In an earlier post I set the stage for William Ellery Channing’s “Baltimore Sermon” of 1819. As a recap – Christianity in colonial New England was strongly Calvinist, fire and brimstone, with a very strong sense of Puritan orthodoxy. But there was emerging a new, more open, Christianity. While the occasion was officially the Ordination of a fellow minister, Reverend Jared Sparks, Channing, who had been asked to deliver the event’s sermon, used the opportunity to advance and coalesce the ideas behind this new theology. He essentially laid out the foundation of the modern Unitarian denomination in that afternoon. The sermon was printed in the newspaper and reached a national audience through its publication as a pamphlet.
The sermon took place at the newly-constructed First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, which has seen continuous duty as a Unitarian church since that day. At the time it was called the “First Independent Church”. They say the sermon took an hour and a half to deliver. At 24 printed pages of densely packed type, I can easily believe it.
Channing began with a quotation, First Thessalonians verse 21: ‘Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good” and proceeded immediately to a core issue: “How is the Bible to be read?” Even in today’s America we see people attempting literal interpretation, and grabbing at phrases. Channing is clear:
“We regard Scriptures to be the record of God’s successive revelation to mankind, and particularly of the last and most perfect revelation of his will by Jesus Christ.” Channing is declaring that knowledge does not arrive in a single immutable block; it comes in waves, each building upon what came before, never ending, never finished.
“Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner, as that of other books.”
“. . . .we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths.” Channing emphasizes that we must bring our selves to the process of reading and learning. It is our individual responsibility to think, evaluate, infer, learn. To build on what is known, to continuously advance.
Having set his ground, that Scripture is to be read in context, with reason, “beyond the letter to the spirit,” Channing then begins to state the views which such a reading reveals.
- “First, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God and one only.” … that Channing rejected a Trinitarian view of God as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Examining scripture and history, Channing saw no reason or justification in these distinctions, and found evidence to the contrary.)
- “Secondly. . . we believe in the unity of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from the one God.” … that Jesus was fully human.
- “Thirdly . . . .we believe in the moral perfection of God.” That God is neither cruel, nor vengeful, nor capricious; but rather, good, kind and benevolent.
- “Fourthly . . . .We believe that he (Jesus Christ) was sent by the Father to effect a moral, or spiritual deliverance of mankind.” … that humanity was to be transformed, this transformation to be achieved not by sacrifice to a judgmental God, but by a variety of means employed by Jesus, a man of exceptional moral character who had embarked upon a divine mission. And by Jesus’ teaching, and the lived example of his actions toward the poor and the penitent.
- “Fifthly . . . We believe that all virtue has its foundations in the moral nature of man, that is in conscience, or his sense of duty, and in the power of forming his temper and life according to conscience.” … that we must develop and be guided in our actions by our individual consciences.
These conclusions of Channing’s may seem removed from modern concerns, and linked too closely with 18th century Christianity to be of interest. But they resonate with me in the application of thought and reason to moral issues, the need for openness to the continuing nature of revelation, the requirement for us as individuals to develop and be guided by our consciences, and the need to act — the concept that we express our spirituality through our actions. As a religious vision now in its 199th year, Channing’s sermon is still worth celebrating.
In his concluding remarks to Reverend Sparks Channing advises: “My brother, may your life preach more loudly than your lips.” Amen.
You may find the original of the sermon at: https://archive.org/details/cu31924104035930
EDITOR’S NOTE: Post #3 in this series (to be published the week of April 29, 2018) will address the the impact of the Baltimore Sermon on the Unitarian and, ultimately, Unitarian Universalist, denominations.