Thoreau & Beyond



Rev. William Ellery Channing


Biographical Sketch

by Ann M. Woodlief


Dr. Channing is an honorary transcendentalist, as an active Unitarian minister whose productive years predated and anticipated many of the ideas adopted by Emerson and Parker, in particular, so much that Emerson would say respectfully, “He is our Bishop.”

Born in Newport, RI, Channing attended Harvard, then served as tutor to David Randolph’s children in Richmond, Virginia for 18 months, when he decided to study theology at Harvard. A devout Christian who delivered eloquent sermons, Channing served in several Boston churches, particularly the Federal Street Church. No doctrinaire, he stressed morality, charity, and Christian responsibility, urging and organizing action against slavery and poverty. He often had to defend Unitarianism against orthodoxy, and formed the organization that would become the American Unitarian Association. His 1830 sermon, “Likeness to God,” is his most transcendental, exploring the divinity of man.

A European trip in 1822 revived his interest in the British romantics. He published articles in The Christian Examiner on John Milton and Fénelon, and his 1830 essay, “Remarks on National Literature” anticipated many of Emerson’s ideas in “The American Scholar.”

Social and educational reforms drew much of his energies, although like the other transcendentalists, he was skeptical about collective action, especially as directed by the government, and he too turned to words for action, particularly in his pamphlet, Slavery, an eloquent attack on the institution which he had experienced in Virginia. His outspoken views often caused problems with his congregation but he was a man with a sacred cause. His final address was in celebration of the anniversary of West Indian Emancipation. Theodore Parker spoke for many, including transcendentalists in his tribute, as he declared that “no man has died amongst us whose real influence was so wide, and so beneficent, both abroad and at home [. . .] He did not see all the truth that will be seen in the next century. He did what was better, he helped men to see somewhat of truth in this, and blessed all that aided others to see.”

Selected Essays

Likeness to God

Biographical sketch copyright © Ann M. Woodlief, 2014.
Used with permission from American Transcendentalism Web.


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