Honor Due All Men
William Ellery Channing

from The Works of William Ellery Channing, D. D. (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1890), 67-72.

I Peter ii, 17: "Honor all men."

      Among the many and inestimable blessings of Christianity, I regard as not the least the new sentiment with which it teaches man to look upon his fellow beings; the new interest which it awakens in us towards every thing human; the new importance which it gives to the soul; the new relation which it establishes between man and man. In this respect it began a mighty revolution, which has been silently spreading itself through society, and which, I believe, is not to stop until new ties shall have taken the place of those which have hitherto, in the main, connected the human race. Christianity has as yet but begun its work of reformation. Under its influences a new order of society is advancing, surely though slowly; and this beneficent change it is to accomplish in no small measure by revealing to men their own nature, and teaching them to "honor all" who partake it.
      As yet Christianity has done little, compared with what it is to do, in establishing the true bond of union between man and man. The old bonds of society still continue in a great degree. They are instinct, interest, force. The true tie, which is mutual respect, calling forth mutual, growing, never-failing acts of love, is as yet little known. A new revelation, if I may so speak, remains to be made; or rather, the truths of the old revelation in regard to the greatness of human nature are to be brought out from obscurity and neglect. The soul is to be regarded with a religious reverence hitherto unfelt; and the solemn claims of every being to whom this divine principle is imparted are to be established on the ruins of those pernicious principles, both in church and state, which have so long divided mankind into the classes of the abject many and the self-exalting few.
      There is nothing of which men know so little as themselves. They understand incomparably more of the surrounding creation, of matter, and of its laws, than of that spiritual principle to which matter was made to be the minister, and without which the outward universe would be worthless. Of course, no man can be wholly a stranger to the soul, for the soul is himself, and he cannot but be conscious of its most obvious workings. But it is to most a chaos, a region shrouded in ever-shifting mists, baffling the eye and bewildering the imagination. The affinity of the mind with God, its moral power, the purposes for which its faculties were bestowed, its connection with futurity, and the dependence of its whole happiness on its own right action and progress, -- these truths, though they might be expected to absorb us, are to most men little more than sounds, and to none of us those living realities which, I trust, they are to become. That conviction, without which we are all poor, of the unlimited and immortal nature of the soul, remains in a great degree to be developed. Men have as yet no just respect for themselves, and of consequence no just respect for others. The true bond of society is thus wanting; and accordingly there is a great deficiency of Christian benevolence. There is, indeed, much instinctive, native benevolence, and this is not to be despised; but the benevolence of Jesus Christ, which consists in a calm purpose to suffer, and, if need be, to die, for our fellow- creatures, the benevolence of Christ on the cross, which is the true pattern to the Christian, this is little known; and what is the cause ? It is this. We see nothing in human beings to entitle them to such sacrifices; we do not think them worth suffering for. Why should we be martyrs for beings who awaken in us little more of moral interest than the brutes? I hold that nothing is to make man a true lover of man but the discovery of something interesting and great in human nature. We must see and feel that a human being is something important, and of immeasurable importance. We must see and feel the broad distance between the spiritual life within us and the vegetable or animal life which acts around us. I cannot love the flower, however beautiful, with a disinterested affection which will make me sacrifice to it my own prosperity. You will in vain exhort me to attach myself, wIth my whole strength of affection, to the inferior animals, however useful or attractive; and why not? They want the capacity of truth, virtue, and progress. They want that principle of duty which alone gives permanence to a being; and accordingly they soon lose their individual nature, and go to mingle with the general mass. A human being deserves a different affection from what we bestow on inferior creatures, for he has a rational and moral nature, by which he is to endure for ever, by which he may achieve an unutterable happiness, or sink into an unutterable woe. He is more interesting, through what is in him, than the earth or heavens; and the only way to love him aright is to catch some glimpse of this immortal power within him. Until this is done, all charity is little more than instinct; we shill embrace the great interests of human nature with coldness.
      It may be said, that Christianity has done much to awaken benevolence, and that it has taught men to call one another brethren. Yes, to call one another so; but has it as yet given the true feeling of brotherhood ? We undoubtedly feel ourselves to be all of one race, and this is well. We trace ourselves up to one pair, and feel the same blood flowing in our veins. But do we understand our spirit ual brotherhood ? Do we feel ourselves to be derived from one Heavenly Parent, in whose image we are all made, and whose perfection we may constantly approach? Do we feel that there is one divine life in our own and in all souls ? This seems to me the only true bond of man to man. Here is a tie more sacred, more enduring, than all the ties of this earth. Is it felt, and do we in consequence truly honor one another ?
      Sometimes, indeed, we see men giving sincere, profound, and almost unmeasured respect to their fellow-creatures; but to whom? To great men; to men distinguished by a broad line from the multitude; to men pre-eminent by genius, force of character, daring effort, high station, brilliant success. To such honor is given; but this is not to "honor all men;" and the homage paid to such is generally unfriendly to that Christian estimate of human beings for which I am now pleading. The great are honored at the expense of their race. They absorb and concentrate the world's admiration, and their less gifted fellow-beings are thrown by their brightness into a deeper shade, and passed over with a colder contempt. Now I have no desire to derogate from the honor paid to great men, but I say, Let them not rise by the depression of the multitude. I say, that great men, justly regarded, exalt our estimate of the human race, and bind us to the multitude of men more closely; and when they are not so regarded, when they are converted into idols, when they serve to wean our interest from ordinary men, they corrupt us, they sever the sacred bond of humanity which should attach us to all, and our characters be come vitiated by our very admiration of greatness. The true view of great men is, that they are only examples and manifestations of our common nature, showing what belongs to all souls, though unfolded as yet only in a few. The light which shines from them is, after all, but a faint revelation of the power which is treasured up in every human being. They are not prodigies, not miracles, but natural developments of the human soul. They are indeed as men among children, but the children have a principle of growth which leads to manhood.
      That great men and the multitude of minds are of one family, is apparent, I think, in the admiration which the great inspire into the multitude. A sincere, enlightened admiration always springs from something congenial in him who feels it with him who inspires it. He that can understand and delight in greatness was created to partake of it; the germ is in him; and sometimes this admiration, in what we deem inferior minds, discovers a nobler spirit than belongs to the great man who awakens it; for sometimes the great man is so absorbed in his own greatness as to admire no other; and I should not hesitate to say, that a common mind, which is yet capable of a generous admiration, is destined to rise higher than the man of eminent capacities, who can enjoy no power or excellence but his own. When I hear of great men, I wish not to separate them from their race, but to blend them with it. I esteem it no small benefit of the philosophy of mind, that it teaches us that the elements of the greatest thoughts of the man of genius exist in his humbler brethren, and that the faculties which the scientific exert in the profoundest discoveries are precisely the same with those which common men employ in the daily labors of life.
      To show the grounds on which the obligation to honor all men rests, I might take a minute survey of that human nature which is common to all, and set forth its claims to reverence. But, leaving this wide range, I observe that there is one principle of the soul which makes all men essentially equal, which places all on a level as to means of happiness, which may place in the first rank of human beings those who are the most depressed in worldly condition, and which therefore gives the most depressed a title to interest and respect. I refer to the sense of duty, to the power of discerning and doing right, to the moral and religious principle, to the inward monitor which speaks in the name of God, to the ca pacity of virtue or excellence. This is the great gift of God. We can conceive no greater. In seraph and archangel, we can conceive no higher energy than the power of virtue, or the power of forming themselves after the will and moral perfections of God. This power breaks down all barriers between the seraph and the lowest human being; it makes them brethren. Whoever has derived from God this perception and capacity of rectitude, has a bond of union with the spiritual world stronger than all the ties of nature. He possesses a principle which, if he is faithful to it, must carry him forward for ever, and insures to him the improvement and happiness of the highest order of beings. It is this moral power which makes all men essentially equal, which annihilates all the distinctions of this world. Through this, the ignorant and the poor may become the greatest of the race; for the greatest is he who is most true to the principle of duty. It is not im probable that the noblest human beings are to be found in the least favored conditions of society, among those whose names are never uttered bevond the narrow circle in which they toil and suffer, who have but "two mites" to I give away, who have perhaps not even I that, but who "desire to be fed with the crumbs which fill from the rich man's table;" for in this class may be found those who have withstood the severest temptation, who have practised the most arduous duties, who have confided in God under the heaviest trials, who have been most wronged and have forgiven most; and these are the great, the exalted. It matters nothing what the particular duties are to which the individual is called, -- how minute or obscure in their outward form. Greatness in God's sight lies, not in the extent of the sphere which is filled, or of the effect which is produced, but altogether in the power of virtue in the soul, in the energy with which God's will is chosen, with which trial is borne, and goodness loved and pursued.
      The sense of duty is the greatest gift of God. The idea of right is the primary and the highest revelation of God to the human mind, and all outward revelations are founded on and addressed to it. All mysteries of science and theology fade away before the grandeur of the simple perception of duty which dawns on the mind of the little child. That perception brings him into the moral kingdom of God. That lays on him an everlasting bond. He in whom the conviction of duty is unfolded becomes subject from that moment to a law which no power in the universe can abrogate. He forms a new and indissoluble connection with God, that of an accountable being. He begins to stand before an inward tribunal, on the decisions of which his whole happiness rests; he hears a voice which, if faithfully followed, will guide him to perfection, and in neglecting which he brings upon himself inevitable misery. We little understand the solemnity of the moral principle in every human mind. We think not how awful are its functions. We forget that it is the germ of immortality. Did we understand it, we should look with a feeling of reverence on every being to whom it is given.
      Having shown, in the preceding remarks, that there is a foundation in the human soul for the honor enjoined in our text towards all men, I proceed to observe, that, if we look next into Christianity, we shall find this duty enforced by new and still more solemn considerations. This whole religion is a testimony to the worth of man in the sight of God, to the importance of human nature, to the infinite purposes for which we were framed. God is there set forth as sending to the succor of his human family his Beloved Son, the bright image and representative of his own perfections; and sending him, not simply to roll away a burden of pain and punishment (for this, however magnified in systems of theology, is not his highest work), but to create men after that divine image which he himself bears, to purify the soul from every stain, to communicate to it new power over evil, and to open before it immortality as its aim and destination, -- immortality, by which we are to understand, not merely a perpetual, but an ever-improving and celestial being. Such are the views of Christianity. And these blessings it proffers, not to a few, not to the educated, not to the eminent, but to all human beings, to the poorest and the most fallen; and we know that, through the power of its promises, it has in not a few instances raised the most fallen to true greatness, and given them in their present virtue and peace an earnest of the Heaven which it un folds. Such is Christianity. Men, viewed in the light of this religion, are beings cared for by God, to whom he has given his Son, on whom he pours forth his Spirit, and whom he has created for the highest good in the universe, for participation in his own perfections and happiness. My friends, such is Christianity. Our scepticism as to our own nature cannot quench the bright light which that religion sheds on the soul and on the prospects of mankind; and just as far as we receive its truth, we shall honor all men.
      I know I shall be told that Christianity speaks of man as a sinner, and thus points him out to abhorrence and scorn. I know it speaks of human sin, but it does not speak of this as indissolubly bound up with the soul, as entering into the essence of human nature, but as a temporary stain, which it calls on us to wash away. Its greatest doctrine is that the most lost are recoverable, that I the most fallen may rise, and that there is no height of purity, power, felicity in I the universe, to which the guiltiest mind may not, through penitence, attain, Christianity, indeed, gives us a deeper, keener feeling of the guilt of mankind than any other religion. By the revelation of perfection in the character of Jesus Christ, it shows us how imperfect even the best men are. But it reveals perfection in Jesus, not for our discouragement, but as our model, reveals it only that we may thirst for and approach it. From Jesus I learn what man is to become, that is, if true to this new light; and true he may be.
      Christianity, I have said, shows man as a sinner, but I nowhere meet in it those dark views of our race which would make us shrink from it as from a nest of venomous reptiles. According to the courteous style of theology, man has been called half brute and half devil. But this is a perverse and pernicious exaggeration. The brute, as it is called, that is, animal, appetite is indeed strong in human beings; but is there nothing within us but appetite? Is there nothing to war with it ? Does this constitute the essence of the soul ? Is it not rather an accident, the result of the mind's union with matter? Is not its spring in the body, and may it not be expected to perish with the body? In addition to animal propensities, I see the tendency to criminal excess in all men's passions. I see not one only, but many tempters in every human heart. Nor am I insensible to the fearful power of these enemies to our virtue. But is there nothing in man but temptation, but propensity to sin? Are there no counterworking powers? no attractions in virtue? no tendencies to God? no sympathies with sorrow? no reverence for greatness? no moral conflicts? no triumphs of principle? This very strength of temptation seems to me to be one of the indications of man's greatness. It shows a being framed to make progress through difficulty, suffering, and conflict; that is, it shows a being designed for the highest order of virtues; for we all feel by an unerring instinct that virtue is elevated in proportion to the obstacles which it surmounts, to the power with which it is chosen and held fast. I see men placed by their Creator on a field of battle, but compassed with peril that they may triumph over it; and, though often overborne, still summoned to new efforts, still privileged to approach the Source of all Power, and to seek "grace in time of need," and still addressed in tones of encouragement by a celestial Leader, who has himself fought and conquered, and holds forth to them his own crown of righteousness and victory.
      From these brief views of human nature and of Christianity, you will see the grounds of the solemn obligation of honoring all men, of attaching infinite importance to human nature, and of respecting it, even in its present infant, feeble, tottering state. This sentiment of honor or respect for human beings strikes me more and more as essential to the Christian character. I conceive that a more thorough understanding and a more faithful culture of this would do very much to carry forward the church and the world. In truth, I attach to this sentiment such importance, that I measure by its progress the progress of society. I judge of public events very much by their bearing on this. I estimate political revolutions chiefly by their tendency to exalt men's conceptions of their nature, and to inspire them with respect for one another's claims. The present stupendous movements in Europe naturalIy suggest, and almost force upon me, this illustration of the importance which I have given to the sentiment enjoined in our text. Allow me to detain you a few moments on this topic.
      What is it, then, I ask, which makes the present revolutionary movement abroad so interesting? I answer, that I see in it the principle of respect for human nature and for the human race developing itself more powerfully, and this to me constitutes its chief interest. I see in it proofs, indications, that the mind is awakening to a consciousness of what it is, and of what it is made for. In this movement I see man becoming to himself a higher object. I see him attaining to the conviction of the equal and indestructible rights of every human being. I see the dawning of that great principle, that the individual is not made to be the instrument of others, but to govern himself by an in inward law, and to advance towards his proper perfection; that he belongs to himself and to God, and to no human superior. I know, indeed, that, in the present state of the world, these conceptions are exceedingly unsettled and obscure; and, in truth, little effort has hitherto been made to place them in a clearlight, and to give them a definite and practical form in men's minds. The multitude know not with any distinctness what they want. Imagination, unschooled by reason and experience, dazzles them with bright but baseless visions. They are driven onward with a perilous violence, by a vague consciousness of not having found their element; by a vague yet noble faith in a higher good than they have attained; by impatience under restraints which they feel to be degrading. In this violence, however, there is nothing strange, nor ought it to discourage us. It is, I believe, universally true, that great principles, in their first development, manifest themselves irregularly. It is so in religion. In history we often see religion, especially after long depression, breaking out in vehemence and enthusiasm, sometimes stirring up bloody conflicts, and through struggles establishing a calmer empire over society. In like manner, political history shows us that men's consciousness of their rights and essential equality has at first developed itself passionately. Still the consciousness is a noble one, and the presage of a better social state.
      Am I asked, what I hope from the present revolutionary movements in Europe? I answer, that I hope a good which includes all others, and which almost hides all others from my view. I hope the subversion of institutions bv which the true bond between man and man has been more or less dissolved, by which the will of one or a few has broken down the will, the heart, the conscience of the many; and I hope that, in the place of these are to grow up institutions which will express, cherish, and spread far and wide a just respect for human nature, which will strengthen in men a consciousness of their powers, duties, and rights, which will train the individual to moral and religious independence, which will propose as their end the elevation of all orders of the community, and which will give full scope to the best minds in this work of general improvement. I do not say that expect it to be suddenly realized. The sun, which is to bring on a brighter day, is rising in thick and threatening clouds. Perhaps the minds of men were never more unquiet than at the present moment. Still I do not despair. That a higher order of ideas or principles is beginning to be unfolded; that a wider philanthropy is beginning to triumph over the distinctions of ranks and nations; that a new feeling of what is due to the ignorant, poor, and depraved, has sprung up; that the right of every human being to such an education as shall call forth his best faculties, and train him more and more to control himself, is recognized as it never was before; and that government is more and more regarded as intended not to elevate the few, but to guard the rights of all; that these great revolutions in principle have commenced and are spreading, who can deny ? and to me they are prophetic of an improved condition of human nature and human affairs. -- O, that this melioration might be accomplished without blood! As a Christian, I feel a misgiving, when I rejoice in any good, however great, for which this fearful price has been paid. In truth, a good so won is necessarily imperfect and generally transient. War may subvert a despotism; but seldom builds up better institutions. Even when joined, as in our own history, with high principles, it inflames and leaves behind it passions which make liberty a feverish conflict of jealous parties, and which expose a people to the tyranny of faction under the forms of freedom. Few things impair men's reverence for human nature more than war; and did I not see other and holier influences than the sword working out the regeneration of the race, I should indeed despair.
      In this discourse I have spoken of the grounds and importance of that honor or respect which is due from us, and enjoined on us, towards all human beings. The various forms in which this principle is to be exercised or manifested, I want time to enlarge on. I would only say, "Honor all men." Honor man, from the beginning to the end of his earthly course. Honor the child. Welcome into being the infant, with a feeling of its mysterious grandeur, with the feeling that an immortal existence has begun, that a spirit has been kindled which is never to be quenched. Honor the child. On this principle all good education rests. Never shall we learn to train up the child till we take it in our arms, as Jesus did, and feel distinctly that "of such is the kingdom of heaven." In that short sentence is taught the spirit of the true system of education; and for want of understanding it, little effectual aid, I fear, is yet given to the heavenly principle in the infant soul. -- Again. Honor the poor. This sentiment of respect is essential to improving the connection between the more and less prosperous conditions of society. This alone makes beneficence truly godlike. Without it, almsgiving degrades the receiver. We must learn how slight and shadowy are the distinctions between us and the poor; and that the last in outward condition may be first in the best attributes of humanity. A fraternal union, founded on this deep conviction, and intended to lift up and strengthen the exposed and tempted poor, is to do infinitely more for that suffering class than all our artificial associations; and till Christianity shall have breathed into us this spirit of respect for our nature, where ever it is found, we shall do them little good. I conceive that, in the present low state of Christian virtue, we little apprehend the power which might be exerted over the fallen and destitute by a benevolence which should truly, thoroughly recognize in them the image of God.
      Perhaps none of us have yet heard or can comprehend the tone of voice in which a man, thoroughly impressed with this sentiment, would speak to a fellow cresture. It is a language hardly known on earth; and no eloquence, I believe, has achieved such wonders as it is destined to accomplish. I must stop, though I have but begun the application of tlie principle which I have urged. I will close as I began, with saylng, that the great revelation which man now needs is a revelation of man to himself. The faith which is most wanted is a faith in what we and our fellow-beings may bec ome, -- a faith in the divine germ or principle in every soul. In regard to most of what are called the mysteries of religion, we may innocently be ignorant. But the mystery within ourselves, the mystery of our spiritual, accountable, immortal nature, it behoves us to explore. Happy are they who have begun to penetrate it, and in whom it has awakened feelings of awe towards themselves, and of deep interest and honor towards their fellow-creatures.

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