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Theodore Parker, heretical prophet

Theodore Parker did more to establish our justice-seeking heritage than anyone else, but he did so out of his own struggle to understand God.
By Rosemary Bray McNatt
May/June 2003 5.1.03

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We all think we know Theodore Parker, the fearless Boston preacher who wrote sermons with a pistol on his desk to protect runaway slaves; the theological radical who discarded every "transient" doctrine and embraced only the "permanent"; the bold thinker who was branded a heretic by the more conservative Unitarians of his day. These fragmentary facts have long combined to make Parker an iconic hero of our faith. But an icon is easier to revere than to understand.

Dean Grodzins brilliantly brings Parker to life in his book, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. Grodzins, an assistant professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and president of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, is not himself a Unitarian Universalist, but he is a faithful and even admiring interpreter of the preacher who influenced Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. “Parker has been neglected lately, I suspect, because he held a view of the world that many today find alien,” he writes. “He was passionately religious, believed deeply in the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, without being theologically conservative.” Anything but! Parker’s commitment to social justice and political reform—the legacy for which most Unitarian Universalists remember him—was rooted deeply in his liberal Christian faith.

Grodzins’s rich and textured portrait is buttressed by meticulous scholarship: He has left no available book or journal unopened. He has even deciphered journal entries Parker wrote in code. In bringing Parker to life, he also brings into sharp focus many of the men and women who shaped nineteenth-century liberal religion. The result is great fun: an elegant, deeply scholarly work that by turns reads like a coming-of-age novel, a conversion narrative, a tragic historical romance, and an intellectual odyssey.

Born in 1810, Parker entered the Unitarian ministry in 1837, serving the small congregation in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, until a much larger independent congregation was established for him in Boston in 1845. (He died of tuberculosis in 1860.) Grodzins’s book focuses on the period up to 1845—before his most famous political activism—and so concentrates on Parker the theologian, revealing to us his intellectual and spiritual evolution.

Theodore Parker did not live an easy life. Grodzins portrays a rough-hewn, working-class boy, the youngest of eleven children, with significant ambitions, an insatiable hunger for knowledge, and an early call to the ministry. A student of metaphysics by age 11, a schoolteacher by age 17, Parker was admitted to Harvard in 1830. He could not afford the tuition, but completed the college curriculum largely on his own while teaching school. (He even opened his own school in 1832.) By 1834, with the encouragement of his mentor, the Unitarian minister Convers Francis, Parker enrolled at the Harvard Divinity School.

Parker’s family was decimated by tuberculosis. By the time he entered the ministry, seven of his siblings and both of his parents had died from it—but the death of his mother, when he was eleven, left the deepest mark. This series of losses, and his struggle to bear them, played an important role in the formation of Parker’s theology. Grodzins writes: “Parker’s early life did shape his religion, but not in the way he so often claimed. His religion was not a simple, natural affirmation of his happy religious experience; it was more a way of surviving tragic experience. . . . It is not happiness, he says, but a sense that we ‘are not sufficient for ourselves’” that drives human beings to worship.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that Parker’s theology was simply a gloss to cover his personal insecurities. Grodzins reveals the extraordinary depth of study undertaken by Parker, who resolved to “to become acquainted with the literature of every known language.” He managed reading skills in some twenty languages by the time he was 27. Reading German philosophers and theologians laid the groundwork for his growing skepticism of the Bible’s supernatural claims. Galvanized by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School Address, Parker was active in the Transcendentalist furor of the 1830s and 1840s, when Unitarians were divided on theological questions like, Was Jesus truly a worker of miracles? Was the Bible the supernaturally inspired word of God? Was God a loving father (as Parker insisted), or a set of impersonal laws to be found everywhere (as Emerson announced)? The issues may seem quaint to us now, yet the energy surrounding these questions formed and shattered friendships and disrupted collegial relations among Unitarian ministers.

By 1841, Parker openly disputed the miracles described in the New Testament, which seemed to many of his colleagues to call Jesus’ authority into question. In A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity, “the sermon that would make him famous as a heretic prophet,” Parker identified not the doctrines of traditional Christianity, but the pure religion of Jesus as permanent: “absolute, pure morality; absolute, pure religion; the love of man; the love of God acting without let or hindrance. The only creed it lays down. . . . there is one God.” Parker’s sermon was vilified by Trinitarians, who questioned his fitness as a Christian minister and demanded to know whether other Unitarians agreed with his radical claims. It didn’t help that Parker compared the stories of Jesus with stories of Hercules, Jupiter, and Neptune, causing his critics to regale the public with stories of the sex lives of the Greek gods, which further outraged everyone. It wasn’t long before his brother Unitarian ministers began to refuse to exchange pulpits with him, and even some of his Transcendentalist colleagues and friends thought he had gone too far.

Yet Parker’s sermons and lectures made a “prodigious impression” on many people. Though some were shocked at his “wholly naturalistic view of Jesus,” one young woman, Caroline Healey (who later would become an important activist in the nineteenth-century women’s movement), described his “appeal to live a divine life” as profoundly inspiring. Even as Parker was ostracized by other Unitarian ministers, his audience grew.

Grodzins weaves into his analysis of Parker’s theological evolution the surprising and touching details of his largely unhappy marriage to Lydia Dodge Cabot (complete with despairing journal entries deciphered by Grodzins), and his intimate, though unconsummated, relationship with a young woman from a prominent Unitarian family, Anna Blake Shaw, which ended abruptly with her marriage in 1845. (Who knew religious history could be so much fun?) Yet Grodzins takes what could have been a tacky distraction and weaves it instead into a story of temptation and sorrow.

Grodzins is masterful at showing how Parker renewed himself for further work, not just as a scholar, but as a social reformer increasingly called by the message of a loving God to act on the pressing issues of his day, including slavery. The closing chapters of this stylish biography give intimations of Parker’s evolution from minister-scholar to minister-activist-and leave us hoping for a second volume. Grodzins highlights these remarks in Parker’s sermon, “Greatness of Man”: “What if some church felt . . . that man was great-god’s child; his duties great, & great his Rights, & great his Powers-what a ch[urch] that would be, a ch[urch] of Faith. & works; that warred with Sin, & healed the woes of men, & loosed the chain! . . . One such ch[urch] is in this place . . . that work is for you.”

In tracing Parker’s theological and social evolution, Grodzins has given us a great gift. For a long time, we Unitarian Universalists have warred among ourselves about the virtues of free religion unencumbered by political or social activism. Many among us feel alienated from a religious community intent on taking stands on political and social issues, and more than one Unitarian Universalist has criticized our churches as being stuck in the 1960s. It turns out, however, that we may be stuck in the 1860s—when many Unitarians began embracing Parker’s active faith. What Dean Grodzins has done, through his detailed tracing of Parker’s political and religious evolution, is to place progressive social action directly in the historical mainstream of our faith. He shows that, for Parker, such social action was rooted theologically in the love of God and expressed in daring support for human freedom.

All too often in our movement, talk about the divine takes on the quality of caricature, as we declare God irrelevant or worse, insulting our sisters and brothers in other faiths and absenting ourselves from serious consideration in the great moral debates of our time. In restoring to contemporary memory the life and struggles of one of our greatest ministers and theologians, Grodzins restores to us as well an early example of a principled, liberal Unitarian Christianity. Faithful to the religion of Jesus and not the religion about Jesus, Theodore Parker’s journey brought him to a deep religious engagement in political and social action, not in spite of his faith in God, but because of it.

It is hard for those of us who currently feel assaulted by the political intensity of the evangelical right to acknowledge that their actions are driven by a deep love of the God of their understanding. Perhaps it has been so hard because we have insufficient knowledge of our own history. Theodore Parker may have done more to establish our justice-seeking heritage than any single minister of the nineteenth century, but he did so out of his own struggle to understand God—thus making him as much a Unitarian heretic in our current age as he was in his own. American Heretic reveals to us that a religious vision of justice is embedded in our faith, lost to us through time and the shifting of theological ground, but steady, real, ever present. Whether we agree or disagree with Parker’s stance, we ought to know and understand it. Dean Grodzins has returned to us a vital part of our religious identity. For these reasons, and dozens more, American Heretic is a dazzling—and essential—read.


Thankfully, we already have a definitive intellectual biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s excellent Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Yet two new books, released in this bicentennial of Emerson’s birth, give welcome emphasis to Emerson’s religious vision. The Spiritual Emerson: Essential Writings, edited by David M. Robinson, draws together eleven essays that reveal the breadth of his spiritual concerns. Robinson, a professor of English and head of the American Studies program at Oregon State University, has collected not only the tried and true essays (Nature, “Self-Reliance,” and “The Over-Soul"), but others not usually drawn upon, including “Worship” and “Circles.” Each essay includes its own introduction by Robinson, but it is the introduction to the book itself that is a special pleasure.

Robinson writes that Emerson, who began his career as a Unitarian minister, “became America’s most influential secular minister, preaching an empowering message of human potential and of an interrelated and harmonious cosmos.” Emerson’s theological worldview, like Parker’s, was shaped by personal tragedy: The deaths of his first wife, Ellen, and his young son, Waldo, changed his spirituality. Robinson deftly examines the elements of this broadened spirituality, highlighting Emerson’s emphases on concepts of inwardness ("an awareness of and reverence for the unique processes of thought, perception, intuition and emotional response that define our experience"), unity ("belief in a kinship with other individuals and with the things and events around us that suggest the common origins . . . of all reality"), and right action ("Life was, as Emerson believed, an unending series of choices, each of which demanded an ethical response"). Robinson’s graceful anchoring essay provides a starting point for readers ready to see Emerson as more than a noted literary figure.

The Rev. Barry M. Andrews, minister of religious education at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York, has created quite a different book in Emerson as Spiritual Guide: A Companion to Selected Essays for Personal Reflection and Group Discussion. For people too daunted by Emerson’s nineteenth-century language, Andrews unpacks the essays without “dumbing down” Emerson’s message, adds parallel reflections from writers ranging from Paul Tillich to Dr. Phil, and includes study and reflection questions that can be utilized by both individuals and small groups. Complete with a chronology of Emerson’s life, Andrews has created a valuable resource for anyone seeking sustenance from one of our most treasured thinkers.


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