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Infidels, Freethinkers, Humanists, and Unbelievers
Parker, Theodore (1810-1860)
"Manly 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."

-- Theodore Parker


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..."

Early life
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.

He 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.

In 1834, despite no college degree, Harvard Divinity School gave him advanced standing. A patron helped with tuition.

Theological questions
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.

According 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.

Controversy 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.

In 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.

His 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.

He 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.

He 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 Slave Act.

It 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.

In 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.

As 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).

His last days
In 1859 his bad health forced his retirement.

He 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.

Final words
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."

To 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.

Quotations

"To 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."

"There 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."

"Manly 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."

 
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