The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Parker, Theodore

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PARKER, Theodore, American clergyman and social reformer: b. Lexington, Mass., 24 Aug. 1810; d. Florence, Italy, 10 May 1860. He was the youngest of 11 children and received his early education at home. He took the arts course at Harvard, studying at home and visiting Cambridge for the examinations; and though he was unable thus to obtain a degree in course, that of M.A. was conferred upon him honoris causa in 1840. In 1834-36 he studied at the Cambridge Divinity School, and after preaching as a candidate was ordained 21 June 1837 and installed as pastor of the West Roxbury Unitarian Church. It was soon noised about that he was not in agreement with the Unitarian position of the time. His outspokenness had already won for him the reproach of “infidel,” and many of the Unitarian clergy had found exchanges of pulpit with him inconvenient before his discourse on ‘The Transient and Permanent in Christianity’ at the ordination of C. C. Shackford at South Boston, 19 May 1841. In this sermon Parker denied the special authority of the Bible, the supernatural origin of Christianity and the supernatural character and divine mission of Christ. It is perhaps not surprising that most pulpits were now closed against him, and that his name was associated wtth those of leaders of irreligion. His own congregation gave him steadfast support. He did not withdraw from the Unitarian Church, believing, apparently, that that Church was liberal enough to suffer a freedom of thought even so great as his; while the Church never formally expelled him from its ministry, being, it would seem, reluctant to afford him the prestige which might result from such action. But he was thenceforth actually an independent preacher. In 1846 he became pastor at Boston of what he always called the “Twenty-eighth Congregational Society.” Services were held until 1852 in the Melodeon, and in 1852-59 in the Music Hall, whose 3,000 seats were generally fully occupied. The regular membership was never large, but all shades of religious dissatisfaction there assembled, and many others were drawn by Parker's championship of humanitarian endeavors, especially of anti-slavery reform. In this cause “probably no one — not Garrison, not Phillips himself,” says Frothingham, “did more to awaken and enlighten the conscience of the North.” He was a leader in the committee of vigilance, received runaway slaves, fought the rendition of such and aided their escapes. For many years he was a popular lecturer, and to this activity gave much time. Both in the pulpit and on the platform he had none of the arts of the practised orator, but carried weight rather by his massive knowledge, deep conviction, frankness and vigorous and often picturesque English. Ill-health compelled the foreign sojourn during which he died. He was editor of the Massachusetts Quarterly Review in 1849-51, and wrote, besides sermons, several works, including ‘Historic Americans’ (1870) and ‘Views of Religion’ (1885), which have been collected by F. P. Cobbe (1870). For his peculiarly individual religious beliefs consult Clarke, ‘Parker and his Theology’ (1859); and the ‘Lives’ by Frothingham (1874) and Chadwick (1901); ‘The Works of Theodore Parker’ (10 vols., Boston 1912).