What the Turtle Taught Theodore

A small turtle sits in the palm of a person's hand

In his autobiography, Theodore Parker relates that as a child, four or five years old, living on a farm in Roxbury, he was walking through the fields one day absent-mindedly swinging a stick through the tall grass. This was many years ago, in the days before the Civil War. It was summertime. He stopped to watch the water bubble along a creek. Then he noticed a turtle sunning itself on a rock.

He’d seen other boys use their sticks to strike a turtles and other animals. It was part of what children thought was fun, just as some children still like to bully and hit those who are weaker than themselves. Often children and grown-ups too are copycats — mimicking the behavior of others who seem bigger or stronger than themselves. Young Theodore wanted to be like the other, older boys he’d seen, so he raised his stick into the air, taking aim and preparing to knock the turtle into the water.

Then something stopped him. Something seemed wrong about the situation. He looked again at the turtle, quiet, peaceful, enjoying the summer day just as he liked to feel the warmth and light of the sun. Had the turtle ever done him any harm? Was the turtle so different than himself? Slowly he lowered his stick and walked home, thinking about what had happened.

When he arrived home, his mother was there to greet him, and he told her about the incident. She listened carefully to Theodore, and listened especially carefully when he related how some strange force inside had stopped him from hitting the little animal. “Theodore,” she said, “that force inside you was the voice of conscience. Always pay attention to it. Always follow what your conscience tells you. It’s your moral compass that points you in the right direction. And if you honor your conscience, you’ll never go wrong in this world.”

Theodore Parker grew up to become a Unitarian minister, in fact one of the greatest leaders our faith has ever known. He became a champion of the defenseless who needed defending. He was a hero in the fight to end slavery in our country. He prayed to “Father and Mother God” and fought for women’s equality and their right to vote. He and wife never had children of their own — but he felt a sense of kinship with the whole family of creation, people of all sexes and races who had been made in the image of the holy. And it all started one summer day when he was just a child — a child who saw a turtle and decided to do what was right.