Classroom Activities

  1. “Unitarian Christianity” was delivered at a moment of intense religious factionalism in early America. Have you had any direct experience with religious disagreement or controversy? In what ways does it unite or divide believers?
  2. How much do you know about theological systems like Calvinism, Arminianism, Antinomianism, and Unitarianism? What roles have these played in shaping American Christianity? In what ways have religious beliefs more broadly influenced American history, society, literature, politics, etc.?
  3. What are the elements of Channing’s rhetorical situation? What circumstances prompted the speech? To whom was it delivered? In what ways was it constrained? And do you think he delivered a fitting response?
  4. How would you assess the argumentative quality of Channing’s speech? Do you think he did an adequate job of critiquing and responding to the Calvinist positions? In either case, why?
  5. How does Channing explain the difference between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism? What do you make of the Unitarian objections?
  6. Clearly, in Channing’s day, questions around God’s nature, Christ’s divinity/humanity, and the (un)acceptability of dissent were prone to launch fierce debates. Does that remain the case today? Have the points of disagreement remained the same?
  7. What do you make of the publicity campaign around the speech? Do you think speakers commonly use a particular occasion to distribute a message to a broader audience? What might such an effort look like today?
  8. How familiar are you with American Transcendentalism? How would you define it to someone who has never heard of it?
  9. If you have read Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker, Henry David Thoreau, or other prominent Transcendentalists, can you see how Channing may have influenced their thought? If so, how?
  10. Given that many Transcendentalists went on to influence American reform movements like abolition, temperance, women’s rights, and labor, in what ways might Channing’s approach to religious belief and thought have carried on through the 19th century?

Student Research

  1. Use Communication Source to search for relevant terms like “William Ellery Channing” or “Unitarianism” and see what kinds of responses you get. Have communication scholars written much on these topics? If so, can you see how each successive essay builds on or responds to the work that came before? If not, try broadening your terms or parameters. In either case, do you see how a young scholar might work to close the existing gaps in the literature?
  2. Use the links under “Online Resources” to locate some of the primary texts surrounding Channing’s speech, like Jedidiah Morse’s “Review of American Unitarianism” in the Panopolist, Channing’s “Letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Thacher,” or the collected (and digitized) Channing Papers at Harvard Divinity School. Read some selections from these and imagine that you are doing research in an archive somewhere. Write a short proposal for a research project utilizing these resources. What interesting questions arise out of these documents?
  3. Do some research into Channing’s supporting cast. Who was Henry Ware, Sr.? Who was Henry Ware, Jr.? How did each associate with Channing? Or Emerson? What can you find out about Jared Sparks? Or the other prominent ministers in attendance at the ordination? In that small and insular Boston society, what did the web of personal relationships, alliances, rivalries, and influence look like? Can you piece together the social context surrounding the address?
  4. See what you can find on Channing and Emerson specifically. Given how important Emerson has been to American religion, philosophy, and literature, his early reverence for Channing (paired with his early career as a Unitarian minister in Channing’s mold) may offer interesting opportunities for study. What did Emerson have to say about Channing? In what ways did he emulate (or outgrow) Channing’s model?
  5. Expand your lens to other Transcendentalists as well—folks like Orestes Brownson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. How were the ideas and controversies that occupied Channing passed on to the next generation? How did they change over time? What does that evolution look like into the 1820s, 30s, and 40s? What role did Channing’s ministry play, if any, in the reform movements prior to the Civil War?
  6. Search also for articles on American “Free Thought” or “Freethinkers.” Given that “Unitarian Christianity” advocates for free inquiry, honesty, and generosity as Christian values, did it open any doors for Americans who claimed no religious belief? Was it an important text for American atheists and agnostics? Does it have anything to say to nonreligious people today?
  7. Take a look at the VOD unit on Harry Emerson Fosdick. In what ways were Channing’s concerns still applicable a century later? Had anything been resolved? Were the core contentions around orthodoxy and free inquiry still in play? How might Channing and Fosdick be read in tandem to draw conclusions about the durability of these problems in American religiosity?
  8. Search for scholarly articles or books on some of these core themes—free thought, orthodoxy, religious identity, etc. Which other major American religious figures engaged these issues between 1819 and 1922? What does the trajectory look like over these years? What if you extend it another hundred years, to 2023? How might you plan a longitudinal study that identifies and examines the state of the discourse over time?

Citizenship Resources

  1. In your view, what kind of influence should religious orthodoxy have over civic life? When Channing delivered “Unitarian Christianity,” Massachusetts had not yet disestablished Christianity. How might these religious questions factor differently in a place where Christianity is the law of the land? How do they factor in America today, when pluralism is the norm?
  2. Think a bit about the sermons you have heard in recent years? What is their form and content? Recall that Channing’s speech offers a detailed examination of theological points, and that it took him an hour-and-a-half to deliver. How does that compare to most sermons that are delivered in churches today? How do contemporary preachers shape and compose their sermons, and what goals are they trying to achieve? In your observation, how do contemporary preachers engage with public issues?
  3. Over time, Channing’s brand of Unitarian Christianity failed to achieve the national prominence that he imagined. Today Unitarian-Universalist churches are most visible in the New England landscape, where they tend to house modest congregations. But religious disagreements continue to rile the nation’s largest denominations—Catholics, Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and the broader category comprised of the Evangelicals. On what points of disagreement do these debates most commonly turn? In what ways have they influenced American society, law, and politics?
  4. Though America is committed to freedom and liberty above all other values, free inquiry has had mixed success in American life. At various points, the boundaries of acceptable belief and thought have been drawn and tightened. Can you think of examples? Would you say that you are now free to think, believe, and say anything that you find to be true? Are your ideas or commitments constrained in any way? If so, by who? Or what?
  5. Finally, how much faith do you have in the ability of a detailed, well-executed argument to change minds? In Channing’s case, his articulate, thorough, well-reasoned, and diplomatic case did not win universal assent. Instead, it inaugurated a fresh round of aggressive pamphleteering and confrontation. How persuasive can a good argument reasonably hope to be? How persuadable are most public audiences? In our own polarized time, are we able to reason together?