UU Minute #67

The 1819 Baltimore Sermon: Making the Case for Reason

Continuing from, “The Baltimore Sermon” in our UUA Curriculum, “Faith Like a River”:
By 1812, the young William Ellery Channing became the de facto leader of the Boston liberals following the untimely death of leading liberal Joseph Buckminster. Channing preached about a benevolent, loving God who had endowed humanity with innate goodness, rationality, and the wisdom to discern between good and evil. In a sermon delivered at the ordination of Jared Sparks in 1819 at the new liberal church in Baltimore, Maryland, Channing decided to snatch the label of Unitarian from those who would degrade it and to claim it proudly as his own.

His address, "Unitarian Christianity," stands as a hallmark of Unitarian history. As David Parke writes:
“The "Baltimore sermon" gave the Unitarians a platform and a spokesman. It placed them for the first time on the offensive in relation to the orthodox. It was very probably the most important Unitarian sermon ever preached anywhere.”
In the hour-and-a-half-long address, Channing took on two tasks. First, he established reason as valid and necessary for the interpretation of scripture — not as the only basis for religious belief, but as an aid to revelation, for reading and understanding the meaning of the Bible. Channing said:
“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... With these views of the Bible, 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...”
For Channing’s second task, be sure to . . . catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: The Baltimore Sermon: Channing's Conclusions of Reason

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