Parker, Theodore (1810–1860)

views updated


Theodore Parker, an American theologian and social reformer, was the grandson of Captain John Parker, who led the Lexington minutemen. Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, and, except for scattered months of formal schooling during the winter, was almost entirely self-taught. Although unable to afford tuition, he was allowed to take the Harvard examinations, and in 1834 he was admitted to the Harvard Divinity School. He was ordained minister of a small parish in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1837. In 1845, after he had become a controversial figure and commanded a large audience, his supporters created the 28th Congregational Society in Boston and later rented the Boston Music Hall, where Parker preached to one of the largest congregations in the country. He became equally famous as a scholar, preacher, theologian, and reformer. Parker died in Florence, Italy.

In his religious thought Parker's radicalism was partly instinctive and partly the result of environmental influences. In an autobiographical essay completed just before his death, Parker remembered how he had been taught as a boy to respect the voice of conscience as the "voice of God in the soul of man" and encouraged to develop a spirit of free inquiry "in all directions." His religious upbringing was extremely liberal, and when he entered upon his formal theological studies, he had not only rejected the doctrine of the Trinity but was already suspicious of the validity of miracles and the "infallible, verbal inspiration of the whole Bible." Profiting by the encouragement of the liberal Unitarian professors at Harvard, he began an intensive study of the Bible that ultimately led him to a knowledge of twenty languages and did much to confirm his earlier suspicions regarding biblical authority.

As a young minister Parker was a great admirer of William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He responded to Emerson's Divinity School Address with enthusiasm and was an anonymous contributor to the polemical pamphlet war that followed.

Parker's own religious philosophy was strongly influenced by Immanuel Kant and by the critical studies of such biblical scholars as Wilhelm Martin DeWette and theologians such as David Friedrich Strauss and Ferdinand Christian Baur. Academic study and his own religious experience convinced him that the foundation of religion was based on "great primal intuitions of nature that depend on no logical process of demonstration." The three most important were the intuition of God, the intuition of morality, and the intuition of immortality. Basing his theology on these facts of consciousness, Parker emphasized the infinite perfection of God and the perfectibility of man.

His ideas first received wide publicity in 1841, when he delivered an ordination sermon titled "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity." In this sermon Parker contrasted the transiency of theology and Scripture with the permanence of the great moral truths of Christianity, truths that depended for their validity not on the authority of Christ but on the voice of God in the human heart. Parker spoke as a Unitarian minister, but the reception he received from organized Unitarianism was as wrathful as Channing's reception had been at the hands of the Calvinists twenty years earlier. As his more conservative followers faded away, Parker developed his radical ideas at greater length in a series of lectures he published in 1842 as A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion. The following year he published his own edition and translation of DeWette's critical study of the Old Testament, Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament.

Emerson referred to Parker as "our Savonarola," and Parker's essay on transcendentalism is one of the clearest expressions that we have of the American rejection of the empirical philosophy of the Enlightenment. Modern scholarship has established, however, that Parker's transcendentalism was not identical with Emerson's, for Parker relied less completely on intuition and more on the critical study of history and theology.

Parker's extraordinary capacity for sustained scholarly endeavor was almost matched by his capacity for action. The "Absolute Religion" he advocated required the application of religious truth to social problems, and Parker often preached on such subjects as crime, poverty, temperance, and prostitution. Long before the proponents of the social gospel, Parker recognized the power of organized evil in the world and sought to marshal religious sentiment against it. He was inevitably drawn into abolitionism. A friend of Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison, he helped to lead the resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law in Boston and was a supporter of John Brown before Harper's Ferry.

Parker traveled widely on lecture tours, making about one hundred appearances a year during the last decade of his life. His influence on the public mind was at its peak just before his death.

See also Channing, William Ellery; Consciousness; Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Enlightenment; Intuition; Kant, Immanuel; Neo-Kantianism; New England Transcendentalism; Religion and Morality; Strauss, David Friedrich.


Parker's work is collected in Theodore Parker's Works, edited by Frances P. Cobbe, 14 vols. (London, 18631870). A centenary edition was published by the American Unitarian Association, 15 vols. (Boston, 19071911). Henry Steele Commager has edited Theodore Parker: An Anthology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1960).

Biographical studies include Henry Steele Commager, Theodore Parker, Yankee Crusader (Boston: Little Brown, 1936), John Dirk, The Critical Theology of Theodore Parker (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948), and John Weiss, Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker, 2 vols. (New York: Appleton, 1864).

Irving H. Bartlett (1967)

About this article

Parker, Theodore (1810–1860)

Updated About content Print Article