2012-03-02

William Ellery Channing's Radical Hospitality

The Unitarians emerged in the late 1700s as a more liberal form of the New England Puritan Congregational church. The Universalists were starting up their own more liberal version of Christianity at about the same time. When the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated in 1961, they each brought more than 150 years of history as distinct denominations. The differences between the Unitarians and the Universalists were more cultural than doctrinal. The Unitarians carried the air of Boston upper-crust high society, howsoever far from Boston some of their churches were. The Universalists were a more blue-color church, less educated, more plain-spoken, and had a more emotional worship style. On matters of belief, the Unitarian and Universalists largely agreed – though they each had their own particular spin. For instance, the Universalists, who got their name from “Universal Salvation,” held that there was no hell; and the Unitarians, by and large, agreed. According to the old joke, the Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn them to hell, and the Unitarians believed they were too good to be condemned to hell.

That image of early Unitarians as hoity-toity sophisticates convinced of their own superiority does not do them justice to them. William Ellery Channing (1780 - 1842) was a "founding father" of North American Unitarianism, the most influential of the first generation of Unitarian ministers, and as "Boston elite" as they come. He was also renowned for his hospitality.

At Reverend Doctor Channing’s home, the rule was to keep every room filled with guests during the "bright season" (starts early April). When the family mansion overflowed, lodging for friends was found in the immediate neighborhood. Visitors from around New England and strangers from abroad sought his society. Every pleasant evening was sure to find circles of folks in engaging conversations in the parlor, piazza, and garden. Channing’s nephew would later recollect that his uncle, with
“gracious dignity, tolerance of all forms of character and opinion, and simple frankness, welcomed those who sought him to participation in his truth and peace.” 
Channing was known for his
“perfect sincerity, his cordial reception, his politeness and courtesy, his habitual attention to the wants and habits of others, the warm pressure of his hand.”
We carry on today the legacy of a man so thoroughly devoted to hospitality.

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This is part 1 of 5 of "Radical Hospitality"
Next: Part 2: "Being Human Is a Guest House"