a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Parker, Theodore (1810-1860)

Parker, Theodore (1810-1860)

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

Theodore Parker

Courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Association Archives.

Shortly before Theodore Parker’s death in Florence he said one day to Frances Power Cobbe: “There are two Theodore Parkers now: one is dying here in Italy; the other I have planted in America. He will live there, and finish my work.” In another sense than he had in mind, there always had been two Theodore Parkers, juxtaposed, rather than blended, in a single personality. On his father’s side he was descended from Thomas Parker, Puritan pioneer, who came from England in 1635, and settled first in Lynn, afterwards in Reading. His grandfather, John Parker, commanded the company of Lexington minute men on the morning of the 18th of April, 1775; and the belfry of the old church on the Green afterwards served as the workshop in which Theodore’s father, John Parker, exemplified the tradition of Yankee “handiness.” From his father, who is said to have cared little for poetry, but to have read much in history, philosophy, and theology, Theodore Parker inherited his shrewd and critical “understanding,” and an ingrained love of liberty. His mother, Hannah Stearns, was of a different type, reading little save the Bible, the hymn-book and stories of New England captives among the Indians, taking, as her son testified, “deep and still delight in silent prayer,” finding God in the works of nature and in the soul of man. The often repeated story of Theodore and the tortoise illustrates her religious spirit, and indicates the source from which Theodore derived his mysticism, poetry, and profound appreciation of the significance of conscience in man. In Theodore Parker, the man, one finds constantly these contrasted traits: he is reported to have been a good business man; he was certainly an active, energetic man of affairs; as a critic, he tended to judge men and opinions by the understanding alone, and thus, lacking the due exercise of sympathy and imagination, often appeared censorious even to the point of harshness and cruelty. But there was another Theodore Parker, sensitive, tender, yearning for friends and children, a mystic soul whose truest expression was in prayers which rose from the mother-heart within him to the Father and Mother God. Such a combination of antithetic tendencies is by no means uncommon in New England, which to Arthur Hugh Clough seemed a congenial soil for mysticism, while to others it has seemed almost synonymous with shrewdness and worldly sagacity.

In the case of a young man with such a mixed inheritance it depends largely upon circumstances which side of his nature develops. In the intellectual life of New England during the first half of the last century there were influences which appealed strongly to both sides of this composite nature. Indeed, it would not be unjust to say that Parker was the New England of his age in miniature. At the beginning of the century the dominant philosophy was that of Locke, to which corresponded well Parker’s paternal inheritance; but later on the German influence was felt in its two forms of Biblical criticism, appealing to the father-mind, and Transcendentalism congenial to the mother-heart within him. Subsequently the course of events, both political and theological, was such that both sides of Parker’s nature were perpetually in action, the aroused mother heart and conscience giving direction and dynamic to the father hand and brain. But for practical as well as philosophical reasons the paternal inheritance was the first to develop. His father was not well-to-do, and, after the most rudimentary training in the village schools, Theodore adopted the then common New England practice of burning the candle at both ends, teaching spelling and the rule of three by day, that he might study privately Greek poetry and the higher mathematics by night. In 1830 he passed the examination required for admittance to the Freshman Class of Harvard College, and during the next four years carried on by himself the studies of his class, while teaching school as opportunity offered. Later he was offered the Bachelor’s degree, which his work had fairly earned, if he would pay the four years’ term bills; but his means did not warrant the expenditure, and his sole academic degree was an honorary A.M., given him by Harvard in 1840—would it have been given him after 1841? While teaching school in Watertown (1832-1834), he reached two momentous crises in his life. One was his betrothal to Miss Lydia Cabot, whom he married, after a four years’ engagement, in 1837. The other was his decision to enter the ministry, under the encouragement, seconding his natural inclinations, of Conyers Francis, then minister in Watertown, afterwards a professor in the Harvard Divinity School, whose friendship and ample library meant much to the young teacher. Having anticipated some of the theological studies, he was graduated from the Harvard Divinity School in 1836. Then followed nearly a year of candidating, terminated by a call to the ministry of the Unitarian church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, which ordained him on June 21, 1837.

Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker

The next four years were spent in quiet, peaceful study, for which there was ample time after the conscientious performance of his duties as minister of a country parish. The salary was not large, but it was sufficient for himself and wife, and books were to be had at the easy price of a short journey to Boston or Cambridge. It was a life admirably suited to an insatiable reader, like Theodore Parker. Already he had begun a translation of De Wette’s Critical and Historical Introduction to the Canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament, at which he had worked during the weary months of candidating, and which was finally published in 1843, receiving, however, “not a friendly word in any American journal” and never making good to Parker’s slender purse even the cost of publication. But his energies were by no means exhausted in the work upon De Wette. Master of some twenty tongues, or, if not master of all, at least on speaking terms with some and able to use the rest, he was a glutton of books. But he was more than a reader, for he had the scholar’s gift of extracting the creative idea of a book, and, in addition, an extraordinarily tenacious memory. If he read somewhat indiscriminately and uncritically, and, as Lowell intimates in the “Fable for Critics,” was a trifle over-fond of parading his erudition, the fault is pardonable, especially in one who in other respects showed so little of the bookman, so much of the man of action.

Theodore ParkerBut the peaceful years of study were soon interrupted. In 1838 Emerson delivered the literally epoch-making address before the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School, which made Transcendentalism a fact to be reckoned with in the religious thought of New England. Essentially, the conflict which arose was between precisely the two elements which we have observed in Parker’s character, between the imagination and the understanding, the mystic soul and the logical intellect, waged now not within a single breast alone, but on the larger field of New England life. Emerson stirred the mother-heart in Theodore Parker: the cool, critical faculty had already done destructive work upon the traditional theology; and he soon came into public notice because of the so-called South Boston Sermon, delivered on May 19, 1841, at the ordination of Charles C. Shackford, upon “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” It was a hurriedly written sermon, and one who reads it now, after the lapse of a generation, is more likely to be impatient with its turgidity than excited by its heterodoxy. But the glowing coals of one generation almost necessarily become the gray ashes of the next; and, when the sermon was delivered, its criticism of the authority of the Bible and the worth of the miracles was more significant than its glowing tribute to the humanity of Jesus and its enthusiastic assurance of the permanence and the universality of Christianity. Almost immediately Unitarian orthodoxy took fright: here was one of their own number, a Unitarian minister in good and regular Standing, preaching open Transcendentalism and giving ample occasion for the Trinitarian taunt, “We told you so.” Furthermore, Parker grievously offended some of his brother ministers by an article which appeared in the Dial of October, 1842, upon the Hollis Street Council, called to adjust the relations between the pastor of that church, John Pierpont, and certain of his parishioners whom he had offended by his preaching against “rum-making, rum-selling, and rum-drinking.” Parker’s article characterized the result of the council as Jesuitical, and lashed the ministers responsible for it in a way hard to forgive. It must be frankly acknowledged that, throughout, Parker’s controversy with his brother Unitarian ministers was deeply tinged with personal feeling. He was pained and outraged by the attitude which they took toward his religious position, affirming that he was only saying openly what they thought and said privately, but lacked courage to declare publicly. Doubtless there was some truth in his charge, yet Parker’s inference of cowardice and insincerity was probably unjustifiable. One may deal kindly with a theory so long as it remains a theory, and yet feel obliged to condemn it when it becomes a practical issue. But Parker disdained policy, “that heretic which works on leases of short-numbered hours,” and could see no reason why men should not unfold their whole mind, its questions and uncertainties, as well as its convictions, on call. When men disappointed him, he was unsparing in his criticism and denunciation, using, too, the language of the farm and the street, and not of the library or the cloister. But clerical opposition only stimulated his powers, which soon raised him from the humble position of a country parson to that of a city preacher addressing an audience far larger than gathered in any Unitarian church, and wielding an influence which in extent and importance was greater than that possessed by any other clergyman of his time. In the winter of 1841 and 1842 he delivered in the Masonic Temple, Boston, a series of Sunday afternoon lectures, afterwards printed in 1842 under the title “A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion.” This opened to him a larger hearing than was afforded by his West Roxbury parish, and during the next winter of 1842-43 he delivered before seven different audiences in Boston and vicinity a series of six carefully prepared “Plain Sermons on the Times,” published in 1843.

The next year, from September, 1843, to September, 1844, was spent in Europe; but on his return he found the storm signal still flying over Boston Unitarianism. In the early days of the Unitarian controversy the exchange of pulpits was reckoned a sign of amity, and refusal to exchange was a marked sign of disapproval and a denial of Christian fellowship. Since the old idea still lingered, the Unitarian ministers about Boston could testify their lack of sympathy with Parker and confine his influence as closely as possible to his own congregation by refusing to exchange with him. This phase of the controversy became acute when Mr. Sargent, a missionary of the Benevolent Fraternity who had exchanged with Parker in November, 1844, lost his position in consequence, and James Freeman Clarke, who also exchanged with him in January, 1845, witnessed the withdrawal of fifteen families from his church in token of disapproval. A month before Parker had given the Great and Thursday Lecture upon “The Relation of Jesus to his Age and the Ages,” the result of which was a return of the responsibility for the lectureship from the Boston Association to the minister of the First Church, who could be trusted to keep out Parker, while the Association escaped the disagreeable dilemma of approving Parker by letting him preach in his turn or virtually excommunicating him by omitting his name in the assignment. All this, however, was but opening the way for a few earnest men to declare by vote on January 22, 1845, “that Theodore Parker have a chance to be heard in Boston”; and, in pursuance of this resolution, Parker preached in the Melodeon on Sunday, February 16, 1845—the opening of his career as a Boston minister. Yet he was not a Boston minister after the Congregational principle, for those inviting him were not formally organized into a church; and therefore he remained a year longer as minister of the West Roxbury Society, preaching there on Sunday afternoons. But in November, 1845, the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston was organized, which on January 4, 1846, installed Theodore Parker as its minister, and his connection with West Roxbury formally terminated. From that time until his last sermon, preached in Boston Music Hall (whither his congregations had removed from the Melodeon in 1852) on Sunday, January 2, 1858, Parker was far and away the most influential man in the Boston pulpit. If the Sunday services lacked something of the conventionality of the ordinary religious gathering, they were services in the full sense of the word. In Parker’s published sermons one feels constantly the urge of a mighty purpose, the heat of a fervid conviction. He took the ministry seriously, quite after the fashion of the Old Testament prophets of righteousness. Platitudes and soft prophesyings were not for him. The pulpit was not the place for pretty trifling, but for the proclamation of the eternal will of the holy God. When great men died, he brought them before his judgment seat as solemnly as if it were the great white throne in whose searching light no sin was to be extenuated, no fault unreproved, though the sentence were spoken with swelling heart and moistened eyes. His preaching had a mark and hit it, and in most cases the mark was a contemporary sin, if not a present sinner. For slavery had become an issue, and the grandson of John Parker of Lexington fame, and the prophet of the Most High God who hath made of one blood all nations upon earth, could but declare against it. To others the slaveholder might be “an abstraction,” but not to Parker, especially when he appeared in actual flesh and blood to carry back into slavery men and women of his own congregation. It was fearful reality when, at the wedding of William and Ellen Craft, Parker put into the former’s hands a Bible and a bowie knife, bidding him use both in defense of body and soul, when Sims and Burns were marched down Boston streets on their way back to slavery. Then the preacher was a man of action, too, serving on the Vigilance Committee, writing fiery placards and pamphlets, preparing a defense, which unhappily he was not to deliver, when arrested for conspiracy in connection with the attempt to rescue Burns, consulting with John Brown, writing bold letters of admonition and encouragement to men in public life, and doing all as a minister of God in the presence of sin. If other pulpits than his own were closed to him, the lyceum was open and the press was free. So he wrote and lectured, wearing out his not over-strong constitution and lessening his power of resistance, until, at last, the family foe came upon him, and his work was done. He seems to have had none of the illusions which consumptives often have about their own condition. From the first he realized the probable end, yet determined to fight the disease as best he could. He left Boston on the 3rd of February, 1858, and on the 8th embarked at New York for Santa Cruz, writing on the voyage his letter to his church, entitled “Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister.” After a brief stay at Santa Cruz he sailed for London, and thence crossed to Paris and Switzerland. Six happy and healthful weeks were spent with his friend Desor at Combe-Varin, and then, after a brief stay at Montreux, he went to Rome, arriving on October 21. Here he was with friends, but the climate was unfavorable; and he left for Florence, where he died on May 10, 1860.

Above all else, Parker was the prophet of the moral self, the emancipator, setting man free from traditionalism and convention, and bringing him face to face with God manifest in the world without, abiding in the soul within.

— By William W. Fenn

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Parker’s Manifesto

How The Universalists And Unitarians Invented Christmas; Plus An Anthology of Historical Unitarian Christmas Stories

Prayers for Today: Theodore Parker