RCC Honors History Project

William Henry Channing —

Posted by wrmahugu on December 29, 2009

William Henry Channing was a rarity among Transcendentalists because of his political conscience. He was probably the sole social activist of the group. He extended the Transcendentalist concept of the self into an ideal of selflessness. His was a ” renewed social and political vision. ” Man was to be a ” new moral creation… transfigured. ” This led to ” a desire to glorify God in a perfect social life.”Emerson called him “‘ the evil time’s sole patriot .'” Channing was born in Boston in 1810 to a prominent family. He was the nephew of William Ellery Channing, the famous Unitarian minister, who had a profound influence on him. He went to Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard College in 1829. He was already associated with Transcendentalists at Harvard. He attended Harvard Divinity School until 1833 and became an itinerant Unitarian preacher, eventually settling in New York where he grappled with urban poverty and immigration. He moved to Cincinnati in 1835 and found it less free than the East. He leaned towards Thoreau in his outlook. He began to publish The Western Messenger. He virtually became a Deist while in the West. He moved back to New England in 1841 and translated Jouffrey’s Introduction to Ethics for George Ripley. He contributed to the Dial. He became active in every reform: anti-slavery, peace, temperance, and women’s rights. He became involved with Brook Farm. While at Brook Farm, he is strongly credited for the change to Fourierism, possibly because of its emphasis on collective humanity over the individual. He was interested in unity. He wrote for the Harbinger. He did not think that the community was religious enough, though he tolerated this. “In 1857 he was honored by replacing England’s most influential Liberal Unitarian preacher.” He called this “‘pivotal'” because he “was able to reconcile his political enthusiasm with his commitment to the church.” He remained the rest of his life in England, returning to pastor a church in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. He also was Senate chaplain. Channing was troubled with a “disease of disproportionate specualtion.” He was labelled as impractical. He feared that the “‘one divine far-off event’ might happen before breakfast.”  He thought that the only darkness came from “‘one’s own shadow, beneath his feet.'”  Channing represents among Transcendentalists “the fervent hope for social justice.”He died in 1884. Channing was the social activist among the Transcendentalists. Apparently his spirit never rested as he ever sought to improve upon humanity. He was not happy with the intellectual side of the movement.

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