Spiritual Freedom

I call that mind free, which masters the senses, . . . which passes life, not in asking what it shall eat or drink, but in hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.

Summary Overview

William Ellery Channing was a Unitarian minister who preached this Massachusetts Election Day sermon to incoming state officials. The statement of Channing’s views on human nature illustrated his belief that people could, and should, go beyond the circumstances in which they find themselves. Being a liberal theologian in New England, Channing rejected mainstream Calvinist theology, with its doctrine of predestination and human depravity. Instead, he embraced the idea that people were capable of shaping their own lives and choosing between good and evil, similar to the ideals of the transcendentalist movement in philosophy. In this excerpt from the sermon, Channing clearly proclaimed his understanding that God gave humans rational thought and understanding in order to create new possibilities. This, he asserted, is the goal not just of the individual, but of “society and government” as a whole. Thus, people are to move beyond the outward to experience the “happiness” of true spirituality.

Defining Moment

In the early nineteenth century, Massachusetts, and all New England, was going through a major transition. With the exception of the four-year term of New Englander John Quincy Adams as president (1825–1829), the region had been out of step with most of the rest of the country since the century began. By 1830, the focus was clearly on the West, with President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee in office and the development of the Erie Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad. The strongest religious movements of the day, often collectively called the Second Great Awakening, were sweeping across America, but not really making strong inroads in New England. Instead of the evangelical fervor of the Great Awakening, the predominant church in New England, the Congregational Church, was facing a liberal movement that sought to modernize understanding of the scriptures, emphasizing logic rather than the emotion of the revivals occurring elsewhere. Within the intellectual community, many of the transcendentalists were going even further and questioning religion itself.

Within this context, William Ellery Channing was invited by Massachusetts civic leaders to preach the 1830 Election Day sermon. He was a leader of the liberal movement that was questioning the traditional theology of the Congregationalists. Just over a decade earlier, he had preached an ordination sermon on the principles of the Unitarian movement, which, in addition to its emphasis on a unitary view of God rather than the traditional Christian Trinity, emphasized the freedom of belief. Within this freedom, Channing’s emphasis was upon using it to develop the inner strength necessary for the discovery of the essential truths of life, and then to live according to these truths. Focusing upon this inner part of one’s being, rather than “the senses,” allowed one to progress. Thus, contrary to the evangelical religious movement, with its desire to save people from committing sins that would result in eternal punishment, Channing’s focus was to promote inner change for the better by one’s own power. Using the platform of the Election Day sermon, Channing presented his understanding of the freedom that resulted from seeking to be God-like in one’s inner being. Having the opportunity to address people from across the state, as well as across the theological spectrum, Channing preached a sermon that forcefully presented his views on the possibilities that all people shared, encouraging his listeners to undertake the steps necessary to realize these possibilities.

Author Biography

William Ellery Channing was born to William and Lucy Ellery Channing on April 7, 1780, in Newport, Rhode Island. William grew up in a wealthy family. As a child, attending Congregational churches, Channing was not enamored with the services, but they did cause him to begin considering the Calvinist theology being proclaimed. At age twelve, Channing was sent to study with an uncle who was among the liberal ministers of his generation. Entering Harvard College when he was fifteen, Channing graduated with top honors in 1798. In the 1790s, Harvard was a liberal institution, allowing Channing to study non-Calvinist theology. After graduation, he took a position as tutor for a family in Richmond, Virginia, and was confronted with the many differences between southern and northern culture.

When he returned home from Virginia in 1800, Channing sought the guidance of one of his former pastors, Samuel Hopkins. Although Channing disagreed theologically with the Calvinist Hopkins, he saw that Hopkins actually lived according to what he preached. This affected Channing greatly, and he sought to do the same. After a year he moved to the Boston area, continuing his studies and being licensed to preach in 1802. He accepted the call to be the pastor of Boston’s Federal Street Congregational Church in 1803 and served there until he died on October 2, 1842. He married the wealthy Ruth Gibbs in 1814 and they had four children.

During his time at the Federal Street Church, the division between the traditional Calvinist congregations and the liberal (Unitarian) congregations came to a head in what came to be called the Unitarian controversy. Channing was the leading advocate for the Unitarian cause, having preached in 1819 a landmark sermon, “Unitarian Christianity.” Present at the founding of the Unitarian Association in 1825, Channing came to be seen as a preeminent early Unitarian theologian. He placed a great emphasis upon education as a means to allow the study necessary to understand oneself and the needs of society. He continually preached the value of the individual, of a person’s ability to find salvation, and of the need to live out Christian ideals. Through the publication of his sermons and writings, his influence went far beyond the walls of his church. He helped found many outreach and educational organizations. He supported the transcendentalist movement, which was strong among the second generation of Unitarian ministers. The transcendentalist belief that people could discover essential truths themselves fit well with Channing’s understanding that one should search out the truth for oneself and only then turn to others for confirmation or clarification.

Document Analysis

William Ellery Channing was an eloquent spokesperson for the innate ability of humans to overcome their circumstances and to achieve the greatness that he believed God wanted all people to have. Channing believed that inner strength allowed one’s spirit to transcend everyday concerns and expanded the freedom to participate in the true goodness of life. For Channing, this was the essence of the Christian message. As a leading preacher and theologian of his day, Channing believed that everything should be directed toward the end of inner spiritual growth, which brought freedom from sin, and, thus, salvation. In this sermon, while Channing understood that the political system came into being to solve various societal problems, he was intent on presenting the need for a religious orientation to secular leaders. For Channing, true happiness and social stability could only be achieved if the members of society attained the spiritual freedom that was the focus of his sermon.

From the 1630s, Election Day sermons had been preached in Massachusetts. The Election Day sermon was preached by a selected religious leader within the community to all concerned citizens, but it was especially directed to the newly elected officials. In May of 1830, Channing used this occasion to set forth what he believed should be the goal of individuals and of the larger society. The full sermon, which is approximately fourteen times the length of the extract printed in this text, demonstrated that while Channing understood the difficulties of his charge to the leaders, he thought it possible to carry out.

In the opening of the sermon, not printed here, Channing quotes the biblical verses John 8:31, 32, and 36, which includes Jesus’s famous statement, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” To Channing, this was the essence of who a Christian should be and what a Christian should do. In his introduction to the central part of his sermon, Channing indicates that much of the Bible was not to be understood literally; rather, the images it contained were to help people gain “spiritual and inward liberty.” Recognizing that there is a physical aspect to life, Channing basically states that this was only a means to a spiritual end. The political institution to which the members of his audience had been elected was useful and should be structured in the best possible way to help the society, but Channing states that this was not an end in itself. The true end was inner “spiritual freedom,” with politics assisting toward obtaining this goal. The introduction closes with Channing raising the question of what defines “inward spiritual freedom.” This he attempts to answer in the passage above, followed by the majority of the sermon.

In the opening paragraph of the above excerpt, Channing states his understanding of the difficulties of this world, in which “wrong-doing is often gainful, and duty rough and perilous,” an arrangement that is necessarily part of the plan laid out by God, the “All-wise Disposer.” Channing understands that there is a struggle between the “many vices” and the “inward monitor,” one’s conscience. The desire for physical things, the desire to do things that are pleasing to the senses, limits the spiritual growth of most people. Thus, when one is under the influence of the senses, there is a “barrier between us and the spiritual world.” The task God gives people is to “withstand and conquer these” by the development of spiritual freedom, which allows one to overcome the “vices” that created problems for “the intellect and heart.”

Channing then goes on to give nine parallel statements depicting various aspects of spiritual freedom as he saw it. All begin with the phrase, “I call that mind free.” The first is a dualistic statement of what people experience as human beings: there is the physical aspect of life and the spiritual aspect of life. The “animal appetites” of the physical body are the things necessary for survival in this world. Channing does not say that people should not eat or drink, or do other things that are a part of the natural world. However, he does state that the mind should recognize “its own reality and greatness.” Using a biblical phrase, Channing repeats the admonition that people should be “hungering, thirsting, and seeking after righteousness.” Thus, the dual aspect of the human condition was quite clear in Channing’s mind. The physical is the vehicle for the mental and the spiritual, and should be attended to only as necessary. The physical is not the reason for existence; the reason for existence is the mind and the spiritual possibilities that open up when one “masters the senses.” Similarly, in the second statement on freedom, Channing restates the division of existence between “the material universe,” which can be “a prison wall,” and the mind, which can “escape the bondage of matter.” Through focusing on the spiritual, the mind can find “its Author,” God, and the “radiant signatures,” markers on the pathway to “spiritual enlightenment.”

The fifth and sixth statements repeat the admonition to regard the world as being of no consequence. For Channing, it is not “outward circumstance” that is important; rather, Channing states that what is important is how the mind uses the physical world “to its own improvement.” It is the inner foundation and motivation that is important, according to Channing, not what is going on elsewhere. Similarly, Channing advises that one should have no fear in seeking to live a spiritual life. The strength of true freedom is to find an inner peace, no matter what is happening outside. The only thing one should fear is “wrong-doing”; the “power of virtue” can give the strength to overcome all other things.

The third statement on what it means to be free is a radical call to dispense with church traditions and structures, focusing instead on “the oracle within” one’s mind. Each person must seek his or her own salvation through the use of the mind. Historically, there was a church hierarchy and church traditions that were created to guide people to salvation. The church had taught that through the guidance of the hierarchy and tradition, the path to salvation was set out for all to follow. Channing totally rejected this. Intellectual freedom was something for all people, not for just a few church leaders. A “passive or hereditary faith” is not the way to find spiritual enlightenment, according to Channing. People must be willing to seek salvation, no matter from what inspiration it might be derived. Truth should come “as an angel from heaven” and the individual should delve into this truth rather than what others might teach. According to Channing, no one could teach salvation, although some guidance could be obtained from others, such as through his sermon. Each person must use his or her mind to “quicken and exhalt its own energies” for the purpose of discovering spiritual truths. Much of this was also what the transcendentalist philosophers said. However, in their searching, they cast doubts upon the existence of God as traditionally described by Judeo-Christian tradition. Although Channing and the Unitarians described God much differently than church tradition did, they did not go as far as the transcendentalists, some of whom felt that organized religion was itself an obstacle to individual enlightenment.

In Channing’s fourth statement on spiritual freedom, he focuses on the false limitations people place on their own capacities, especially for love. Contrary to the teachings of some churches, Channing stated that for the spiritually free mind, there were “no bounds to its love.” “The image of God” should be seen in all people, and as such all people should be respected. This was the opposite of the traditional Calvinist view regarding the depravity of humans being the natural state of the world. For Channing, those who were spiritually free should become “a willing victim to the cause of mankind.” Thus, according to Channing, people should understand that through spiritual enlightenment, they could grow beyond loving only themselves or those close to them, to loving all humanity equally.

Channing goes on to discuss other self-limiting attributes of the mind. The mind must resist “the bondage of habit.” Doing the same things that have been done in the past is not fruitful, in Channing’s way of thinking. Even “old virtue” was not, he said, something that should be repeated. The flexibility to seek new insights means, for him, not following prescribed practices or procedures. One must be guided by what is happening in the present, seeking “new and higher monitions of conscience.” No matter where one is on the path to spiritual freedom, Channing asserts that one should continually take steps into the unknown, toward the joy of true freedom. In a similar way, in the eighth statement on freedom, Channing states that one must be ever vigilant to preserve the freedom that has been gained thus far. He believes that it is better to keep one’s mind free and seek spiritual goals than to have the “empire of the world.”

The final direct statement regarding spiritual freedom focuses on the path that should be taken to achieve this freedom. In this passage, Channing’s Christian faith is made clear. Within the previous passages, there were general references to God, but nothing that makes it clear Channing is a Christian. The previous passages could have been written by any transcendentalist philosopher seeking the path to self-realization without upholding Christian religious traditions. Even though he was a Unitarian, Channing did accept that Jesus Christ had conveyed the word of God, and that it pointed to the spiritual freedom Channing described. Thus, Channing states that while the mind must work on “unfolding all its powers,” steps toward the spiritual goal of true insight could be gained through recognizing one’s “affinity with God” and the “promises” of Jesus, with the goal of achieving immortality.

The closing passage of the excerpt aligns Channing’s teaching on spiritual freedom with that of Jesus, as Channing states that Jesus had come to bring this spiritual freedom. This was a way for Channing to draw non-Unitarians into his sermon. Repeating in a different manner his central assertion, Channing says that freedom comes from within oneself and includes the power to ignore desires based on the external world. This means that one lives a “moral” life and uses all one’s energy to seek true spiritual freedom. Channing asserts that this is the truth of Christianity and how one finds the grace of God. It is the role of each person to work toward the goal of spiritual freedom, and of each social institution to assist in this effort. Thus, in addressing the newly inaugurated state officials, Channing states his belief that even if it was hard, still this was a task for “society and government.” He understood that not everyone would accept what he had to say, but believed that what he said was true and that it should be pursued, no matter what others said. The world offers many things that appeal to the senses, but Channing sees following these as leading to “slavery” and unhappiness. Until spiritual freedom is the norm, Channing believes that there can be no general “happiness” and that the institutions of the world will fail.

Throughout the entire sermon, Channing gave no instructions to the elected officials as to how they should perform the functions of their offices. He merely said they should not seek material rewards. Beyond this, what Channing had to say was that the governing officials should work to establish a system of government that would help individuals seek this spiritual freedom. In the four-fifths of the sermon that followed this passage, Channing sought to demonstrate that true political liberty was only of value if it was an expression of spiritual freedom. In this latter portion of the sermon, Channing accepted the fact that spiritual freedom and civil liberty were different, and yet to him they were related. It was in this section of the sermon that he admonished the civic officials to lift up a moral lifestyle through simple and clear laws only on issues of importance to the society as a whole. He specifically stated that passing laws could not create a moral society, nor did he want any type of established religion. Channing only wanted the state to create a setting in which people could seek spiritual freedom for themselves. This was Channing’s central belief. People should transcend their old way of life by discovering the inner spiritual freedom that realized an affinity with God.

Essential Themes

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts did not undertake any radical changes in its legal system as a result of this sermon. In 1833, Massachusetts became the last state to do away with its established religion; however, it is not likely that this sermon played a major role in that decision. The heritage derived from this sermon was not within the legal system; rather, it was through the religious and philosophical movements it supported. From the time he clarified his own theological positions, Channing spoke and wrote about the need for each individual to work through spiritual truths for him- or herself. One should not rely upon what had been taught by others; one must seek and experience the truth for oneself.

For Channing, this not only meant understanding God in a way different from mainstream Christian tradition, but also questioning all aspects of this tradition, from how to understand the Bible to how to address social concerns. In Channing’s mind, spiritual freedom was the key to all these things. Through the process of discovering this freedom, through “seeking after righteousness,” one could find the truth. Preaching this sermon in a civic setting, Channing attempted to encourage people from a wide variety of backgrounds to examine what he said, and, he hoped, live this type of life. Choosing Channing to preach the Election Day sermon solidified the standing of the nascent Unitarian movement. In addition, the transcendentalists found support in this sermon from Channing’s emphasis upon the personal search for truth. Transcendentalists and Unitarians continued to influence one another through the middle of the nineteenth century, and many of the ideas expressed in Channing’s preaching continue to resonate in the wider American society.


  • Brown, Arthur W. William Ellery Channing. New York: Twayne, 1962. Print.
  • Carpenter, Frank. “William Ellery Channing.” Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography. Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society, 2004. Web. 14 Mar. 2013.

Additional Reading

  • Channing, William E. Works of William E. Channing. Vol. 1. 1877. Whitefish: Kessinger, 2003. Print.
  • Howe, Daniel Walker. The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805–1861. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970. Print.
  • Mendelsohn, Jack. Channing, the Reluctant Radical. Westport: Greenwood, 1980. Print.
  • Noll, Mark A. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
  • “William Ellery Channing.” American Unitarian Conference. American Unitarian Conference, 2004. Web. 14 Mar. 2013.
  • Wright, Conrad Edick, ed. American Unitarianism, 1805–1865. Boston: Mass. Hist. Soc., Northeastern UP, 1989. Print.