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Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker (1810-1860), American clergyman and militant, was a leading advocate of transcendentalism and a vocal abolitionist.

Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Mass., on Aug. 24, 1810. His schooling was scanty, but he eagerly educated himself. By the time he was 17 he knew enough to teach school, and for the next 4 years he worked in local elementary schools. In 1830 he passed the entrance examinations for Harvard, but he did not have enough money to enroll as a resident student and so he continued with his teaching. In 1832 he opened his own school in Watertown, Mass. He also studied for the course examinations which Harvard allowed him to take.

Having accumulated a modest amount of money, Parker enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School in 1834. Although he later called it an "embalming" institution, he reveled in his studies. He learned no less than 20 languages there. The faculty was already discarding some of the doctrines hallowed in New England theology, but Parker found himself discarding still more. By graduation day he even had some doubts about the miracles described in the Bible and the virgin birth of Christ.

Though several congregations were attracted to this strenuous scholar, he accepted a call in 1837 to an unpretentious parish in a suburb of Boston, West Roxbury. He promptly married Lydia Cabot, and 3 months later was ordained a Unitarian minister. He soon plunged into the religious controversies boiling up in the Boston area. He was increasingly sympathetic to the leaders of the transcendental movement, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson had come to believe in a personal religion that dispensed with creeds, rituals, and church polity and substituted the relation of the individual soul to the oversoul. Parker issued a pamphlet supporting him.

Parker's most striking formulation came in a sermon he delivered in 1841, "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity." His theme was Emersonian: the permanent is the direct worship of God by the individual; the transient is the ritualistic and the priestly. His position aroused the antagonism of his fellow ministers, and they closed their pulpits to him. In 1843 the Boston Association of Ministers asked him to resign; he declined and went to Europe for a year. While traveling he met a number of theological liberals, especially in Germany, whose thought was often as advanced as his and far beyond that of his Boston colleagues.

On Parker's return he discovered that no congregation in the Boston area was willing to hear him. However, he had ardent supporters, and they formed their own congregation. It became the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston.

Parker put the welfare of his new congregation first, but he also worked hard for social and political causes. In lectures and sermons, in word and deed, he fought for the amelioration of poverty, improvement of public education, prison reform, and temperance. The deepening struggle over slavery aroused his greatest efforts as well as the fiercest public opposition to them. His A Letter to the People of the United States Touching the Matter of Slavery appeared in 1848. He took an active part in attempts to rescue fugitive slaves from the Massachusetts authorities. He aided John Brown of Kansas and encouraged the antislavery efforts of such political leaders as Senator Charles Sumner.

After a strenuous lecture tour in 1857, Parker took sick. In the next 2 years his condition grew worse, and in desperation he decided to travel. He died in Florence, Italy, on May 10, 1860.

Further Reading

The best biography of Parker is Henry Steele Commager, Theodore Parker (1936; with a new introduction, 1960). Parker is discussed in William R. Hutchison, The Transcendentalist Ministers: Church Reform in the New England Renaissance (1959), and Lawrence Lader, The Bold Brahmins: New England's War against Slavery, 1831-1863 (1961). □

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Parker, Theodore

Theodore Parker, 1810–60, American theologian and social reformer, b. Lexington, Mass. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1836 and was pastor (1837–46) of the Spring Street Unitarian Church, West Roxbury, Mass. The liberalism that he presented in Boston in 1841 and amplified in his scholarly Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (1842) was then so radical that the Boston Unitarian clergy withdrew from him, although he remained a member of their association. He was one of the transcendentalists, contributed to the Dial, and edited (1847–50) the Massachusetts Quarterly Review. In 1845 he became preacher of the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston. His congregation grew to 7,000. In addition he lectured at lyceums throughout the country and was a leader in antislavery and other reform activities. In 1859 ill health forced him to retire, and he died in Florence. After his death Parker's works were widely read, and his once radical views gained acceptance. The best edition of his works is the Centenary (15 vol., 1907–13).

See J. Weiss, The Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker (1864, repr. 1969); biographies by O. B. Frothingham (1874) and H. S. Commager (1936, repr. 1960); J. W. Chadwick, Theodore Parker, Preacher and Reformer (1900, repr. 1971); J. E. Dirks, The Critical Theology of Theodore Parker (1948, repr. 1970).

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