May 25, 2010

Bicentennial of William Henry Channing

William Henry Channing is probably not as well-known as his uncle, one of the foremost Unitarian preachers, or even as famous as his brother, the much-maligned poet Ellery Channing. W. H. Channing was born 200 years ago today on May 25, 1810.

After graduating from Harvard Divinity School, Channing was ordained at a church in Cincinnati. While there, he succeeded his colleague James Freeman Clarke as editor of the Western Messenger. Already floating in the circle of Transcendentalists, Channing had previously been asked by Orestes Brownson to review an essay called "The American Scholar" by one Ralph Waldo Emerson (who shares his birthday). Channing concluded that Emerson's points were "hinted, without the progressive reasonings through which he was led to them." (He later was more openly laudatory; in a private letter in 1842, he writes of Emerson's "fineness of touch about all he does, and such a genuine appreciation of everything! ...I thank Heaven I was born in the same day with him.")

Later, while in New York, Channing became interested in the Associationist movement, the same reform ideas that inspired Brook Farm, and issued a journal, The Present, to promote it. His theories eventually evolved into, what he called, "Christian Union," the idea that a fervent faith among the masses could fix society's problems and lead to greater equality. More than just a theory, Channing put his beliefs into practice, emphasizing that Christians were obligated to work for the good of neglected or abused segments of the population. By 1847, he termed it "Church of Humanity."

One of those inspired by Channing was fellow obscure Transcendentalist Christopher Pearse Cranch. As Cranch later recalled, "He always took an intense interest in the spiritual elevation of the people, but no less in establishing a high standard of morality for the cultured classes." Cranch noted Channing's opposition to slavery, the Mexican War, the annexation of Texas. "It is difficult to describe a man so perfect... He held an ideal standard in everything," he wrote.

Channing was also a lifelong friend of Margaret Fuller. "She was peerless," he wrote of her. After Fuller's death in 1850, he visited the wreck at Fire Island where she died, spending two days there talking to survivors. Channing, Clarke, and Emerson collaborated on her biography. Channing sought out a man named James Nathan (with whom Fuller may have had a romantic relationship) for his relevant letters. He refused (and friend told Emerson that a biography could not be written without them; his letters were later edited and published, in small part, by Julia Ward Howe).

Emerson in particular rushed the project and controlled its direction. Channing wanted to take his time, particularly in the section about Fuller's marriage and pregnancy (still somewhat confusing today). Channing believed that Fuller, on principle, would never legally marry and privately told Emerson as much. Emerson was unconcerned and made up a wedding date, apparently out of thin air. The book, Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli, remains controversial and has been blamed for much of the 19th century's judgment of Fuller as an abrasive, arrogant, "unwomanly" figure.

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