CHANNING is, without doubt, the chief ornament of the American pulpit. Like nearly all men illustrious in the religious life, he has won a kindlier and wider regard by his character than by his opinions, because the moods of devotion are simple and are universal in human nature, while opinion in theology is more variable and eccentric, and in some degree more accidental, than in any other branch of speculation. The deepest interest of his life lies not so much in the fruit of his genius as in the light of his spirit. Indeed, this acknowledgment is wrapped up in the indiscriminate eulogy by which his admirers have injured his fame, for they have presented him as a saint rather than as a thinker, as an example of ideal living rather than as a finder of truth. To put a man in the catalogue of saints is merely to write his epitaph; his life is the main thing, and Channing, although his biography records no great deeds in the world and no great crises of inner experience, is not alone in being far more interesting in his humanity than in his canonization. A refined and sensitive childhood, shadowed in some partially explained way, so that he never remembered it as a period of joyfulness, was followed by a spirited and dreaming youth, caught by the fervors of French revolutionary ideas and exalted by its own noble motives. In those early years, as well as in his late maturity, he experienced, on the beach at Newport and under the willows at Cambridge, moments of insight and impulse which stood out ever after in his memory as new births of the spirit prophetic of the future. His career was especially determined, however, by the twenty-one months which he passed at Richmond as a private tutor, immediately after leaving college. There, in loneliness and poverty, in stoical disregard of health and courting privation, in Christian conscientiousness of motive, led on by glowing reveries in which visionary objects seemed realities within reach, he devoted himself in written words to the service of mankind by the instrumentalities of religion. It is painful to read the narrative of this intense personal life in the years most susceptible to enthusiasm for remote and ideal ends ; there can be no wonder that after such experience he returned home with the seal of the religious life set upon his soul, and with a body inexorably condemned to life-long disease. He entered upon his ministry in the field where he could best do good and find peace in doing it; morally the child of the New England religious spirit, and intellectually the disciple of those ideas of the nature of humanity and the right course of its development which the French Revolution had disseminated. Throughout his life he was governed mainly by a deep sense of the dignity of manhood, under whatever form, and by an abiding conviction of the aid which Christianity gives to the imagination and heart in obeying the rule of love and obtaining permanent peace of mind.
The most acute criticism ever passed upon Channing’s character was by that unnamed critic who said, “ He was kept from the highest goodness by his love of rectitude.” The love of rectitude was his predominant trait; he was enslaved by it. He exacted more of himself, however, than of others. Right he must be, at all hazards, in motive, opinion, and action. It is melancholy to read page after page of his self-examination, so minute, intricate, and painful, so frequent and long continued. It almost awakens a doubt of the value of noble character to find it so unsure of itself, to see its possessor so absorbed in hunting his own shadow within the innermost retreats of thought and feeling. Channing seems to have preached more sermons to himself than to the world. His love of rectitude led him to this excessive conscientiousness, but it brought him great good in other directions. It gave him a respect for the opinions of other men as catholic as it was humble. He did not practice toleration toward them, for that expression implied to bis mind a misplaced self-confidence; but he practiced charity, as toward men who felt equally with himself the binding force of the obligation to be right, and who had an equal chance of finding truth. His conviction of the universality of this obligation and his perception that it necessitates the independent exercise of individual powers encouraged in him a remarkable admiration for individuality, for the unhampered exercise of thought and unquestioned obedience to motive in which the richness of individual life consists. His second great quality, as pervasive and controlling as his desire to be right, was sensibility. It was revealed in the sympathies and affections of private life, which are known to the world only by the report of friends ; but it may be seen with equal clearness in the intensity of his delight in nature, and in the ardent feeling by which he realized ideal ends and gave them a living presence in his own life as objects of continuous effort. His sensitiveness to natural beauty was so keen that in moments of physical weakness it caused pain. " There are times,” he wrote, “ when I have been so feeble that a glance at the natural landscape, or even the sight of a beautiful flower, gave me a bodily pain from which I shrank.” As life drew on to its end, the indestructible loveliness of nature became to him a source of joy and peace ever more prized. “ The world grows younger with age ! ” he exclaimed more than once. In emotional susceptibility to ideas he resembled Shelley, and probably it was this likeness of feeling which led him to call Shelley, in ministerial language, but with extraordinary charity for that age, “a seraph gone astray.” He retained through life the intellectual sympathies of his youth, and in his last days still had an inclination toward com munity of property as the solution of the social problem ; like Wordsworth and Southey he recoiled from the excesses of the French, but he never gave up the tricolor for the white cockade. In his generation nearly all men were hopeful of the accomplishment of beneficent reforms ; but Channing was filled with an enthusiasm of hope which was almost the fervor of conviction. He was without that practical enthusiasm which is aroused by the presence of great deeds immediately to be done ; the objects for which he worked were far in the distance, scarcely discernible except from the mount of vision; but he was possessed by the enthusiasm which is kindled by the heat of thought and is wrapped in its own solitary flames, and he lived under the bright zenith of that mood of which Carlyle has shown us the dark nadir and Teufelsdröch standing in its shadow gazing out over the sleeping city. These three principles — rectitude, sensibility, enthusiasm — were elemental in Channing’s nature ; and because they are moral, and not intellectual, he lived a spiritual rather than a mental life; he gained in depth rather than in breadth, and worked out his development by contemplation and prayer rather than by thought and act.
It appears strange, at first, that a man with these endowments should have been so conservative in opinion, and so little inclined to force upon the world what advanced opinions he did hold. A lover of truth unwilling to make proselytes, an enthusiast unwilling to act, seems an anomaly ; but such was Channing’s position. One cause of his aversion to pushing Unitarianism to its conclusion is found in the history of his own conversion and in the character of his attachment to the new faith. He was a revolter of the heart; he was liberalized by his feelings. “My inquiries,” he said, “ grew out of the shock given to my moral nature by the popular system of faith.” He was moved by sentiment in his rejection of Calvinism, and he was kept by sentiment from giving up the theory of the mysterious character and mission of Christ. The strength of his feelings operated to render him conservative, and the low estimate he apparently placed upon logical processes contributed to the same end. “ It is a good plan,” he wrote, “ ever and anon to make a clean sweep of that to which we have arrived by logical thought, and take a new view ; for the mind needs the baptism of wonder and hope to keep it vigorous and healthy for intuition.” The voice is the voice of Wordsworth. Either this distrust of the understanding working by logical processes, or else a native inaptitude for theological reasoning, prevented him from following out his principles to their conclusion. If he had framed a system, he would have held his views with greater certainty; as it was, he not only allowed the greatest liberty to individual opinion, but he distrusted himself. “ You young thinkers,” he said, “ have the advantage of us in coming without superstitious preoccupation to the words of Scripture, and are more likely to get the obvious meaning. We shall walk in shadows to our graves.” The strength of inbred sentiment could not be overpowered by this feeble intellectual conviction. He was a moral, not an intellectual, reformer ; his work was not the destruction of a theology, but the spread of charity. He felt more than he reasoned, and hence his rationalism was bounded, not by the unknown, but by the mystical. He was satisfied with this, and does not seem to have wished to make a definite statement of his beliefs. The whole matter is summed up by Miss Peabody when she says, “ The Christianity which Dr. Channing believed . . . was a spirit, not a form of thought.” A spirit of devotion toward the divine, a spirit of love toward the human, Channing preached to the world and illustrated by his life; but a new form of thought which shows the intellectual advance that alone is fatal to conservatism, — this was no part of his gift to men.
In the antislavery cause his conservatism appears in a less pleasing light. Here he exhibited the scholar’s reluctance to initiate reform, the scholar’s perplexity before the practical barriers in the way of action. He was displeased by the rude voices about him, and frightened by the violence of determination which the reformers displayed. He looked to find the peace of the pulpit in the arena, and was bewildered by the alarms of the active strife. He did not choose his side until the last moment, and even then he delayed until he called down the just rebuke of May and the just defense that reformer made for his comrades : “ The children of Abraham held their peace until at last the very stones have cried out, and you must expect them to cry out like the stones.” Then, indeed, Channing showed that he was a Falkland on Cromwell’s side, not acting without a doubt, but taking his place, nevertheless, openly and manfully beside the friend whom he had left alone too long. Yet he never lost, even in that stirring cause, the timidity of culture. He was of the generation of those cultivated men who earned for Boston the reputation for intellectual preëminence ; but the political future of the country did not belong to him nor to his companions ; it belonged to Garrison and Lincoln. Here it is that Father Taylor’s keen criticism strikes home: “ What a beautiful being Dr. Channing is ! If he only had had any education ! ” Channing’s education had been of the lamp, and not of the sword; it seemed to Father Taylor pitifully narrow and palsy-stricken beside his own large experience of the world’s misery. Channing’s life affords one more illustration of the difficulty the cultivated man finds in understanding and forwarding reform in its beginning; but he deserves the credit of having rid himself of the prejudices and influences that marked the society in which he moved, to a greater degree, perhaps, than any other of his circle.
The value of Channing’s work in religion and in reform will be differently rated by men, for his service was of a kind which is too apt to be forgotten. The intrinsic worth of his writings remains to be tested by time ; but their historic worth, as a means of liberalizing the New England of his day, was great and memorable. He gave his right hand to Emerson and his left hand to Parker; and, although he could not accompany them on the way, he bade them Godspeed. It was, perhaps, mainly through his influence that they found the field prepared for them and the harvest ready, although he would not put his sickle in. It was largely due to him, also, that Boston became the philanthropic centre of the country. During his life-time he won a remarkable respect and admiration. An exaggerated estimate of his eloquence, powers, and influence will continue to be held so long as any remain alive who heard his voice and remember its accents; in later times a truer judgment may be reached. Personally he was amiable, kindly, and courteous, notwithstanding the distance at which he seems to have kept all men. Dr. Walker said that conversation was always constrained in his study. In his nephew’s narrative, it is said that the interview with him was “solemn as the visit to the shrine of an oracle.” He himself tells Miss Peabody, after their friendship had lasted several years, that she had “ the awe of the preacher ” upon her. Finally, we read that no man ever freely laid his hand upon Channing’s shoulder; and we wonder whether he ever remembered that St. John had “handled the Word made flesh.” This self-seclusion, this isolation of sanctity, as it were, did not proceed from any value he set upon himself above his fellows ; it was the natural failing of a man who lived much within himself, and who always meditated the loftiest of unworldly themes. He was a faithful and wellbeloved friend; and if in this, as in other directions, he “ failed of the highest goodness,” there are few in the same walk of life who attain to equal sincerity, charity, and purity, or equal serviceableness to the world.
Buckle belonged to a far different order of mind. In the interest which attaches to him, the personal element, the exhibition of qualities of character in his human relations, had little place. He shared in the world’s work by the exercise of mental powers over which his circumstances had slight influence. His life as a thinker was separated from his life as a man among men by an unusually sharp line. In respect to the genesis of his opinions, or their gradual modification, there is no other record than his history affords. His biographer gives us only the details of his private life,1 and these are of the scantiest description. Born a sickly child, he grew up untrained to any scholarly habits, practically an unschooled boy. That, under such circumstances, he should have formed at the age of twenty a vast plan for historical investigation, involving the labor of a life-time, and should have pursued it with undeviating singleness of aim until his early death, was a remarkable instance of the self-assertion of genius. It was his good fortune not to be hindered in early years by the necessity of earning a livelihood; but he was also unchecked by any of the distracting influences which beset men in every station. The task which he had chosen satisfied his ambition, and left no room for the interference of other lesser aims ; he had no desire for any success inferior to the fame which he confidently awaited. He admitted into his heart no affection except that which he bore his mother in return for her singular devotion to him and her intellectual sympathy. The absorption of all his energies in his work left him dull to nature. “ When one is in the country,” he writes, " there is nothing to do but to look inward, for neither the brogue of the peasants nor the bleating of the sheep is sufficiently suggestive to direct the mind without. . . . If it remains as fine, I shall think less harshly of nature than formerly.” And again he speaks of the uselessness of “ those vacant raptures which the beauties of nature are apt to suggest.” So unmoved by the ordinary ambitions of the world, so limited in the scope of his affections and in his appreciation of beauty, all that made Buckle an uncommon man was the extraordinary intelligence which he was master of, and which he used with such persistence and certainty. He spent his life in his study, reading, generalizing, writing, gathering his materials, formulating his conclusions, perfecting his style. At length, after fifteen years of unnoticed labor, the first chapters were printed, and he was famous. But he had already begun to recognize the limitations of capacity and time which confronted him with the prospect of failure. His ambition had become a source of pain ; however he might narrow his field and simplify his plan, he knew his work would never be accomplished. “ To break down,” he writes, “ in the midst of what, according to my measure of greatness, is a great career, and to pass away and make no sign, — this, I own, is a prospect which I now for the first time see is possible, and the thought of which seems to chill my life as it creeps over me.” Six years later he lay dead at Damascus. What he foresaw was possible had come to pass ; he was cut off with hardly the introduction to his great work finished.
The striking thing in this story is the emptiness of personal experience which it discloses. Buckle seems never to have lived familiarly with men as his fellows ; he was brought into intimate relations with few persons, and those were not of a high order of mind. He had no interests outside of himself, except in his mother’s welfare ; when she died he was left pitiably alone. “ I keep my affections alive by reading Shakespeare,” he said. What a confession is there! In his later years he cared for a nephew who died, and for the two boys who accompanied him on his journey to the East, his attachment to whom is touching by its very singularity. This poverty of his personal experience and the silence Buckle kept concerning his intellectual life make his biography meagre in substance. The extent of his reading, the tenacity of his memory, the brilliancy of his conversation, and his skill in chess are spoken of at length ; many letters are given, but the greater number of them, although about literary matters, are as purely business letters as if they concerned groceries; a detailed account of his travels is also printed. It would be unfair, perhaps, to judge Buckle by what is here reported of his talk; his tone is often too strikingly like that of a man forced to reply to the commonplaces of mediocrity. If his conversational powers were brilliant, he was in a dull mood when he visited these companions ; there is not a saying here which is worth preservation. It is a misfortune that Buckle did not have an equal friend, for his life would have been enriched thereby, and our knowledge of him might have been more adequate. As it was, he did not unveil himself to any one; and consequently his truest biography, the record of his real life, must be read in his great work, — the history which, notwithstanding its errors, was and is a powerful intellectual influence, and will remain a monument of a young man’s self-contained devotion to a philosophic end, extraordinary in any age and unexampled in our own.
Mr. Darwin’s preliminary notice of his grandfather which is prefixed to Dr. Krause’s essay,2 and occupies the larger half of the volume, is a model of simple, compact, and entertaining biography. In the first pages the presence of the eighteenth century is felt, and before one has read far he discovers that Erasmus Darwin had a large share of that capacity for vigorous work, that heartiness and hardihood, that broad common sense and incisive worldly prudence, which marked the Englishmen of that age. He was a man of many affairs. He was a physician whom his profession complained of for being a philosopher, and a philosopher whom his contemporaries in philosophy sneered at as a doctor; he was, besides, a poet whom Cowper gracefully ranked before himself. In medicine he was not only famous as a practitioner, but he anticipated the future by his theory of the use of stimulants in fevers and of the treatment of the insane, and by his acquaintance with the relation between convulsion and insanity, and with the facts recently discovered by Rosenthal in his experiments upon the blood. In philosophy he investigated many of the problems which his grandson has solved in regard to “adaptation, the protective arrangement of animals and plants, sexual selection, insectivorous plants,” and the like. Of course it is not meant that he established his hypotheses, or that his views did not materially differ from those now held. In such speculation he was the precursor of Lamarck, and Dr. Krause feels justified in saying that “ he was the first who proposed and consistently carried out a well-rounded theory with regard to the development of the living world, — a merit which shines forth most brilliantly when we compare with it the vacillating and confused attempts of Buffon, Linnæus, and Goethe.” He was not content, however, with the investigation of nature, but, although a disbeliever in revelation, he sometimes speculated upon religious rather than scientific matters. His argument in favor of the goodness of God as shown in the law of the survival of the fittest is curious. “ Beasts of prey,” he says, “more easily catch and conquer the aged and infirm, and the young ones are defended by their parents. . . . By this contrivance more pleasurable sensation exists in the world. . . . Old organizations are transmigrated into young ones. . . . Death cannot so properly be called positive evil as the termination of good.” Hence he concludes all the strata of the world “ are monuments of the past felicity of organized nature, and consequently of the benevolence of the Deity ! ” Such passages, however, are very few, and it was not on their account, but because of his scientific views, that the word " Darwinize ” was coined to express the greatest rashness and uselessness of speculative inquiry. As a poet no one would now give him any rank; but Horace Walpole, that gentleman whose taste was the quintessence of eighteenthcentury refinement, said of one passage, beginning,
Astonished chaos heard the potent word,”
that it was “ the most sublime passage in any author, or in any of the few languages with which I am acquainted.” Even Dr. Krause says that hardly any similar attempt since the time of Lucretius has been so successful. Mr. Darwin’s estimate of his ancestor’s poetic work as an example of extraordinary command of language for the presentation of visible objects to the mind is, however, the highest praise which the judgment of our generation will approve.
But besides being a physician, philosopher, and poet, Erasmus Darwin found time for many subordinate pursuits. In mechanical invention he was especially ingenious. He made a contrivance for grinding flints, and left “ schemes and sketches for an improved lamp, . . . a manifold writer, a knitting loom, a weighing machine, a surveying machine, a flying bird,” and for many other inventions, some of which, such as his plan of a canal lock and a rotatory pump, have since been used under improved forms. He contrived a talking-machine and a peculiar kind of carriage. Indeed, his genius in this direction seems to have been as great as in other ways. He also founded a philosophical society, supported the cause of temperance among the first, suggested theatrical devices for the parliamentary orators who attacked the slave-trade, and gave much time to private charity. Occasionally his benevolence brought him strange returns of gratitude, as when the horse-jockey stole into his chamber at night to tell him not to bet on the favorite, and when the highwayman let him pass without demanding his purse. These private pursuits added to his professional and literary labors made his life a full one; but he kept at work until death, at the age of seventy, and said to his son, who advised him to retire from active duties, “ It is a dangerous experiment, and generally ends either in drunkenness or hypochondriacism.”
The glimpses of his personality and the scraps of his conversation which are here given are all of interest, and throw light upon his character. There is nothing better than the tolerably wellknown epigram reported by Mr. Edgeworth : “ A fool, Mr. Edgeworth, you know, is a man who never tried an experiment in his life; ” but there are other sayings from the same mint. His letters show the keenness of his mind. One must go to Dickens for anything like the frank, worldly wisdom of his advice to the young apothecary, which one can hardly read as a sober production even of that age. Living at that time, he met Dr. Johnson, as a matter of course. It is not difficult to fancy the interview between the two, which tradition reports was not agreeable to either of them. It is easy to fancy, too, his majesty George the Third repeating over and over, “ Why does not Dr. Darwin come to London ? He shall be my physician if he comes.” The aged doctor would not go to the court, but kept on in the old way. It is not only George the Third and Dr. Johnson, and card-tables, copies of verses, and country manners, which give to this biography the true tone of the time. Dr. Darwin was himself a most characteristic product of the age, although in so many and so important ways he was a prophet of the age to come. He was not quite so well satisfied with his period, however, as most of his contemporaries. “ Common sense,” he said, “ would be improving when men left off wearing as much flour on their heads as would make a pudding; when women left off wearing rings in their ears, like savages wear nose-rings; and when fire-grates were no longer made of polished steel.” Some of these changes have come to pass ; but the eighteenth century is still held up as the era of common sense, from which this generation may learn wisdom. Mr. Darwin has compressed so much into this small volume that it is useless to attempt to give more than a fragmentary idea of what it contains. In view of the frequent mention of Erasmus Darwin in modern scientific books, the account of his work was well worth relating from a purely historical point of view, as in Dr. Krause’s excellent essay; and to this the biographical notice is a valuable and extremely interesting addition.
The last biography to be noticed is that of Elihu Burritt.3 He was as complete a contrast to Darwin as Buckle was to Channing. He was an extraordinarily unpractical man. He was attached to visionary philanthropic causes, for the advancement of which he gave his mature manhood. At a comparatively early period he left off the study of languages, by which he first won notice ; and although his perseverance in the effort to raise himself from a blacksmith’s forge to the higher walks of literature deserves to *be remembered with great praise, yet it is justly doubted whether his mastery of the great number of languages he endeavored to acquire was real, and it is clear that they were of no practical use to him. He enlisted himself in the peace movement, and went about the world to agitate the cause. He gained a varied experience, he met many illustrious men, but he never saw any practical result of his labors. The only measure of which he secured the adoption was the establishment of ocean penny-postage, and for that he deserves recognition beside Sir Rowland Hill as a benefactor of mankind. The numerous volumes he published were nearly all of passing interest; his literary criticism was valueless. He exhibited the same qualities in private as in public life ; he was attractive, amiable, and benevolent. He will be remembered as the self-made scholar and as the missionary of philanthropy ; these two aspects of his life are pleasantly and simply presented by his biographer.
- The Life of William Ellery Channing, D. D. The Centenary Memorial Edition. By his Nephew, WILLIAM HENRY CHANNING. Boston: American Unitarian Association. 1880.↩
- Reminiscences of Rev. William Ellery Channing, D. D. By ELIZABETH PALMER PEABODY. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1880.↩
- William Ellery Channing. A Centennial Memory. By CHARLES T. BROOKS. With Illustrations. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1880.↩
- The Life and Writings of Henry Thomas Buckle. By ALFRED HENRY HUTH. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1880.↩
- Erasmus Darwin. By ERNST KRAUSE. Translated from the German by W. S. DALLAS. With a Preliminary Notice by CHARLES DARWIN. Portrait and Wood-Cuts. New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1880.↩
- Elihu Burritt. A Memorial Volume, containing a Sketch of his Life and Labors, with Selections from his Writings and Lectures, and Extracts from his Private Journals in Europe and America. Edited by CHARLES NORTHEND, A. M. New York: D. Appleton & Co.↩