Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Reminiscences of Rev. Wm. Ellery Channing, D.D. (excerpts)

Two fragments from Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Reminiscences of Rev. Wm. Ellery Channing, D.D. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880)

[William B. Greene / Transcendentalism / Emerson – pages 364-365]

In the last year of Dr. Channing’s life I one day said to him, showing him a passage in his sermon on “Likeness to God,”–“Lieutenant Greene says the whole Transcendental movement in New England is wrapped up in this paragraph”: “The divine attributes are first developed in ourselves, and thence transferred to our Creator. The idea of God, sublime and awful as it is, is the idea of our own spiritual nature, purified and enlarged to infinity. In ourselves are the elements of the Divinity. God does not sustain a figurative resemblance to man; it is the resemblance of a parent to a child, the likeness of kindred natures.”

Dr. Channing took the book, and after reading the passage said ” All that I have said there is true. But the development of the divine attributes in ourselves is the realization not of what is peculiar to any individual, but what is common to all men, and manifested in the utmost purity by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the unfallen ideal man. The danger that besets our Transcendentalists is that they sometimes mistake their individualities for the Transcendent. What is common to men and revealed by Jesus transcends every single individuality, and is the spiritual object and food of all individuals.”

I asked, ” Don’t you think Mr. Emerson recognizes this?”

“Yes,” he replied, “in the poems of the ‘Problem’ and of the ‘Sphinx’ I think he does. But many of his professed followers do not, and fall into a kind of ego-theism, of which a true understanding, of Jesus Christ is the only cure, as I more and more believe.”

I have not the date of this conversation, but it was after the poems referred to came out in the “Dial.” [pp 364-365]

[William B. Greene: autobiographical and theological fragments – pages 435-448]

I made a new acquaintance in that year [1841], a young Lieutenant of the United States Army, who first attracted my attention by inquiring at my library for Kant’s works in some other than the German language. In talking with him about this book, I was struck with his different cast and method of thought from that to which I was accustomed. He did not (as Mr. Emerson afterward said of him) “draw in our team,” but rather–referring to his harked and fresh individuality–seemed to be “a special answer to a special prayer.” For some time I did not know even his name, but my attention was riveted by his unexpected and oracular remarks, often quite piquant in their expression: “The Transcendentalists of Boston are the extreme opposite of Kant; they do not see the transcendental objective (except Mr. Emerson, who names it Oversoul); but it is they themselves that transcend.” Of Parker’s sermon on “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” he said, ” It wants unity.” Of Emerson’s discourse at Divinity Hall, ” It is a true gospel addressed to the philosopher and theologian; but it is not the preaching to the poor, for that must address heart and will rather than intellect.” Of the so-called Orthodox, “They have lost the transcendental objective out of their creeds, which now are only logical fetiches.” Of the Unitarians, “They have no life, for they mistake manifestation for principle (which it always contradicts), and are the only Christians who idolize a man; for the Orthodox sink or raise Jesus into God before they worship him.”

“And so lose,” said I, “what the Swedenborgians call the Divine Humanity?”

“Yes,” said he, “the Orthodox of to-day are Tri-theists, not Trinitarians.”

“That is just what Dr. Channing says,” I replied. “And therefore he repudiates the unscriptural word trinity in his preaching. But he draws a strong line of distinction between Jesus, the unfallen son of man, and all other men, whose more or less imperfect natures prevent them from being, like him, transparent images of God. Dr. Channing cannot be classed with any sect. He has fraternized with the Unitarians because they alone have stood bravely for free inquiry, independence of private judgment, and free speech; and been persecuted for it, and excommunicated by the sects who arrogate to themselves the name of Christian. But he is not sympathizing with them now in excommunicating Theodore Parker on account of his theology, and James Freeman Clarke on account of the new catholic organization he would give the Church.”

“It is only in unphilosophic minds,” said he, “that the doctrine of the Trinity becomes Tritheism.” The formula of the Trinity was the legitimate abstraction of the Greek mind,–an analytic definition of the Divine nature, which had been revealed by the facts of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Those facts of actual life in history are the seed of the Christian religion. Spiritual life is absolute in God, who is love; and manifest in Jesus, who is truth,–the first begotten of love; and the influence proceeding from love and truth upon the human race is the Holy Spirit. The whole Trinity is in the Father, for he is love, wisdom, and power; and the whole Trinity is in Jesus Christ, for he manifests love, wisdom, and power; and every man is a trinity of feeling, thought, and activity; so the whole trinity is in the Holy Spirit, which it is the purpose of the absolute love to produce through the manifested truth, in the aspiring energy of men. This is the creed which Athanasius set up against the heresy of Arius, which had denied the at-one-ment with God that the human race “receives by Jesus.” The great mischief was that the Roman empire undertook to meddle, and say who should belong to the Church, and set up this philosophic formula at the threshold, to be acknowledged as the condition of entrance. Since only philosophers could understand this definition, this arbitrary decree put a lie into the mouth of every unphilosophical Christian who obeyed it. The apostles required no abstract doctrinal creed, but a belief in the facts of Christ’s life and death and resurrection, as proved facts of history. Men can be forced to believe facts by proofs, but faith is the gift of God to those only who devoutly and freely aspire to understand the spiritual meaning of the facts which will be found to symbolize all the spiritual truth that shall ever be unfolded in the history of mankind. The conception of the Trinity of the Divine nature is as old as philosophic thought. We find it in thin abstractions in India, Phoenicia, Egypt, etc., being suggested in every natural form; but it was only revealed perfectly in the manifestation which Jesus made of a spiritual life that takes the sting from death.”

All the above thoughts were not expressed at once, but in several conversations, illustrated by the history of Church dogma, and noted down by me at the time, in order to be read to Dr. Channing in my Sunday visit.

Its full meaning was further illustrated to me before Sunday, by my learning something of my young philosopher and theologian personally. He told me himself that he had been commissioned at nineteen years of age and sent to the Florida war; and he had just been permitted to resign, because the surgeon of the army had pronounced him ill, with even small chance to get home to die. I learned later that he had graduated at West Point with high honors, was a profound mathematician, a keen student of the science of war and reader of military biography, especially of that of Napoleon Bonaparte. Otherwise he had little literary culture, his reading having been largely Lord Byron’s and Shelley’s poetry. “Queen Mab,” he said, had been his gospel; and his theology also was Shelley’s,–namely, that God is merely a complex of the laws of Nature. But his life in Florida had brought him to deeper truth. He was Lieutenant to the celebrated Captain Bonneville, whose Indian imperturbability of temperament, iron will, and despotic habits made an immense impression on his imagination, and commanded his admiration. Captain Bonneville soon left him in command of a regiment of desperadoes (who were, however, condignly ignorant), and had counselled him to keep himself entirely aloof from their familiarity, in order to preserve the prestige of his authority. In the long intervals between short periods of intense military activity, he was alone in his tent with only his books and thoughts, and was knowing to gigantic crimes being perpetrated by the State Government of Florida, which wholly misled and hoodwinked the distant Central Government. In one of his meditations on Captain Bonneville’s and his own power over his men, he said to himself: “These brutal men are governed not by the complex of my thoughts, nor by the complex of the laws of Nature, of which they know nothing but by me,–a self-determining force, a free spirit, a person.” And at once it flashed like lightning upon him, “And God is behind the complex of the laws of Nature,–a self-acting, free, supreme, infinite Person, to whom all finite persons are responsible.” He started from his seat, seized “Queen Mab” and flung it from the door of his tent into the far distance; and then rushed to his valise and took out the Bible that his mother had put into it when he left home, and for the first time opened it. He could not believe that it was by blind chance his eye fell on the words from Isaiah quoted by Christ in the synagogue of Nazareth on the day he commenced his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” etc. As he read these words he thought he heard a roar of artillery, and sprang to the door of his tent–to learn that the roar was within his own soul! He then told of his reading the New Testament, and his study of the action of Jesus, and of the apostles after the Spirit had brought to their minds and interpreted to them the words of Jesus. Soon the desire arose-in his own mind to leave the sphere of unhallowed activity in which he found himself, and to become a minister of Christ. So he prayed that God would take him out of his present bonds, for he could not himself break the oath of the soldier. “And God has answered my prayer,” said he; “and delivered me by means of this malarial fever, which incapacitates me as a soldier. I have not died, as the surgeon predicted I should; and already I have begun my theological studies in a private and desultory way, by studying out the history of the dogmas of the Christian Church, beginning with the Trinity.”

Now, true to one of my first intuitions, that “nobody believes what is false because it is false, but because it seems to be true,” I had longed all my life to learn the genesis and history in human thought of a belief in the Trinity, which so many minds greater than mine had accepted. This I said to Dr. Channing the next Sunday when I went to see him, and told him all about the conversations of the week; and I was delighted to find that he was quite open to considering the subject de novo, recalling the conversation with Coleridge in 1822, when he had affirmed that the doctrine of the Trinity was “the perfection of human reason.” He said: “And Coleridge agreed with your friend in deprecating that this formula should be imposed on the mind arbitrarily; because no abstract statement can really be believed that is not produced by the mind’s own action on facts, as your friend truly says. To make a sacrament of an unintelligible proposition is consecrating a lie, and demoralizes the mind. I have no objection to the formula of the Trinity as Coleridge explained it,–the relation perceived between the creating spirit and the created spirit in its purity, by which man finds intelligent and moral life in the Holy Spirit. But in my office of preaching the gospel to the multitude, I avoid all abstractions of the philosophers; and, like St. John and St. Paul, I labor to fix attention on the living Son of God in a son of man, who could defy his enemies to convict him of any sin, and who lived in the world and died to convince them that God was their Father as well as his, and to show how they might form Christ within themselves. Hence I have avoided a word which now is associated with an error that destroys the simplicity of worship,–tritheism.”

At another time I told him of Lieutenant Greene’s declaring that election (to privileges) was a fact on the intellectual and other planes of life, and had only been made false on the spiritual plane by Calvin’s tacking to it the doctrine of reprobation and everlasting punishment,–a presumptuous sin on his part; for he had no business to invent, in his ambition to make his system of theology complete, what was certainly not revealed, and which really denied to God the power of freely forgiving. Christ taught that the method of life is love (those who pursue any other “know not what they do”), for love leads at once to the fulfilling of righteousness to men and worship of the true God.

A few days after this Dr. Channing met Lieutenant Greene at my room, and sat down with the air of a determination to become acquainted. I do not remember just in what connection he said these words: “The doctrine of irresistible grace, which of course you know I consider the most monstrous of errors, because it contravenes the principle of human freedom.” There was a pause, when I said, “Lieutenant Greene would say, Sir, that these doctrines are identical.” He looked up in astonishment, and in the conversation that ensued between them I looked intently from one to the other as they spoke; for it was my own past and future in discussion on the essential points of personal responsibility and God’s forgiveness of sin,–concerning which my mind had never been satisfied since that shock upon my moral sensibility received before my acquaintance with Dr. Channing, and to which I have alluded in the early part of this volume.

The next day when Dr. Channing came into my room as usual, he said to me with the most paternal tone, “I observed yesterday great solicitude in your manner as your young friend and I were conversing.”

“The subject was very interesting, Sir,” I replied.

“Oh, yes,” said he, “I know it; the most interesting–the question of questions, certainly–how to harmonize the free-will of man and the pardoning grace of God. Both are irrefragable facts. But you must remember that calmness of mind is indispensable to the discovery of truth. We need not be distressingly anxious in our Father’s house. All apparent contradictions will be reconciled gradually, if we have faith to believe that the eternal reason is the creating Father of our reason, which, if it be finite, is growing forever into the infinite by prayer and moral effort.”

“I am not painfully anxious,” I said. “This new way of looking at myself from God’s point of view rather than from my own seems to be clearing up my practical difficulties, by helping me to forgive myself for not being perfect, and to accept humbly and gratefully the forgiveness of my sins.”

“Oh, then, do not let me trouble or hinder you,” said he. And, inquiring into my meaning, I told him that I thought the Unitarian method of self-discipline was a kind of attempt to lift ourselves up by our own ears,–assuming a responsibility of self-culture which was self-torture. (I think this was the time when he told me of the visit of the old lady, who said the Unitarians left the soul in despair before the moral ideal they set up.)

I wish to draw attention to the fact that in all this winter, when he saw that I was reviewing to criticize the whole system of thought and action that I had been working out under his lead, he did not say one word to check it, but rather seemed to rejoice in my freely questioning it. He took great interest in my study with Lieutenant Greene of the history of the dogmas of the Church, and my search for the truths that they often only express unfortunately. Inquiry with him was always really free. He was the victim of no habits of thought. He helped one to criticize himself. However strong his opinion, it was always a subject for revision under new lights.

This was not merely true of his theological opinions. His articles on Napoleon in the first volume of his Works contained a very decided view. But he was eager to know if others who had personal relations with this remarkable person differed from him; and I have letters of his on the subject addressed to Sismondi and De Gerando, even after he had printed his own views, which shows that he was still desirous to modify his own view if truth demanded it. He deprecated stereotyping his own thought; he would rather have it ever growing broader. I told him Lieutenant Greene thought that in his article on Napoleon he exalted the men of thought above the men of action, when it was the men of action who made the men of thought; for great writers and great artists followed, not preceded, great historical events,–wars, political revolutions, etc.

His attention was immediately arrested, and he introduced the subject when he next saw Lieutenant Greene, who maintained the view of Napoleon which Hazlitt’s Life of him gives. He said: “Napoleon, at the beginning of his career, embodied and worked out the idea of the sovereignty of the people versus what is called legitimacy; and went on conquering until he lost his idea and fell into an emperor. Then the legitimists whipped him, and sent him to St. Helena.” Dr. Channing was pleased with this, and frankly admitted that he had treated of him only as he was after he “fell into an emperor,” and might not have estimated what he had done for mankind when he was yet truly himself.

In the year 1841 there was much question about the organization of the Christian church or churches; question whether there should be any organization; whether the time had not come for the Church to be viewed as a spiritual influence, guarded in its freedom by the Constitution of the country, which in the United States assures to every one of legal maturity freedom of conscience and the liberty of prophesying. Lieutenant Greene, being the grandson of the great Baptist saint and preacher Batchelder,–the odor of whose sanctity still lingers in the air of New Hampshire and Maine,–was inclined to the old Pilgrim independency. Mr. Ripley was suggesting, by the constitution of Brook Farm, the end of the church militant and the initiation of the time when “none shall say, Know ye the Lord! for all shall know Him from the least unto the greatest.” And James Freeman Clarke had come back to Boston to propose a really catholic church, whose forms of worship should combine the Congregational, Methodist, Episcopal, and Quaker forms; whose platform should be simply, “Our faith is in Jesus Christ, and our purpose is to learn his religion and practise it in social union;” and, discriminating faith from belief, should leave to every one the liberty of defining for himself (none gainsaying) faith in Christ; inviting every one to the Supper of the Lord who was sincerely willing to come, without imposing any condition; baptizing by immersion or sprinkling, according to the desire of each; and accepting as church members those who like the Quakers repudiated the forms altogether, and considered the Supper and baptism purely spiritual exercises. Mr. Clarke also wished to ignore as much as possible the distinction of clergy and laity, and to give all his people the liberty of prophesying occasionally in the pulpit, and always at the weekly social meeting. Some of these meetings were for the discussion of doctrine,–for Mr. Clarke believed in worshipping God with the mind as well as heart and might. Some meetings were for the laying out and organizing the humane work, to. do which is the supreme object of the Church; for he believed, with the Pilgrim Independents, that the church did not make the Christian, but Christians made the church for an instrumentality, because the work of humanity can only be done by social union of activity. The social union of this “Church of the Disciples” was, of course, absolutely to ignore all distinctions of rank; and at least once a month there was to be a meeting merely for social recreation, which in the summer was to be held at the residence of some of the affluent members,–thus giving a day of enjoyment, in one of the beautiful suburban villas around Boston, to those members of the church whose narrow circumstances kept them all the year round in the hot city.

It must be obvious to every reader of the foregoing pages how this plan, in every feature of it, must have met Dr. Channing’s views. He took great interest in the planting of this vine,–among whose fruits have been the Kansas-Aid Societies, the Children’s-Aid Societies, and many others for benevolent work and intellectual and esthetic culture. One other feature completed the plan, making it a truly catholic church in Dr. Channing’s eyes. Mr. Clarke invited into his pulpit, in the evening service, preachers of all the different sects, so that his people might have a free range of doctrinal thought, and not believe in their own independent creed in ignorance of others, but from intelligent conviction, and have a chance to do justice to all others while preferring their own. Dr. Channing attended and took part in many of the preliminary meetings; and his two brothers and his son, and many of the members of the Federal Street Church became members of this broader one with his sympathy.

In forming the “Church of the Disciples” nothing was said about money. Mr. Clarke had faith to believe that the brethren would remember that the laborer was worthy of his hire, and that the matter of his salary could be left to a voluntary subscription in which every one should give what he could afford, and those who could afford nothing were to come wholly “without price.” His faith has been justified, and the church that literally met in a hired “upper chamber,” the first year, now gathers in one of the largest buildings in Boston, and Mr. Clarke is liberally supported by a voluntary subscription, which covers all the expenses of the church besides.

Thus it may be seen, that, in the last year of his life, Dr. Channing was as free from dogmatism and as open to new movements as in his youth, and even more so. While his heart was ever growing calmer and stronger in the central faith of God-with-us in Christ Jesus, his intellect ranged Nature, wide awake to the fact that “the Spirit is making all things new” for evermore. In what is called the “advanced thought” of to-day I see nothing indisputable which he did-not anticipate by some suggestion or inquiry.

If I had been able to gather into this volume all I heard him say, it would be seen indeed that he had fore glimpses even of the scientific discovery of the descent of man’s body from star-dust, through all the evolutions of vegetable and animal form, and other discoveries of science; and was still asking questions which he believed Nature would be able to answer in the immortal existence, much of whose spiritual experiences the phenomena of matter prophesy.