On May 5, 1819, Rev. William Ellery Channing spoke at the ordination of Jared Sparks, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Channing’s sermon defined “Unitarian Christianity” and contrasted it with “Trinitarian” Christian beliefs on salvation, the meaning of Jesus, and of ministry.
It suggested that Jesus could be seen as a teacher of people, rather than a sacrifice to God. It suggested that self improvement is more important than obedience of scriptural laws, and that “moral activity” is the source of virtue:
This sermon was the first published use of the word “Unitarian” to describe our movement. The word “Unitarian” had been an insult, but Channing turned it to a proud label of belief – much as “Queer” was once an insult, but now a way folks describe their own gender identity.
While it was a major shift in Christian thought, Channing’s sermon has aspects which now seem quaint: “Universal Salvation” is the basis of Universalism, but not Unitarianism. In Unitarian belief Hell existed and salvation by moral activity was the road to seeing Jesus and other virtuous souls in Heaven. God is called “One Infinite Father, the only First Cause, in whom all the blessings of nature and redemption meet.” God must still be worshiped. And the purpose of religious life is understood as individual salvation rather than communal salvation.
Compared to the religion of the day, Channing’s words were radical and liberating. Compared to our modern understandings of faith and diversity, the sermon is a bygone historical document – and yet some 21st century Americans, even in Erie County, would be scandalized by his message.
I was one of the group of clergy who joined the congregation in celebrating this historic event.