William Ellery Channing.

The works of William E. Channing, D.D.: With an introduction online

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God our existence has no support, our
life no aim, our improvements no per-
manence, our best labors no sure and
enduring results, our spiritual weakness
no power to lean upon, and our noblest
aspirations and desires no pledge of be-
ing realized in a better state. Struggling
virtue has no friend ; suffering virtue no
promise of victory. Take away God, and
life becomes mean, and man poorer than
the brute. I am accustomed to speak
of the greatness of human nature ; but
it is great only through its parentage ;
great, because descended from God,
because connected with a goodness and
power from which it is to be enriched
for ever ; and nothing but the conscious-
ness of this connection can give that
hope of elevation through which alone
the mind is to rise to true strength and

All the truths of religion conspire to
one end, spiritual liberty. All the ob-
jects which it offers to our thoughts are
sublime, kindling, exalting. Its funda-
mental truth is the existence of one God,
one Infinite and Everlasting Father: and
it teaches us to look on the universe as
pervaded, quickened, and vitally joined
into one harmonious and beneficent


1 7 8


whole, by his ever-present and omnip-
otent love. By this truth it breaks the
power of matter and sense, of present
pleasure and pain, of anxiety and fear.
It turns the mind from the visible, the
outward and perishable, to the Unseen,
Spiritual, and Eternal, and, allying it
with pure and great objects, makes it

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

I do not indeed wonder that so many
doubt the power of religion to give
strength, dignity, and freedom to the
mind. What bears this name too often
yields no such fruits. Here, religion is
a form, a round of prayers and rites, an
attempt to propitiate God by flattery and
fawning. There, it is terror and sub-
jection to a minister or priest : and there,
it is a violence of emotion, bearing away
the mind like a whirlwind, and robbing
it of self-direction. But true religion
disclaims connection with these usurpers
of its name. It is a calm, deep convic-
tion of God's paternal interest in the im-
provement, happiness, and honor of his
creatures. a practical persuasion that
He delights in virtue and not in forms
and flatteries, and that He especially
delights in resolute effort to conform
ourselves to the disinterested love and
rectitude which constitute his own glory.
It is for this religion that I claim the

honor of giving dignity and freedom to
the mind.

The need of religion to accomplish
this work is in no degree superseded by
what is called the progress of society.
I should say that civilization, so far from
being able of itself to give moral strength
and elevation, includes causes of degra-
dation which nothing but the religious
principle can withstand. It multiplies,
undoubtedly, the comforts and enjoy-
ments of life ; but in these I see sore
trials and perils to the soul. These
minister to the sensual element in hu-
man nature, to that part of our constitu-
tion which allies and too often enslaves
us to the earth. Of consequence,
civilization needs that proportional aid
should be given to the spiritual element
in man, and I know not where it is to
be found but in religion. Without this
the civilized man. with all his properties
and refinements, rises little in true dignity
above the savage whom he disdains.
You tell me of civilization, of its arts
and sciences, as the sure instruments of
human elevation. You tell me, how by
these man masters and bends to his use
the powers of nature. I know he mas-
ters them, but it is to become in turn
their slave. He explores and cultivates
the earth, but it is to grow more earthly.
He explores the hidden mine, but it is to
forge himself chains. He visits all re -
gions, but therefore lives a stranger to
his own soul. In the very progress of
civilization I see the need of an antag-
onist principle to the senses, of a power
to free man from matter, to recall him
from the outward to the inward world ;
and religion alone is equal to so great a

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



An important benefit of civilization,
of which we hear much from the polit-
ical economist, is the division of labor,
by which arts are perfected. But this,
by confining the mind to an unceasing '
round of petty operations, tends to '
break it into littleness. We possess
improved fabrics, but deteriorated men.
Another advantage of civilization is,
that manners are refined and accom-
plishments multiplied ; but these are
continually seen to supplant simplicity
of character, strength of feeling, the
love of nature, the love of inward beauty
and glory. Under outward courtesy we
see a cold selfishness, a spirit of calcu-
lation, and little energy of love.

I confess I look round on civilized
society with many fears, and with more
and more earnest desire that a regener-
ating spirit from heaven, from religion,
may descend upon and pervade it. I
particularly fear that various causes are
acting powerfully among ourselves to
inflame and madden that enslaving and
degrading principle, the passion for
property. For example, the absence
of hereditary distinctions in our coun-
try gives prominence to the distinction
of wealth, and holds up this as the chief
prize to ambition. Add to this the epi-
curean self indulgent habits which our
prosperity has multiplied, and which
crave insatiably for enlarging wealth as
the only means of gratification. - This
peril is increased by the spirit of our
times, which is a spirit of commerce,
industry, internal improvements, me-
chanical invention, political economy,
and peace. Think not that I would dis-
parage commerce, mechanical skill, and
especially pacific connections among
states. But there is danger that these
blessings may by perversion issue in a
slavish love of lucre. It seems to me
that some of the objects which once
moved men most powerfully are grad-
ually losing their sway, and thus the
mind is left more open to the excite-
ment of wealth. For example, military
distinction is taking the inferior place
which it deserves ; and the consequence
will be, that the energy and ambition
which have been exhausted in war will
seek new directions ; and happy shall
we be if they do not flow into the chan-
nel of gain. So I think that political
eminence is to be less and l^ss coveted ;
and there is danger that the energies

absorbed by it will be spent in seeking
another kind of dominion, the domin-
ion of property. And if such be the
result, what shall we gain by what is
called the progress of society ? What
shall we gain by national peace if men,
instead of meeting on the field of battle,
wage with one another the more inglori-
ous strife of dishonest and rapacious
traffic ? What shall we gain by the
waning of political ambition if the in-
trigues of the exchange take place of
those of the' cabinet, and private pomp
and luxury be substituted for the splen-
dor of public life ? I am no foe to civ-
ilization. I rejoice in its progress. But
I mean to say that, without a pure re-
ligion to modify its tendencies, to inspire
and refine it, we shall be corrupted, not
ennobled by it. It is the excellence of
the religious principle, that it aids and
carries forward civilization, extends
science and arts, multiplies the conven-
iences and ornaments of life, and at
the same time spoils them of their en-
slaving power, and even converts them
into means and ministers of that spirit-
ual freedom which, when left to them-
selves, they endanger and destroy.

In order however, that religion should
yield its full and best fruits, one thing is
necessary ; and the times require that I
should state it with great distinctness.
It is necessary that religion should be
held and professed in a liberal spirit.
Just as far as it assumes an intolerant,
exclusive, sectarian form, it subverts,
instead of strengthening, the soul s free-
dom, and becomes the heaviest and
most galling yoke which is laid on the
intellect and conscience. Religion must
be viewed, not as a monopoly of priests,
ministers, or sects ; not as conferring
on any man a right to dictate to his
fellow-beings ; not as an instrument by
which the few may awe the many : not
as bestowing on one a prerogative which
is not enjoyed by all ; but as the prop-
erty of every human being, and as the
great subject for every human mind. It
must be regarded as the revelation of a
common Father to whom all have equal
access, who invites all to the like imme-
diate communion, who has no favorites,
who has appointed no infallible ex-
pounders of his will, who opens his
works and word to every eye. and calls
upon all to read for themselves, and to
follow fearlessly the best convictions of



their own understandings. Let religion
be seized on by individuals or sects, as
their special province ; let them clothe
themselves with God's prerogative of
judgment : let them succeed in enforc-
ing their creed by penalties of law or
penalties of opinion ; let them succeed
in fixing a brand on virtuous men, whose
only crime is free investigation ; and
religion becomes the most blighting
tyranny which can establish itself over
the mind. You have all heard of the
outward evils which religion, when thus
turned into tyranny, has inflicted ; how
it has dug dreary dungeons, kindled
fires for the martyr, and invented instru-
ments of exquisite torture. But to me
all this is less fearful than its influence
over the mind. When I see the super-
stitions which it has fastened on the
conscience, the spiritual terrors with
which it has haunted and subdued the
ignorant and susceptible, the dark, ap-
palling views of God which it has spread
far and wide, the dread of inquiry which
it has struck into superior understand-
ings, and the servility of .spirit which it
has made to pass for piety, when I
see all this, the fire, the scaffold, and
the outward inquisition, terrible as they
are, seem to me inferior evils. I look
with a solemn joy on the heroic spirits
who have met freely and fearlessly pain
and death in the cause of truth and hu-
man rights. But there are other victims
of intolerance on whom I look with un-
mixed sorrow. They are those who,
spell-bound by early prejudice, or by
intimidations from the pulpit and the
press, dare not think ; who anxiously
stifle every doubt or misgiving in regard
to their opinions, as if to doubt were a
crime ; who shrink from tlie seekers
after truth as from infection ; who deny
all virtue which does not wear the liv-
ery of their own sect ; who, surrendering
to others their best powers, receive un-
resistingly a teaching which wars against
reason and conscience ; and who think
it a merit to impose on such as live with-
in their influence the grievous bondage
which they bear themselves. How much
to be deplored is it that religion, the
very principle which is designed to raise
men above the judgment and power of
man, should become the chief instru-
ment of usurpation over the soul.

Is it said that in this country, where
the rights of private judgment, and of

speaking and writing according to our
convictions, are guaranteed with every
solemnity by institutions and laws, re-
ligion can never degenerate into tyr-
anny ; that here its whole influence
must conspire to the liberation and dig-
nity of the mind ? I answer, we dis-
cover little knowledge of human nature
if we ascribe to constitutions the power
of charming to sleep the spirit of intol-
erance and exclusion. Almost every
other bad passion may sooner be put to
rest ; and for this plain reason, that in-
tolerance always shelters itself under
the name and garb of religious zeal.
Because we live in a country where the
gross, outward, visible chain is broken,
we must not conclude that we are neces-
sarily free. There are chains not made
of iron, which eat more deeply into the
soul. An espionage of bigotry may as
effectually close our lips and chill our
hearts as an armed and hundred-eyed
police. There are countless ways by
which men in a free country may en-
croach on their neighbors' rights. In
religion, the instrument is ready made
and always at hand. I refer to opinion
combined and organized in sects and
swayed by the clergy. We say we have
no Inquisition. But a sect skilfully or-
ganized, trained to utter one cry, com-
bined to cover with reproach whoever
may differ from themselves, to drown
the free expression of opinion by de-
nunciations of heresy, and to strike
terror into the multitude by joint and
perpetual menace, such a sect is as
perilous and palsying to the intellect as
the Inquisition. It serves the ministers
as effectually as the sword. The pres-
ent age is notoriously sectarian, and
therefore hostile to liberty. One of the
strongest features of our times is the
tendency of men to run into associa-
tions, to lose themselves in masses, to
think and act in crowds, to act from the
excitement of numbers, to sacrifice indi-
viduality, to identify themselves with
parties and sects. At such a period we
ought to fear and cannot too much
dread lest a host should be marshalled
under some sectarian standard, so nu-
merous and so strong as to overawe
opinion, stifle inquiry, compel dissenters
to a prudent silence, and thus accom-
plish the end, without incurring the
odium, of penal laws. We have indeed
no small protection against this evil in



the multiplicity of sects. But let us not
forget that coalitions are as practicable
and as perilous in church as in state ;
and that minor differences, as they are
called, may be sunk for the purpose of
joint exertion against a common foe.
Happily, the spirit of this people, in
spite of all narrowing influences, is es-
sentially liberal. Here lies our safety.
The liberal spirit of the people, I trust,
is more and more to temper and curb
that exclusive spirit which is the beset-
ting sin of their religious guides.

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

I have spoken with great freedom of
the sectarian and exclusive spirit of our
age. I would earnestly recommend lib-
erality of feeling and judgment towards
men of different opinions. But, in so
doing, I intend not to teach that opin-
ions are of small moment, or that we
should make no effort for spreading
such as we deem the truth of God. I
do mean, however, that we are to spread
them by means which will not enslave
ourselves to a party or bring others into
bondage. We must respect alike our
own and others' minds. We must not
demand a uniformity in religion which
exists nowhere else, but expect, and be
willing, that the religious principle, like
other principles of our nature, should
manifest itself in different methods and
degrees. Let us not forget that spirit-
ual, like animal life, may subsist and
grow under various forms. Whilst ear-
nestly recommending what we deem the
pure and primitive faith, let us remem-
ber that those who differ in word or
speculation may agree in heart ; that the
spirit of Christianity, though mixed and
encumbered with error, is still divine ;
and that sects which assign different

ranks to Jesus Christ may still adore
that godlike virtue which constituted
him the glorious representative of his
Father. Under the disguises of Papal
and Protestant creeds, let us learn to
recognize the lovely aspect of Christi-
anity, and rejoice to believe that, amidst
dissonant forms and voices, the common
Father discerns and accepts the same
deep filial adoration. This is true free-
dom and enlargement of mind, a lib-
erty which he who knows it would not
barter for the widest dominion which
priests and sects have usurped over the
human soul.

I have spoken of religion ; I pass to
government, another great means of
promoting that spiritual liberty, that
moral strength and elevation, which we
have seen to be our supreme good. I
thus speak of government, not because
it always promotes this end, but because
it may and should thus operate. Civil
institutions should be directed chiefly to
a moral or spiritual good, and until this
truth is felt they will continue, I fear, to
be perverted into instruments of crime
and misery. Other views of their design,
I am aware, prevail. We are some-
times told that government has no pur-
pose but an earthly one; that whilst
religion takes care of the soul, govern-
ment is to watch over outward and
bodily interests. This separation of
our interests into earthly and spiritual
seems to me unfounded. There is a
unity in our whole being. There is one
great end for which body and mind were
created, and all the relations of life were
ordained ; one central aim, to which our
whole being should tend ; and this is
the unfolding of our intellectual and
moral nature ; and no man thoroughly
understands government but he who
reverences it as a part of God's stupen-
dous machinery for this sublime design.
I do not deny that government is insti-
tuted to watch over our present inter-
ests. But still it has a spiritual or
moral purpose, because present inter-
ests are, in an important sense, spirit-
ual ; that is, they are instruments and
occasions of virtue, calls to duty, sources
of obligation, and are only blessings
when they contribute to the health of
the soul. For example, property, the
principal object of legislation, is the
material, if I may so speak, on which
justice acts, or through which this car-



dinal virtue is exercised and expressed ;
and property has no higher end than to
invigorate, by calling forth, the principle
of impartial rectitude.

'Government is the great organ of civil
society, and we should appreciate the
former more justly if we better under-
stood the nature and foundation of the
latter. I say, then, that society is
throughout a moral institution. It is
something very different from an as-
semblage of animals feeding in the same
pasture. It is the combination of ra-
tional beings for the security of right.
Right, a moral idea, lies at the very
foundation of civil communities ; and
the highest happiness which they confer
is the gratification of moral affections.
We are sometimes taught that society is
the creature of compact and selfish cal-
culation ; that men agree to live together
for the protection of private interests.
But no. Society is of earlier and higher
origin. It is God's ordinance, and an-
swers to what is most godlike in our
nature. The chief ties that hold men
together in communities are not self-
interests, or compacts, or positive in-
stitutions, or force. They are invisible,
refined, spiritual ties, bonds of the mind
and heart. Our best powers and affec-
tions crave instinctively for society as the
sphere in which they are to find their life
and happiness. That men may greatly
strengthen and improve society by writ-
ten constitutions, I readily grant. There
is, however, a constitution which pre-
cedes all of men's making, and after
which all others are to be formed ; a
constitution, the great lines of which are
drawn in our very nature ; a primitive
law of justice, rectitude, and philan-
thropy, which all other laws are bound
to enforce, and from which all others
derive their validity and worth.

Am I now asked how government is
to promote energy and elevation of moral
principle ? I answer, not by making the
various virtues matters of legislation, not
by preaching morals, not by establishing
religion ; for these are not its appro-
priate functions. It is to serve the
cause of spiritual freedom, not by teach-
ing or persuasion, but by action ; that
is, by rigidly conforming itself, in all
its measures, to the moral or Christian
law ; by the most public and solemn
manifestations of reverence for right,
for justice, for the general weal, for

the principles of virtue. Government
is the most conspicuous of human in-
stitutions, and were moral rectitude
written on its front, stamped conspicu-
ously on all its operations, an immense
power would be added to pure principle
in the breasts of individuals.

To be more particular, a government
may, and should, ennoble the mind of
the citizen, by continually holding up
to him the idea of the general good.
This idea should be impressed in char-
acters of light on all legislation ; and a
government directing itself resolutely
and steadily to this end, becomes a
minister of virtue. It teaches the citi-
zen to attach a sanctity to the public
weal, carries him beyond selfish regards,
nourishes magnanimity, and the purpose
of sacrificing himself, as far as virtue
will allow, to the commonwealth. On
the other hand, a government which
wields its power for selfish interests,
which sacrifices the many to a few, or
the state to a party, becomes a public
preacher of crime, taints the mind of
the citizen, does its utmost to make
him base and venal, and prepares him,
by its example, to sell or betray that
public interest for which he should be
ready to die.

Again, on government, more than on
any institution, depends that most im-
portant principle, the sense of justice
in the community. To promote this, it
should express in all its laws a rever-
ence for right, and an equal reverence
for the rights of high and low, of rich
and poor. It should choose to sacrifice
the most dazzling advantages rather than
break its own faith, rather than unsettle
the fixed laws of property, or in any way
shock the sentiment of justice in the

Let me add one more method by which
government is to lift up and enlarge the
minds of its citizens. In its relations to
other governments it should inviolably
adhere to the principles of justice and
philanthropy. By its moderation, sin-
cerity, uprightness, and pacific spirit to-
wards foreign states, by abstaining from
secret arts and unfair advantages, by
cultivating free and mutually beneficial
intercourse, it should cherish among its
citizens the ennobling consciousness of
belonging to the human family, and of
having a common interest with the whole
human race. Government only fulfils


its end when it thus joins with Christi-
anity in inculcating the law of universal

Unhappily, governments have seldom

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe works of William E. Channing, D.D.: With an introduction → online text (page 34 of 174)