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Theodore Parker, radical theologian

2010 is the bicentennial of the most influential Unitarian minister who ever lived.
By Dean Grodzins
Fall 2010 9.1.10

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Theodore Parker

(UUA Archives)

Theodore Parker was perhaps the most influential American Unitarian minister who ever lived. He was one of the greatest American preachers; the leader, with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, of the Transcendentalist movement; and a major antislavery leader and theorist of democracy. His example inspired generations of radical activists, yet 2010, the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of his death, has passed with little fanfare.

Born in Lexington, Massachusetts, on August 24, 1810, Parker was a largely self-taught prodigy who by age 25 could read twenty languages. Ordained and settled in 1837 at the small Unitarian parish in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (now the Theodore Parker Church), he soon gained a reputation as a powerful pulpit orator. In 1841 he issued one of the great Transcendentalist manifestoes, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” in which he denied that the Bible had any miraculous authority, and declared it full of myths. He would elaborate this idea and its implications in many writings, becoming in the process the leading radical theologian in America. Evangelicals and even most Unitarians denounced Parker as an infidel, but generations later, liberal religionists came to see him as a prophet.

In 1846, he became pastor of a new congregation, organized by his admirers, the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society of Boston. He was so isolated within Unitarianism that he had to preach his own installation sermon. Thousands nonetheless came to hear him on Sundays.

He was one of the first American clergymen to endorse women’s suffrage, and the first to refer to God as both “Father” and “Mother.” He became the intellectual leader of the antislavery movement, opposed the proslavery “Mexican War,” and took charge of the Boston movement to rescue fugitive slaves.

Parker was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1859. He spent the last fifteen months of his life traveling for his health, but died in Italy on May 10, 1860.

Today, his name is hardly known, but we remember Parker without realizing it. For instance, everyone seems to know two statements of his without knowing they come from him.

One is the definition of democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Abraham Lincoln used this definition in his Gettysburg Address, but he was adapting a definition that Parker often used, that democracy was “government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people.”

Everyone also knows the assertion that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This phrase crops up all over, and most people think they are quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King did frequently use these words, but he was paraphrasing Parker, who in his book Ten Sermons of Religion wrote:

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.

Although we half-remember Parker, we would do better to get to really know him. One of his major concerns was how to read the Bible. He fought those who quoted biblical texts to justify slavery and oppose women’s rights. He challenged belief in the miraculous authority and factual accuracy of the Bible as a form of idolatry and an obstacle to the development of the soul. You would love the Bible better, he believed, if you did not worship it.

We would also do well to rediscover Parker’s thinking about democracy. When Lincoln changed Parker’s “all the people” to “the people,” something critical was lost. That “all” meant for Parker that democracy had not been achieved in America, and never would be, until social and political inequalities were overcome.


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