest sufferers,
should we think fit to hurl back the sentence
of exclusion and condemnation, ^ni we
have no disposition to usurp power over our
brethren. We believe that the spirit which
is so studiously excited against ourselves
has done incalculable injury to the cause of
Christ, and we pray Gocl to deliver us from
its power.

Why are the name, character, and rights
of Christians to be denied to Unitarians?
Do they deny that Jesus is the Christ ? Do
they reject his word as the rule of their faith
and practice? Do their lives discover in*
difference to his authorii^ and example?
No, these are not their offences. They are
deficient in none of the qualifications of
disciples which were required in the primi^
tive age. Their offence is, that they read the
Scriptures for themselves, and derive toni
them different opinions on certain poioti
from those which others have ad^tad*
Mistake of judgment is their pretmod



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EXCLUSION AND DENUNCIATION IN RELIGION,



387



crhne. ftnd this crime is laid to their charge Need I ask whether this spirit of denunciation

by men who are as liable to mistake as for supposed error becomes the humble and

themselves, and who seem to them to have fallible disciples of Jesus Christ ?

fallen into some of the grossest errors. A In vindication of this ^tem of exclusion

condemning sentence from such judges car- and denunciation, it is ouen urged that the

rics with it no terror. Sorrow for its un- "honour of reUgion," the "purity of the

charitableness, and strong disapprobation of church," and the "cause of truth," forbid

its arrogance, are the principal feelings which those who hold the true Gospel to maintain

it inspires. fellowship with those who support corrupt

It is truly astonishing that Christians are and injurious opinions. Without stopping

not more impressed with the unbecoming to notice the modesty of those who claim aii

spirit, the arrogant style, of those who deny occlusive knowledge of the true Gosf>el, I

the Christian character to professed and ex- would answer, that the " honour of religion"

emplaiy followers of Jesus Christ because can never suifer by admitting to Christian

they differ in opinion on some of the most fellowship men of irreproachable lives, whils'

subtle and difficult subjects of theology. A it has suffered most severely from that narro.\'

stranger, at hearing the language of these and imcharitable spirit which has exclude 1

denouncers, would conclude, without a doubt, such men for imagined errors. I answer

that they were clothed with infallibility, and again, that the "cause of truth" can never

were appointed to sit in judgment on their suffer by admitting to Christian fellowship

brethren. But, for myself, I know not a men who honestly profess to make the Scrip*

shadow of a pretence for the language of tures their rule of faith and practice, whilst

superiority assumed by our adversaries. Are it has suffered most severely by substituting

they exempted from the common frailty of for this standard conformity to human creeds

o«T nature ? Has God given them superior and formularies. It is truly wonderful, if

intelligence? Were they educated under excommunication for supposed error be the

circumstances more favourable to improve- method of purif)ring the church, that the



roent than those whom they condemn? Have
they brought to the Scriptures more serious,
anxious, and unwearied attention? Or do
their lives express a deeper revesence for God
and for his Son? No. They are fallible.



chtm:h has been so long and so wofully
corrupted. Whatever may have l)een the
deficiencies of Christians in other respects,
Ihey have certainly discovered no criminal
reluctance in appljring this instrument of



Imperfect men, possessing no higher means purification. Could the thunders and light-

ond no stronger motives for studying the word nings of excommunication have corrected the

of God than their Unitarian brethren. And atmosphere of the church, not one pestilential

yet their language to them is virtually this : vapour would have loaded it for ages. The

** We pronounce you to be in error, and in ah* of Paradise would not have been more

most dangerous error. We know that we pure, more refreshing. But what does history

are right, and that you are wrong, in regard tell us ? It tells us that the spirit of exclusion

to the fundamental doctrines of the Gc^>el. and denunciation has contributed more than

You are unworthy the Christian name, and all other causes to the corruption of the

unfit to sit with us at the table of Christ, church, to the diffusion of error; and has

We offer you the truth, and you reject it rendered the records of the Christian com-

at the peril of your souls." Such is the munity as black, as bloody, as revolting to

language of humble Christians to men who, humanity, as the records of empires founded

in capacity and apparent piety, are not inferior on conquest and guilt.

to themselves. This language has spread But it is said. Did not the Apostle denounce

£rom the leaders through a considerable part the erroneous, and pronounce a curse on the

of the community. Men in those walks of "abettors of another gospel?" This is the

life which leave them without leisure or oppor- stronghold of the friends of denunciation,

tunities for improvement, are heard to decide But let us never forget that the Apostles were

on the most intricate points, and to pass sen- inspired men, capable of marking out with

fence on men whose Uves have been devoted unerring certainty those who substituted

to the study of the Scriptiues f The female, "another gospel" for the true. Show us

forgetting the tenderness of her sex, and their successors, and wo will cheerfully obey

the limited advantages which her education them.

affords for a critical study of the Scriptures, It is also important to recollect the cha-

inveigtis with bitterness against the damnable racter of those men against whom the Apos-

errors of such men as Newton, Lodte, Clarke, folic anathema was directed. They were men

and Price I The young, too, forget the who knew distinctly what the Apostles taught,

modesty which belongs to their age, and hurl and yet opposed it ; and who endeavoured to

condemnation on the head which has grown sow division, and to gain followers, in the

grey in the service of God and mankind, churches whidh the Apostles had planted.

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385



av THE SYSTEM 01^ R)CCLUSION



These men, resisting the known instructions
of the authorized and inspired teachers of the
Gospel, and discovering a factious, selfish,
mercenary spirit, were justly excluded as un-
worthy the Christian name. But what in
common with these men have the Christians
whom it is the custom of the "Orthodox"
to denounce? Do these oppose what they
know to be the doctrine of Christ and his
Apostles? Do they not revere Jesus and his
inspired messengers ? Do they not dissent
from their brethren simply because they be-
lieve that their brethren dissent from their
Lord ? Let us not forget that the contest at
the present day is not between the Apostles
themselves and men who oppose their known
instructions, but uninspired Christians who
equally receive the Apostles as authorized
teachers of the Gospel, and who only differ
in judgment as to the interpretation of their
writings. How unjust, then, is it for any
class of Christians to confound their oppo-
nents with the factious and unprincipled
sectarians of the primitive age ! Mistake in
judgment is the heaviest charge which one
denomination has now a right to urge against
another; and do we find that the Apostles
ever denoimced mistake as "awful and fatal
hostility" to the Gospel; that they pronounce
anathemas on men who wished to obey, but
who misapprehended their doctrines? The
Apostles well remembered that none ever
mistook more widely than themselves. They
remembered, too, the lenity of their Lord
towards their errors, and this lenity they
cherished and laboured to difTuse.

But it is asked. Have not Christians a right
to bear "solemn testimony" against opinions
which are " utterly subversive of the Gos-
pel, and most dangeroiis to men's eternal
interests?" To this I answer, that the opin-
ions of men who discover equal intelligence
and piety with ourselves, are entitled to re-
spectful consideration. If, after inquiry, they
seem erroneous and injurious, we are autho-
rized and bound, according to our ability, to
expose, by fair and serious argument, their
nature and tendency. But I maintain that
we have no right as individuals, or in an asso-
ciated capacity, to bear our "solemn testi-
mony" against these opinions, by menacing
with ruin the Christian who listens to them,
or by branding them with the most terrifying
epithets, for the purpose of preventing candid
inquiry into their truth. This is the fashion-
able mode of " bearing testimony," and it is
a weapon which will always be most success-
ful in the hands of the proud, the positive,
and overbearing, who are most impatient of
contradiction, and have least regard to the
lights of their brethren.

But whatever may be the right of Chris-
tians, as to bearing testimony against opinions



uJLr



which they deem injurious, I deny that ,
have any right to pass a condemning sent^
on account of these opinions, on the cJtrac-
ters of men whose general deponrifot is
conformed to the Gospel of Cbsjpt/ Both
Scripture and reason unite in teaching that
the best and only standard of character is the
life ; and he who overlooks the testimony of
a Christian life, and grounds a sentence of
condemnation on opinions about which he,
as well as his brother, may err, violates most
flagrantly the duty of jxist and candid judg-
ment, and opposes the peaceful and charitable
spirit of the Gospel. Jesus Christ says, " By
their fruits shall ye know them." "Not
every one that saith imto me, Lord. Lord,
shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but be
who doeth the will of my Father which is in
heaven." " Ye are my friends, if ye do
whatsoever I command you." "He Ih.!! .
heareth and doeth these my sayings," «.*.
the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount,
" I will liken him to a man who built his
house upon a rock." It would be easy to
multiply similar passages. The whole Scrip-
tures teach us that he and he only is a
Christian whose life is governed by the pre-
cepts of the Gospel, and that by this standard
alone the profession of this religion should
be tried. We do not deny that our brethren
have a right to form a judgment as to oor
Christian character. But we insist that we
have a right to be judged by the fairest, the
most approved, and the most settled rules
by which character can be tried ; and when
these are overlooked, and the most unoertain
standard is applied, we are injured; and an
assault on character which rests on this
ground deserves no better name than defa-
mation and p>ersecution.

I know that this suggestion of posecution
will be indignantly repelled by those who
deal most largely in denunciation. Bur per-
secution is a wrong or injury inflicted for
opinions; and surely assaults on diaracter
fall under this definition. Some persons seem
to think that persecution consists in pursuing
error with fire and sword ; and that therefore
it has ceased to exist, except in distempered
imaginations, because no class of Christians
among us is armed with these terrible
weapons. But no. The form is changed,
but the spirit lives. Persecution has given
up its halter and fagot, but it breathes venom
from its lips, and secretly blasts what it
cannot openly destroy. For example, a
liberal minister, however cireumspect in his
walk, irreproachable in all his relations, no
sooner avows his honest convictions on some
of the most difficult subjects, than bis name
begins to be a by- word. A thousand sus-
picions are infused into his hearers ; and it is
insinuated that he is a minister of Satao, Ui



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AND DENUNCIATION IN RELIGION.



389



"the guise of an angel of light." At a
little distance from his home, calumny as-
sumes a bolder tone. He is pronounced an
infidel, and it is gravely asked whether he
believes in a God. At a greater distance, his
motals are assailed. He is a man of the
world, " leading souls to hell," to gratify the
most selfish passions. But, notwithstanding
all this, he must not say a word about perse-
cution, for reports like these rack no limbs ;
they do not even injure a hair of his head ;
and how then is he persecuted? — Now, for
myself, I am as willing that my adversary
should take my purse or my life, as that he



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 84 of 169)