When we talked about what happened to the Puritans, I mentioned at the very end that one of the things that negatively happened to the Puritans and caused the Puritans to go away was a person. And that person was William Ellery Channing. Let’s go back and talk about him and see what some of his contributions were. Sadly, they were not positive contributions, but he was very influential, not only on New England Christianity, but also in setting a new charter for American Christianity.
Channing was born in Newport, R.I., in 1780. By the time he was eighteen years old, he had graduated from Harvard. It was fairly typical at that time for young men in that twelve-to-fifteen age range to go to college and then be there for four years or so. Channing graduated from Harvard in 1798. Five years later, he was at the Federal Street Church in Boston. He took to the pulpit in 1803 and remained in that church for almost forty years, until his death in 1842. Toward the end of his life, when his health was failing, he pulled away from some of his pastoral duties, but that was his single charge for his professional career.
Early on, he began to disagree with his background and with the Puritan past that he was a part of and the education that he had received. We see this early in his career, but he didn’t publish some of these things until the early 1810s. In 1819, he published a crucial piece called Unitarian Christianity and in that piece he identifies and defines Unitarianism. Unitarianism is belief in the singular God—the one God—which, of course, is there in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Orthodox theology understands that to mean one in substance or one in essence. As the biblical doctrine of God unfolds through Scripture, we see that God is a Trinity: three persons in one essence. Channing rejected the Trinity outright. He said there are not three persons; there is a singular essence and a singular person—a unity of the person of God. That is Unitarianism.
This meant that he was going to think unbiblically about Christ, and so he did. He rejected the early creeds of the church—the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition—that lay out the biblical teaching regarding Christ as truly God and truly man, with those two natures, divine and human, united in one person. Channing rejected that formula and the deity of Christ. In 1828, he published a sermon called “Likeness to God.” He later developed that sermon into a larger book, wherein he said that Christ was not God, but he also underscored humanity’s potential to reach divine heights, saying that if we follow the example of Jesus, we too can find within us that unreached potential to climb to divine heights. The human Jesus was treated as God because he understood the divinity within Him.
That thought took root and went on, unfortunately, to flower and flourish in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and even now into the twenty-first century. And that is the life of William Ellery Channing.