American Christianity, Two Hundred Years Ago

The passages below are from a sermon delivered by William Ellery Channing in Baltimore in 1819:

We regard the Scriptures as the records of God’s successive revelations to mankind, and particularly of the last and most perfect revelation of his will by Jesus Christ. Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve or exception. We do not, however, attach equal importance to all the books in this collection. Our religion, we believe, lies chiefly in the New Testament….

We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible. In addition to the remarks now made on its infinite connexions, we may observe, that its style nowhere affects the precision of science or the accuracy of definition. Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment.—We find, too, that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application.—We find, too, that some of these books are strongly marked by the genius and character of their respective writers, that the Holy Spirit did not so guide the Apostles as to suspend the peculiarities of their minds, and that a knowledge of their feelings, and of the influences under which they were placed, is one of the preparations for understanding their writings. With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounded duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths.

Reading something like this in 2005 is extraordinarily saddening, for this is one of those cases where, looking back, we see not have far we have come, but how far we have fallen.

The Christianity of Channing’s “we” is one of openness, exploration, and curiosity—as well as of belief. Their Bible is a living document, one which, though created by humans and showing their limitations, is imbued with the spirit and guidance of God.

Sure, there are plenty of Christians around now who will nod in complete agreement with Channing’s statements (and his words were not without controversy when delivered), but much of Christianity has been hijacked, today, and stolen away into a rigid, unforgiving place where the Bible is used to rule things out, not bring people in.

Too bad. So much beauty lost. So much compassion and understanding left by the wayside….

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