Ballou v Channing

May 25, 2009

From “The Universalist movement in America, 1770-1880” by Ann Lee Bressler pp 4-7, arguing that “Channing’s disdain for those of humble backgound cannot completely explain his lack of collegiality, indeed of civility, toward a neighbouring minster [Ballou] whose doctrinal criticism … often mirrored his own”:

John White Chadwick … maintained in his 1903 biography of Channing that the [Ballou’s] Treatise [on Atonement] “anticipated the full-grown expression of Channing’s thonght on all its principal lines.” Chadwick’s subtly condescending assertion, issued long after the Unitarians and Universalists had grown cozy, reflects a view about the relationship between the early histories of the two movements that remains prevalent nearly a century later. Unfortunately, it is based on a fundamental misreading of the Treatise. While many of the major ideas and arguments in the two works are strikingly similar, the central thrust of the Baltimore sermon differs greatly from that of Ballou’s Treatise.

One commentator has observed that, in Channing’s thought, we can see a “vast reversal in the orientation of the New England mind since the time of [Jonathan] Edwards,” even “the triumph of Edwards’s opponents.” Channing valued the gospel for its “aids,” “motives,” and “excitements” to a “generous and divine virtue” and insisted that virtue could not be “infused into us without our own moral activity.” It was in the human ability to oppose nature and history, not in human openness to God, that Channing saw the beauty of man. As Ballou’s biographer, Ernest Cassara, has pointed out, Channing’s Arminianism was directly opposed to Ballou’s belief. The keynote of Ballou’s message was the power of God’s love in the face of human sinfulness and apparent intransigence. Man “experimentally becomes a child of God,” and “by the spirit of the word, the soul is brought into sweet communion with God.” In this key respect, Ballou remained closer to Edwards than to Edwards’s opponents.

Indeed, the disagreement between Channing and Ballon continued in important respects a conflict that bad originated between Jonathan Edwards and the liberal clergy of Boston. Figures like Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauney had developed what Henry May has called “a post-Calvinist adaptation of the Moderate English Enlightenment” They held at more than arm’s length the sort of intense concern with human sinfulness and the fate of souls that flared during the Great Awakening.

Channing was clearly an exponent of the outlook they had nurtured. Ultimately, he sought to furnish the rational structure for a religion of moral self-culture. For Channing, after all, virtue was rooted in human moral nature, with its likeness to God. Andrew Delbanco has written that Channing’s conception of virtue “as a property of individual insularity” made him uncomfortable with the “communitarian metaphysics of Edwards, who always conceived of virtue in terms of relation.”

We can see the basic incompatibility between Channing and Ballou when we recognize that Ballou’s vision was essentially communitarian as well. Indeed, Ballou’s understanding of the power of the doctrine of universal salvation is reminiscent of Edwards’s expression of true virtue:

In pure love to others i.e., love not arising from self-love, there is a union of the heart with others; a kind of enlargement of the mind, whereby it so extends itself as to take others into a man’s self: and therefore it implies a disposition to feel, to desire, and to act as though others were one with ourselves.

Ballou held that the heartfelt belief in universal salvation induced people to rise above the “natural moral sense,” to act out of a higher and less purely selfish virtue. Faith in universal salvation severely discouraged the elevation of individual virtue as it celebrated the organic purpose and will of God.

In the end, Ballou and Channing thus directed reason to very different purposes; Ballou put it in the service of fervent evangelical piety, while Channing used it to illuminate an urbane moralism. Channing’s refusal to recognize Ballou, then, was probably far more than the snubbing of one who held a lower social station; it was also an expression of distaste for the broad implications of Ballou’s teachings. Ballou had, in an important way, appropriated the legacy of Edwards, while Channing was socially and intellectually descended from his opponents. Imbuing the organic, egalitarian piety of Edwards with a heavy dose of Enlightenment rationality, Ballou challenged an Arminian individualism that implicitly reinforced a sense of social hierarchy. Intellectually as well as socially, this preacher from the hill country made William Ellery Channing uneasy.

It is obvious which of those visions won. I wonder what was lost, though, in the victory?


Simple and Intelligible

February 25, 2007

I have just read an academic paper online at the Unitarian Christian Colloqium by Andrew Brown called ‘God, Jesus, Christ & Holy Spirit. In this very first sentence he writes:

One of the best known statements made by our liberal religious movement was that we were seeking to spread Christianity ‘in its most simple and intelligible form.’

By page 6 he states:

Although it is clearly possible to claim that Jesus’ moral teachings have an independent and universal applicability, in our own pluralistic age the idea of there being one true “pure religion” (and that based only upon Jesus’ moral teachings) is wholly unsustainable. We are increasingly aware that that any genuine religious tradition is much more than the holding of a set of (supposedly)universally applicable moral teachings. They are instead patterned integrities which engage the whole person in an historically extended community dwelling on a particular ‘bend in the river’ and which have inherited a complex range of speech-acts (i.e. particular and unique scriptures, prayers and rituals) that help them explore Reality together using a shared language. Christianity, in any of its forms (including its Unitarian form), is much more than just holding to the abstract truth of Jesus’ moral precepts in an attempt to create a so-called “pure” or “universal” religion.

By the last page, he is describing the difference between pantheism, panentheism and panpsychism.

Now, I’m being unfair. I don’t know Andrew Brown from a bar of soap, and criticising him for being academic in an academic article is disingenuous.


Shouldn’t we be talking more about the ideal of simple and intelligible faith? Theology that is neither a mess of baroque complexity nor a flow of nice sounding words covering a refusal to let go of wriggle room – a refusal to commit to a meaning that might judge us.

Shall we allow the fundamentalists to hold a monopoly on simple and intelligible?

To abandon the job of presenting Christianity in its simplest and most intelligible form is to acquiesce to an alternative presentation of Christianity – a presentation which is simple and intelligible, but wrong.