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
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
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
First, he began to question the
historical validity of miracles in the Old Testament.
That lead to questions about Christ’s
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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.
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.
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