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LEADER RESOURCE 2: Memoir of William Ellery Channing — Excerpts

Selections from Memoir of William Ellery Channing with Extracts from His Correspondence and Manuscripts, In Three Volumes, William Henry Channing, ed. (Boston, 1851).

Here are three excerpts from Volume I of Channing's Memoir.

I.

My whole life has been a struggle with my feelings. Last winter I thought my self victorious. But earth-born Antaeus [giant from Greek mythology who drew strength from Gaia, the earth, his mother.] has risen stronger than ever. I repeat it, my whole life has been a struggle with my feelings. Ask those with whom I have lived, and they will tell you that I am a stoic. I almost thought so myself. But I only smothered a fire which will one day consume me. I sigh for tranquil happiness. I have long wished that my days might flow along like a gentle stream which fertilizes its banks and reflects in its clear surface the face of heaven. But I can only wish it. I still continue sanguine, ardent, and inconstant [sic]. I can still remember the days when I gloried in the moments of rapture, when I loved to shroud myself in the gloom of melancholy. You may remember them too. But I have grown wiser, as I have grown older. I now wish to do good in the world... . I must throw away those ridiculous ecstasies, and form myself to habits of piety and benevolence. One of the reasons why I dislike the rapture and depression of spirit, which we used to encourage at college, is probably this, — I find none to share them with me.

"The other day, I handed to a lady a sonnet of Southey's, which had wrung tears from me. `It is pretty,' said she, with a smile. `Pretty!' echoed I, as I looked at her; `Pretty!' I went home. As I grew composed, I could not help reflecting that the lady who had made this answer was universally esteemed for her benevolence. I knew that she was goodness itself. But still she wanted feeling. `And what is feeling?' said I to myself. I blushed when I thought more on the subject. I found that the mind was just as passive in that state which I called `feeling,' as when it received any impressions of sense. One consequence immediately struck me, that there was no moral merit in possessing feeling. Of course there can be no crime in wanting [lacking] it. `Well,' continued I, `I have just been treating with contempt a woman of active benevolence, for not possessing what I must own it is not crime to want [lack]. Is this just? I then went on to consider, whether there were not many persons who possessed this boasted feeling, but who were still deficient in active benevolence. A thousand instances occurred to me. I found myself among the number, `It is true,' said I, `that I sit in my study and shed tears over human misery. I weep over a novel. I weep over a tale of human woe. But do I ever relieve the distressed? Have I ever lightened the load of affliction? My cheeks reddened at the question: a cloud of error burst from my mind. I found that virtue did not consist in feeling, but in acting from a sense of duty"

II.

The love of God which the Scriptures call us to cherish, and which we are formed to attain and enjoy, is not a blind, irrational sentiment. It is founded on the clearest views of the understanding, on the abundant evidence we possess, that there is an Infinite Being, in whom reside wisdom, and power, and goodness, without beginning, or end, or any limit; who sustains to us the near and tender relation of Creator, Father, Benefactor, and Lord; whose commands are equitable and kind; and who is willing to pardon our offences on the terms of repentance. It is the offering of the heart to this best of beings; it venerates his majesty, esteems and adores his excellence, is grateful for his goodness, rejoices in his felicity and in the felicity of his creation, implores his forgiveness, resigns itself to his providence, and desires to do his will; and is this an affection to be decried and renounced? In the love of God are united the most delightful affections we exercise towards fellow-beings, -- filial love, thankfulness to benefactors, reverence for the great and good, sympathy with the happy, and universal goodwill. These pure affections all meet in the love of God; and are refined, exalted, and rendered sources of inconceivably high delight, in consequence of the infinite amiableness and superiority of the Being whom we love... . True love of God illuminates the darkness of the present life, and is a foretaste of the felicity of heaven.

... . "In considering the great happiness of possessing the Divine favor, I first observe, that they who love God must derive an inexpressible joy from the mere consciousness that they are beloved by such a Being, without regards to the benefits which flow from this favor... .

My friends, did your hearts never beat with joy, when you have seen the eye of a beloved and revered friend and benefactor fixed on you with tenderness and approbation; and can you be wholly insensible to the pleasure of him who feels the presence of God wherever he goes, and is able to say, `The infinite Parent of the universe is my approving friend'? Can anyone be so blind as not to see that here is a source of unfailing, or increasing happiness? . . . You who know not from experience the pure and joyful sensations which are here described, can you form no conception of the happiness of that man who looks round with adoring humility on the immensity of creation, on the endless variety of Divine blessings, and in the midst of his reverence and gratitude feels that the universal Parent, though encircled in his majesty, thinks of him continually, despises not his humble offering, is well pleased with his sacrifices of praise and love, and bears towards him an increasing, an unbounded affection? Are you so debased, as to prefer the sordid pleasures of sense, of the world, to a happiness so rational, so sublime? Can you consent to live without this delightful conviction, that the God who made you, the best of beings, delights in you as his children and servants?

III.

Have you not felt that you possess a nature far exalted above the brutes, souls infinitely superior to your bodies, souls which ally you to higher orders of being, -- that you are capable of knowledge, of goodness, of virtuous friendship, of intercourse with heaven? and has not an inward voice admonished you that you were made for this felicity, and has not this felicity excited some thirst, some earnest desire? Have you never felt that this intellectual nature admits to endless improvement, —that whilst the body grows for a few years, and to a limited extent, the soul has no bounds, —that you may enlarge your being, leave your present selves behind, and take a new rank in creation? Have you never lifted an aspiring eye to the eminence which has thus invited you, and been pained and humbled by your sloth, your low, earthly views, your reluctance to become what you might be, what you were made to be? and have you not, for a moment at least, spurned the bondage of your passions, and resolved to press forward to the excellence and liberty of children of God? Have not objects of a noble character, generous and useful pursuits, sometimes presented themselves to you, and brought with them the consciousness, that he alone is happy and excellent who gives himself up to them? and have you not blushed at the recollection of the narrow and trifling objects which have filed your minds and wasted your time? and have you not wished to live for something wider, for ends which embrace the best interests of others as well as your own? Has the thought of the great, good, and perfect God never come home to you with force? and have you never felt that he is the most worthy object of your hearts, that in forsaking him you are wretched and guilty, that there is no happiness to be compared with loving him, and enjoying his love and presence? and have you not felt some pain at your distance from him, some desire to return to your Father, some thirst after the knowledge and favor of this best of beings... ? Have you never looked into your own hearts, and shed tears over the ruin which you there beheld, over your disordered passions, your prejudices, your errors, your ingratitude towards God, your injustice and insensibility towards men? and have you not thirsted after deliverance from sin, after a better state, after that perfection, the idea of which has not been obliterated by human apostasy, and the hope of which is one of the first and most powerful impulses towards the renovation of our nature?"

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Last updated on Thursday, February 7, 2013.

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