Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Alternate Activity 2: Theodore Parker - The Transient and Permanent in Christianity

Activity time: 30 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Copy Handout 2 for all participants.
  • Print out Leader Resource 6 to show the group.
  • Read the Description of Activity and reflect on the questions you will pose for the group, so you will be ready to help participants understand the passages.
  • Arrange for volunteers to read parts of the sermon aloud. If possible, give them the handout in advance.
  • Optional: Download the portrait of Parker (Leader Resource 6). Prepare the portrait as a digital slide. Test the computer and projector.
  • Optional: Read the full text of the sermon online

Description of Activity

Project or pass around the portrait of Parker found in Leader Resource 6. Introduce the activity using these or similar words:

The Transcendentalist era is well represented by two of the most important Unitarian sermons ever preached: "The Divinity School Address," delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson to the Senior Class at the Harvard Divinity School in July, 1838, and "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity," preached by Theodore Parker at the ordination of the Rev. Charles C. Shackford at the Howes Place Church in Boston, May, 1841.

These two sermons, separated by a slim three years, succinctly state the case for a new way of thinking about theology, church, religious life, and Unitarianism. The sermons were to have a direct and lasting effect on the Unitarian faith, far beyond the immediate circumstances, and perhaps exceeding the imaginations of their writers.

Theodore Parker heard Emerson's Divinity School Address in 1838, and afterward wrote, "I shall give no abstract so beautiful, so just, so true, and terribly sublime, was his picture of the faults of the Church in its present position." Parker's sympathies ran with those of the Transcendentalists. For him, humans were made to be religious, and had an instinctive intuition of the divine. Preaching at the ordination of Rev. Charles C. Shackford in the Hawes Place Church, Boston on May 19, 1841, Parker clearly identified himself as more Christian than Emerson, and indicated that the Christian church held more meaning for him as well. Parker's key points were that there were in religion "forms permanent"-religion as taught by Jesus-and "forms transient" -specific historical manifestations and doctrines. What aroused the interest of his critics, initially constituted of a small group of orthodox ministers, was his declaration that, among the transient aspects of Christianity were ever-changing views of the authority of the Bible, and of Christ as well. Eventually these criticisms would spill over into the still-young-and-in-formation Unitarian world, and affect deeply Parker's relationships with his colleagues, who, while ultimately holding to their belief in free speech and expression, nonetheless shunned Parker from their pulpits and other ministerial involvements.

Distribute Handout 2, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity. Have the volunteers read the text. Have readers pause after each section, and lead discussion and clarification. If the discussion seems to stall, pose open-ended questions:

  • What is Parker saying here?
  • What thoughts arise for you? What questions?

Notes on Using Primary Source Documents

For modern readers, the radical content of Parker's writing may not be obvious. The Unitarianism against which Parker reacted with such vehemence is unlikely to resemble our own, so we may not understand the depth of his critique. And, in the times in which we live, there is such broader acceptance of a wide range of thought and belief that it can be hard to label what is normative and what is radical. Further, the language of the nineteenth century is not our own, and can present hard going for those unaccustomed to its vocabulary and style. To assist participants, read the text slowly and pause often to unpack its meaning.

When using primary source material, call participants' attention to the document's original context. Here, you might use questions such as:

  • What kind of document is this taken from? (in this case, a sermon)
  • For whom is it intended? (the audience at a minister's ordination; Parker may not have known exactly who would be in attendance)
  • What arguments or points does the author try to make in this particular excerpt?
  • What underlying issue, or issues, motivated the author?
  • What's at stake?
  • What can we tell about the writer from the document?
  • What is the author's source of authority?