Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Activity 2: Introducing William Ellery Channing

Part of What Moves Us

Activity time: 20 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Copy the handouts and the story for all participants.
  • Review the story so you can present it effectively.
  • Prepare to project Leader Resource 1 or make copies.

Description of Activity

Project or distribute copies of Leader Resource 1. Briefly introduce William Ellery Channing as the "founder of American Unitarianism" and author of the 1819 Baltimore Sermon "Unitarian Christianity." Read or convey contextual information, using the paragraphs below as a guide.

Channing's 1819 Sermon, "Unitarian Christianity," brought Unitarianism out of the closet and helped Unitarianism emerge as a new religious tradition. In the sermon, he publicly affirmed what liberal Christians had been saying privately: He rejected Trinitarian dogma that made Christ equal to God and Calvinist creeds that demeaned the inherent worth and dignity of human nature.

Channing set aside the Calvinist image of God as wrathful, angry, and punitive, and rejected the portrayal of humans as irrevocably fallen, broken, and sinful. Channing insisted that God takes pleasure in making human beings happy and finds joy in encouraging the infinite progression of human beings toward the moral perfection of their souls.

Thanks in no small part to Channing, the affirmation of the worth and dignity of human nature became foundational for Unitarian faith. Human nature was now viewed as essentially sacred, perfectible, and moral. His essays, sermons, and discourses during the 19th century sold more than 100,000 copies in Europe and America. He gave the middle class a religion that affirmed what they personally experienced: progress, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as a rational, sacred, and political right.

Distribute Handout 1, which contains more detail about Channing's life, and invite participants to read it at home. Call attention to the bolded text and invite participants to consider if and how the idea of human perfectibility is present in today's Unitarian Universalism and in their own theology. Distribute Handout 2 and read aloud the words of Channing, inviting further comment and observations.

Distribute the story, "Channing's 'Crucifixion' of his Unwanted Emotions." Say:

Channing believed that people could and should participate in their own moral progress, striving toward perfection as a being created in the image of God. In this story, we learn of some of his struggles for moral perfection as a young man. How do we reconcile the extraordinary positive message we take from his celebration of human nature as divine with his own harsh pronouncements against unwanted emotions and his harsh treatment of his own body which made him an invalid for life? What can we learn from Channing's theology of emotional struggle that is positive and productive for our faith today?

Invite participants, while listening, to keep their attention focused on the way Channing tried to physically develop and strengthen his moral character through a strict physical regime to control his unwanted emotions.

Read the story aloud.