Theodore Parker: Unitarian Heretic

Dave Dunn, Intern Minister
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
June 21, 2015

These two quotations…

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”…and

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

…are among the most famous quotations uttered by King and Lincoln respectively – with Lincoln’s quotation taking on almost Biblical significance.

These two quotations are two of five quotations, selected by President Barack Obama, that are stitched into the White House’s Oval Office rug. Also stitched into this rug are the names attributed to these quotations – Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Yet the first quotation is not King’s and the second quotation is not Lincoln’s.

These two quotations belong to the nineteenth century radical, abolitionist Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.

In his writings of justice associated with the abolitionist cause Theodore Parker states that “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.”

In his writings of 1850, Parker refers to democracy in America as “A democracy — of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.”

Theodore Parker – a giant of American Unitarianism, an intellectual genius, a progressive reformer – and an outcast among his own denomination.

Firebrand, radical, reformer, scholar, intellectual, fighter, heretic, Christian – Theodore Parker was all of that and more. Said to have read over 13,000 books and to have delivered thousands of sermons, in an age when Sunday sermons often lasted hours, Theodore Parker lived on the page and in the pulpit.

Despite influencing prominent leaders and thinkers of the day including abolitionist William Lloyd Garrision, Julia Ward Howe, Louisa May Alcott and even Abraham Lincoln, his heretical beliefs, and his fearlessness at expressing them, left him effectively excommunicated from the religious tradition that he loved so dearly.

His dedication, passion and fire brought him many admirers who steadfastly defended him long after his death in Florence, Italy in 1860. When Frederick Douglass later visited Florence, he stepped from his railroad car at the train station and walked directly to the gravesite of Theodore Parker. Douglass’ first act was to pay tribute to the man, the minister, who battled fearlessly on behalf of those held in the chains of slavery.

Building upon the transcendentalist ideas of former Unitarian minister turned lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, Parker unfettered his, and ultimately the Unitarian faith from the chains of biblical authority. Opening the door for humanism and other non-biblical traditions, Parker helped lay the foundation for the truly free faith that we have inherited. He did this, all the while, maintaining that he was a Christian who loved his God above all else.

In August 1810, in Lexington Mass., Theodore Parker came into this world; the youngest of eleven children in farming family. His grandfather, Captain John Parker, was the leader of the Lexington Militia when the American Revolution’s first shots were fired. Despite having this famous grandfather, the family struggled and Theodore couldn’t afford the tuition for college. Despite having numerous siblings, most of them, and both of his parents were dead by the time Theodore turned 27.

Parker never graduated from college. Although he couldn’t afford the tuition, he read the entire curricula on his own. He also taught himself to read – in twenty languages. Despite not having a college diploma, Parker applied and was accepted to Harvard Divinity School with advanced standing.

After divinity school, Parker reluctantly accepted the call to ministry in the relative backwater town of West Roxbury just outside of Boston. It was a place once known as “Skunk’s Misery” and while in seminary, one of his classmates had teased him that that’s where he’d have to settle. The West Roxbury church had only 60 adult members and early on Parker remarked that, “It would be equally inspiring to preach to a congregation of that size and to a collection of Cabbages. The latter certainly would never disturb you by a yawn.” (American Heretic p 79)

Needless to say, Parker settled at the West Roxbury congregation in 1837. Despite its size and rural nature, Parker came to love his congregation and his congregants who stood by him when things got rough. And things did get rough.

At the time Parker was called to the West Roxbury church, Unitarianism was a creedless faith tradition that generally rested on what was called “supernatural rationalism.” The rationalism portion involved the use of reason and intellect in matters of religious belief. The supernatural portion involved the divine inspiration and revelation through the miracles found in the Bible, especially in the New Testament. Those who did not believe in this supernatural component were derogatorily called “deists” or “infidels.”

On July 15, 1838, while still in seminary, Parker heard Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister, deliver his Harvard “Divinity School Address” to the graduating class. There were perhaps only 20 or 30 people in attendance that afternoon. Parker thought the address, “the noblest and most inspiring strain I ever listened to.”

After the address, and to the surprise of Emerson himself, many of the faculty, media and invited guests were upset with his performance. His critics maintained that Emerson had reduced God from a supreme Being to merely a set of “divine laws.” Emerson effectively stated that if we can realize and live these divine laws, as Jesus did to perfection, we too could essentially become divine. Heresy! Also his ideas about finding the divine in nature led many to label him a pantheist or even a pagan.

Emerson, seeking to more fully develop transcendentalist ideas, was just about to leave the Unitarian ministry at this point to embark upon what would become a successful lecturing career. While many within Unitarianism continued to argue Emerson’s ideas, Emerson himself moved on to his own new career and left the theological debate for others.

David Parke, in his compilation book “The Epic of Unitarianism” writes that, “in an hour and a half Emerson had in effect demolished what had taken eighteen centuries to build and maintain – the authority of Christian faith based on the miracles of Jesus.”

I might argue this slightly. William Ellery Channing, the most respected minister in Boston and regarded as the father of American Unitarianism hinted at many of the same Transcendentalist ideas in an earlier sermon entitled, “Likeness to God.”

Rather than demolish Unitarian Christianity, Emerson merely pushed it to the edge of the cliff and walked away. Later, Theodore Parker came along and kicked it over that edge all the while maintaining his Christianity and his Unitarian ministry. Unlike Emerson though, as a Unitarian minister, Parker had to face the consequences and reprisals of his colleagues.

During the early years at West Roxbury, Parker frequently exchanged ideas with Emerson and other Transcendentalists. Parker dug into biblical criticism from a variety of sources. Parker, like Emerson, essentially came to believe that obeying divine laws, or divine living would further our “Likeness to God” in a sense and Jesus simply did this better than anyone else in history.

On May 19, 1841, Parker delivered the ordination sermon of Charles Shackford at Hawes Place Church in South Boston. His sermon was entitled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.”

To illustrate the permanence of Christianity, he reflected on religion taught by Jesus; the ministry of Jesus. He then sought to illustrate the transient aspects of Christianity as to how doctrines and beliefs can change over time. Parker saw things differently. So much differently that, many in the audience became upset with the examples he chose to illustrate this transience. Parker called into question the supposed miraculous nature of Jesus. He placed Jesus’ miracles in the transient category. By doing so, Parker was questioning Jesus’ authority: Author and religious historian Conrad Wright summarizes Parkers’ argument: “Why should moral and religious truths depend on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than scientific truths depend on the personal authority of the investigator who discovers them?” (Three Prophets, p38) (Gravity exists with or without Newton.) Parker then went further by maintaining that even if Jesus had not existed, the story, example and meaning of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels was all that was necessary for Christianity to exist. Divine living realized. Heresy!

In Conrad Wright’s introduction to “Channing, Emerson & Parker: The Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism” he states that. It was said that “one person rose during the sermon and walked out; but whether this was on account of “a badly ventilated building, or a heresy ventilated but too well,” one did not know. (p39)

“I can’t bear ‘ye,” was a response that Parker frequently received after his sermons.

Many Unitarian ministers quietly agreed with Parker but after his “Transience & Permanence” sermon, where several non-Unitarian clergy were in attendance, it became difficult to associate with him. Clergy from other denominations questioned his credentials as a Christian and as a minister and they challenged the Unitarians to take a stand – to make a choice: stand with Parker and his heresy of Christianity or excommunicate him and retain fellowship as Christian ministers.

In an effort to lighten the load of writing sermons that sometimes lasted hours, ministers would frequently exchange pulpits with their colleagues enabling them to re-use sermons. After Parker’s “Transience” sermon however, very few colleagues would exchange with him and those who did were often faced with congregants who threatened to leave their church. Parker’s submissions to Unitarian pamphlets and newspapers were rejected outright. Dear friends abandoned him. His own in-laws scolded him.

“Fellowshipped” Unitarian ministers, as the Boston Association of Ministers, would frequently hold official formal meetings. On the afternoon of January 23, 1843, the principal agenda item was to discuss with Parker his ideas and his future with the Association. If front of twenty of his colleagues and without support, he was faced with a barrage of questions and was called to explain himself. Dean Grodzins, Parkers biographer, describes the de-facto heresy trial

[Parker] has “dipped his pen in Gall when he wrote, & his razor in oil” (Robert Waterson)

“The difference between Trinitarians and Unitarians is a difference in Christianity. The difference between Mr. Parker and the Association is a difference between no Christianity and Christianity.” (Nathaniel Frothingham

Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannet says that if Mr. Parker “can’t disown what he has said,” and as he is “no doubt” conscientious “we can’t ask him to do so” – “I will say that I freely & from my heart forgive him, as I hope God All-mighty will forgive me – but I can never grasp him by the hand again cordially.” After this declaration, everyone in the room stops addressing Parker as “Brother.” (American Heretic, p366)

“I think It is his duty to withdraw from the Association.” (Chandler Robbins)

Parker refuses. Tries to explain himself and eventually bursts into tears and the meeting is adjourned.

Parker did dream of eventually becoming an elite minister within the Unitarian community – someone along the lines of William Ellery Channing. He now realized that this would never come to pass; that this door was now closed to him.

Being treated as an outcast wasn’t simply limited to Parker himself. Others treated his West Roxbury church with similar measure. West Roxbury stood by him however.

At the time of this heresy trial, Parker had become more famous than any of his colleagues. Parker had many prominent supporters who would routinely travel out to West Roxbury to hear him preach. Often the little church strained to hold its inhabitants. It was often standing room only.

In 1845, several of these supporters banded together and offered Parker the opportunity to preach in Boston early on Sunday mornings. This would allow him to preach Sunday afternoons in West Roxbury. Parker agreed and Boston crowds overflowed the Melodeon Theater to the point that the services had to be moved to the Boston Music Hall. Crowds in excess of 2000 would routinely show up. Eventually, the strain of supporting both sites was too much for Parker. He asked for and was granted permission to resign West Roxbury and form the 28th Congregational Society of Boston.

Preaching in Boston allowed him to expand his viewpoints and reach a wider audience. Parker also began to preach throughout the northern states. He began to explore ideas about America and democracy. He began to advocate social causes; for better schools, for the elimination of poverty, women’s suffrage and most passionately, for the abolition of slavery.

He sheltered fugitive slaves until they could secure safe passage to Canada. Dean Grodzins’ writes on the UUA website:

…his agitation on behalf of …[a fugive slave] led to [his] indictment by a federal grand jury. He was charged with obstructing a federal marshal. Popular opinion was so much on his side, however, that prosecuting him became a political impossibility. In 1855, the case was dismissed on a technicality…[Later] he raised money to buy weapons for the free state militias, and later became a member of the secret committee that helped finance and arm John Brown’s failed attempt, in October 1859, to start a slave insurrection in Virginia. When Brown was arrested, Parker wrote a public letter defending Brown’s actions and the right of slaves to kill their masters.”

Under the strain of too much writing and preaching. Parker became exceedingly ill, beginning in 1857. In 1859, he left for the Caribbean hoping to regain his health. In 1860, still suffering from what was probably tuberculosis, he traveled to Florence, Italy dying not long after he arrived May 10, 1860.

To the end, he remained an outcast to the powers that be within Unitarianism. To the young, up and coming seminarians and ministers of the next generation however, Parker was considered to be a prophetic minister of vision and action. His ministry became the blueprint for a ministry characterized by a free pulpit, a free faith and social justice through direct action. This blueprint for ministry is still very much alive today within Unitarian Universalism.

Today, many within Unitarian Universalism know little about Theodore Parker and few today outside of Unitarian Universalism know anything about him. It is sad that he has been forgotten so. But upon his shoulders, many great people have stood – many great people who have thus been permitted to see a vision for a freer, more inclusive Unitarian Universalism and for a freer, more inclusive America and hopefully, for a freer, more inclusive world.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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