William Ellery Channing

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 2:15pm -- mfarias

On this day in history, April 7, 1780, William Ellery Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island. A prominent Unitarian preacher, his family’s roots in Newport extend back to the beginning of the 18th century through a series of influential men named “William Ellery.”


William Ellery Channing (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The first William Ellery, Sr. was born October 31, 1701 in what was then known as Bristol, Province of Massachusetts Bay. His parents, the Hon. Benjamin Ellery and Abigail Wilkins were of Gloucester and Bristol, Massachusetts as well as Newport, Rhode Island. In 1722 he graduated from Harvard College and married Elizabeth Almy, a descendant of Thomas Cornell, whose parents were from Newport. This is where the couple settled for the rest of their lives. In Newport, Ellery became a wealthy merchant who was active in civic life. In 1737, he signed his name to the Rules and Regulations of the Literary and Philosophical Society that was established in Newport in 1730 and preceeded the Redwood, as is noted in the Annals. From 1738-1740 he served as a Newport Justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace and was elected the 31st Deputy Governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1748. At age 62, he died in March of 1764 in Newport and is buried in the Common Burying Ground. A tribute to his memory that was published at the time of his death was included in the Annals after a brief description of his life in Newport.


 Memorial taken from the Redwood Annals

Ellery's second son, also named William Ellery (1727-1820), studied at Harvard College like his father and then returned to Newport after graduating in 1747. In Newport, he worked first as a merchant, then a customs collector, and a Clerk of the Rhode Island General Assembly before deciding to practice law in 1770. He became active in the Rhode Island Sons of Liberty and in 1776, after the death of Samuel Ward, he replaced him in the Continental Congress. Ellery was one of two signers of the Declaration of Independence representing Rhode Island and also signed his name to the Articles of Confederation. Ellery was later a Judge on the Supreme Court of Rhode Island and became an abolitionist. To fit everything into his busy life, he lived until he was 92 and died in Newport, buried at the Common Burying Ground like his father.

William Ellery II (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

During his life, the second William Ellery was married twice. In 1750, he married Ann Remington of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Judge Jonathan Remington and she died in 1764 in Cambridge. Ellery remarried to Abigail Cary in 1767. Between his two marriages, Ellery had nineteen children. One of those nineteen children was another William Ellery (1761-1836) who served as a Deputy Customs Collector in Newport from 1797-1820 and was a shareholder and Director of the Redwood Library, serving on a committee to restore the building after the Revolution. Other descendants include Ellery Channing, the Transcendentalist poet, and Kyra Sedgwick (the actress is married to Kevin Bacon, completing this historical round of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon).

Portrait of "William Ellery, Jr." by Henry Sargent (1770-1845)
From the collection of the Redwood Library.

William Ellery Channing was born to William Channing and Lucy Ellery, one of the second William Ellery’s daughters. Channing was one of the leading Unitarian thinkers in the early nineteenth century. He graduated first in his class from Harvard College in 1798 and soon became known for his impassioned sermons and public speeches. He espoused the principles and tenets of the developing Unitarian philosophy, leading to the organization of the first Unitarian denomination in America in 1825. He was an influential figure in religious life who managed to maintain fairly neutral positions on many issues and social movements, such as slavery and abolition, though he did come to eventually support abolitionism later in life. Channing died at age 62 in Vermont and is buried in Cambridge, Mass. There are statues of Channing in Boston, on the edge of the Boston Public Garden across the street from the Arlington Street Church that he served, and in Newport, in front of the Channing Memorial Church built in 1880 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Coming from this family of influencers, Channing was bound to make his own mark on Newport and the country beyond.
William Ellery Channing Statue in Boston (Photo Credit: ipernity)