Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Despised Prophet of Unitarianism—Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker filled the seats of the Boston Music Hall, second venue for his 28th Congregational Society.

On January 4, 1846 Theodore Parker was installed as the minister of the 28th Congregational Society of Boston, a congregation created for the sole purpose of providing a platform for the maverick, outcast Unitarian and fiery abolitionist in the heart of the Hub of the Universe.  The distinguished Unitarian ministers of Boston, who had long shunned him and refused to exchange pulpits with him, were outraged.  Probably even more so when they learned that he broke with precedent and preached his own instillation sermon, The True Idea of a Christian Church—which could only be interpreted as an in-your-face challenge to their moral authority.
Although the core group of three hundred or so supporters who underwrote the new congregation were largely Unitarians, the new congregation was not considered a Unitarian Church, but a Free Church open to all and unbound by any dogma.  Supporters rented space in the Melodeon Theater.  Soon upward of 1000 people were regularly attending Parker’s Sunday sermons and Wednesday evening lectures on social, political, and scientific issues.  When that venue became too crowded, services were moved to the Boston Music Hall and attendance doubled. 
Parker could be considered the first pastor of a mega church.  And like the leaders of modern mega churches, he used every medium at his disposal to spread his radical gospel.  Although banned from the Unitarian press, he published articles regularly in both Boston and national periodicals and edited his own, the Massachusetts Quarterly Review.  His sermons were collected and published in popular editions and he regularly churned out books on theological, moral, and reform issues.  When he was not speaking from his own pulpit, he lectured widely.  By the 1850’s he was one of the most famous men in America, adored by his followers and cordially hated by his enemies.
Parker was born on August 24, 1810 in Lexington, Massachusetts.  His large family had deep roots in New England.  His grandfather was the Captain Parker who had commanded the militia on Lexington Green in the opening skirmish of the American Revolution.
He was scholarly and devout, but lost both parents and his seven of his nine siblings by the time he was 27, mostly to that scourge of the era—consumption (tuberculosis.)  The losses confirmed his rejection of Calvinist orthodoxy.
As a youth he was unable to afford tuition at Harvard, so he read the entire curriculum on his own.  He dabbled as a school master and toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer before he settled on becoming a minister.  After mastering Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, theology, church history, and biblical studies on his own, Harvard Divinity School admitted him even without an undergraduate degree in 1834.

After graduating, Parker married and was ordained by the small West Roxbury congregation.  The light duty of a small congregation allowed Parker time to study more on his own.  With his introduction to German historical Biblical criticism, his views began to evolve away from the generally accepted Unitarian theology.
First, he began to question the historical validity of miracles in the Old Testament.  That lead to questions about Christ’s miracles and to a new view that Jesus was simply more divinely inspired than most men—although divine inspiration was open to all—and that his teachings were great not because they came from God, but because their authority was based on truth.  By the end of the decade his written speculations along these lines were beginning to cause ripples.
Parker naturally fell in with the emerging Transcendentalists.  He attended early meetings of the Club and was soon contributing to their seminal journal The Dial. Like others in the group he was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  After the scandal of Emerson’s Divinity School Address, which he heard in person, he rose to his friend’s defense after Unitarian traditionalist Andrews Norton launched his furious assault on Emerson’s “infidelity.”  He soon published his own defense of Transcendental liberalism in the guise of commentary by a “member in the pews.”  The pamphlet, The Previous Question, cemented Parker’s reputation as a leading voice of a new movement.
In May of 1841 Parker summed up his evolving views in an ordination sermon delivered in South Boston.  A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity is now considered a foundational document of the evolving Unitarian faith.  But at the time it caused a scandal.
Most Boston area preachers believed Parker had abandoned Christianity altogether. He became the target an informal boycott of pulpit exchanges. While his Roxbury parish loyal stood by him, Parker went on the offensive with well attended lectures in Boson, which he collected and published as A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion in the spring of 1842.
The informal boycott of pulpit exchanges led to an 1843 attempt to force Parker to resign from the Boston Association of Congregational Ministers, whose members were all Unitarians.   He steadfastly refused to do so and accused his colleagues of trying to impose a creed.
Later in 1843 Parker and his wife briefly escaped the growing controversy by making a European tour, during which time he began to mull social inequality and the nature of Democracy.  When he returned he began to infuse his sermons with topics of social reform as well as theological radicalism.  Whether the topic was temperance, the rights of workers, or the evils of slavery this new “rabble rousing” only increased hostility against him by his peers.
In 1844 John Sargeant, employed by the Beneficial Fraternity to preach at a missionary chapel for immigrants, exchanged pulpits with Parker and was reprimanded by the Ben Frat board.  He resigned in protest.  Less than a month later, in December, it was Parkers turn by rotation among all of the members to preach the weekly Thursday Lecture sponsored by the Ministerial association at First Church.  Parker delivered a blunt rebuke of Unitarian orthodoxy, The Relation of Jesus to His Age and the Ages.  The association transferred management of the lecture series to First Church so that Parker would never again be called to speak by rotation.
In January of 1845 James Freeman Clarke, one of the most esteemed Boston ministers and a theological opponent of Parker, decided that his fellows had gone too far in trying to impose conformity and invited Parker to exchange.  Fourteen of the leading families of his Church of the Redeemer resigned in protest, putting Clarke’s ministry in peril.  It would be the last time any Boston minister extended an invitation to exchange.
But Parker’s radicalism did have supporters in the pews in Boston.  They rented Melodeon Theater to house weekly worship service in 1845.  The rest of the year he preached in the Theater on Sunday morning and in Roxbury that afternoon.  By December the group decided to form an independent congregation and call Parker.
If the local Unitarian worthies thought that Parker was trouble before, his prominent new pulpit only provided him with opportunities to go even further, particularly on social justice issues.  Parker espoused a new American industrial democracy which he proclaimed was “of all the people, by all the people, for all the people”—a phrase latter borrowed by Abraham Lincoln who had read several collections of Parker’s sermons.  To this end he advocated numerous social reforms including free public education, penal reform, and support for the emerging Women’s Rights movement.  But his greatest attention was turned to the mortal flaw that kept industrial democracy form truly flourishing—slavery.
He had already denounced the Mexican War as an attempt to expand slavery and led Boston opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  He was a minister at large to the Black community for the Abolitionists and as chair of their Vigilance Committee abetted the escape of fugitives.  He personally harbored at least two in his own home.  In 1845 he was indicted by a Federal Grand Jury for conspiracy to violate the Fugitive Slave Act.  Although his popular support in Boston led to the eventual dismissal of the charges, he was branded an enemy of the South and worked with a pistol on his desk to defend himself from constant threats on his life.

He was now in league with the fieriest of abolitionists including William Lloyd Garrison.  With the outbreak of guerilla warfare between pro-slavery and Free Soil partisans in Kansas, Parker raised money to buy weapons for the Free State militias, including a arming a firebrand named John Brown.  When Brown came to Boston to plead for support for a plan to foment a slave rebellion he was one of the secret committee that helped finance and arm Brown’s failed Happer’s Ferry Raid in October 1859.  After Brown’s arrest, Parker was one of the few to publicly support him, penning John Brown’s Expedition Reviewed, a public letter defending Brown’s actions and the right of slaves to kill their masters.
By that time Parker was exhausted.  His always fragile health had begun to deteriorate two years earlier.  The strain of his tireless abolitionist efforts and a packed schedule of preaching and lecturing had taken a toll.  The tuberculosis that had killed so many in his family was wracking his body.  He had to give up preaching in January 1859.  He and his wife sought relief with a cruise to the Caribbean during which time he wrote a long autobiographical letter and final confession of faith to his former congregation which was published as Theodore Parker's Experience as a Minister.

A rare, late picture of a bearded Parker illustrates a profile in a popular magazine shortly before illness forced his retirement.

The old establishment was not prepared to forgive or forget.  Knowing Parker was critically ill and likely dying, the 1859 annual meeting of the Harvard Divinity School Alumni Association rejected a motion to extend personal sympathy for his suffering. 
Parker and his wife continued on their journey to Europe.  On May 10, 1860 Parker died in Florence, Italy.  He was buried in the Strangers Cemetery, the final resting place of stranded, excelled, or expatriate Protestants.  The Boston Ministerial Association declined to send condolences to the widow.
As much as Parker was despised by the old guard, he was already lionized by a whole younger generation of ministers who would go on to lead Unitarianism in the later 19th Century.  His theology broadly trumped a more conventional Christianity and he was held to be the model of prophetic ministry.
In the modern Unitarian Universalist Association, with its heavy emphasis on social justice, he has become an even more canonical figure. 
Lately, as a minority movement has emerged that wishes to tone down “political” action and emphasizes congregational autonomy and “enriched spiritual content,” Parker has begun to be criticized for his disruptive, un-collegial behavior, his willingness to defy the law and endorse violence, and surprisingly for one of Unitarianism’s deepest theological pioneers, for a lack of spirituality. 
One suspects that these biting gnats will do no serious damage to the reputation of the man who inspired Martin Luther King with his words, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

1 comment:

  1. If more people knew just how John Brown went about killing his victims, they might question whether Parker and Emerson and Thoreau should have defended Brown. When we read about Brown's tactics today, it reminds us more of the brutality in the middle east.