American Reformation
The Universal Perspective of the Eternal

The Growth of Moral Agency


In a long and wide-ranging chapter centering on William Ellery Channing, Amy Kittelstrom discusses the changes in American religion and culture in the early-mid 19th century as the principles of liberal Christianity became institutionalized in places like the public schools (the very idea of which was a liberal Christian idea).  Key to their vision was the cultivation of moral agency, which she calls "self-culture."  This process of moral, intellectual, and religious development was key not only to ones spiritual life but to the institutions of democracy itself.  The liberals embraced a pluralism that cut across the normal divisions in society and advocated for people of all races and classes.  This pluralism will grow in importance in later chapters of the book.

The American liberals were interacting with the British Romantics.  She writes:

The English Romantics and the Boston liberals shared the same canon of British dissent, reacted against similar Calvinisms and evangelical currents, and prized the same potential for a republican form of government to foster human progress while fearing the same dangers of demagoguery and popular ignorance.  

In both movements the goal of life was "growth toward divine perfection" and both believed that "meditation in and of the natural world brought human nature in touch with the divine nature."  She writes that Channing was deeply motivated toward the cultivation of the virtues by his "abhorrence of sin."  Another reminder that the cultivation of liberal ideas rests upon the doctrines of religious faith.

Channing argued "Let it never be forgotten that the great end of Government, its highest function, is . . . to prevent or repress Crimes against individual rights and the social order."  Horace Mann wrote "That intelligence and virtue are the only support and stability of free institutions."  A liberal magazine discussing Tocqueville's book wrote that

"Democracy is the cause of Humanity" because it "has faith in human nature" and believes in humanity's "essential equality and fundamental goodness" while aiming "to emancipate the mind of the mass of men from the degrading and disheartening fetters of social distinctions and advantages."

Channing was worried about popularity leading to the tyranny of the majority, thus the moral impulse to educate the masses and encourage them in the cultivation of the virtues.  

She writes about the New Englanders who purposely resettled in the west "out of the deep conviction that 'the new States should be religious, in order that they may permit us to remain free,'" which helps to describe the impulses of the founders of my current church and some of their words that have survived.

She writes that Channing left behind "a host of spiritual children who took his legacy in a variety of directions," not least of which were the abolitionist movement and the social gospel.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)