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

William Ellery Channings Struggle with His Unwanted Emotions

Part of What Moves Us

Adapted from multiple sources, primarily the Memoir of William Ellery Channing with Extracts from His Correspondents and Manuscripts, in Three Volumes, William Henry Channing, ed. (Boston: Wm. Crosby and H.P. Nichols, fifth edition, 1851).

William Ellery Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island to well-connected, but not financially prosperous, parents. According to Channing, his father was distant and aloof. He was, as Channing puts it, "a strict disciplinarian at home, and according to the mistaken notions of that time, kept me at too great a distance from him." Channing's mother could be, as one Channing biographer noted, "chillingly severe." Not surprisingly for someone reared in such an environment, Channing was "for the most part a grave and reflective" boy. As noted in the memoir compiled by Channing's nephew, Channing "was fond of lonely rambles on the beach; liked to go apart into some beautiful scene, with no other playmate than his kite... and according to his own statement, owed the tone of his character more to the influences of solitary thought than of companionship." But his loneliness was set aside when Channing went off to Harvard at age 15. There he made lifelong friends and joined fraternal clubs and societies. His life was bountiful with friendship.

After college, at age 18 Channing went to Virginia for a year and a half as a private tutor for the children of a wealthy slaveowner. The work relieved Channing of being an economic burden to his family in Rhode Island. His father had died five years earlier and his mother was left without adequate financial resources to care for her children. Channing's work as tutor also allowed him time to read in preparation for his subsequent training at Harvard for the ministry. His study routine was rigorous. He usually worked at his desk until two or three o'clock in the morning. Frequently, the sun would rise before he went to bed. When he did go to sleep, he often used the bare floor as his bed. This was his way of trying to overcome what he described as his effeminacy and his unwanted sexual fantasies. Once on the floor, he would spring up at any hour and walk about in the cold in an attempt to toughen his heart. Channing also experimented with his diet and did not exercise. As a result of these routines, he broke down his immune system and was infirmed for the rest of his life.