Theodore Parker (August 24, 1810 - May 10, 1860) was a reforming
American minister of the Unitarian church, and a Transcendentalist.
He was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, the youngest child in
a large farming family, and died in Florence, Italy. He has been
described as a "Transcendentalist, theologian, scholar, Unitarian
minister, abolitionist, and social reformer...all of these things
and more. A friend of Emerson, a foe of slavery..."
Most of his family had died by the time he was 27, probably to
tuberculosis, and he grew into faith that the soul was immortal,
and in a God who would not allow lasting harm to any of his flock.
His belief in God's benevolence made him reject Calvinist theology
as cruel and unreasonable.
thought of a legal career, but his strong faith led him to theology.
He certainly spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German, and claimed
to learn a new language every month. His journal and letters show
that he had acquaintance with many other languages, including
Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, as well as the classical
and the principal modern European languages.
1834, despite no college degree, Harvard Divinity School gave
him advanced standing. A patron helped with tuition.
While he started with a strong faith, with time he began to ask
questions. He learned of the new field of historical Bible criticism,
then growing in Germany, and he came to deny traditional views.
Ultimately, he rejected all miracles, and saw the Bible as full
of contradictions and mistakes. He retained his faith in God.
to the Unitarians
Parker's ideas were consonant with those of the Transcendentalist
movement, which emerged among younger Unitarians in the mid-1830s.
Parker attended meetings of the so-called "Transcendentalist
Club" and contributed many articles and reviews to the most
important Transcendentalist periodical, The Dial (1840-1844).
In 1838, he enthusiastically listened to the Transcendentalist
Ralph Waldo Emerson deliver the Divinity School Address. Its prophetic
tone inspired Parker to begin preaching on church and social reform.
and his split with the church
As he denied Biblical miracles, and the authority of the Bible
and Jesus, he was attacked. Some felt he was not a Christian.
He lost friends. Nearly all the pulpits in Boston area were closed
against him. His career looked to be over.
January 1845, Parker accepted an invitation from supporters to
preach in Boston. His first sermon was that February, and in December
1845, his supporters organized the 28th Congregational Society
of Boston. His parishoners included Louisa May Alcott, William
Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. His
congregation later grew to 7000.
church and social mission
His church was called a "free church," and he lost more
Unitarian support. His religious views were radical enough, but
socially he moved even more left.
came to support not only temperance, but prison reform. His most
controversial stance was to become an abolitionist at a time when
the American union was beginning to split over slavery. He wrote
the scathing To a Southern Slaveholder in 1848, as the abolition
crisis was heating up.
defied slavery, advocated violating the Fugitive Slave Act (a
controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 which required returning
escaped slaves to their masters), and began working with fugitive
slaves. He believed all had the God-given right to freedom, and
while indicted, he was never convicted of violating the Fugitive
is well known that he had fugitive slaves in his congregation,
and would hide them in his home. It is often told that he would
be home, composing his church services, and have a gun sitting
on the table and a sword by the table. When he preached, he would
lay a gun on the pulpit – just in case any slave-catchers
dropped by. There seems no record of his using it.
1850, there was a wanted fugitive slave in his congregation, one
Ellen Craft. He hid her in his house, until sending her to Canada
and freedom, in direct contravention of United States law. During
the undeclared war in Kansas (see Bleeding Kansas and Origins
of the American Civil War) prior to the actual outbreak of the
American Civil War, he supplied money for arms for free state
militias. He worked with many escaped slaves.
a member of the Secret Six, he supported the abolitionist John
Brown, whom many considered a terrorist, and whose provocations
worsened the growing conflict and helped make the Civil War inevitable.
He wrote a public letter defending John Brown's actions after
his arrest, defending the right of slaves to kill their masters
(John Brown's Expedition Reviewed).
In 1859 his bad health forced his retirement.
developed tuberculosis, and left for the warm climate of Italy,
where he died in Florence on May 10, 1860, less than a year before
the Union split. His grave is in the English Cemetery, Florence,
the new tombstone replacing the original sculpted by Joel T. Hart.
He was the first to use the phrase, "of all the people, by
all the people, for all the people," which later influenced
the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln. He also predicted the
success of the abolitionist cause, in words made famous a century
later by Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of the universe
is long but it bends towards justice."
the end, the Boston Unitarian leadership opposed him, but younger
ministers admired him for his attacks on traditional ideas, his
fight for a free faith and pupit, and his very public stances
in social issues such as slavery. The Unitarian Universalists
now refer to him as a canonical figure—the model of a prophetic
minister in the American Unitarian tradition. While some thought
his ministry a "one man show," it continued after his
death, until 1889.
obtain a knowledge of duty, a man is not sent away, outside of
himself, to ancient documents; for the only rule of faith a practice,
the Word, is very nigh him, even in his heart, and by this word
he is to try all documents."
is no intercessor, angel, mediator, between man and God; for man
can speak and God hear, each for himself. He requires no advocates
to plead for men."
natural religion -- it is not joining the Church; it is not to
believe in a creed, Hebrew, Protestant, Catholic, Trinitarian,
Unitarian, Nothingarian. It is not to keep Sunday idle; to attend
meetings; to be wet with water; to read the Bible; to offer prayers
in words; to take bread and wine in the meeting house; love a
scape-goat Jesus, or any other theological clap-trap."