Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Channing as a Preacher
By Henry Whitney Bellows (18141882)
[William Ellery Channing: His Opinions, Genius, and Character.Given at Newport, R. I., on the Centenary of his Birth, 7 April, 1880.]
OF his preaching, I was myself the glad and fortunate beneficiary, and am among the not too many living witnesses to its transcendent power! There is no spot in Boston so sacred to me as the profaned site of the old Federal Street Church; for thither, a youth of twenty-one, I was wont to repair (and it was a walk of several miles) every other Sunday morning, for two critical years of my life and theological studies, to hear Channing preach! There were excellent preachers to be heard much nearer home; but there was that in Channings mind and soul, in his voice, manner, and look, that separated him from them, as the prophet is separated from the priest. Indeed he did not preach in the ordinary sense of the word. Gowned as he was, and obedient to all the decorums of the pulpit, it was not the preacher, but the apostle, you saw and heard! Even in the pulpit he lived the things he saw and said! The greatness of human nature shone in his beautiful brow, sculptured with thought and lighted from within; his eye, so full and blue, was lustrous with a vision of God, and seemed almost an open door into the shining presence. His voice, sweet, round, unstrained, full, though low, lingered as if with awed delay upon the words that articulated his dearest thoughts, and trembled with an ever-restrained but most contagious emotion. He was intensely present in his thoughts, as if just born from his soul and dressed from his lips, although he usually (always in my experience) spoke from a manuscript. But while his individuality was inexpressibly commanding, it gave no suggestion of the love of personal influence. He used the word I with the freedom of the Master, but it conveyed the sense, not I, but the Father in me; not I, but the truth I speak; and not you, but the nature you represent; not you, but humanity and God in you and in us. He rose slowly, read a hymn, and began his discourse (for seldom in my day was he able to spare much of his strength for the preliminary services, conducted by his colleague) on a plain so level to the feet of the simplest of his hearers that few noticed the difficulty of the slow but steady ascent he always made, carrying his wrapt hearers with him by the power of his thought, the calm insistence of his conviction, and the solemn earnestness of his spirit, until they found themselves standing at a height from which visions of Divine things, in their true proportions and real perspective, became easy and spontaneous. There was no muscular strain or contortion in his limbs or face or voice; no excitement of a fleshly origin; no false fervor or false emphasis; no loss of perfect dignity and self-possession. And there was little in the words themselves to fix attention, except their purity and grace. It was the subject that came forward and remained in the memory. He left you not thinking of him nor of his rhetoric. He had no startling figures, no brilliant fancies, no sharp points; little for admiration or praise; everything for reflection, for inspiration, and for illumination. There was one other peculiarity in his preaching. He preached only on great themes, and this made his sermons always timely, for great subjects are ever in order. So profoundly helpful, so inspiring was his preaching, that I, for one, lived on it, from fortnight to fortnight, and went to it every time with the expectation and the experience of receiving the bread of heaven on which I was to live and grow, until the manna fell again; and men of all ages had much the same feeling. When, for the first time, I saw Channing out of the pulpit, I was as much surprised at his diminutive form as if, expecting a giant, I had met a dwarf! He had seemed to me a large and tall man in his pulpit; but I soon found that, slight and low as his frame was, nearness and familiarity took nothing from its dignity, and suggested nothing fragile or weak. Indeed his attenuated and lowly figure really increased the sense of his moral majesty and intellectual eminence. His presence was more awful, simple and gentle as he was, than that of any human being I ever saw.