Call and Response: Journeys in UU Lifespan Faith Development

Channing Is Still Relevant on "the Noblest Work on Earth"

By Pat Kahn



In a previous Call and Response post (Parents and “Fellow Laborers,” July 2013), we shared advice for parents from the famous Sunday School Address by William Ellery Channing (1780-1842). The Unitarian minister also had lots to say for those who teach in our religious education programs. In his times, he spoke with urgency, warning, "So great is my dread of tame, mechanical teaching that I am sometimes almost tempted to question the utility of Sunday schools.”

Herewith, some wisdom and inspiration for teachers, from Channing:

  • As the first means of establishing influence over the young, I would say, you must love them.
  • To awaken in the young an interest in what you teach, you must take an interest in it yourselves. You must not only understand, but feel, the truth. Your manner must have the natural animation which always accompanies a work into which our hearts enter.
  • Teach much by questions. These stimulate, stir up the young mind, and make it its own teacher. They encourage the spirit of inquiry, the habit of thought. Questions, skillfully proposed, turn the child to his own consciousness and experience, and will often draw out from his own soul the truth which you wish to impart; and no lesson is so well learned as that which [an adult] or a child teaches [themselves].
  • Cultivate the power of description. A story well told, and in which the most important particulars are brought out in a strong light, not only fixes attention, but often carries a truth farthest into the soul.
  • Carry a cheerful spirit into religious teaching.
  • Like all schools, the Sunday-school must owe its influence to its teachers. I would, therefore, close this discourse with saying that the most gifted in our congregation cannot find a worthier field of labor than the Sunday-school. The noblest work on earth is to act with an elevating power on a human spirit.

Next Steps!

Read William Ellery Channing's 1837 Sunday School Address online, in his collected writings on GoogleBooks.

The UUA supports teachers and facilitators, both professional and lay volunteer, with curricula, webinars, the Renaissance program of continuing education for religious educators, and a variety of guide books online and in print. Visit the UUA website's portal to resources for teachers and facilitators to build skills, find inspiration, and deepen engagement in religious education.

About the Author

Pat Kahn

Pat Kahn served as the Professional Development Programs Manager in the Faith Development Office, with responsibilities that include the RE Credentialing Program, the Music Leader Certification Program and the Renaissance Program. She worked for the UUA in November, 2011 until June, 2019 as the...


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