Newly Digitized: The Papers of William Ellery Channing

May 3, 2019
Newly Digitized: The Papers of William Ellery Channing
Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing. Photo courtesy Andover-Harvard Theological Library

Two hundred years ago, on May 5, 1819, Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing spoke at a Baltimore church and delivered what would be described nearly two centuries later as probably the most important Unitarian sermon ever preached anywhere.

Now, the unpublished drafts of that seminal sermon are available for the first time digitally, for researchers and anyone else around the world to view.

Nearly 4,500 pages of material in the archival collection of Channing’s papers held at Andover-Harvard Theological Library have been made widely available through a digitization project with Harvard Library. Gathered in two collections (available here and here), his papers bring together his sermons, correspondence, writings, and photographs, as well as his Baltimore sermon and its unpublished drafts.

“The newly digitized papers of William Ellery Channing are a great gift to Unitarian Universalist scholars everywhere,” says Dan McKanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at HDS. “As we celebrate the bicentennial of Channing’s Baltimore sermon—the manifesto of the Unitarian movement—we can now read Channing’s handwritten drafts of that sermon alongside letters to urban reformer Joseph Tuckerman, pacifist Noah Worcester, women’s rights activist Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and many more. We can also peruse memorials written by his friends, records of his ministry at Federal Street Church, and even receipts for his salary! I hope that all Channing lovers will enjoy this treasure trove—and help us decide what we should digitize next.”

Baltimore Sermon Draft by William Ellery Channing, AHTL

In 1819, Channing gave the landmark Baltimore sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” which upon publication sold thousands of copies. It was during this sermon, delivered at the ordination of Jared Sparks in 1819 at the new liberal church in Baltimore, that Channing decided to snatch the label of Unitarian from those who would degrade it and to claim it proudly as his own, according to the Unitarian Universalist Association.

HDS’s Andover-Harvard Theological Library enlisted the help of Harvard Library Imaging Services to complete the month-long digitization process, which started with a conservation and imaging review followed by the preparation of materials to make them “camera ready.” Once the materials were prepared and the necessary metadata for the digital objects created, the materials were photographed at copy stands designed for the efficient capture of loose and bound materials. Following a quality assurance review, the digital images were deposited into the Harvard Library’s Digital Repository Service and the online finding aid updated.

“As stewards of the official archives of both the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and curators of the most comprehensive collection of Unitarian Universalist materials in the world, we at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library of Harvard Divinity School are very pleased to be able to make more and more of these collections available to the world through digitization,” said Douglas Gragg, HDS librarian. “Adding the papers of William Ellery Channing to a growing inventory of collections available online is a moment to celebrate. There is much more to come!”

Channing graduated from Harvard College in 1798, served on the board of the Harvard Corporation where he worked for the establishment of the Divinity School in 1816, and served as the pastor of the Federal Street Church in Boston from 1803 until his death in 1842.

—by Michael Naughton