William Ellery Channing and the Push Against Calvinism

It goes without saying that one of the fun aspects of research is that you tend to stumble upon things you previously had no sense about. Case in point: I was researching the state of Calvinism in early 19th century America for my thesis on Moby-Dick. I felt like I had a solid sense of Calvinism’s early influence in the Colonies, and how it was the underlying theology of Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening. I knew that it was a central part of Melville’s work, and that he attributed the strength of Hawthorne’s work, which he called “the power of blackness,” directly to Calvinist influences. I also knew at the time that Unitarianism was a thing (as in, Emerson’s association with it), but always assumed it was just another strain of Protestantism that rose to popularity. I am, in all disclosure, also a pro-Calvinist (you don’t find many of them these days!).

Then I find out about William Ellery Channing. I had heard the name before, but my first encounter with the man was this passage from T. Walter Herbert’s book Moby-Dick and Calvinism: A World Dismantled:

To William Ellery Channing, Calvinist orthodoxy was a faith for moral cripples. A doctrine so offensive to human dignity, he affirmed, depended for its currency upon the “influence of fear in palsying the moral nature.” Man’s inherent right to offer or withhold worship in accordance with his own judgments was a major thesis of Unitarian thought. Channing’s famous “Moral Arguments against Calvinism” (1820) is based on his generous estimate of “the confidence which is due to our rational and moral faculties in religion.” Refusing to abdicate his rational dignity before the inscrutable glory of a Calvinist God, Channing argues that while God is incomprehensible, he is not therefore unintelligible. (40).

I’ve since read a little bit of Channing’s essay against Calvinism, and his arguments are those I hear from people today who don’t want to hold to God being oppressive, controlling, and authoritarian, as they see the God of Calvinism being. (I’d be curious to see if Unitarianism has any Arminianist roots). I also found this quote in an essay by David D. Hall, entitled “Calvin and Calvinism within Congregational and Unitarian Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America”: “Newly self-identified ‘Unitarians’ disputed the legitimacy of Calvinism . . . the more that nineteenth-century liberal Protestants . . . distanced themselves from the Reformation, the more they caricatured Calvin and Calvinism.”

Was there some kind of rebellion going on against Calvinism in the early 19th century? Was Unitarianism pushing back against Calvinism, maybe offering an alternative to Calvinism? From what we know about American culture, there was an American identity rising and forming at this time, desiring to be independent of its British ancestors; did that rebellious, autonomous identity cause a tension with Calvinism – which states that joy and salvation is to be found by submitting completely to God’s authority – that was umreconciliable? You can find this tension in Melville himself (his father a Unitarian, his mother a Dutch Calvinist) and in Moby-Dick, where Ishmael embodies the positive Calvinistic experience of one elected for salvation, and Ahab embodies the negative Calvinistic experience of one not elected for salvation.

I’m looking forward to learning more about what exactly was going on in the early 19th c. between these two powerhouse theological-cultural influences. Feel free to put any suggestions for further reading in the comments!


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