Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Parker, Theodore
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|Edition of 1900. Written by Octavius Brooks Frothingham. See also Theodore Parker on Wikipedia, and our Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography disclaimer.|
PARKER, Theodore, clergyman, b. in Lexington, Mass., 24 Aug., 1810; d. in Florence, Italy, 10 May, 1860. His grandfather, Capt. John Parker, commanded the company of minute-men that were fired on by the British troops on 19 April, 1775. Theodore was the youngest of eleven children. From the father, a Unitarian and Federalist, he inherited independence of mind, courage, and love of speculation; from his mother, depth of religious feeling. The family were poor, and the boy was brought up to labor on the farm. At the age of six he was sent to the district school, which was then taught by young students from Harvard. The instruction was never systematic, quite rudimental, and very meagre, but the boy's thirst for knowledge overcame all obstacles. At eight he had read translations of Homer and Plutarch, together with such other works in prose and verse as were accessible, including Rollin's “Ancient History.” At the age of sixteen he was allowed to go to a school at Lexington for one quarter, an expensive indulgence, costing four dollars. Here he began algebra, and extended his knowledge of Latin and Greek. At the age of seventeen he taught himself. No school could give him enough. He studied all the time, and remembered all he learned, for his memory was as amazing as his hunger for acquisition. This year militia duties were added, and Theodore threw himself into these with his usual ardor, rose to rank in his company, and learned how to fight. All the time he was the light of his home, charming among his mates, exuberant, joyous, a pure, natural boy in all his instincts. One day in August, 1830, having obtained leave of absence from his father, he walked to Cambridge, was examined, admitted, walked back, and told his unsuspecting father, then in bed, that he had entered Harvard college. For a year he stayed at home and worked on the farm, but kept up with his class, and went to Cambridge only to be examined. Under these circumstances he could not obtain his bachelor's degree, and that of A. M. was conferred on him as a mark of honor in 1840. In March, 1831, he became assistant teacher in a private school in Boston, and toiled ten hours a day. In 1832 he undertook a private school at Watertown. There he remained ten years, becoming intimate with Convers Francis, the large-minded Unitarian minister there, reading his books, teaching in his Sunday-school with Lydia Cabot, whom he afterward married, and working his way toward the ministry. While in Watertown he read Cicero, Herodotus, Thucydides, Pindar, Theocritus, Bion, Moschus, and Æschylus; wrote a history of the Jews for his Sunday-school class, studied French metaphysics, began Hebrew in Charlestown, whither he walked on Saturdays to meet Mr. Seixas, a Jew, and began the pursuit of theology. In 1834 he went to the divinity-school, and his religious feeling took a conservative turn at that time. He seemed rather over-weighted with erudition, though by no means dry. His first venture in preaching was at Watertown from the pulpit of his friend, Mr. Francis. Then followed a period of “candidating” at Barnstable, Concord, Waltham, Leominster, and elsewhere. In June, 1837, he was ordained as minister at West Roxbury. This was a season of study, friendship, social intercourse, intellectual companionship, solid achievement in thought, unconscious preparation for the work he was to do. Here he gradually became known as an iconoclast. He was at West Roxbury about seven years, until February, 1845. During that time the Unitarian controversy was begun, the overworked student had passed a year in Europe, examining, meditating, resolving, clearing his purpose, and making sure of his calling, and the future career of the “heresiarch” was pretty well marked out. In January, 1845, a small company of gentlemen met and passed a resolution “that the Rev. Theodore Parker shall have a chance to be heard in Boston.” This was the beginning of the ministry at the Melodeon, which began formally in December. In that month an invitation from Boston — a society having been formed — was accepted. On 3 Jan., 1846, a letter resigning the charge at West Roxbury was written, and the installation took place the next day. The preaching at the Melodeon had been most successful, and it remained only to withdraw entirely, as he had in part, from his old parish, and to reside in the city. The ministrations at the Melodeon lasted about seven years, until 21 Nov., 1852, when the society took possession of the Music hall, then just completed. Here his fame culminated. He had met, at Brook Farm, which lay close to him at West Roxbury, the finest, most cultivated, most ardent intellects of the day; he had made the acquaintance of delightful people; he had studied and talked a great deal; he had been brought face to face with practical problems of society. He was independent of sectarian bonds, he stood alone, he could bring his forces to bear without fear of wounding souls belonging to the regular Unitarian communion, and he was thoroughly imbued with the modern spirit. His work ran very swiftly. No doubt he was helped by the reform movements of the time, the love of poverty played its part, the natural sympathy with an outcast centred on him, the passion for controversy drew many, and the heretics saw their opportunity. But all these combined will not explain his success. True, he had no grace of person, no beauty of feature, no charm of expression, no music of voice, no power of gesture; his clear, steady, penetrating, blue eye was concealed by glasses. Still, notwithstanding these disadvantages, his intensity of conviction, his mass of knowledge, his warmth and breadth of feeling, his picturesqueness of language, his frankness of avowal, fascinated young and old. He had no secrets. He was ready for any emergency. He shrank from no toil. His interest in the people was genuine, hearty, and disinterested. He aimed constantly at the elevation of his kind through religion, morality, and education. He was interested in everything that concerned social advancement. Peace, temperance, the claims of morals, the treatment of animosity, poverty, and the rights of labor, engaged his thought. He did not neglect spiritualism or socialism, but devoted to these subjects a vast deal of consideration. Mr. Parker's interest in slavery began early. In 1841 he delivered a sermon on the subject, which was published, but it was not until 1845 that his share in the matter became engrossing. Then slavery became prominent in National politics, and menaced seriously republican institutions; then men began to talk of the “slave power.” Wendell Phillips somewhere tells of Theodore's first alliance with the Abolitionists, not in theory, for he did not agree with their policy, but in opposition to the prevailing sentiment. It was at the close of a long convention. There had been hard work. Phillips had been among the speakers, Parker among the listeners. As they left the hall, the latter joined him, took his arm, and said: “Henceforth you may consider my presence by your side.” And faithfully he kept his promise. Probably no one — not Garrison, not Phillips himself — did more to awaken and enlighten the conscience of the north. By speeches, sermons, letters, tracts, and lectures he scattered abroad republican ideas. As a critic of pro-slavery champions, as a shielder of fugitives, as an encourager of fainting hearts, he was felt as a warrior. His labors were incessant and prodigious. He was preacher, pastor, visitor among the poor, the downtrodden, and the guilty; writer, platform speaker, lyceum lecturer, and always an omnivorous reader. His lecturing engagements numbered sometimes seventy or eighty in a season. In 1849 he established the “Massachusetts Quarterly Review,” a worthy successor of the “Dial,” but more muscular and practical — “a tremendous journal, with ability in its arms and piety in its heart.” The editorship was pressed upon Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Sumner, but devolved at last on Parker, who was obliged also to write many of the articles, as his contributors failed him. The “Quarterly,” thanks to him, lived three years, and died at length quite as much through the stress of political exigency as through the want of support, though that was insufficient. The fugitive-slave bill was passed in 1850, and entailed a vast deal of toil and excitement. He took more than one man's share of both, was a leader of the committee of vigilance, planned escapes, and entertained runaway slaves. During the fearful agitations incident to the escape of William and Ellen Craft, the chase after Shadrach, the return of Sims, and the surrender of Burns, his energies were unintermitting. Then came the struggle with the slave-holders in the west, when John Brown came to the front, in which he bore an active part, being an early friend and helper of the hero of Ossawattomie. But for extraordinary strength in youth, a buoyant temperament, love of fun and jest, fondness for work, moderation in eating and drinking, sufficient sleep, exercise in the open air, and capacity for natural enjoyment, such excessive labor must have exhausted even his vitality. These supported him, and but for an unfortunate experience he might have lived to an old age. Indeed, he expected to do so. He used to say that if he safely passed forty-nine he should live to be eighty. But he inherited a tendency to consumption. In the winter of 1857, during a lecturing tour through central New York, he took a severe cold, which finally, in spite of all his friends could do, settled upon his lungs. On the morning of 9 Jan., 1859. he had an attack of bleeding at the lungs. At once he was taken to Santa Cruz, and in May he left the island for Southampton. The summer was spent in Switzerland, and in the autumn he went to Rome. The season being wet, he steadily lostground, and could with difficulty reach Florence, where he died. He lies in the Protestant cemetery there. (See illustration.)
Theodore Parkers system was simple. It was, so far as it was worked out, theism based on transcendental principles. The belief in God and the belief in the immortality of the soul were cardinal with him; all else in the domain of speculative theology he was ready to let go. He followed criticism up to this line; there he stood stoutly for the defence. He was a deeply religious man, but he was not a Christian believer. He regarded himself as a teacher of new ideas, and said that the faith of the next thousand years would be essentially like his. It is sometimes said that Parker was simply a deist; but they who say this must take into account the strong sweep of his personal aspiration, the weight of his convictions, his devotion to humanity, the enormous volume of his feelings. There is no deist whom he even remotely resembled. Lord Herbert of Cherbury, Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Hobbes, Hume, suggest oppositions only. Parker affirmed and denied merely in order to make his affirmation more clear. He was a great believer, less a thinker than a doer. His bulky resources were so much fuel to his flame. His sympathies were all modern; he looked constantly forward, and was prevented only by his plain, common sense from accepting every scheme of his generation that wore a hopeful aspect. But he saw the weak points in reforms that he himself aided. He criticised women while working for their elevation, and laughed at negroes while toiling against their bondage. He was not æsthetic, and had no taste in painting, sculpture, music, poetry, or the delicacies of literature. He knew about them as he knew about everything, but his power was moral and religious, and it was inseparable from his temperament, which was human and practical on the side of social experiment. He bequeathed his library of 13,000 volumes to the Boston public library. He was a prolific author, publishing books, pamphlets, sermons, essays without number, but never with a literary, always with a philanthropic, intention. His publications include “Miscellaneous Writings” (Boston, 1843); “Sermons of Theism, Atheism, and Popular Theology” (1852); “Occasional Sermons and Speeches” (2 vols., 1852); “Additional Speeches and Addresses” (2 vols., 1855); “Trial of Theodore Parker for the ‘Misdemeanor’ of a Speech in Faneuil Hall against Kidnapping,” a defence that he had prepared to deliver in case he should be tried for his part in the Anthony Burns case (1855); and “Experience as a Minister.” His “Discourse of Matters pertaining to Religion” (1842) still presents the best example of his theological method; his “Ten Sermons on Religion” (1853) the best summary of results. His complete works were edited by Frances Power Cobbe (14 vols., London, 1863-71); (10 vols., Boston, 1870). A volume of “Prayers” was issued in 1862, and one entitled “Historic Americans” in 1870. It included discourses on Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson. “Lessons from the World of Matter and the World of Man,” selected from notes of his unpublished sermons, by Rufus Leighton, was edited by Frances P. Cobbe (London, 1865). See also “Théodore Parker sa vie et ses œuvres,” by Albert Réville (Paris, 1865). On the death of Mrs. Parker in 1880, Franklin B. Sanborn was made literary executor, and he, it is said, intends to issue some new material. Mr. Parker's life has been presented several times; most comprehensively by John Weiss (2 vols., New York, 1864), and by Octavius B. Frothingham (Boston, 1874). Studies of him have been made in French and English. There is a fragment of autobiography and innumerable references to him as the founder of a new school in theology. There are busts of Parker by William W. Story and Robert Hart.