Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Theodore Parker Was a Unitarian Prophet Without Honor in His Own Land

                             Rev. Theodore Parker in 1855.

Theodore 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 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 dallied 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.

                                    Young Parker while he still had hair.

First, he began to question the historical validity of miracles in the Old Testament.  That lead to questions about Christs miracles and 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 was drawn into the controversy that arose 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 Parkers reputation as a leading voice of a new movement.

                            Parker was drawn into the orbit of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists.

On May 19, 1841 Parker summed up his evolving views in an ordination sermon for Charles C. Shackford at the Hawes Place Church in South Boston, much as a generation earlier William Ellery Channing had launched Unitarianism as a distinct religious movement in the United States at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore. 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 loyally 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. Soon 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 The 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 the Melodeon Theater to house weekly worship services 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.

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 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 was largely Unitarians, the new congregation was not considered a Unitarian Church, but a Free Church open to all and unbound by any dogma.   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 journal, the Massachusetts Quarterly Review.  His sermons were collected and published in popular collections 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 on the lecture stump in New York City.  He was one of the most in demand speakers in the U.S.

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 arranged for support and abetted the escape of fugitives.  He personally harbored at least two in his own home.  In 1855 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.

Parker was one of the secret 16 abolitionists who funded John Brown in Kansas and one of the very few to publicly defend him after the Harper's Ferry Raid.

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, exiled, 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.

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

In the modern Unitarian Universalist Association, with its heavy emphasis on social justice, he has become an even more canonical figure. 

Earlier in the 21st Century, a minority movement emerged that wished to tone down political action and emphasize congregational autonomy and enriched spiritual content, criticized Parker 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

                            Parker's grave in the Stranger's Cemetery in Florence, Italy.

Those biting gnats will did 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.”


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