William Ellery Channing(1780-1842) was one of the most influential preachers in American history. He’s sometimes considered the starting point of American Liberal Christianity, a title I think he would have appreciated. He also inspired his student Ralph Waldo Emerson to go into theology and eventually begin the Transcendental movement, a fact which I think would have bothered Channing a bit.
He also inspired James Ford, who runs the blog Monkey Mind in the Buddhist portal at Patheos. I suspect Ford would confuse the heck out of stodgy old Channing.
Here’s an anecdote from Channing’s memoirs, recollected and told by his nephew, William Henry Channing. In the story, William Ellery tells of a rare outing with his father, where he was taken to see a Calvinist preacher:
Impressed with the notion that he might learn great tidings from the unseen world, he listened attentively to the sermon. With very glowing rhetoric, the lost state of man was described, his abandonment to evil, helplessness, dependence upon sovereign grace, and the need of earnest prayer as the condition of receiving this divine aid. In the view of the speaker, a curse seemed to rest upon the earth, and darkness and horror to veil the face of nature. William, for his part, supposed that henceforth those who believed would abandon all other things to seek this salvation, and that amusement and earthly business would no longer occupy a moment. The service over, they went out of the church, and his father, in answer to the remark of some person, said, with a decisive tone, —” Sound doctrine, Sir.”
“It is all true,” then, was his inward reflection. A heavy weight fell on his heart. He wanted to speak to his father; he expected his father would speak to him in relation to this tremendous crisis of things. They got into the chaise and rode along, but, absorbed in awful thoughts, he could not raise his voice. Presently his father began to whistle! At length they reached home ; but instead of calling the family together, and telling them of the appalling intelligence which the preacher had given, his father took off his boots, put his feet toward the fireplace, and quietly read a newspaper. All things went on as usual.
At first, he was surprised; but not being given to talking, he asked no explanations. Soon, however, the question rose, — ” Could what he had heard be true? No! his father did not believe it; people did not believe it! It was not true!” He felt that he had been trifled with; that the preacher had deceived him; and from that time he became inclined to distrust everything oratorical, and to measure exactly the meaning of words; he had received a profound lesson on the worth of sincerity.
I’ve been in a similar situation to young Channing. I’ve sat through fire and brimstone sermons, only to watch as everyone files out the door smiling and headed towards Dennys for their usual Sunday brunch. The parishioners show no sign that they know themselves to be dangling over the pit of hell with only God’s questionable patience to save them from eternal torment.
At some point you’ve got to ask, do they really believe this? If they did, shouldn’t it affect their behavior? Channing’s decided that they didn’t believe it, and he went on to become one of Calvinism’s most prominent critics. I have a nasty feeling its more complicated than that.