Volume IX  ·  Spring 1954 · Number 3

William Channing Gannett: Two Episodes


THROUGH the kindness of Mr. Lewis S. Gannett and Dr. E. Carleton MacDowell, the correspondence and diaries of the former's father, William Channing Gannett, together with a large collection of his printed and manuscript material were given to the University of Rochester in the spring of 1953. William Channing Gannett (1840-1923) is best remembered for his inspirational services as a Unitarian minister in such cities as St. Paul, Minnesota, and Rochester, New York; for his books of hymns and devotional poetry; and for the leading role which he played in the so-called Western Controversy (Western Issue) of the Unitarian Church in the last third of the nineteenth century. In addition to containing material of general interest and significance to the student of American social and intellectual history, the collection is a rich source of information for the history of Western Conference Unitarianism and about the Western Controversy in particular. It is especially rewarding to the student because it contains an extensive correspondence to and from Gannett with such Unitarian leaders as Frederick Lucian Hosmer, James Vila Blake, John C. Learned, Western Conference leader Jenkin Lloyd Jones, and Gannett's close friend from college days, John White Chadwick of Brooklyn. These letters illuminate not only the narrative, but also the political and intellectual movement of the Western Controversy and of liberal Unitarianism from the 1870's until the first and second decades of the present century. In the correspondence alone there are an estimated sixty-five hundred items. The two episodes which follow have been written primarily to indicate the scope and potential use of the collection.


William Channing Gannett became, during the closing decades of the last century, a leading figure in Unitarian Church politics; but his adolescent and collegiate years were filled less by religious fervor than by a healthy boyish love of the outdoors and by an equally healthy collegiate spirit. What later became an all-embracing devotion to religious liberalism was scarcely discernible during his teens and early twenties. Gannett's early life was better marked, in fact, by a thoroughly normal search for a career.

Among the happiest of Gannett's boyhood days were those summer vacations in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, under the shadow of Mount Washington. During one of his earliest summers there he wrote his "Journal, kept during a stay of six weeks at the White Mountains," a running account of the camping trips, the exploratory excursions, the picnics, the youthful camaraderie which made up the summer's activities. Written during the summer of 1855, the "Journal" is a remarkable testimony to the acuteness of observation, the sense of humor, and the facility of expression of a fifteen-year-old boy. The high point of this six weeks' vacation was the nine-day walking tour Gannett and his two friends, Olie and Alex, took through the mountains. They hiked cross-country, they hitched rides on wagons, they descended by night on farm families to obtain lodgings. On a typical day, August 8, they tramped up the notch between Mount Webster and Mount Willard, being as much impressed with its grandeur as they were shortly to be unimpressed with some New England hospitality.

One feels as if the hand of Providence had, long ages ago, formed this little, narrow passage for the very use, to which it is now put; -it being the only passage through the mountains for 20 ms. On the right hand, as you enter from the South, appears the beautiful Fall, styled the "Silver Cascade." On the left, far up the precipitous side of Mt. Willard, you see a round, dark hole, --The Devil's Den. (The Devil haunts the Mts., seems to me; he has another summer residence in N. Conway.) At the Willey House, we took what we had to call dinner, consisting of some awfully bitter bread & butter, a little cake, and some luke-warm peas. We examined the rock, slide &c., but there is very little to interest at this place.

If the weather was bad and hiking was out of the question, there was always the game of cards to while away an afternoon -- "the standard occupation of a rainy day in the country"; and for variety Gannett and his friends could turn to a game of ninepins or to an afternoon of reading and letter-writing. On August 30 the vacation ended and Gannett returned by stage, boat, and railroad to Boston-crossing on the way that large New Hampshire lake, which he (most reasonably) spelled "Winnipisiogee."

In 1856, during another exciting New Hampshire summer, his father went repeatedly to the Yard to oversee the painting, furnishing, and decorating of college quarters: Gannett was now a Harvard freshman. Although his college diaries (like the rest of his diaries) tend to be brief, incomplete, and written frequently well after the event, they do tell the story of a normal college career. As a freshman, for example, Gannett recorded his attendance at History Club meetings, his going to parties, his ball playing, his week-end visits home, and not least his moderate application to his studies. All through college he kept not only a subtle sense of humor, but an acute conscience. At the beginning of his sophomore year he wryly recorded that he had been accused of cheating -- and that he erred only by not waiting for the instructor to beg his pardon.

After recitation Mr. P. wished to see me; I went up & then ensued the following interesting conversation. "Gannett, I thought you prompted at the board," in a low sorrowful voice. "You are mistaken, sir" in a bold & much displeased tone. "You did not prompt then"? "I did not, sir," in same tone. -- He didn't even beg my pardon, but perhaps it was my fault, for I immediately asked him a question.

But sometimes vindication of his actions was not so easy -- particularly to himself. The best of rationalizations only serve to quicken an uneasy conscience. The very next day in fact his conscience caught him up short.

Decided on subj. for our debate next Friday -- Greece or Rome etc -- same as we had at Lat. school & same as Tappan & I had when we graduated. I hope it won't leak out, because it won't redound to my credit, (tho' Young not I proposed it as a subj.) & besides more will be expected of us & me in particular.

But beneath fun, frolic, complications, and study Gannett was not only a good student, but a serious one, concerned about his shortcomings and desirous of overcoming them. "I am weak," he wrote in May of 1857,

very, & very dependent on & much influenced by others' opinions -- I don't know on wh. side to take my place, with the decidedly slow, "scrubs" they are called, & they are almost all poor scholars, but yet the most religious, or with pleasanter, more to my taste, set of fellows, but who take little or no interest in relig'n. . . . I do not know enough nor am I smart enough to give any pleasure in the company of those whom I like-the talented, well read, & intellectual.--& I do not want to associate intimately with those probably of my own rank in abilities & knowlege. . . . I continually find weakness & bad traits where I tho't I was strong & tolerably good. e.g. Vanity, self esteem, wh. some time ago, I had imagined I had very little of, has either greatly increased or I have indulged a long delusion. . . . Indeed it seems to me this term has seen little improvement, in me. I have not learnt much nor -- the chief thing -- learnt how to learn.

This same conscience pricked him again in the fall and he resolved to show a greater interest in and love for people; to have a less selfish and narrow outlook toward them; to practice greater self-sacrifice, self-forgetfulness, and humility (without any morbid introspection); to cultivate perseverance, honesty, and steadiness of purpose; to be more decisive and prompt to action.

How well, in fact, he fulfilled his resolve is more than adequately attested by his election, while a junior, to Phi Beta Kappa ("Very good time [at the initiation meeting}, --grand to be ΦΒΚ man, brother to all great men of Amera!--far beyond my expectations when I entered college."); by his refusal to support his class, which had decided not to take part in the inauguration ceremonies for President Cornelius Felton (The seniors felt aggrieved that a junior orator had been selected. Gannett's refusal was predicated upon his dislike of senior method rather than senior position); and finally by his teaching school during the Winter of 1860-61, after he had failed as a teacher just two years earlier.

The teaching failure of 1858 is one of the most interesting events in Gannett's pre-college and college career. Retrospectively somewhat amusing, it was a major crisis for an eighteen-year-old boy. As early as September 1858 Gannett had written in his diary, "I think very seriously of teaching School," in order, as he added a week later, to learn decision, promptitude, accuracy, to develop responsibility, and to observe country people, to study human nature. So he and his friend of North Conway days, Alex Wadsworth, set about applying for jobs. September 28 "We (Alex & I) rec'd a letter from Mr. Andrews Chairman of School Comtee in Groton, referring us to the Prudential Committees of the different districts. -- So we wrote immediately to Com. of Dis. I. & asked him to pass it on. -- So far, so good!" A month later, on October 30, Gannett went into Boston to talk to Mr. Scandlin of the Grafton School Committee, and went away with a teaching job paying $25.00 a month.

The fateful two weeks began on November 27 when Gannett went out to Grafton to take up his new duties. He received a cordial welcome from Mr. and Mrs. Scandlin and the next day, Sunday, met the school committee and took up his residence in the home of a Mr. Lawson Munyon, a "rough, shrewd & intelligent, active, kindhearted funny old farmer." Gannett's diary for the next week, however, records only a continuous tale of woe: an old, one-room schoolhouse; fifty students, boys and girls, ranging in age from four years to twenty; trouble in classifying the students; lack of time for adequate recitations; constant difficulty in maintaining any semblance of order. The climax came on December sixth and seventh. "So far," he wrote on December sixth, "I've done little good, -- cannot arrange classes & recitations, -- & fail most lamentably in keeping order … saw a storm was coming, but I hoped these clouds wd. blow away & leave it all the clearer."

When he got to school the next morning he discovered that most of the older boys and girls had gone, for which, he wrote, "I half congratulated myself." The end came that same evening. A meeting at the schoolhouse -- upon which Gannett came by accident -- debated whether to keep him on with a vote of confidence, keep him only on trial, or dismiss him. Although he not only had some able defenders, but also spoke in his own defense, Gannett failed to receive more than a temporary vote of confidence -- a probation in fact; and when then confronted with a demand from the floor for a flat yes-no vote on the question of keeping him, he "at once resigned, & soon after left the meeting."

Well [he wrote] I have been obliged to resign ! -- I have failed -- I am -- so far -- disgraced & lowered ! -- Yet I think I have tried, so isn't it God's discipline? I can see already the good it may do me. -- but it's bitter. They have done wisely, -- for themselves -- and for me I suppose; perhaps they have been just too, but I think that at least they have been harsh. and hasty.. . . I am willing to confess my inability (to some) & to say they've done wisely. I do not feel provoked with them, or have any feelings of that kind. -- I'm afraid (I write it with shame) that the pleasure of getting rid of the school-teaching takes off much of the sting.

The denouement was still to come. Encouragement from home could now do nothing but highlight the failure. So Gannett dejectedly packed his bags. "Well, -- all is over, -- now to swallow mortification, go home & meet everybody, -- & get all the good I possibly can from this."

As disheartening as the Grafton experience had been, it perhaps proved the making of the man. Gannett returned to Harvard and was graduated. After his graduation he again tried schoolteaching, this time with marked success. Although the Newport, Rhode Island, school to which he went in the fall of 1860 was a private school with greater opportunity and better conditions, it nevertheless took considerable courage to return to a profession which had so recently proved a disaster. Life at Mrs. Choules' school was considerably different from what it had been in Grafton. Not only did Gannett carry a usual private-school teaching load, he also carried the multifarious duties and obligations which go with the private-school master. But the year passed quickly and pleasantly -- and with a success the reality of which can be measured only by one's students. "The boys," wrote Mrs. Choules to Gannett in 1862, "all speak of you with affection, most perfectly did you succeed in winning their hearts, even now one and another often exclaims 'I wish Mr. Gannett would come here.'"


"I am thinking, thinking -- thinking what to do. . . . I begin to feel more than ever before the pressure of necessity. Twenty five & a half [years old]!" Thus wrote Gannett to Mary Rice, his friend of Port Royal days, in the fall of 1865. He was then on the grand tour through England, France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy; visiting the museums, making new friends, and tramping through the Swiss and Italian Alps. By the time he returned, however, in July, 1866, he had made up his mind. That fall he entered Harvard Divinity School, thus beginning a long career in the Unitarian Church; a career whose focal point was to be his role in the Western Issue -- he great theologico-political controversy which rocked the Unitarian Church from the 1860's to the 1890's.

American Unitarianism experienced several theological crises. In the early nineteenth century it posited a belief in miracles and the supernatural. The shift from this position, marked by the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker, was its first major crisis. It also faced in its first fifty years as an organized body the question of Christ's divinity. And at the close of the Civil War the Church confronted its third major crisis: the creedal issue and the ancillary split between the conservative easterners of the American Unitarian Association, and the theologically more liberal westerners of the Western Unitarian Conference. This was the development and culmination of Unitarian crises which Gannett himself summed up in two letters to his friend and colleague, John White Chadwick, of Brooklyn. "The discussion [he wrote in 1885] wh. in Parker's day was at the miracle-line, -- in 1865-70 at the 'Lordship' line -- in 1880 at the 'Christian' line, -- [is] now at that last still, but verging towards the 'God'-word line." Three years later, while discussing the genesis and content of the Western Issue, he added that the creedal "question has never been applied so far before, -for  1886-8 is a different year from 1846 and 1870: but it is the same old question, whether applied to 'miracles,' or to 'Xn name,' or to 'theism & Xy,' and it is -- Have Uns a creed?"

Although brought up by his father, Ezra Stiles Gannett, in the older Unitarian faith, and although bearing the name of early Unitarianism's greatest expositor, William Ellery Channing, Gannett soon joined the liberal or radical wing of the Church. His father had written him in 1865, "I wish you had more faith in a historic revelation, but it cannot be forced, and I doubt not it will come in due time." Such faith, however, never came; for within two years Gannett had written to Chadwick that the question of supernaturalism was not important: let each man take that position which will most satisfactorily illuminate his own relationship to God.

His own interpretation of Christ was further evidence of the rejection of supernaturalism. Jesus was not necessarily perfect; he was rather an example, a symbol, an idealization. He was not sole mediator between man and God, he was rather one of many. In another letter to Chadwick in 1869, Gannett wrote that Christ was the representative of the Christian way (the example for others to emulate); he was the idea in man (the man acting out ideals); and he was the man in the idea (the historico-mythological idealization of goodness and righteousness). Finally, the Unitarian Christ epitomized the advance of modern thought. "After all [he again wrote to Chadwick, in December, 1869] but little change [is] needed for the transfign [from Trinitarian to Unitarian]. Drop the limitatn to Jesus, and the Trinity at once closes to Unity, the One in All. In All, -- gas -- plant -- creature -- man. God in Humanity most fully expressed."

Gannett's theology bore the marks of his thorough acquaintance with and fine appreciation of modern thought from the rationalism of the Enlightenment to the findings of contemporary science, Darwinian evolution, and the higher criticism. Religion, he remarked to the Convention of the Free Religious Association in October, 1873, rested upon the authority of facts, the right and duty to interpret those facts, the innate capacity of the human mind and will. Thus were the understanding of Christ as symbolic unity, the Emerson-like divinity of all good and useful institutions, and the moral interpretation of Nature's Laws the heart of the theology which such tools validated.

Unitarianism, wrote Gannett to Chadwick in 1867, required complete independence of thought and an absolute disavowal of any creedal authority over the individual church member. Let creed and organization become stereotyped and inelastic, let them become restrictive and constrictive, then must they be rejected. Herein, he added to Chadwick in October, 1870, was the raison d'être of the Free Religious Association. This, in fact, was the substance of the Western Issue: whether the Unitarian Church should be bound by a creed. From the Syracuse Convention in 1866, to the Saratoga Convention, in 1894, the Issue occupied the Church. At Syracuse Francis E. Abbot had offered a preamble stipulating the right of individual opinion in religious matters and upholding the desirability of a broad fellowship on the widest Christian basis without regard to fixed theological doctrine. This preamble was voted down, and Abbot, in protest, founded (1867) the Free Religious Association. Not until twenty-eight years later, at Saratoga, was a rapprochement between eastern conservatives and western liberals finally achieved.

It was with the Western Unitarian Conference that Gannett cast his lot, for it was the West which was more liberal, less dogmatic. But, with appalling regularity, at National Conventions and at Western Conference meetings, the creedal issue arose: 1868, 1870, 1872, 1886, 1892, and 1894 were but several of the more important years. During the early phases of the struggle Gannett held firmly the most radical position. In 1870 he voiced his discouragement with the conservative easterners (who spoke through the National Conference and the American Unitarian Association).

John [he wrote to Chadwick], I believe I shall never feel easy till I feel I've bidden Good bye to the Unitarn body. Seen one week off that Confer. looks to me like reaffirmn, for basis, of something that I don't believe in, -- reaffirmn more distinct than before. But before it was distinct enough. Free-Religionists are allowed to come into the fellowship, for work. Well, let us accept the toleration, -- work with them of course in all good service as with Baptists or Catholics on similar invitation; but not as members of the body. Perhaps this has been your feeling, but it hasn't been mine; I wanted to feel that the Unitn body really contained or might contain Radicals as one of its essential wings. But when that union can be bro't about only by a constitution whose 2 halves contradict each other, or by one whose gist is a phrase confessedly & professedly having 2 meanings & therefore adopted, it does seem as if the time were past, -- as if Nature meant to indicate a parting-and that a distinct new name & organization was in place.

Gannett wrote to one George S. Roper that by 1877 he felt himself fairly outside the Unitarian organization-for he could accept neither the name Unitarian nor Christian if either was interpreted in a dogmatic or literal eastern manner. This was why the fellowship of the Western Unitarian Conference was so stimulating, for among its members he found the congeniality of liberal opinion and the companionship of such radicals as John Learned of St. Louis, James Vila Blake of Quincy, Frederick Lucian Hosmer of Cleveland, and Jenkin Lloyd Jones of Chicago, the last of whom was one of Gannett's closest friends and also the most active Western Conference leader during the years of the Controversy.

In the 1880's the Western Issue boiled over. Conservatives within the Western Unitarian Conference allied themselves with the American Unitarian Association against their radical brethren. It therefore became a matter of real concern that the Radicals maintain independence of thought and action from the American Unitarian Association.

I agree with you [wrote Gannett to Hosmer in 1884] about the A.U.A. connection with W.C. -- though perhaps more because the A.U.A. is not yet on the broad ground of Faith, than because I sh'd fear our dependence on her if she were there. If we really represented one scope of Faith & enthusiasm, I sh'd think it might perhaps be well to to [sic] have but one central organization. At present, no a hundred times over. We do ourselves & do them more good apart; & they us more good: for the other way there w'd be more compromise or else more chafing, -- I sh'd fear.

Through the next ten years the controversy raged. The western conservatives were led by men like Jasper L. Douthit of Shelbyville, Illinois, and Jabez Sunderland of Ann Arbor, Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference from 1884 until his resignation in 1886 when he moved into the conservative camp; and the Radicals rallied round the banner of Gannett and Jones, who propagated their faith in the unofficial Western Unitarian Conference journal, Unity.

By 1892 Gannett was preparing to end the struggle, for it was in his opinion doing much to wreck the Western Unitarian Conference. Furthermore, he saw within the next few years definite indications that eastern Unitarians were adopting a more liberal position. Therefore he turned toward cooperation with the East-a policy which his erstwhile compatriot, Jones, who refused to be reconciled and who formed, in 1894, the rival American Congress of Liberal Religious Societies, called a surrender and a capitulation. Perhaps it was, as Jones contended, that Gannett, having moved to Rochester, New York, in 1889, had become eastern in his thinking. Perhaps it was, indeed, that Gannett was exhausted by the struggle.

You will try [he wrote to Jones in January 1893] to convert the Conf. back to the higher position: my part is comparatively a small matter, but I shall simply accept the verdict [of the 1892 convention which bespoke cooperation] and withdraw. I fought for the Conference while it stood for that [very liberal] 1886 position; I am not going to fight against the Conference even for the position, -- there are other ways of serving that.

And, he said in the same letter, "for me to talk or write of 'Issue' affairs to anybody is to say the same things over & over & over: I look at almost everything exactly as I did in 1886." There was no more fight in him, he wrote to Hosmer two years later; he had had enough of sponsoring radical organizations; his experiences with the Free Religious Association and the Western Unitarian Conference were more than he could well enjoy.

In September 1894 the National Conference held its sessions in Saratoga, and the Western Issue was formally closed. Unitarianism, thought Gannett, was never so broad, actually, as it had become by 1894. To try to remain aloof from the East was to be both unrealistic and destructive. He now felt that he could still remain a radical in belief and yet retain the Unitarian name and work within the total Unitarian frame, although, he added, he would probably continue "denouncing the Captains & the sailing-masters & pretty much the whole blessed crew !" A revised preamble to the Constitution was submitted to the convention by the moderates, and, although Gannett and others wished more time to consider it, it was rushed through with the greatest of expedition. Jones and Gannett, though their friendship remained, had parted theological company. The sense of relief that Gannett must have felt on that September afternoon was poignantly expressed in Mrs. Gannett's diary: "At noon report of Revision Committee -- Will urged time to consider & went without dinner to get resolutions printed & distributed-then at 3.30 a unanimous aye -- & the 30 yrs. struggle is over--"

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