Theodore Parker: Outcast Hero

In his 1947 biography of Theodore Parker, the American historian Henry Steele Commager wrote about Parker's first trip to Europe:

There was everything to be seen and much to be remembered, and Parker invaded Europe with the ruthless thoroughness that ever characterized him: he carried the towns by storm, he harried the countryside, he swept through the galleries and museums, ransacked the libraries, plundered the churches, and despoiled the Universities of their treasures. Nothing escaped his voracious acquisitiveness.

This energy, this appetite for life and learning characterized Parker all his life. A classmate at Harvard Divinity School remembered him as a "prodigious athlete in his studies" and Commager calls him an "intellectual gourmand." The Lexington farm boy grew up to have one of the largest private book collections in the country, which he left, after his death, to the Boston Public Library—for the people, not just for the scholars.

Learning was not just for learning's sake. Parker gave of himself, of what he knew and thought, unstintingly, to preaching, to reforming, to ministering, to politicking, to helping the poor and oppressed, to socializing with a wide range of friends, to letter-writing to correspondents all over the country, to a loving relationship with his wife, Lydia Cabot (who obviously had her own enormous responsibilities maintaining the household for this human whirlwind). One day in his journal, for instance, he wrote:

Adventures of a Day: After attending to numerous little matters [I can imagine what they were like], I sat down to complete my sermon: and there came: 1. A black man—a quite worthy one [Parker had not thoroughly escaped the prejudices of his day] for some pecuniary aid. 2. An Orthodox minister from Ohio, seeking aid to erect a free church in his State. He wants five thousand dollars. 3. Came a clergyman to talk about Zoroastrian doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and to get [a book] which I had imported for him. 4. Silas Lamson, with his full beard and white garments. He has two machines which he wished me to look at. They are to facilitate spading, ploughing, etc. He wants to get them before the Exhibition in New York. 5. Mrs. M------, relative to Ned and the medicine we sent him yesterday. 6. Greenly Curtis, just from Rome, and now for California…a brave good fellow. 7. Dear Mrs. Russell came at five, and staid [sic] till nine. She consecrated the first introduction of gas into the house; so the light of the house and the light of the heart burns at the same time. (Quoted in Commager.)

Despite these many directions in his life, Theodore Parker had two major roles that have made their mark in history, in addition to having been one of the greatest and most popular orators of his time, a time when oratory was one of the great entertainments for all groups of people. His Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society in Boston numbered 7,000 members, with perhaps 2,000 attending every Sunday.

His first major role was as spokesman for transcendentalism, the world-view of many second-generation Unitarians (rejected by the first generation, who had themselves been so recently rejected by the Orthodox Calvinists). Transcendentalism was a view that focused on inner truth in religion, on the voice of conscience and reason, on the universality of these truths through time and culture—and de-emphasized the stories of the Bible, the miracles of Jesus, the institutional structures of the church. Parker's uncompromising statement of these principles in his 1841 sermon, "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity," while it cut him off from the conservative Unitarians, who still found the authority of Scripture and the evidence of miracles central to religion, gave clear expression and leadership to cultural change, to the broadening of American culture to include eastern ideas, the learnings of science, freedom of the individual mind from tyranny and dogmatism—even liberal dogmatism.

His second major role was as social reformer, and particularly as abolitionist. Though not the first Unitarian minister to take up the cause of the slave, he gave it its most powerful voice, a voice increasingly impatient and then outraged at the hypocrisy of the North—so that in his speech after the death of Daniel Webster, whose admirable qualities Parker eulogized before he went on to denounce their corruption as exemplified in Webster's support for the Fugitive Slave Law, he spoke of the pernicious influence of slavery in this way:

Slavery, the most hideous snake which Southern regions breed, with fifteen unequal feet, came crawling North, fold on fold, and ring on ring, and coil on coil, the venomed monster came: then Avarice, the foulest worm which Northern cities gender in their heat, went crawling South; with many a wriggling curl, it wound along its way. At length they met, and twisting up in their obscene embrace, the twain became one monster;…they were one poison. Northward and Southward wormed the thing along its track, leaving the stain of its breath in the people's face; and its hissing against the Lord rings yet in many a speech. Then what a shrinking there was of great consciences, and hearts and minds. (Quoted in Commager.)

But Parker not only spoke about slavery. He helped the fugitive slave Ellen Craft escape her pursuers by riding with her through the dark of night. He was down at the wharf, lamenting, when Thomas Sims was carried back to Savannah to be publicly whipped on the nineteenth of April. He was part of the aborted plot to rescue Anthony Burns, and was later brought to trial for obstructing justice, though the case was dismissed. He became an advisor to politicians like Charles Sumner, writing constantly to keep him on the straight and narrow road to abolition.

Parker became a hero to thousands, though he was never reconciled with the conservative Unitarians of Boston, who found both his religion and his politics tasteless, offensive, frightening. The alumni of the Harvard Divinity School refused to send him a letter of sympathy in 1859 and 1860, when he lay dying of consumption in Italy at the age of 50. Since then, Parker's religious and social ideas have been absorbed by our movement and he is one of our heroes.

Theodore Parker is one of those people who makes me long for a time machine—so I could shake his hand, get to know him in a way that no words on a page can quite convey, ask him a few questions—about himself, his times, our times.

HLC: Mr. Parker, I come to you as a representative of the late twentieth century. We're a kind of skeptical age, you know. The discoveries of science, the revelations of psychology, the confusions of our time, have destroyed our faith in lots of things, including in our heroes. For instance, today, you'd be classified as a "Type A" personality— someone who never knew how to stop, who worked himself to death, who probably should have had a good course of therapy to live a saner life.

TP: Well, my dear Mrs. Cohen, I had some of those same reflections myself. I often wished I had walked in the country more (you know, I loved the country from my early days in Lexington), I wished I had had more fun and relaxation. But the problem was not just me. It was the country with its ferment of activities and issues. I once wrote: "All that we do we overdo" [from "The Political Destination of America and the Signs of the Times," 1848]. We had the faults of rashness, haste, superficiality. We rushed, we hurried, we were the most restless of people. I can say only that I was an extreme version of an extreme tendency. Tell me, have things changed? Has this "therapy" you speak of brought a greater stability, depth, thoughtfulness to the life in your age?

HLC:, not really so that you could notice. I think we may just have more names for the same things. Um, now, I know you were one of the most outspoken of abolitionists, and you really believed in rights and opportunities for everyone. You championed women, too. You were praying to "Our Father and Our Mother God" back in the 1840s. But when I read some things you wrote, and look at the way you actually lived with your wife, it seems pretty clear to me that you didn't really see blacks or women as equal, intellectually, to white males. I experience you even now as, well, a mite patronizing.

TP: I cannot deny that I found myself more comfortable with pious, gentle women like my beloved Lydia than with such outspoken ladies as Margaret Fuller. Nor is it easy for me to imagine a society in which the roles of men and women would be interchangeable. But yet, the work of this nation, as I have said, must be "first, education, next education, and then education, a vigorous development of the mind, conscience affections, religious power of the whole nation" [from "The Political Destination"]. And to the extent that you have achieved those things, perhaps the nation has moved toward a genuine equality that we could not yet perceive as possible. I would be glad, and rejoice.

HLC: Those of us who are in the liberal religious movement now look back and notice that, despite your many achievements, you did not do much for institutional religion. Your own 28th Congregational Society, whose numbers were so great, fell apart soon after you left. It seems to have been the creation of your personal charisma, rather than the working together of all its people.

TP: I am a bit amused. A moment ago, you found fault with me for doing too much, and now it seems I did not do enough. I can only answer you that I used my talents as best I could. I spoke and I worked out of my heart and my mind. Others, indeed, had more patience to move within the confines of more established institutions, even to build them. Humankind has need of both kinds of workers. I could point out to you, if humility did not forbid, that it was not Jesus who established the institutional church.

HLC: I do hope you don't misunderstand me. I, like so many, am powerfully drawn to your passion, your commitment, the clarity and integrity of your thinking and living. I am troubled, though, that you seem to think it so easy to arrive at truth within, that we should all be able to agree on the real values and meanings of life. In our age, people claim that everything is relative, that no one set of values or point of view is any more valid than another at the heart of things.

TP: Oh, people said the same thing in my day, or at least acted as if the same thing were true. The very merchants of Boston, who faithfully attended the orthodox church on Sunday, were out on Monday greedily exploiting the poor as if there had never been such a thing as the teachings of Jesus. But I believed then, and still think it must be true that, whatever the forms of religion and culture, there is yet at the heart of things, a universal and undeniable truth for the good of humankind. "I am as good as you, so get out of my way," is not the same as "You are as good as I, and let us help one another," and I know and you know which one of those things is the truth we should recognize in our hearts [a point Parker makes in "The Political Destination"].

HLC: Mr. Parker, there was one thing I forgot to say about the late twentieth century. We are a very frightened, anxious people. We live in the shadow of weapons we have created that might annihilate all people and all things that you and I have believed in, here on this earth. I understand your pride in your grandfather, John Parker, who confronted the British on the green here, where you grew up, and how this example fueled your own spirit, and led you to accept war as a way of dealing with the evil of slavery. But war is no longer a way we can deal with the evils of the world.

TP: (long pause) You might have stopped even the mouth of the great orator. Whatever you might have told me about your times, I would not ever have imagined that humanity itself, life itself, could encounter such peril. I cannot understand that the God I have known in my heart would allow such a thing to happen. I am unnerved.


I have but two things to offer you, from my heart and my mind. When I spoke so many years ago of the future of our nation, I spoke of the time when we would get beneath all the busy, superficial, contradictory, secondary qualities of life to first principles. It seems now that the whole world must do this, that my optimistic call, which now seems naive, must become urgent—to discover what is truly central to all lives, so that all may live. That right must come first.

And two, work for this new understanding with whatever passion and commitment is within you, in your daily lives, your religious lives, your national and international life. I did once say that, "The organization of human rights, the performance of human duties is an unlimited work. If there shall ever be a time when it is done, then the race will have finished its course" [from "The Political Destination"]. I now see I did not understand how long and how hard and how dangerous that race must be.

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