UU Minute #79

Unitarians and Slavery: William Ellery Channing

In 1833, Lydia Maria Child’s book, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, came out, and that same year, William Ellery Channing read it. He was so moved that he walked from Boston to Roxbury to thank Child for the book.

It must be admitted that Channing was a bit slow to address the slavery issue.
“When Channing grew up in Newport, [Rhode Island], the slave trade was still active there. His own nanny was, or had been, enslaved.
After college, he worked as a tutor on a plantation in Tidewater Virginia. In the winter of 1831, he went to the Virgin Islands for a rest cure for his chronic tuberculosis. There he came to see white racism as another chronic illness, not one easily abolished simply by will or fiat.” (Buehrens)
And yet years kept rolling by without Channing’s eloquence speaking up strongly against slavery.

The fact that Boston’s most powerful industrialists were pro-slavery, and that Channing’s Federal Street Church membership included many them, may have inhibited him.

He promised he would speak out – yet another year went by. In 1834, the 54-year-old Channing received a visit from his colleague in Unitarian ministry, Rev. Samuel Joseph May who was with the Anti-Slavery Society. Why had Channing remained silent on slavery, May pressed, and reminded him of the promise he’d made.

Channing replied, “Brother May, I must acknowledge the justice of your reproof. I have been silent too long.”

Channing spent the next summer, 1835, writing a small book called Slavery. On the one hand, he condemned slavery in uncompromising terms. On the other hand, he rejected the label “abolitionist” as tainted with harsh rhetoric and unrealistic, immediate solutions.

NEXT: Rev. Charles Follen

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