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Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Parker’s Manifesto

IV. Parker’s Manifesto

by Conrad Wright

“The brilliant genius of Emerson rose in the winter nights,” Theodore Parker recalled, “and hung over Boston, drawing the eyes of ingenuous young people to look up to that great, new star, a beauty and a mystery. . . .”[35] In 1838, Parker was himself just enough younger than Emerson to share something of this sense of wonder and delight in the appearance of a nova in the sky. A recent graduate of the Divinity School, Parker had been installed only a year earlier as minister of the little church in West Roxbury. On July 15, after the usual routine of preaching, Sunday school, and teachers’ meeting, Mrs. Parker and he proceeded by way of Brookline to Cambridge to hear Emerson. “I shall give no abstract,” he wrote in his Joural, “so beautiful, so just, so true, and terribly sublime, was his picture of the faults of the Church in its present position.” To his classmate George Ellis he wrote: “It the noblest of all his performances: a little exaggerated, with some philosophical untruths, it seemed to me; but the noblest, the most inspiring strain I ever listened to.” He returned to West Roxbury with his soul deeply stirred, and with the resolution fixed afresh to prepare some long‑meditated sermons “on the state of the Church and the duties of these times.”[36]

Parker followed with interest the ensuing controversy between Norton and Ripley. Although he had the greatest respect for the accuracy and depth of Norton’s biblical scholarship, his sympathies were entirely with the Transcendentalists. He felt, however, that there was “a higher word to be said on this subject” than Ripley was disposed to say; and so he, too, entered the discussion with a pamphlet, published under the pseudonym of “Levi Blodgett.” Norton and Ripley were debating the question “Do men believe in Christianity solely on the ground of miracles’?” But there is a previous question, Parker urged, that must first be settled: “How do men come to have any religion, or, in other words, on what evidence do they receive the plainest religious truths?”[37]

For his part, Parker insisted that human beings are by nature religious, that they are “made to be religious, as much as an ox was made to eat grass.” Hence the existence of God is not something that we must discover, as the more conservative Unitarians supposed, by a process of reasoning, or by a long series of deductions from facts experienced by the senses. It is “a truth fundamental in our nature; given outright by God; a truth which comes to light as soon as self‑consciousness begins.” Our concept of the nature of God and the divine attributes is developed by the Understanding; but prior to the shaping of that concept, and of a higher order of awareness, is the “instinctive intuition of the divine.” Parker acknowledged that there is more than one way of communicating with God, and he did not fail to mention the indirect ways by which our sense impressions of the material universe may lead us there. But our highest and
most permanent faculties, conscience, and the “religious sentiment,” are channels of direct
communication with God: “I can find nothing interposed between Conscience and God, or between Him and the religious Sentiment; we border closely upon God everywhere; here we touch and he interpenetrates us, if I may so speak.” No external authority, no authentication by miracles, is required to convince us of the essential truth of religion: the existence of God, on whom we are dependent.[38]

But what of Christianity and the truths peculiar to it? These were the doctrines, after all, for which confirmation by miracles was demanded. Parker replied that if no miracle is needed to establish the primary and essential truths of religion, “no man can consistently demand a miracle as a proof that Christ spoke the truth when he taught doctrines of infinitely less importance, which were themselves unavoidable conclusions from these two admitted truths.” Parker was willing to acknowledge that Jesus, “like other religious teachers,” wrought miracles. Yet Christianity does not rest on miracles, but “on the truth of its doctrines, and its sufficiency to satisfy all the moral and religious wants of man.”[39]

For Parker, the beauty and greatness of the religion of Jesus lay in its reaffirmation of the primary and essential truths of all religion. This does not mean, however, that he would have been content with an absolute religion from which all the historical particularity of Jesus had been purged. Great religious teachers are always needed to give us a renewed awareness of truths for which the ultimate sanction is, admittedly, our own religious sentiment. And so Parker gratefully acknowledged that he could conceive of “no more perfect moral and religious incarnation of God, than Jesus of Nazareth,” and declared that “the Christianity of Christ is the purest, the most intense, and perfect religion ever realized on earth.” Not the Christianity, he hastened to add, “of Calvin or Luther; of the Unitarians or the Quakers; of Paul, James or Peter or John, all of which are obviously one‑sided and in part false,” but the Christianity of Jesus.[40]

Parker’s “Levi Blodgett Letter” seems to have attracted little attention. It reveals, however, that, even before the South Boston Sermon, Parker had worked his way into a new world of theological discourse. The contrast between the transcendentalist Unitarianism of the “Levi Blodgett Letter” and the rationalistic Unitarianism of a man like Andrews Norton is obvious. For Norton, the focus of concern was the rational appraisal of Christian evidences. For Parker, it was the instinctive intuition of the divine, which he identified with the religion of Jesus.

Seen in the context of the broad philosophical alignments of that day, Parker clearly belongs with Emerson and the Transcendentalists. But Transcendentalism was a stream of tendency, rather than a standardized body of thought; and Parker’s religious ideas were far from being a carbon copy of Emerson’s. For one thing, the tone of his religious emotions was much more specifically Christian than Emerson’s, and the Christian Church had much more meaning for him. Emerson could drift almost casually out of the ministry; Parker would not let criticism, even ostracism, drive him from his post as the minister of a Christian church. His impact on the Unitarian community was correspondingly direct and specific. After Emerson’s withdrawal from the ministry, conservative Unitarians could assume that he spoke for himself alone, and could dismiss his transcendental vagaries as of no immediate concern. But Parker, who was in attitude and temperament much closer to conservative Unitarianism than Emerson, could not be so easily set aside. He remained a persistent irritant within the Unitarian community; and he suffered the customary fate of nonconformists who decline to withdraw politely, despite pointed suggestions that they are not entirely welcome.

On May 19, 1841, a damp, raw Wednesday, Parker delivered the sermon at the ordination of Charles C. Shackford, at the Hawes Place Church in South Boston. The council for the ordination was by no means transcendentalist in complexion; it included such conspicuous leaders of old‑school Unitarianism as Dr. John Pierce of Brookline, who gave the ordaining prayer, and Samuel K. Lothrop of the Brattle Street Church, who delivered the charge to the minister.

It is not wholly clear why Parker was invited to preach on this occasion. Shackford was a graduate of Harvard College, class of 1835, but his theological inclinations at first were orthodox, rather than Unitarian, and he studied at Union and Andover seminaries, instead of the Harvard Divinity School. If he had any great sympathy for transcendentalist theology, he gave no public indication of it, then or later. Nor does there seem to be any reason to place him among Parker’s close friends. It was asserted at the time that the selection had been made by a committee of the church rather than by Shackford, though of course the choice would necessarily have had Shackford’s assent.

Whatever may have been the reasons for the selection of Parker as the preacher, it is plain that no one expected him to issue a manifesto of transcendentalist Unitarianism. Nor did Parker think of the occasion in such terms. His main thesis, indeed, was one that received the assent of a good many of the conservative Unitarians. He argued that certain elements in Christianity may be regarded as permanent and essential, while others are accidental and subject to transformation with the passing years. That which is permanent is the pure religion Jesus taught: “it is absolute, pure Morality, absolute, pure Religion; the love of man, the love of God acting without let or hindrance.” Those things that are transient are the forms and doctrines with which Christianity has been clothed in successive periods of history. The rites that were regarded as essential in one age are abandoned by another; the heresy of’ one generation is the orthodoxy of the next. This transitoriness is the law of life, and who knows what absurdities future generations will not find in forms and doctrines that we hold dear’! But if we are faithful, Parker declared, “the great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, and by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable.”

If Parker had gone no further than this, the conservative Unitarians might have questioned his reliance on intuition but would not have become greatly exercised. The illustrations he offered of the transitoriness of Christian doctrine, however, touched two especially sensitive areas of theological debate. In the first place, he suggested that the doctrine respecting the origin and authority of the Bible has fluctuated widely. Over long periods of time, the inspiration of its authors has been declared to be infallible, despite the fact that it contains impossible legends, conflicting assertions in the record, and imaginative stories which we shrink from accepting as literal truth. But this idolatry of the Bible has not always existed; it has no foundation in the book itself.

In the second place, Parker declared that opinions respecting the nature and authority of Christ have been constantly changing. With respect to his nature, scarcely two Christian theologians have been fully agreed. To be sure, almost every sect has made Christianity to rest “on the personal authority of Jesus, and not the immutable truth of the doctrines themselves, or the authority of God, who sent him into the world.” But why should moral and religious truths depend on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than scientific truths depend on the personal authority of the investigator who discovers them?

For opinions such as these, Parker was often described as an “infidel” or a “deist.” If one strips these terms of their pejorative element, there is a sense in which they are not inappropriate. In the usage of that day, both “infidelity” and “deism” meant the denial that a specific, historical revelation of God’s will through Jesus Christ is absolutely essential for the salvation of sinners. But it is important to recognize that Parker was not a deist in the same sense that Paine and the eighteenth‑century freethinkers were. These men accepted the sensational psychology of John Locke; and they believed in the sufficiency of natural religion, consisting of those doctrines which human reason can establish. Their attitude toward the Bible was often disrespectful, while their attitude toward Jesus ranged from genteel respect to outright scorn. Parker rejected the sensational psychology of Locke, so far as basic religious truths were concerned, and adhered to an intuitional philosophy. Hence he characteristically spoke of “absolute religion” instead of “natural religion.” And while he rejected the infallibility of the Bible, he could say wholeheartedly: “How the truths of the Bible have blest us.” While he refused to base Christian truth on the personal authority of Christ, his heart went out to Jesus with an almost evangelical warmth, as the Sermon itself bears witness.

The proceedings at the ordination went off uneventfully enough. One person rose during the sermon and walked out; but whether this was on account of “a badly ventilated building, or a heresy ventilated but too well,” Parker’s biographer did not presume to say.[41] Dr. Pierce’s ordaining prayer was perhaps more pointed than it otherwise might have been in expressing “great reverence for the Holy Scriptures, for Jesus Christ, as the Mediator of the new covenant, sent to speak with authority to men.”[42] After the service, Parker seems to have received the customary expressions of appreciation from those present, mingled with comments indicating qualified approval, at best, from some of his clerical brethren. No one, apparently, had the same sense of participation in a great occasion that had been so pervasive at the ordination of Sparks in Baltimore and at the valedictory exercises at the Divinity School. Certainly there was no hint of an impending controversy.

Whether the Unitarians, if left alone, would have made a public issue of the sermon may well be doubted. No comment on it appeared in the Christian Register until the orthodox party forced the issue, even though Samuel K. Lothrop, one of the editors, had been a participant in the exercises. This discussion was precipitated by three clergymen who had been present, one a Congregationalist, another a Methodist, and the third a Baptist. They prepared a summary of Parker’s discourse‑at least the most offensive parts of it‑as well as they could reconstruct it from memory and from notes taken at the time. This summary was then distributed for simultaneous publication in several orthodox religious journals. The purpose of the three ministers was not to argue against Parker; for it seemed to them that a mere statement of his doctrines would be enough to lay him open to condemnation. Their real hope was to smoke out the Unitarians and find out whether Parker would be disavowed by his fellow liberals. The orthodox had often declared that Unitarianism was only a halfway house to infidelity. Now they thought they saw an opportunity, if not to destroy Parker, at any rate to discredit the Unitarian body.

The Unitarians were in a decidedly uncomfortable position. After all, Parker was in good ministerial standing with them, and most of them thought well of him. He was, admittedly, not always easy to live with; and in the years that followed, his sharp tongue did as much as his so‑called infidelity to alienate many of his colleagues. But in 1841, he was generally liked and respected. Even when he made a characteristically tart response to an editorial in the Register, the editor’s reply included expressions of the highest regard for Parker personally and praised both the purity of his character and his zealous devotion to the truth.

Furthermore, if the reaction of a minister like Samuel K. Lothrop is any indication, even conservative Unitarians agreed with most of what Parker had said. The passages that gave offense, Lothrop insisted, “though scattered throughout the discourse, might be compressed within the limits of a few of its pages.” The main theme of the Sermon he accepted without hesitation. In parts of the discourse, Parker had illustrated his points “eloquently, justly and with power.” Lothrop could only regret that elsewhere Parker had “made allusions and advanced thoughts and principles, which, if well founded, seem to us to overturn Christianity altogether, and at any rate, have made his sermon a firebrand in the community, rather a word of peace, instruction and edification.”[43]

The position of the Unitarians was made particularly difficult because they acknowledged the right and duty of all persons to search for truth, unfettered by creeds, confessions of faith, or other human standards of doctrine. During the Unitarian controversy a generation earlier, they had repeatedly insisted that the test of Christian fellowship must be Christian life and character, rather than doctrinal agreement. Now the orthodox were in a position to taunt the liberals and to inquire whether Christian fellowship was to mean fellowship with infidels and deists.

The Unitarians could not deny to Parker the right to speak his mind. But they did suggest that one who has reached conclusions that run counter to the established faith of the community must not be irresponsible in expression of them. In particular, an occasion must not be chosen when a preacher would inevitably be regarded as speaking for others and not simply stating personal views. This, indeed, was the great fault of both Emerson and Parker, that they chose ceremonial occasions, when the speaker customarily sought to express the consensus of the community, for a statement of views unacceptable to the group.

Parker’s sermon “was not appropriate to the occasion,” Lothrop complained. Such views, if put forth at all, “should never have been put forth in an associated service, when a man was acting with others, and to some extent for others.” Parker should have reserved them for another time, when he “was acting, writing or speaking for himself and himself only.” Lothrop refused to take any responsibility for what had been said, and denied that the orthodox could rightly hold him and his Unitarian colleagues responsible. He could only regret that he had found himself associated with Parker on an occasion in which, while he uttered many good things and many beautiful things, that came home to our hearts, he also uttered many others that grossly outraged our feelings, or if he chooses to call them so, our prejudices.”[44]

Hence the real problem posed for the Unitarians by Parker’s unconventional views was not whether they were true or false. Men like Samuel K. Lothrop, Chandler Robbins, and Nathaniel L. Frothingham knew exactly where they stood on the theological issues at stake. But they were genuinely in a quandary as to whether, or to what extent, one holding Parker’s views was to be accepted as within the fellowship of Christian ministers. By what right, for example, should Parker expect to continue as a member of the Boston Association of Ministers? Could he properly be asked to withdraw? Was there any way for the Unitarians to dissociate themselves from him without resorting to the same “system of exclusion” of which they themselves had once been victims?

This matter came to a head at a meeting of the Boston Association of Ministers in January, 1843. At meetings as early as the previous September, the members had discussed Parker’s Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion, which was just off the press; but they felt some delicacy about commenting on his views when he was not present to reply. At the same time, they hesitated to request him to attend a meeting at which he was fully entitled to be present without a special invitation, test it look like a summons. But they suggested that he come and talk things over in a friendly way, and he responded.

There followed one of the most extraordinary episodes in the whole history of American Unitarianism. Dr. Frothingham, of the First Church, characterized Parker’s book as ,’vehemently deistical” and declared that “he could have no ministerial intercourse” with its author, “though still he hoped to have a friendly and social intercourse.” Others present complained that Parker had criticized them unfairly for their part in an ecclesiastical council, recently held to settle a controversy in the Hollis Street Church. In response to Frothingham, Parker asked to know the “precise quiddity” that must be added to his absolute religion to make it qualify as Christianity. The answer was obvious: miracles and the authority of Christ. Someone then said: “It is plain we can’t have ministerial intercourse with Mr. Parker: he denies the miracles.”

Chandler Robbins finally came to the point: “Since Mr. Parker finds the feeling in respect to him is so general, I think it is his duty to withdraw from the Association.” Parker replied that he considered the principle of free inquiry to be at stake; that theological uniformity had never previously been required; and that he had no intention of resigning. It then became apparent that, while the members would have been very much relieved if Parker had taken the hint and resigned, they were not disposed to prescribe a doctrinal test for membership. Parker had been asked to withdraw; he had declined; and there was no way to exclude him without abandoning the principle of free inquiry. So several of the members said kind things about Parker’s sincerity; he burst into tears and left the room, where Dr. Frothingham shook him cordially by the hand and expressed the hope that he would come to see him soon, and the closest the Unitarians ever came to a heresy trial was over.[45]

Not that all that separated Parker from his colleagues was at once forgotten. The theological differences were much too apparent, and Parker’s contentious spirit did nothing to heal the breach. Ever since the South Boston Sermon, most of the other Unitarian ministers had declined to exchange with Parker, and they saw no reason to alter their course. Parker was hurt by this form of ostracism but felt that he was not entitled to complain. A ministerial exchange involved a personal relationship which might be freely offered but which, he acknowledged could no longer be claimed as a matter of right.

Perhaps the liberals had retreated a bit from the position they had taken in the early years of the century, when the orthodox had refused to exchange with them. Certainly his coIleagues’ refusal seemed to Parker as clear an expression of hostility as any formal vote of censure could have been. Yet, by his refusal to withdraw from the Association when it Would have been all too easy to do so, Parker appealed successfully to the consciences of his colleagues and forced them to firm their loyalty to the principle of free inquiry. For while they felt no obligation to encourage or promote his wayward views, neither would they yield to the demand that “a rebuke be administered to him by some formal act of the denomination to which he has been considered as belonging.” Ezra Stiles Gannett spoke their mind when he declared that such measures would be contrary to the spirit and practice of the denomination. The very fact, he suggested, “that for months the Unitarians have been urged from without and from within to denounce, or renounce, Mr. Parker, and yet have not found out how to do it, shows that it is strange work for them.” It is not our way, he said, to pass votes of ecclesiastical censure. “We are willing . . . to take the principle of free inquiry with all its consequences .”[46]



[35] Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister (Boston, 1859), p. 51.

[36] Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Theodore Parker (Boston, 1874), p. 106.

[37] Theodore Parker, “The Previous Question Between Mr. Andrews Norton and His Alumni Moved and Handled.” Appendix to John Edward Dirks, The Critical Theology of Theodore Parker (New York, 1948), pp. 138, 140.

[38] Ibid., pp. 140, 141, 145.

[39] Ibid., pp. 151, 157.

[40] Ibid., pp. 149, 150.

[41] John Weiss, Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker (New York, 1864), I, 170.

[42] The South-Boston Unitarian Ordination (Boston, 1841), p. 16.

[43] Christian Register, July 3, 1841.

[44] Ibid., June 26, 1841.

[45] Weiss, Parker, I, 188-93.

[46] Ezra Stiles Gannett, “Mr. Parker and his Views,” Christian Examiner, XXXVIII (1845), 271, 272.

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