UU Minute #70

Unitarian "Sparks" Spread

On the way down to Baltimore in 1819, William Ellery Channing and the half-dozen prominent liberal ministers of Boston that traveled with him stopped and preached along the way in various places, including in New York, where Channing’s sister, Lucy Channing Russell, invited about 40 friends to her house in lower Manhattan to hear her brother speak. This would lead to the founding of the Unitarian Church of All Souls.

Channing’s Baltimore sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” was produced as a pamphlet. Hardly an American sermon ever has been as widely read. Jared Sparks, whose ordination was the occasion of Channing’s sermon, four months later, himself traveled south to give an ordination sermon in Charleston, South Carolina. On the way, Sparks preached to Unitarians in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Two years later, Sparks was chosen to serve as Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives. While in DC, Sparks helped nurture a Unitarian congregation there – also named All Souls. That same year, 1821, Sparks founded “The Unitarian Miscellany,” – a monthly magazine for spreading the Unitarian message. Sparks even received communications of interest in Unitarianism from frontier towns out west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. East coast establishment, unfortunately, didn’t regard the hinterlands as important, so there wasn’t much interest, energy, or organization for serving Unitarians in remote areas.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, the law of the time provided town taxes to supported the town church – even though many people in the town didn’t become official members of the church. In times of ministerial transition, the church and the town as a whole both had a say in approving the new minister. What if they disagreed?

To find out: catch our next thrilling episode!



UU Minute #69

"May Your Life Preach More Loudly than Your Lips"

William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of 1819 was the manifesto of our American Unitarianism. The principles Channing laid out were:
  • We must follow where reason leads.
  • God is one, not three.
  • Jesus was fully human.
  • We reject original sin and limited atonement.
  • Atonement does not come from the crucifixion.
  • The key virtues are to love God, love Christ, and live morally.
Beyond such doctrinal points, Channing also made clear that ours is a faith of deeds not creeds – that we must live our religion and not merely profess it. As Channing was preaching on the occasion of the ordination of fellow liberal Jared Sparks, toward the end of his sermon Channing turned to Sparks and said:
“My friend and brother; -- You are this day to take upon you important duties,...to devote yourself to that religion, which the most hallowed lips have preached,...I have spoken of the doctrines which you will probably preach; but...remember, that good practice is the end of preaching,…Be careful, lest the desire of defending what you deem truth,...turn you aside from your great business, which is to fix in men's minds a living conviction...If any light can pierce and scatter the clouds of prejudice, it is that of a pure example. My brother, may your life preach more loudly than your lips. Be to this people a pattern of all good works, and may your instructions derive authority from a well-grounded belief in your hearers, that you speak from the heart, that you preach from experience, that the truth which you dispense has wrought powerfully in your own heart.”

NEXT: Unitarian "Sparks" Spread


UU Minute #68

The Baltimore Sermon: Channing's Conclusions of Reason

Today: the conclusion of the chapter “The Baltimore Sermon” in our UUA Curriculum, “Faith Like a River.” In that hour-and-a-half-long address, Channing took on two tasks. First, as we learned last episode, he established reason as valid and necessary for the interpretation of scripture.

Channing's second task was to lay out reason-based conclusions of Unitarian Christians.

One: the unity of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Two: the fully human nature of Christ, as opposed to having two natures, human and divine.

Three: the moral perfection of God, which negated such doctrines as Original Sin and the eternal suffering of some while others were elected to salvation.

Four: the purpose of Jesus' mission on earth. Channing rejected the idea that Jesus' death atoned for our sin, allowing God to forgive us. Some Unitarians, Channing said, saw Jesus' life as a moral example. Other Unitarians understood Jesus' death leading humans to repentance and virtue. Whatever their differences, though, Unitarians did not consider Christ and his death as a blood atonement for human sin.

Channing's fifth and final point was that Christian virtue had its foundation in our moral nature or conscience, defined by love of God, love of Christ, and moral living.

Far from settling the simmering arguments, Channing's Baltimore Sermon brought them to a full boil. The Unitarian Controversy raged over the next quarter century. New England's churches continued to split along theological lines, and, within two decades of Channing's fateful sermon, one-quarter of Massachusetts' Standing Order churches became openly Unitarian.

Other Unitarian leaders added defining voices to the movement, but Channing's Baltimore Sermon remains a key turning point in Unitarian Universalist history.

NEXT: "May Your Life Preach More Loudly than Your Lips"