Women’s Rights, Education, and the Uncollected Letters of William Ellery Channing in the Christian Inquirer

Abstract: 

Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) was a progressive nineteenth century thinker keenly aware of the social ills of his time, including slavery and what came to be known as the “Woman Question,” as the burgeoning Women’s Rights movement began to occupy the national conscience. One New York Unitarian publication, the Christian Inquirer, followed and reported with particular interest on the development of this movement in New England. My research on the Christian Inquirer brings to light three previously uncollected letters written by Channing in 1827-1829 that were not published until 1849, when they appeared in the Christian Inquirer, with the permission of their unnamed female addressee. In these letters, Channing, long before the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, and before the editors of the Christian Inquirer brought attention to the subject, discusses the “superficial” nature of women’s education in both Britain and the U.S., suggesting that these educational shortcomings stem from a larger social ill. This study discloses the existence, for 21st-century readers, of several of Channing’s uncollected letters as well as of other articles from the Christian Inquirer (CI) to suggest that the influential minster’s early progressive stance on Women’s Rights. That commitment is indicated by the consistency of the movement with the emphasis in Unitarian theology on human dignity across gender, a crucial point in bridging the conceptual gap between orthodox and liberal Christians.

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