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CHANNING. - Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. 3 
Retrospect of Western Travel in Three Vols (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838). Vol. 3.
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“And let me tell you, good company and good discourse are the very sinews of virtue.”
There is no task more difficult than that of speaking of one's intimate friends in print. It is well that the necessity occurs but seldom; for it is a task which it is nearly impossible to do well. Some persons think it as dangerous as it is difficult: but I do not feel this. If a friendship be not founded on a mutual knowledge so extensive as to leave nothing to be learned by each of the opinions of the other regarding their relation; and if, moreover, either party, knowing what it is to speak to the public,—the act of all acts most like answering at the bar of eternal judgment,—can yet be injuriously moved by so much of the character and circumstances being made known as the public has an interest in,—such a friendship is not worthy of the name; and if it can be thus broken up, it had better be so. In the case of a true friendship, there is no such danger; for it is based upon something very different from mutual ignorance; and depends upon something much more stable than the ignorance of the world concerning the parties.
Dr. Channing is, of all the public characters of the United States, the one in whom the English feel the most interest. After much consideration, I have decided that to omit, because the discussion is difficult to myself, the subject most interesting to my readers, and one on which they have, from Dr. Channing's position, a right to information, would be wrong. Accounts have already been given of him,—one, at least, to his disadvantage. There is no sufficient reason why a more friendly one should be withheld, while the account is strictly limited to those circumstances and appearances which might meet the observation of a stranger or a common acquaintance. All revelations made to me through the hospitalities of his family, or by virtue of friendship, will be, of course, carefully suppressed.
Dr. Channing spends seven or eight months of the year in Rhode Island, at Oakland, six miles from Newport. There I first saw him, being invited by him and Mrs. Channing to spend a week with them. This was in September, 1835. I afterwards staid a longer time with them in Boston.
The last ten miles of the journey to Dr. Channing's house, from Boston, is very pretty in fine weather. The road passes through a watery region, where the whims of sunshine and cloud are as various and as palpable as at sea. The road passes over a long bridge to the island, and affords fine glimpses of small islands in the spreading river, and of the distant main with its breakers. The stage set me down at the garden-gate at Oakland, whither my host came out to receive me. I knew it could be no other than Dr. Channing; but his appearance surprised me. He looked younger and pleasanter than I had expected. The common engraving of him is undeniably very like; but it does not altogether do him justice. A bust of him was modelled by Persico, the next winter, which is an admirable likeness,—favourable, but not flattering. Dr. Channing is short, and very slightly made. His countenance varies more than its first aspect would lead the stranger to suppose it could. In mirth, it is perfectly changed, and very remarkable. The lower part of other faces is the most expressive of mirth: not so with Dr. Channing's, whose muscles keep very composed, while his laughter pours out at his eyes. I have seen him laugh till it seemed doubtful where the matter would end; and I could not but wish that the expression of face could be dashed into the canvas at the moment.—His voice is, however, the great charm. I do not mean in the pulpit: of what it is there I am not qualified to speak, for I could not hear a tone of his preaching: but in conversation his voice becomes delightful after one is familiarised with it. At first, his tones partake of the unfortunate dryness of his manner; but by use they grow, or seem to grow, more and more genial, till, at last, the ear waits and watches for them. Of the “repulsiveness” of his manners, on a first acquaintance, he is himself aware; though not, I think, of all the evil it causes, in compelling mere strangers to carry away a wrong idea of him, and in deterring even familiar acquaintances from opening their minds, and letting their speech run on as freely to him as he earnestly desires that it should.
It might not be difficult to account for this manner; but this is not the place in which we have to do with any but the facts of the case. The natural, but erroneous conclusion of most strangers is, that the dryness proceeds from spiritual pride; and all the more from there being an appearance of this in Dr. Channing's writings,—in the shape of rather formal declarations of ways of thinking as his own, and of accounts of his own views and states of mind,—still as his own. Any stranger thus impressed will very shortly be struck, be struck speechless, by evidences of humility, of generous truth, and meek charity, at such variance with the manner in which other things have been said as to overthrow all hasty conclusions. It was thus with me; and I know that it has been so with others. Those superficial observers of Dr. Channing who, carrying in their own minds the idea of his being a great man, suppose that the same idea is in his, and even kindly account for his faults of manner on this ground, do him great injustice,—whatever may be his share of the blame of it. No children consulting about their plays were ever further from the idea of speaking like an oracle than Dr. Channing: and the notion of condescending,—of his being in a higher, while others are in a lower spiritual state,—would be dismissed from his mind, if it ever got in, with the abhorrence with which the good chase away the shadows of evil from their souls. I say this confidently, the tone of his writings notwithstanding: and I say it, not as a friend, but from such being the result of a very few hours study of him. Whenever his conversation is not earnest,—and it is not always earnest,—it is for the sake of drawing out the person he is talking with, and getting at his views. This method of conversation is not to be defended,—even on the ground of expediency,—for a person's real views are not to be got at in this way,—no one liking to be managed: but Dr. Channing's own part in this kind of conversation is not played in the spirit of condescension, but of inquiry. One proof of this is the use he makes of the views of the persons with whom he converses. Nothing is lost upon him. He lays up what he obtains for meditation; and it reappears, sooner or later, amplified, enriched, and made perfectly his own. I believe that he is, to a singular degree, unconscious of both processes, and unaware of his part in them; —both the drawing out of information, and the subsequent assimilation: but both are very evident to the observation of even strangers.
One of the most remarkable instances of all this is in the case of Mr. Abdy's visit to Dr. Channing, and its results. Mr. Abdy has thought fit to publish the conversation he had with Dr. Channing, and had an undoubted right to do so, as he gave fair warning on the spot that he visited Dr. Channing as a public character, and should feel himself at liberty to report the circumstances of his visit. It is not necessary to repeat the substance of the conversation as it stands in Mr. Abdy's book: but it is necessary to explain that Mr. Abdy was not aware of his host's peculiarities of manner and conversation, and that he misunderstood him; and that, on the other hand, no stranger could be expected to make allowance for the unconsciousness which Dr. Channing expressed of the condition of the free coloured population of America. Some mutual friends of the two gentlemen tried to persuade Mr. Abdy not to publish the conversation he had with Dr. Channing till he knew him better; and Mr. Abdy, very reasonably, thought that what was said was said, and might, honourable warning having been given, be printed.
Immediately after Mr. Abdy's departure, Dr. Channing took measures to inform himself of the real state of the case of the blacks; and within the next month, preached a thorough-going abolition sermon. He laid so firm a grasp on the fundamental principles of the case as to satisfy the far-sighted and practised abolitionists themselves, who were among his audience. The subject was never again out of his mind; and during my visit, the next autumn, our conversation was more upon that topic than any other. Early in the winter after, he published his book on slavery. This has since been followed by his Letter to Birney, and by his noble Letter to Clay, on the subject of Texas,—of all his works the one by which his most attached friends and admirers would have him judged and remembered.
No one out of the United States can have an idea of the merit of taking the part which Dr. Channing has adopted on this question. Abroad, whatever may be thought of the merits of the productions, the act of producing them does not seem great. It appears a simple affair enough for an influential clergyman to declare his detestation of outrageous injustice and cruelty, and to point out the duty of his fellow-citizens to do it away. But it is not a very easy or simple matter on the spot. Dr. Channing lives surrounded by the aristocracy of Boston, and by the most eminent of the clergy of his own denomination, whose lips are rarely opened on the question except to blame or ridicule the abolitionists. The whole matter was, at that time, considered “a low subject,” and one not likely therefore to reach his ears. He dislikes associations for moral objects: he dislikes bustle and ostentation: he dislikes personal notoriety; and, of course, he likes no better than other people to be the object of censure, of popular dislike. He broke through all these temptations to silence, the moment his convictions were settled;—I mean not his convictions of the guilt and evil of slavery, but of its being his duty to utter his voice against it. From his peaceful and honoured retirement he came out into the storm, which might and probably would be fatal to his reputation, his influence, his repose,—and perhaps to more blessings than even these. Thus the case appears to the eye of a passing traveller.
These bad consequences have only partially followed; but he could not anticipate that. As it has turned out, Dr. Channing's reputation and influence have risen at home and abroad precisely in proportion to his own progress on the great question,—to the measure of justice which he learned by degrees to deal out to the abolitionists, till, in his latest work, he reached the highest point of all. His influence is impaired only among those to whom it does not seem to have done good,—among those who were vain of him as a pastor, and a fellow-citizen, but who have not strength and light to follow his guidance in a really difficult, and obviously perilous path. He has been wondered at and sighed over in private houses, rebuked and abused in Congress, and foamed at in the South: but his reputation and influence are far higher than ever before; and by his act of self-devotion, he has been on the whole a great gainer, though not, of course, holding a position so enviable, (though it may look more so) than that of some who moved earlier, and have risked and suffered more in the same cause.
Dr. Channing bore admirably the wrath he drew upon himself by breaking silence on the slavery question. Popular hatred and the censure of men whom he respected were a totally new experience to one who had lived in the midst of something like worship; and though they reached him only from a distance, they must have made him feel that the new path he had at his years struck into, was a thorny one. He was not careless of censure, though he took it quietly. He read the remarks made in Congress on his book, re-examined the grounds of what he had said that was questioned, about the morals of the South, with the intention of retracting anything which he might have stated too strongly. Finding that he had in his assertions kept within the truth, he appeared satisfied. But he could feel for others who were exposed in the same cause. When I was staying in his house, at the end of the winter. I was one morning sealing up my papers in his presence, in order to their being put in a place of safety, news having reached us the night before of a design to lynch me in the West, where I had been about to take a journey. While I was scaling, Dr. Channing told me that he hoped I should, on my return to England, boldly expose the fact that I was not allowed the liberty of going where I would in the United States. I told him I should not, while there was the far stronger fact that the natives of the country were not allowed to use this, their constitutional liberty. Dr. Channing could not, at that time, have set his foot within the boundaries of half the States, without danger to his life: but he appeared more moved at my case than I ever saw him about his own. No doubt we both felt ashamed to be concerned about ourselves while others were suffering to the extremity,—to the loss of fortune, liberty, and life. Still, to Dr. Channing, the change in the temper of a large portion of the nation towards him must have been no light trial.
He loves the country retirement in which I first saw him; for his habit of mind is not one which renders him indifferent to the objects about him. He never sits in his study for hours together, occupied with books and thoughts, but, even when most deeply engaged in composition, walks out into his garden frequently that the wonder to persons who use different methods is how, amidst so many interruptions, he keeps up any continuity of thought, or accomplishes any amount of composition at all. He rarely has his pen in his hand for more than an hour at a time, and does not therefore enter into the enjoyments of writers who find the second hour twice as productive and pleasurable as the first, and the third as the second; and who grudge moving under five or six hours. Instead of the delight of this continuous labour. Dr. Channing enjoys the refreshment of a change of objects. In his last publication, as in some former ones, he affords an indication of this habit of his, which, to those who know him, serves as a picture of himself in his garden, sauntering alone in his grey morning; gown, or chatting with any of his family whom he may meet in the walks. “I have prepared this letter,” he says, “not amidst the goadings, irritations, and feverish tumults of a crowded city, but in the stillness of retirement, amid scenes of peace and beauty. Hardly an hour has passed in which I have not sought relief from the exhaustion of writing, by walking abroad amidst God's works, which seldom fail to breathe tranquility, and which, by their harmony and beneficence, continually cheer me, as emblems and prophecies of a more harmonious and blessed state of human affairs than has yet been known.” He has frequently referred in conversation, even to strangers, and once at least in print, to the influence on his mind of having passed his boyhood on the seashore; and to this shore he lost no time in taking me. He liked that we should be abroad almost all day. In the morning we met early in the garden; at noon he drove me, or we went in the carriage, to some point of the shore; and in the afternoon we walked to the glen,—where, truly, any one might be thankful to go, every summer evening and autumn afternoon. The way was through a field, an orchard, a narrow glen, shadowy with rocks and trees, down to the shore, where the sea runs in between the island and the mainland. The little coves of clear blue water, the boats moving in the sunlight, the long distant bridge on the left hand, and the main opening and spreading on the right, made up a delicious scene—the favourite haunt of Dr. Channing's family. To the more distant shore of the ocean itself he drove me in his gig,—even to Purgatory.* By the way, he showed me Berkeley's house, of grey stone, rather sunk among trees,—built by the bishop in a rather unpromising spot, selected on account of the fine view of Newport, the downs, the beach, and the sea, which is obtained from the ridge of the hill over which he must pass on his way to and from the town. The only beauty which the scene lacked, when I saw it, was a brighter verdure. It was the end of summer, and the downs were not green. They were sprinkled over with dwellings and clumps of trees; rocks jutted out for the waves to break upon, the spray dashing to a great height; on the interval of smooth sand, the silver waves spread noiselessly abroad, and retired; while flocks of running snipes and a solitary seagull were the only living things visible. This interval of smooth beach is bounded inland by the pile of rocks which was Berkeley's favourite resort, and where the conversations in the Minute Philosopher are supposed to have taken place. They are not a lofty, but a shelvy, shadowy pile, full of recesses, where the thinker may sit sheltered from the heat; and of platforms, where he may lie basking in the sun.
Purgatory is a deep and narrow fissure in the rock, where the sea flows in;—one of those fissures which, as Dr. Channing told me, are a puzzle to geologists. The surfaces of the severed rocks are as smooth as marble, though the split has taken place through the middle of very large stones. These rocks are considered remarkable specimens of pudding-stone. After fearfully looking down into the dark floods of Purgatory, we wandered about long among the piles of rocks, the spray dashing all around us. Birds and spiders have thought fit to make their homes amidst all the noise and commotion of these recesses. Webs were trembling under the shelves above the breakers, and swallows' nests hung in the crevices. These are the spots in which Dr. Channing passed his boyhood; and here were the everlasting voices which revealed to him the unseen things for which he is living.
The one remarkable thing about him is his spirituality; and this is shown in a way which must strike the most careless observer, but of which he is himself unconscious. He is not generally unconscious: his manner, indeed, betokens a remarkable self-consciousness: but he is not aware of what is highest in himself, though painfully so of some other things. Every one who converses with him is struck with his natural, supreme regard to the true and the right; with the absence of all suspicion that any thing can stand in competition with these. In this there is an exemption from all professional narrowness,—from all priestly prejudice. He is not a man of the world: anxious as he is to inform himself of matters of fact, and of the present condition of affairs every where, he does not succeed well; and this deficiency, and a considerable amount of prejudice on philosophical subjects are the cause of his being extensively supposed to be more than ordinarily professional in his views, judgments, and conduct. But in this I do not agree; nor does any one, I believe, who knows him. No one sees more clearly than he the necessity of proving and exercising principles by hourly action in all kinds of worldly business. No one is more free from attachment to forms, or more practically convinced that rules and institutions are mere means to an end. He showed this, in one instance out of a thousand, by proposing to his congregation, some time ago, that they should not always depend on their pastors for the guidance of their worship, but that any members who had any thing to say should offer to do so. As might have been foreseen, every one shrank from being concerned in so new an administration of religion; but Dr. Channing was disappointed that the effort was not made. No one, again, is more free from all pride of virtue. His charity towards frailty is as singular as his reprobation of spiritual vices is indignant. The genial side of his nature is turned to the weak; and the sorely tempted and the fallen best know the real softness and meekness of his character. He is a high example of the natural union of lofty spirituality with the tenderest sympathy with those who are the least able to attain it. If the fallen need the help of one into whose face they would look without fear, Dr. Channing is that one,—even though he may be felt to be “repulsive” by those who have no particular claim upon his kindness: and as for spiritual pride,—when it has once passed his credulity, and got within the observation of his shrewdness, it had better be gone out of the reach of his rebuke.
It may be seen that I feel the prevalent fear of him to be ill-grounded. There is little gratification to one's self-complacency to be expected in his presence. He never flatters, and he is more ready to blame than to praise: but his blame, like every other man's, should go for what it is worth; should be welcome in as far as it is deserved, and should pass for nothing where it is not. But there is no assumption and no bitterness in his blame: it is merely the expression of an opinion; and it leaves no sting. All intercourse with him proceeds on the supposition that the parties are not caring about their petty selves, but about truth and good; and that all are equal while engaged in this pursuit. There is no room for mutual fear in such a case. He one day asked an intimate friend, a woman of great simplicity and honesty, some question about a sermon he had just delivered. She replied that she could not satisfy him, because she had not been able to attend to the sermon after the first sentence or two; and he was far better pleased with the answer than with the flatteries which are sometimes addressed to him about his preaching. This lady's method is that in which Dr. Channing's intimate friends speak to him, and not as to a man who is to be feared.
I have mentioned prejudice on philosophical subjects to be a drawback on his liberality. This might have been the remark of a perfect stranger, as long as his celebrated note on Priestley remains unretracted in public,—whatever he may say about it in private. His attachment to the poetry of philosophy,—the mysticism prevalent among the divines of New England who study philosophy at all,—and his having taken no means to review his early decisions against the philosophers of another school, are the cause of a prejudice as to the grounds, and an illiberality as to the tendencies of any other mental philosophy than his own, the results of which are exhibited in that note. This is not the only instance in Dr. Channing's life, as in the lives of other cautious men, where undue caution has led to rashness. His reason for writing that note was a fear lest, the American Unitarians being already too cold, they should be made colder by philosophical sympathy with the Unitarians of England. This fear led to the rashness of concluding the English Unitarians to be generally disciples of Priestley: of attributing to Priestley's philosophy the coldness of the English Unitarians: and of concluding Priestley to be the perfect exponent of the philosophy which the American divines of Dr. Channing's way of thinking declare to be opposed to spiritualism.
Disposed as Dr. Channing is to an excess of caution both by constitution and by education, he appears to be continually outgrowing the tendency. He has shown what his moral courage is, by proofs which will long outlast his indications of slowness in admitting the full merits of the abolitionists. Here again, his caution led him into rashness,—into the rashness of giving his sanction to charges and prejudices against them, the grounds of which he had the means of investigating. This is all over now, however; and it was always a trifle in comparison with the great services he was at the same time rendering to a cause which the abolitionists cared for far more than for what the whole world, or any part of it, thought of their characters. He is now completely identified with them in the view of all who regard them as the vanguard in the field of human liberties.
When I left his door, at the close of my first visit to him, and heard him talked of by the passengers in the stage, I was startled by the circumstance into a speculation on the varieties of methods and degrees in which eminent authors are revealed to their fellow-men. There is, to be sure, the old rule, “by their fruits ye shall know them:” but the whole harvest of fruits is in some cases so long in coming in, that the knowledge remains for the present very imperfect. As a general rule, earnest writers show their best selves in their books: in the series of calm thoughts which they record in the passionless though genial stillness of their retirement, whence the things of the world are seen to range themselves in their right proportions, in their justest aspect; and where the glow of piety and benevolence is not damped by, but rather consumes fears and cares which relate to self, and discouragement arising from the faults of others. In such cases, a close inspection of the life impairs, more or less, the impression produced by the writings. In other cases, there is a pretty exact agreement between the two modes of action,—by living and writing. This is a rarer case than the other; and it happens either when the principles of action are so thoroughly fixed and familiarised as to rule the whole being; or when the faults of the mind are so intimately connected with its powers as to be kept in action by the exercise of those powers in solitude, as they are by temptations in the world.
There is another case rarer still; when an earnest writer, gifted and popular, still falls below himself, conveying an impression of faults which he has not, or not in the degree in which they seem to appear. In such an instance, a casual acquaintance may leave the impression what it was, while a closer inspection cannot but be most grateful to the observer. In my opinion, this is Dr. Channing's case. His writings are powerful and popular, abroad and at home; and have caused him to be revered wherever they are known: but revered as an exalted personage, a clerical teacher, conscious of his high station, and endeavouring to do the duties of it. A slight acquaintance with him must alter this impression, without, perhaps, improving it. When he becomes a companion, the change is remarkable and exhilarating. He drops glorious thoughts as richly as in his pages, while humble and gentle feelings shine out, and eclipse the idea of teaching and preaching. The ear listens for his step and his voice, and the eye watches for the appearance of more of his writings, not as for a sermon or a lesson, but as a new hint of the direction which that intellect and those affections are taking which are primarily employed in watching over the rights and tendencies, and ameliorating the experience of those who occupy his daily regards.
[*]“Purgatories. I know not what fancied resemblances have applied this whimsical name to several extensive fissures in the rocks of New England.”—Professor Hitchcock's Geology, &c., of Massachusetts. p. 114.