Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Parker, Theodore
PARKER, Theodore (1810-1860), a distinguished American rationalistic preacher and social reformer, born at Lexington, Massachusetts, August 24, 1810, was the youngest of eleven children. His father, John Parker, a small farmer and skilful mechanic, was a typical New England yeoman, a man of sterling moral worth, of strong intellect, meditative, and fond of reading, a strict disciplinarian in his house, a Unitarian in his theology before Unitarianism was known in New England as a system, and a Federalist in his politics when there were but four Federalists in Lexington. His mother, “an imaginative, delicate-minded, poetic, yet very practical woman,” 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. Theodore's paternal grandfather, Captain John Parker, fired the first shot upon the British at the battle of Lexington, commanding on that occasion a troop of seventy men. The historic musket from which that shot was fired became one of the most valued ornaments of the grandson's study, His mother taught him to listen to the monitions of conscience as the voice of God, and from his infancy his life was dominated by moral and religious emotions and ideas of overpowering force. The boy was richly endowed intellectually and physically. His memory was marvellously retentive. The acquisition of languages was a delight and recreation to him. He 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. He was all the time an immense and omnivorous reader, and his powerful memory enabled him to remember all that he read. 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 while he followed his studies, and going over to Cambridge for the examination 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. He studied fourteen hours a day, not only following the usual course of the college, but plunging deep into German theology and Biblical criticism, and especially the history of non-Christian religions. At the close of his college career he began his translation of De Wette's Introduction to the Old 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, Roxbury, a few miles from Boston. He was ordained June 1837, and held his pastorate there until the autumn of 1843. He was extremely happy in his position. His parishioners loved him, he had ample time to pursue his studies, and the neighbourhood of Boston gave him congenial society. His views were slowly assuming the form which subsequently found such strong expression in his writings; but the process was slow, and the cautious reserve of his first rationalistic utterances was in striking contrast with his subsequent rashness. But in 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 only permanent element he discovered in the Bible, in Christianity, in Christ, was “absolute, pure morality, absolute, pure religion, the love of man, the love of God acting without let or hindrance.” He denied all special authority to the Bible, to Christ, to Christianity. He maintained that “Jesus had not exhausted the fulness of God.” 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. To exchange with him was fatal to a minister's reputation for Unitarian orthodoxy. But when the Unitarian clergy cast Parker off the laity took him up. A number of gentlemen in Boston invited him to give a series of lectures there. The result was that he delivered in the Masonic Hall, in the winter of 1841-42, 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 sect of the American Unitarians in their attitude towards him and his supporters. His friends, however, resolved that he should be heard in Boston. They engaged for him the Music Hall in that city, in which he regularly preached to a congregation of some three thousand persons during the remaining fourteen years of his life. Previous to his removal from Roxbury to Boston, Parker spent a year in Europe, calling in Germany upon Paulus, Gervinus, De Wette, and Ewald amongst other savants, and preaching in Liverpool in the pulpits of James Martineau and J. H. Thom. Soon after his return, in 1844, to America he resigned his charge at Roxbury, and 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 at the imminent risk of his life nobly and powerfully advocated in Boston and throughout the States, from the platform and through the press, the cause of the negroes. Indeed, he did more. He assisted actively in the escape of fugitive slaves, and helped to furnish John Brown with means for carrying out his schemes of liberation. His Sunday sermons were themselves often elaborate essays, almost treatises, on great questions of social and political reform, and he was all along contributing articles and papers on literary, political, social, and theological subjects to the periodical press. 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. From his mother he inherited consumption, and the reckless disregard of the laws of health which he was guilty of in his early years, combined with the tremendous strain of his ordinary work, and the terrible privations and fatigues of his lecturing tours, developed in the prime of his life the fatal seeds. In January 1859 he had an attack of bleeding of the lungs, and sought relief by retreating first to Santa Cruz, and afterwards to Europe. He died at Rome, May 10, 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. But he cannot be said to have achieved success when he came to strictly define, expound, and establish them. In his doctrine of God he maintains that man has an innate idea of God as a being of infinite power, goodness, and wisdom; but he often uses language which borders on pantheism, while his criterion of the notions men have formed of the Divine Being appears to leave him no foundation for anything higher than an abstract pantheistic idea of Him. His proof of his fundamental creed is no less at fault than his statement and exposition of it. It is strange that a man who had read so widely and honestly the best literature of his day on the religious ideas of mankind should have referred to the consensus gentium for his main proof of the universality of his triad of religious ideas. His own chapter on the immortality of the soul in his Discourse abundantly illustrates the weakness of his proof from induction. The distinction he was compelled to draw between the conception and the idea of God illustrates the weakness of his deductive proof. Parker's definitions of religion are various, and show that he had never closely traced its true nature. Of revelation the counterpart of religion — his notions were of the vaguest description. He could ask “Is Newton less inspired than Simon Peter?” He had never formed any approximately just conception of the work of a great religious teacher, and could say, “Christianity, if true at all, would be just as true if Herod or Catiline had taught it.” Naturally, therefore, he never formed an adequate idea of the place of Christianity amongst the world's religions, though he often used language about Christ which in the case of a closer thinker would have indicated the acceptance of Christianity as the absolute and final religion for man. But in truth Parker was more of a speaker than a thinker, of a reformer than a philosopher. He had a wide and firm grasp of facts and principles, but his thought was neither profound nor subtle, neither accurate nor self-consistent. Although rich in poetic elements, he was singularly defective, too, in artistic faculty. He has produced nothing that is perfect in form, while all his works are disfigured by outrageous violations of taste and good feeling. But with all his numerous defects Parker ranks amongst America's great and noble sons, and may perhaps obtain finally a place amongst the world's great men. A future biographer will have to assign him his final position. The three biographies which at present exist — Weiss's (1863), Frothingham's (1874), and Dean's (1877) — are the work of eager partisans and admiring panegyrists rather than of calm critics and historians.
Parker's principal works are A Discourse on Matters pertaining to Religion, 1842; Ten Sermons of Religion, 1852; Theism, Atheism, and the Popular Theology, 1853. A collected edition of his works has been published in England by Frances Power Cobbe, in 12 vols. A German translation of part of his works was made by Ziethen, Leipsic, 1854-57. Valuable reviews of his 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). (J. F. S.)