Theodore Parker

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For other individuals named Theodore Parker, see Theodore Parker (disambiguation).
Theodore Parker
Theodore Parker BPL c1855-crop.jpg
Theodore Parker circa 1855
Born (1810-08-24)August 24, 1810
Lexington, Massachusetts
Died May 10, 1860(1860-05-10) (aged 49)
Florence, Italy
Signature Appletons' Parker Theodore signature.png

Theodore Parker (Lexington, Massachusetts, August 24, 1810 – Florence, Italy, May 10, 1860) was an American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church. A reformer and abolitionist, his words and quotations which he popularized would later inspire speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.


Early life[edit]

Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Massachusetts,[1] the youngest child in a large farming family. His paternal grandfather was John Parker, the leader of the Lexington militia at the Battle of Lexington. Among his colonial Yankee ancestors was Thomas Hastings, who came from the East Anglia region of England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, and Deacon Thomas Parker, who came from England in 1635 and was one of the founders of Reading.[2][3][4] Most of his family had died[5] by the time Parker was 27, probably due to tuberculosis.

He was educated privately and through personal study. He was accepted at Harvard College whence he graduated in 1831. He entered the Harvard Divinity School and graduated in 1836.[1] Parker specialized in a study of German theology. He was drawn to the ideas of Coleridge, Carlyle and Emerson.


Parker spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German. His journal and letters show that he was acquainted with many other languages, including Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic and Ethiopic. He considered a career in law but his strong faith led him to theology. Parker held that the soul was immortal, and came to believe in a God who would not allow lasting harm to any of his flock. His belief in God's mercy made him reject Calvinist theology as cruel and unreasonable.

Parker studied for a time under Convers Francis, who preached at Parker's ordination.[6] In the 1830s, Parker began attending meetings of the Transcendental Club and became associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, and several others.[7] Unlike Emerson and other Transcendentalists, however, Parker believed the movement was rooted in deeply religious ideas and did not believe it should retreat from religion.[1]

While he started with a strong faith, with time Parker began to ask questions. Learning of the new field of historical higher criticism of the Bible, then growing in Germany, he came to deny traditional views. Parker was attacked when he denied Biblical miracles and the authority of the Bible and Jesus. Some felt he was not a Christian; nearly all the pulpits in the Boston area were closed to him,[8] and he lost friends.

In 1841, he presented a sermon titled A Discourse on the Permanent and Transient in Christianity, espousing his belief that the scriptures of historic Christianity did not reflect the truth.[1] In 1842 his doubts led him to an open break with orthodox theology: he stressed the immediacy of God and saw the Church as a communion, looking upon Christ as the supreme expression of God. Ultimately, he rejected all miracles, and saw the Bible as full of contradictions and mistakes. He retained his faith in God but suggested that people experience God intuitively and personally. He thought that individual experience was where people should center their religious beliefs.[1]

Parker circa 1850
Parker's statue in front of the Theodore Parker Church,[9] a Unitarian parish in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Parker accepted an invitation from supporters to preach in Boston in January 1845. He preached his first sermon there in February. His supporters organized the 28th Congregational Society of Boston in December and installed Parker as minister in January 1846.[5] His congregation, which included Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, grew to 7000.[10]

In Boston, Parker led the movement to combat the stricter Fugitive Slave Act enacted with the Compromise of 1850. It required law enforcement and citizens of all states- free states as well as slave states- to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves. Parker called the law "a hateful statute of kidnappers", and helped organize open resistance to it in Boston. Parker and his followers formed the Committee of Vigilance, refusing to assist with the recovery of fugitive slaves, and helping to hide them.[11] For example, they smuggled away Ellen and William Craft when Georgian slave catchers came to Boston to arrest them. Due to Parker's effort, from 1850 to the onset of the American Civil War in 1861, only twice were slaves captured in Boston and transported back to the South. On both occasions, Bostonians combatted the actions with mass protests.[12]

Parker was a patient of William Wesselhoeft, who practiced homeopathy. Wesselhoeft gave the oration at Parker's funeral [13] Parker also supported Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's Foreign Library where many intellectuals gathered.[14]


Theodore Parker's first headstone.
Theodore Parker's tomb in Florence

Parker's ill health forced his retirement in 1859.[10] He developed tuberculosis, then without treatment, and departed for Florence, Italy where he died on May 10, 1860. He sought refuge in Florence because of his friendship with Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Isa Blagden and Frances Power Cobbe, but died scarcely a month following his arrival. It was less than a year before the outbreak of the American Civil War.

He is buried in the English Cemetery in Florence.[15][16] His headstone by Joel Tanner Hart was later replaced by one by William Wetmore Story. Other Unitarians buried in the cemetery include Thomas Southwood Smith and Richard Hildreth. The British writer Fanny Trollope, also buried here, wrote the first anti-slavery novel and Hildreth wrote the second. Both books were used by Harriet Beecher Stowe for her Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). When Frederick Douglass visited Florence, he went first from the railroad station to Parker's tomb.[17]

Social criticism and beliefs[edit]

As Parker's early biographer John White Chadwick wrote, Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: "peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor" though none became "a dominant factor in his experience" with the exception of his antislavery views.[18] He "denounced the Mexican War and called on his fellow Bostonians in 1847 'to protest against this most infamous war.'"[19]

Parker's abolitionism became his most controversial stance, at a time when the American union was beginning to split over slavery.[20] He wrote the scathing To a Southern Slaveholder in 1848, as the abolition crisis was heating up. Parker defied slavery[21] and advocated violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 which required the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Parker worked with many fugitive slaves, some of whom were among Parker's congregation. As in the case of William and Ellen Craft,[22] he hid them in his home. Although he was indicted for his actions, he was never convicted.[8]

During the undeclared war in Kansas (see Bleeding Kansas and Origins of the American Civil War) prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Parker supplied money for weapons for free state militias. As a member of the Secret Six, he supported the abolitionist John Brown, whom many considered a terrorist. After Brown's arrest, Parker wrote a public letter, "John Brown's Expedition Reviewed," defending his actions and the right of slaves to kill their masters.

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Unitarian Universalists honor Theodore Parker as "a canonical figure—the model of a prophetic minister in the American Unitarian tradition."[5]
  • In a speech delivered in 1850, Parker used the phrase, "A democracy — of all the people, by all the people, for all the people;"[23] which later influenced the wording of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. (Parker himself might have developed his phrase from John Wycliffe's prologue to the first English translation of the Bible.)[24][25]
  • Parker predicted the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause this way:

    "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."[26]

A century later, Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased these words to great effect in his famous "Where Do We Go From Here?" speech of August 1967 to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, when he said, "The arc of the Moral Universe Is long, but It bends toward Justice".
  • In 1963, Betty Friedan's influential best seller, The Feminine Mystique, believed to have sparked the 1960s and 70s women's movement, bore the following epigraph from Theodore Parker:

    "The domestic function of the woman does not exhaust her powers... To make one half of the human race consume its energies in the functions of housekeeper, wife and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made"(1853).

    Eight months after the publication of Friedan's book, Kurt Vonnegut uses the same quote in his short story "Lovers Anonymous," first published in the October issue of Redbook magazine and reprinted in Vonnegut's 1999 collection Bagombo Snuff Box.
  • The new beige rug chosen for President Barack Obama's remodeled Oval Office in August 2010, was bordered by five quotations, two of which (by Lincoln and King) are inspired by the writings of Parker, as noted above.[27]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Bowden, Henry Warner. "Parker, Theodore" in American National Biography Online 2000
  • Commager, Henry Steele. Theodore Parker (1947), scholarly biography excerpt and text search
  • Commager, Henry Steele. "The Dilemma of Theodore Parker," New England Quarterly (1933) 6#2 pp 257–277. in JSTOR
  • Dirks, John Edward. The Critical Theology of Theodore Parker (1948) online
  • Fellman, Michael. "Theodore Parker and the Abolitionist Role in the 1850's," Journal of American History (1974) 61#3 pp 666–684. in JSTOR
  • Grodzins, Dean. American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
  • White, Peter. "Reason and Intuition in the Theology of Theodore Parker," Journal of Religious History, (1980) 11#1 pp 111–120.

Primary sources[edit]

  • Commager, Henry Steele, ed. Theodore Parker: An Anthology (1960)


  1. ^ a b c d e Hankins, Barry. The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004: 143. ISBN 0-313-31848-4
  2. ^ Buckminster, Lydia N.H., The Hastings Memorial, A Genealogical Account of the Descendants of Thomas Hastings of Watertown, Mass. from 1634 to 1864. Boston: Samuel G. Drake Publisher (an undated NEHGS photoduplicate of the 1866 edition), 30.
  3. ^ Parker, Theodore, John Parker of Lexington and his Descendants, Showing his Earlier Ancestry in America from Dea. Thomas Parker of Reading, Mass. from 1635 to 1893, pp. 15-16, 21-30, 34-36, 468-470, Press of Charles Hamilton, Worcester, MA, 1893.
  4. ^ Parker, Augustus G., Parker in America, 1630-1910, pp. 5, 27, 49, 53-54, 154, Niagara Frontier Publishing Co., Buffalo, NY, 1911.
  5. ^ a b c Dean Grodzins. "Theodore Parker". Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. 
  6. ^ Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 117. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8
  7. ^ Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003: 32–33. ISBN 0-674-01139-2
  8. ^ a b "Theodore Parker". Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition. 
  9. ^ "History of the Theodore Parker Church". "Established as a Calvinist Protestant church, the congregation adopted a conservative Unitarian theology in the 1830s and followed its minister, Theodore Parker, to a more liberal position in the 1840s. When the First Parish of West Roxbury merged with the Unitarian Church of Roslindale in 1962, the congregation decided to name their new community in memory of Theodore Parker." 
  10. ^ a b "Parker, Theodore". Columbia Encyclopedia. 
  11. ^ Buescher, John. Keep Your Top Eye Open. Accessed 2 June 2011.
  12. ^ Potter, David Morris., and Don E. Fehrenbacher. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, New York: Harper & Row, 1976
  13. ^ William Wesselhoeft (1794-1858) - Pioneers of homeopathy by T. L. Bradford
  14. ^ Elizabeth Peabody's Foreign Library
  15. ^ Official guidebook written by Pastore Luigi Santini, published by the Administration of the Cimitero agli Allori in 1981. "American Tombs in Florence's English Cemetery". 
  16. ^ Theodore Parker at Find a Grave
  17. ^ Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1893. NY: Library of America, reprint, 1994:1015
  18. ^ Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 248. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8
  19. ^ Polner, Murray (2010-03-01) Left Behind, The American Conservative
  20. ^ Paul E. Teed (2001). "A Brave Man's Child: Theodore Parker and the Memory of the American Revolution". Historical Journal of Massachusetts Summer 2001 issue. "Theodore Parker's 1845 pilgrimage to Lexington was a defining moment in the career of one of New England's most influential antislavery activists. Occurring as it did in the very midst of the national crisis over Texas annexation, Parker's mystical connection with the memory of his illustrious revolutionary ancestor emerged as the bedrock of his identity as an abolitionist.
    “While other abolitionists frequently claimed the revolutionary tradition for their cause, Parker's antislavery vision also rested upon a deep sense of filial obligation to the revolutionaries themselves."
  21. ^ "The Slave Power". Digitized in XHTML, PDF and Microsoft Office Word by the Antislavery Literature Project. "First collected edition of the antislavery writings and speeches of abolitionist Theodore Parker. (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1910.) Editor: James Kendall Hosmer (1837-1927), professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, president of the American Library Association." 
  22. ^ Charles Stephen (25 August 2002). "Theodore Parker, Slavery, and the Troubled Conscience of the Unitarians". 
  23. ^ Theodore Parker (29 May 1850). ""The American Idea:" speech at N.E. Anti-Slavery Convention, Boston". "A democracy,—that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government of the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake I will call it the idea of Freedom." 
  24. ^ "Wikiquote". Retrieved 2010-09-12. 
  25. ^ The American Monthly Review of Reviews. Retrieved 2010-09-12. 
  26. ^ Manker-Seale, Susan (2006-01-15). "The Moral Arc of the Universe: Bending Toward Justice". Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  27. ^ Stiehm, Jamie (2010-09-04). "Oval Office rug gets history wrong". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-09-04. 

External links[edit]