William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 57 of 174)
Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe works of William E. Channing, D.D.: With an introduction → online text (page 57 of 174)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


your attention. The character of Christ
is a strong confirmation of the truth of his
religion. As such, I would now place it
before you. I shall not, however, think
only of confirming your faith ; the very
illustrations which I shall adduce for
this purpose will show the claims of
Jesus to our reverence, obedience, im-
itation, and fervent love.

The more we contemplate Christ's
character, as exhibited in the gospel,
the more we shall be impressed with its
genuineness and reality. It was plainly
drawn from the life. The narratives of
the Evangelists bear the marks of truth
perhaps beyond all other histories. They
set before us the most extraordinary
being who ever appeared on earth, and
yet they are as artless as the stories of
childhood. The authors do not think of
themselves. They have plainly but one
aim, to show us their Master; and they
manifest the deep veneration which he
inspired by leaving him to reveal him-
self, by giving us his actions and say-
ings without comment, explanation, or
eulogy. You see in these narratives no
varnishing, no high coloring, no attempts
to make his actions striking, or to bring
out the beauties of his character. We
are never pointed to any circumstance
as illustrative of his greatness. The
Evangelists write with a calm trust in
his character, with a feeling that it
needed no aid from their hands, and
with a deep veneration, as if comment
or praise of their own were not worthy



to mingle with the recital of such a
life. t

It is the effect of our familiarity with
the history of Jesus that we are not
struck by it as we ought to be. We
read it before we are capable of under-
standing its excellence. His stupendous
works become as familiar to us as the
events of ordinary life, and his high
offices seem as much matters of course
as the common relations which men bear
to each other. On this account, it is fit
for the ministers of religion to do what
the Evangelists did not attempt, to offer
comments on Christ's character, to bring
out its features, to point men to its
higher beauties, to awaken their awe by
unfolding its wonderful majesty. In-
deed, one of our most important func-
tions, as teachers, is to give freshness
and vividness to truths which have be-
come worn, I had almost said tarnished,
by long and familiar handling. We
have to fight with the power of habit.
Through habit men look on this glorious
creation with insensibility, and are less
moved by the all-enlightening sun than
by a show of fire-works. It is the duty
of a moral and religious teacher almost
to create a new sense in men, that they
may learn in what a world of beauty and
magnificence they live. And so in re-
gard to Christ's character ; men become
used to it, until they imagine that there
is something more admirable in a great
man of their own day a statesman or
a conqueror than in him the latchet
of whose shoes statesmen and con-
querors are not worthy to unloose.

In this discourse I wish to show that
the character of Christ, taken as a whole,
is one which could not have entered the
thoughts of man, could not have been
imagined or feigned ; that it bears every
mark of genuineness and truth : that it
ought, therefore, to be acknowledged as
real and of divine original.

It is all-important, my friends, if we



CHARACTER OF CHRIST.



303



would feel the force of this argument,
to transport ourselves to the times when
Jesus lived. We are very apt to think
that he was moving about in such a city
as this, or among a people agreeing with
ourselves in modes of thinking and hab-
its of life. But the truth is, he lived in
a state of society singularly remote from
our own. Of all nations, the Jewish
was the most strongly marked. The
Jew hardly felt himself to belong to the
human family. He was accustomed to
speak of himself as chosen by God, holy,
clean ; whilst the Gentiles were sinners,
dogs, polluted, unclean. His common
dress, the phylactery on his brow or
arm, the hem of his garment, his food,
the ordinary circumstances of his life, as
well as his temple, his sacrifices, his ab-
lutions, all held him up to himself as a
peculiar favorite of God, and all sepa-
rated him from the rest of the world.
With other nations he could not eat or
marry. They were unworthy of his
communion. Still, with all these no-
tions of superiority, he saw himself con-
quered by those whom he despised. He
was obliged to wear the shackles of
Rome, to see Roman legions in his ter-
ritory, a Roman guard near his temple,
and a Roman tax-gatherer extorting, for
the support of an idolatrous government
and an idolatrous worship, what he re-
garded as due only to God. The hatred
which burned in the breast of the Jew
towards his foreign oppressor perhaps
never glowed with equal intenseness in
any other conquered state.' He had,
however, his secret consolation. The
time was near, the prophetic age was at
hand, when Judea was to break her
chains and rise from the dust. Her
long-promised king and deliverer was
near, and was coming to wear the crown
of universal empire. From Jerusalem
was to go forth his law, and all nations
were to serve the chosen people of God.
To this conqueror the Jews indeed as-
cribed the office of promoting religion ;
but the religion of Moses, corrupted
into an outward service, was to them
the perfection of human nature. They
clung to its forms with the whole en-
ergy of their souls. To the Mosaic in-
stitution they ascribed their distinction
from all other nations. It lay at the
foundation of their hopes of dominion.
I believe no strength of prejudice ever
equalled the intense attachment of the



Tew to his peculiar national religion.
You may judge of its power by the fact
of its having been transmitted through
so many ages, amidst persecution and
sufferings which would have subdued
any spirit but that of a Jew. You must
bring these things to your mind. You
must place yourselves in the midst of
this singular people.

Among this singular people, burning
with impatient expectation, appeared
Jesus of Nazareth. His first words were,
" Repent, for the kingdom of heaven
is at hand." These words we hear
with little emotion ; but to the Jews,
who had been watching for this king-
dom for ages, and who were looking for
its immediate manifestation, they must
have been awakening as an earthquake.
Accordingly, we find Jesus thronged
by multitudes which no building could
contain. He repairs to a mountain, as
affording him advantages for addressing
the crowd. I see them surrounding
him with eager looks, and ready to
drink in every word from his lips. And
what do I hear ? Not one word of
Judea, of Rome, of freedom, of con-
quest, of the glories of God's chosen
people, and of the thronging of all na-
tions to the temple on Mount Zion. Al-
most every word was a death-blow to
the hopes and feelings which glowed
through the whole people, and were
consecrated under the name of religion.
He speaks of the long-expected kingdom
of heaven ; but speaks of it as a felicity
promised to, and only to be partaken
by, the humble and pure in heart. The
righteousness of the Pharisees, that
which was deemed the perfection of re-
ligion, and which the new deliverer was
expected to spread far and wide, he pro-
nounces worthless, and declares the
kingdom of heaven, or of the Messiah,
to be shut against all who do not culti-
vate a new, spiritual, and disinterested
virtue. Instead of war and victory, he
commands his impatient hearers to love,
to forgive, to bless their enemies ; and
holds forth this spirit of benignity,
mercy, peace, as the special badge of
the people of the true Messiah. In-
stead of national interests and glories,
he commands them to seek first a spirit
of impartial charity and love, unconfined
by the bounds of tribe or nation, and
proclaims this to be the happiness and
honor of the reign for which they hoped.



CHARACTER OF CHRIST.



Instead of this world's riches, which
they expected to flow from all lands into
their own, he commands them to lay up
treasures in heaven, and directs them to
an incorruptible, immortal life, as the
true end of their being. Nor is this all.
He does not merely offer himself as a
spiritual deliverer, as the founder of a
new empire of inward piety and univer-
sal charity ; he closes with language
announcing a more mysterious office.
" Many will say unto me in that day,
Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in
thy name ? and in thy name done many
wonderful works ? And then will I pro-
fess unto them, I never knew you, de-
part from me, ye that work iniquity."
Here I meet the annunciation of a char-
acter as august as it must have been
startling. I hear him foretelling a do-
minion to be exercised in the future
world. He begins to announce, what
entered largely into his future teaching,
that his power was not bounded to this
earth. These words I better under-
stand when I hear him subsequently
declaring that, after a painful death, he
was to rise again and ascend to heaven,
and there, in a state of pre-eminent
power and glory, was to be the advo-
cate and judge of the human race.

Such are some of the views given by
Jesus of his character and reign in the
Sermon on the Mount. Immediately
afterwards I hear another lesson from
him, bringing out some of these truths
still more strongly. A Roman centurion
makes application to him for the cure of
a servant whom he particularly valued ;
and on expressing, in a strong manner,
his conviction of the power of Jesus to
heal at a distance, Jesus, according to the
historian, " marvelled, and said to those
that followed, Verily I say unto you, I
have not found so great faith in Israel ;
and I say unto you, that many shall
come from the east and the west, and
shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac,
and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven ;
but the children of the kingdom " (that
is, the Jews) " shall be cast out." Here
all the hopes which the Jews had cher-
ished of an exclusive or peculiar posses-
sion of the Messiah's kingdom were
crushed ; and the reception of the de-
spised Gentile world to all his blessings,
or. in other words, the extension of his
pure religion to the ends of the earth,
began to be proclaimed.



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

Will any say it had its origin in im-
posture, that it was a fabrication of
a deceiver ? I answer, the character
claimed by Christ excludes this suppo-
sition by its very nature. It was so
remote from all the ideas and anticipa-
tions of the times, so unfit to awaken
sympathy, so unattractive to the heathen,
so exasperating to the Jew, that it was
the last to enter the mind of an impostor.
A deceiver of the dullest vision must
have foreseen that it would expose him
to bitter scorn, abhorrence, and persecu-
tion, and that he would be left to carry
on his work alone, just as Jesus always
stood alone, and could find not an indi-
vidual to enter into his spirit and design.
What allurements an unprincipled, self-
seeking man could find to such an
enteq^rise, no common ingenuity can
discover.

I affirm next, that the sublimity of the
character claimed by Christ forbids us
to trace it to imposture. That a selfish,
designing, depraved mind could have
formed the idea and purpose of a work
unparalleled in beneficence, in vastness,



CHARACTER OF CHRIST.



305



and in moral grandeur, would certainly
be a strange departure from the laws of
the human mind. I add, that if an im-
postor could have lighted on the con-
ception of so sublime and wonderful a
work as that claimed by Jesus, he could
not I say, he could not have thrown
into his personation of it the air of truth
and reality. The part would have been
too high for him. He would have over-
acted it or fallen short of it perpetually.
His true character would have rebelled
against his assumed one. We should
have seen something strained, forced,
artificial, awkward, showing that he was
not in his true sphere. To act up to a
character so singular and grand, and one
for which no precedent could be found,
seems to me utterly impossible for a man
who had not the true spirit of it, or who
was only wearing it as a mask.

Now, how stands the case with Jesus ?
Bred a Jewish peasant or carpenter, he
issues from obscurity and claims for
himself a divine office, a superhuman
dignity, such as had not been imagined ;
and in no instance does he fall below
the character. The peasant, and still
Tnore the Jew, wholly disappears. We
feel that a new being, of a new order of
mind, is taking a part in human affairs.
There is a native tone of grandeur and
authority in his teaching. He speaks as
a being related to the whole human race.
His mind never shrinks within the ordi-
nary limits of human, agency. A nar-
rower sphere than the world never enters
his thoughts. He speaks in a natural,
spontaneous style of accomplishing the
most arduous and important change in
human affairs. This unlabored manner
of expressing great thoughts is particu-
larly worthy of attention. You never
hear from Jesus that swelling, pom-
pous, ostentatious language which almost
necessarily springs from an attempt to
sustain a character above our powers.
He talks of his glories as one to whom
they were familiar, and of his intimacy
and' oneness with God, as simply as a
child speaks of his connection with his
parents. He speaks of saving and
judging the world, of drawing all men
to himself, and of giving everlasting
life, as we speak of the ordinary powers
which we exert. He makes no set
harangues about the grandeur of his
office and character. His conscious-
ness of it gives a hue to his whole



language, breaks out in indirect, unde-
signed expressions, showing that it was
the deepest and most familiar of his
convictions. This argument is only to
be understood by reading the Gospels
with a wakeful mind and heart. It does
not lie on their surface, and it is the
stronger for lying beneath it. When I
read these books with care, when I
trace the unaffected majesty which runs
through the life of Jesus, and see him
never falling below his sublime claims
amidst poverty and scorn, and in his
last agony, I have a feeling of the
reality of his character which I cannot
express. I feel that the Jewish carpen-
ter could no more have conceived and
sustained this character under motives
of imposture than an infant's arm could
repeat the deeds of Hercules, or his
unawakened intellect comprehend and
rival the matchless works of genius.

Am I told that the claims of Jesus
had their origin not in imposture but in
enthusiasm ; that the imagination, kin-
dled by strong feeling, overpowered
the judgment so , far as to give him
the notion of being destined to some
strange and unparalleled work ? I know
that enthusiasm, or a kindled imagi-
nation, has great power ; and we are
never to lose sight of it, in judging
of the claims of religious teachers.
But I say first, that, except in cases
where it amounts to insanity, enthu-
siasm works, in a greater or less degree,
according to a man's previous concep-
tions and modes of thought. In Judea,
where the minds of men were burning
with feverish expectation of a Messiah,
I can easily conceive of a Jew imag-
ining that in himself this ardent con-
ception, this ideal of glory, was to be
realized. I can conceive of his seating
himself in fancy on the throne of David,
and secretly pondering the means of
his appointed triumphs. But that a
Jew should fancy himself the Messiah,
and at the same time should strip that
character of all the attributes which
had fired his youthful imagination and
heart, that he should start aside from
all the feelings and hopes of his age.
and should acquire a consciousness of
being destined to a wholly new career,
and one as unbounded as it was new, -
this is exceedingly improbable ; and
one thing is certain, that an imagination
so erratic, so ungoverned, and able to



306



CHARACTER OF CHRIST.



generate the conviction of being des-
tined to a work so immeasurably dis-
proportioned to the power of the indi-
vidual, must have partaken of insanity.
Now, is it conceivable that an individ-
ual, mastered by so wild and fervid an
imagination, should have sustained the
dignity claimed by Christ, should have
acted worthily the highest part ever
assumed on earth ? Would not his
enthusiasm have broken out amidst the
peculiar excitements of the life of Jesus,
and have left a touch of madness on
his teaching and conduct ? Is it to such
a man that we should look for the in-
culcation of a new and perfect form of
virtue, and for the exemplification of
humanity in its fairest form ?

The charge of an extravagant, self-
deluding enthusiasm is the last to be
fastened on Jesus. Where can we find
the traces of it in his history ? Do we
detect them in the calm authority of his
precepts ; in the mild, practical, and
beneficent spirit of his religion ; in the
unlabored simplicity of the language
with which he unfolds his high powers,
and the sublime truths of religion ; or in
the good sense, the knowledge of human
nature, which he always discovers in
his estimate and treatment of the differ-
ent classes of men with whom he acted ?
Do we discover this enthusiasm in the
singular fact that, whilst he claimed
power in the future world, and always
turned men's minds to heaven, he never
indulged his own imagination, or stimu-
lated that of his disciples, by giving vivid
pictures or any minute description of
that unseen state ? The truth is that,
remarkable as was the character of Jesus,
it was distinguished by nothing more
than by calmness and self-possession.
This trait pervades his other excellen-
cies. How calm was his piety ! Point
me, if you can, to one vehement, passion-
ate expression of his religious feelings.
Does the Lord's Prayer breathe a fever-
rsh enthusiasm ? The habitual style of
Jesus on the subject of religion, if intro-
duced into many churches of his follow-
ers at the present day, would be charged
with coldness. The calm and the rational
character of his piety is particularly
seen in the doctrine which he so ear-
nestly inculcates, that disinterested love
and self-denying service to our fellow-
creatures are the most acceptable wor-
ship we can offer to our Creator.



His benevolence, too, though singularly
earnest and deep, was composed and
serene. He never lost the possession
of himself in his sympathy with others ;
was never hurried into the impatient
and rash enterprises of an enthusiastic
philanthropy ; but did good with the
tranquillity and constancy which mark
the providence of God. The depth of
his calmness may best be understood by
considering the opposition made to his
claims. His labors were everywhere
insidiously watched and industriously
thwarted by vindictive foes, who had
even conspired to compass through his
death the ruin of his cause. Now, a
feverish enthusiasm, which fancies itself
to be intrusted with a great work of God,
is singularly liable to impatient indigna-
tion under furious and malignant opposi-
tion. Obstacles increase its vehemence ;
it becomes more eager and hurried in
the accomplishment of its purposes in
proportion as they are withstood. Be
it therefore remembered that the malig-
nity of Christ's foes, though never sur-
passed, and for the time triumphant,
never robbed him of self-possession,
roused no passion, and threw no vehe-
mence or precipitation into his exertions.
He did not disguise from himself or his
followers the impression made on the mul-
titude by his adversaries. He distinctly
foresaw the violent death towards which
he was fast approaching. Yet, confiding
in God, and in the silent progress of his
truth, he possessed his soul in peace.
Not only was he calm, but his calm-
ness rises into sublimity when we con-
sider the storms which raged around
him, and the vastness of the prospects
in which his spirit found repose. I say,
then, that serenity and self possession
were peculiarly the attributes of Jesus.
I affirm that the singular and sublime
character claimed by Jesus can be traced
neither to imposture nor to an ungov-
erned, insane imagination. It can only
be accounted for by its truth, its reality.
I began with observing how our long
familiarity with Jesus blunts our minds
to his singular excellence. We probably
have often read of the character which
he claimed, without a thought of its ex-
traordinary nature. But I know nothing
so sublime. The plans and labors of
statesmen sink into the sports of chil-
dren when compared with the work which
Jesus announced, and to which he de-



CHARACTER OF CHRIST.



307



voted himself in life and death, with a
thorough consciousness of its reality.
The idea of changing the moral aspect
of the whole earth, of recovering all na-
tions to the pure and inward worship of
one God, and to a spirit of divine and
fraternal love, was one of which we meet
not a trace in philosopher or legislator
before him. The human mind had given
no promise of this extent of view. The
conception of this enterprise, and the
calm, unshaken expectation of success,
in one who had no station and no wealth,
who cast from him the sword with ab-
horrence, and who forbade his dis-
ciples to use any weapons but those
of love, discover a wonderful trust in
the power of God and the power of
love ; and when to this we add that
Jesus looked not only to the triumph
of his pure faith in the present world,
but to a mighty and beneficent power
in heaven, we witness a vastness of pur-
pose, a grandeur of thought and feeling,
so original, so superior to the workings
of all other minds, that nothing but our
familiarity can prevent our contempla-
tion of it with wonder and profound awe.
I confess, when I can escape the dead-
ening power of habit, and can receive
the full import of such passages as the
following, " Come unto me, all ye that
labor and are heavy laden, and I will
give you rest," ''I am come to seek
and to save that which was lost," " He
that confesseth me before men, him will
I confess before my Father in heaven,"
" Whosoever shall be ashamed of me
before men of him shall the Son of Man
be ashamed when he cometh in the glory
of the Father with the holy angels,"
" In my Father's house are many man-
sions ; I go to prepare a place for you ;"
I say, when I can succeed in realiz-
ing the import of such passages, I feel
myself listening to a being such as never
before and never since spoke in human
language. I am awed by the conscious-
ness of greatness which these simple
words express ; and when I connect this
greatness with the proofs of Christ's
miracles which I gave you in a former
discourse, I am compelled to exclaim
with the centurion, " Truly, this was the
Son of God."

I have thus, my friends, set before you
one view of Jesus Christ which shows
him to have been the most extraordinary
being who ever lived. I invite your at-



tention to another ; and I am not sure
but that it is still more striking. You
have seen the consciousness of greatness
that Jesus possessed ; I now ask you to
consider how, with this consciousness,
he lived among men. To convey my
meaning more distinctly, let me avail
myself of an imaginary case. Suppose
you had never heard the particulars of
Christ's history, but were told m general
that, ages ago, an extraordinary man ap-



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe works of William E. Channing, D.D.: With an introduction → online text (page 57 of 174)