1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Parker, Theodore
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PARKER, THEODORE (1810-1860), American preacher and social reformer, was born at Lexington, Massachusetts, on the 24th of August 1810, the youngest of eleven children. His father, John Parker, a small farmer and skilful mechanic, was a typical New England yeoman. His mother took great pains with the religious education of her children, “caring, however, but little for doctrines,” and making religion to consist of love and good works. His paternal grand-father, Captain John Parker (1729-1775), was the leader of the Lexington minute-men in the skirmish at Lexington. Theodore obtained the elements of knowledge in the schools of the district, which were open during the winter months only. During the rest of the year he worked on his father's farm. At the age of seventeen he became himself a winter schoolmaster, and in his twentieth year he entered himself at Harvard, working on the farm as usual (until 1831) while he followed his studies and going over to Cambridge for the examinations only. For the theological course he took up in 1834 his residence in the college, meeting his expenses by a small sum amassed by school-keeping and by help from a poor students' fund, and graduating in 1836. At the close of his college career he began his translation (published in 1843) of Wilhelm M. L. De Wette's Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament. His journal and letters show that he had made acquaintance with a large number of languages, including Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic, Ethiopic, as well as the classical and the principal modern European languages. When he entered the divinity school he was an orthodox Unitarian; when he left it, he entertained strong doubts about the infallibility of the Bible, the possibility of miracles, and the exclusive claims of Christianity and the Church. Emerson's transcendentalism greatly influenced him, and Strauss's Leben Jesu left its mark upon his thought. His first ministerial charge was over a small village parish, West Roxbury, a few miles from Boston; here he was ordained as a Unitarian clergyman in June 1837 and here he preached until January 1846. His views were slowly assuming the form which subsequently found such strong expression in his writing; but the progress was slow, and the cautious reserve of his first rationalistic utterances was in striking contrast with his subsequent rashness. But on the 19th of May 1841 he preached at Boston a sermon on “the transient and permanent in Christianity,” which presented in embryo the main principles and ideas of his final theological position, and the preaching of which determined his subsequent relations to the churches with which he was connected and to the whole ecclesiastical world. The Boston Unitarian clergy denounced the preacher, and declared that the “young man must be silenced.” No Unitarian publisher could be found for his sermon, and nearly all the pulpits of the city were closed against him. A number of gentlemen in Boston, however, invited him to give a series of lectures there. The result was that he delivered in the Masonic Hall, in the winter of 1841-1842, as lectures, substantially the volume afterwards published as the Discourse of Matters pertaining to Religion. The lectures in their published form made his name famous throughout America and Europe, and confirmed the stricter Unitarians in America in their attitude towards him and his supporters. His friends, however, resolved that he should be heard in Boston, and there, beginning with 1845, he preached regularly for fourteen years. Previous to his removal from West Roxbury to Boston Parker spent a year in Europe, calling in Germany upon Paulus, Gervinus, De Wette and Ewald, and preaching in Liverpool in the pulpits of James Martineau and J. H. Thom. After January 1846 he devoted himself exclusively to his work in Boston. In addition to his Sunday labours he lectured throughout the States, and prosecuted his wide studies, collecting particularly the materials for an opus magnum on the development of religion in mankind. Above all he took up the question of the emancipation of the slaves, and fearlessly advocated in Boston and elsewhere, from the platform and through the press, the cause of the negroes. He made his influence felt also by correspondence with political leaders and by able political speeches, one of which, delivered in 1858, contained the sentence, “Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people,” which probably suggested Abraham Lincoln's oft-quoted variant. Parker assisted actively in the escape of fugitive slaves, and for trying to prevent the rendition of perhaps the most famous of them, Anthony Burns, was indicted, but the indictment was quashed. He also gave his aid to John Brown (q.v.). By his voice, his pen, and his utterly fearless action in social and political matters he became a great power in Boston and America generally. But his days were numbered. His mother had suffered from phthisis; and he himself now fell a victim to the same disease. In January 1859 he suffered a violent haemorrhage of the lungs, and sought relief by retreating first to the West Indies and afterwards to Europe. He died at Florence on the 10th of May 1860.
The fundamental articles of Parker's religious faith were the three “instinctive intuitions” of God, of a moral law, and of immortality. His own mind, heart and life were undoubtedly pervaded, sustained and ruled by the feelings, convictions and hopes which he formulated in these three articles; and he rationalized his own religious conceptions in a number of expositions which do credit to his sincerity and courage. But he was a preacher rather than a thinker, a reformer rather than a philosopher.
Parker's principal works are: A Discourse of Matters pertaining to Religion (1842); Ten Sermons of Religion (1853); and Sermons of Theism, Atheism and the Popular Theology (1853). A collected edition of his works was published in England by Frances Power Cobbe (14 vols., 1863-1870), and another — the Centenary edition — in Boston, Mass., by the American Unitarian Association (14 vols., 1907-1911); a volume of Theodore Parker's Prayers, edited by Rufus Leighton and Matilda Goddard, was published in America in 1861, and a volume of Parker's West Roxbury Sermons, with a biographical sketch by Frank B. Sanborn, was published in Boston, Mass., in 1892. A German translation of part of his works was made by Ziethen (Leipzig 1854-1857).
The best biographies are John Weiss's Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker (New York, 1864); O. B. Frothingham's Theodore Parker: a Biography (Boston, 1874); and John White Chadwick's Theodore Parker, Preacher and Reformer (Boston, 1900), the last containing a good bibliography. Valuable reviews of Parker's theological position and of his character and work have appeared — by James Martineau, in the National Review (April 1860), and J. H. Thom, in the Theological Review (March 1864).