Parker, Theodore an American theologian of the extreme rationalistic order, was possessed of one of the brightest intellects of this century, and in many respects was fitted by nature to lead and to teach. He is not noted, however, as the founder of any school in religion or philosophy.
Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Mass., Aug. 21, 1810. He was descended from an old Puritan family. His grandfather and other near relatives were people of influence, and took a prominent part in the Revolutionary struggle. His father, John Parker, was a millwright and pump-maker by trade, but he also tilled a large farm, and was besides noted for rare intellectual culture. He possessed some scientific knowledge, and though much given to speculation in religion and philosophy, was withal a godly man. He rejected the predestination theory: into and as the Calvinists were then in the ascendency he came to dislike the Church. He was disinclined to believe all the miraculous in the Scriptures, but yet reverently accepted the authority of the Bible as, in a general sense, an inspired book, and not only went himself regularly to Church service, but also insisted upon daily worship in his family and their Church attendance. Theodore Parker's mother was a woman of more than ordinary ability and worth. She was well educated, and possessed of great personal beauty and poetic tastes. She was very domestic in her habits, and much devoted to her children; in short, was an example of sweet, fresh, and instructive piety. (As a youth Theodore Parker also enjoyed the advantages of a wholesome influence in his physical development. He was incited to activity in his father's shop and in the open field, and while he thus acquired habits of industry he also secured a well-developed frame and great physical endurance. His intellectual training depended largely on his own choice, and that was decidedly controlled by a thirst for knowledge. He was always studying, in school and out. In the summer noons, when others were enjoying a nap under the trees, he refreshed himself with his book. The extent of his reading was astonishing. Before he was eight years old he had read the translation of Homer and Plutarch, Rollin's Ancient History, and all the other volumes of history and poetry that came in his way. Books of travel and adventure were eagerly devoured. He went through Colburn's Algebra in three weeks. Nor did books alone engage his interest. He studied the stars and the flowers. The foreign fruits in Boston market, the husks and leaves that came wrapped around bales of goods from distant parts of the world, attracted his attention. Even the structure of the hills and the formation of the stones on his father's farm excited his curiosity. In the virtues of toil and economy his whole life was a school. In the summer he was employed in the usual labors of the farm and the workshop, digging; plowing, haying, laying stone wall, mending wheels, repairing wagons, and making pumps, with as much conscience, if not with as much delight, as in the pursuit of his studies. The book was always near to fill tip the crevices of time. He wanted more books than his father could afford to give him, and he could obtain them only by work. His first Latin grammar was the gift of his father; the Latin dictionary was paid for by picking huckleberries when he was twelve years old. The gift of expression was as prompt as the gift of acquisition. He was an impassioned declaimer and a skilfull mimic. While yet a schoolboy he had all the political events of the day at his tongue's and, and greatly amused the gossips of the country tavern by his wise discussions of them. But his superiority called forth no jealousy among his comrades. He was always full of fun, and took part in play with the other boys in the most robust style. The testimonies to his moral character are of this stamp. He was modest, pure, single-minded, frank. and truthful. His thoughts were busy with literature; his appetite for knowledge so eager as to preserve him from the temptations of his age.
He began to teach at seventeen, taking charge of district schools in the neighborhood for four successive winters. The last place at which he taught school was Waltham, and so determined was he to improve himself that he would, frequently encourage his scholars to take up studies he was himself desirous of pursuing. Thus he formed a class in French after having taken only a very few lessons himself, and Spanish without having enjoyed the instruction of a master for a single hour. When just twenty he went to Cambridge to be examined for admission to Harvard College. He was admitted; but being a non-resident, and unable to pay the tuition fees, he was not entitled to the degree of A.B. In 1840, however, the degree of A.M. was conferred upon him honoris causa. On March 23, 1831, he went to Boston in fulfillment of an engagement to assist in the instruction of a private school. He transported thither eleven octavo volumes, his entire library, and fell to work with indomitable resolution and energy. He received fifteen dollars a month and his board for teaching Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish, mathematics, and all branches of philosophy. He taught six hours a day, and from May to September seven hours. He remained in Boston just one year; whether the engagement was closed on his motion or not we do not know; but this we do know, that the work proved too much for his strength. He needed air and exercise, but he needed society even more. He next opened a private school at Watertown, where he found much to encourage him — pleasant social relations, the friendship of the Rev. Dr. Francis, the Unitarian clergyman there, and the promise of a wife in Miss Lydia D. Cabot, whom he married in 1837. Mr. Parker's achievements in scholarship during his residence in Watertown were remarkable. He pursued the study of Latin and Greek authors, and read the most of Cicero, Herodotus, Thucydides, Pindar, Theocritus, Bion, Moschus (the last four of which he translated), and AEschylus. He wrote for a Sunday school class a history of the Jews; increased his studies in metaphysics, taking up Cousin and the new school of French philosophers; and entered. upon a course of theology. Every Saturday he walked to Cambridge and to Charlestown for instruction in Hebrew. In addition to this, he devoted a portion of his time to the German poets, Goethe, Schiller, and Klopstock, and the works of Coleridge engaged a share of his attention. An occasional novel by Sir Walter Scott or a poem of Byron beguiled his leisure hours. "His studies," says his biographer, Frothingham, "ran into the early morning. The landlady kept the lamps well supplied, but there was no oil in his lamp when the day broke." In 1834 Parker entered the Cambridge divinity school, where he remained two years and three months. He was still so poor that he was obliged to eke out his scanty means by taking four or five pupils, and to practice the most rigid economy. In his journal he says that he did not take up the theological course without many misgivings, and that he had even taken preliminary studies looking towards the law as a profession, because he felt repelled by the doctrines which were taught in the pulpits, the notorious dullness of Sunday services, and the fact that the clergy did not lead in the intellectual, moral, or religious progress of the people. In this account of his experience as a minister, however, Parker is continually substituting his later conclusions for his early impressions. In certain cases we can detect great discrepancies between the statements. contained in. this document and the real facts. For example, among the "five distinct denials" of the popular theology with which he alleges that he entered upon his theological education, the first is "the ghastly doctrine of eternal damnation and a wrathful God." This he states that he made way with somewhere from his eleventh to his tenth year. But he had forgotten the confession of his faith which he made in a letter to his nephew, Columbus Greene, on April 2, 1834 (compare the examination on this topic in Meth. Qu. Rev. Jan. 1873, p. 17, 18).
At the theological school Parker made a marked impression. He soon came to be regarded as a prodigious athlete in his studies. He made daily acquaintance with books which were strange to many old Biblical scholars, and which the younger members of the school did not know even by name. He would dive into the college library and fish up huge tomes in Latin and Greek, which he would lug off to his room, and go into them with as much eagerness as a boarding-school girl goes into a novel. His power of speech also began to attract attention. He was the best debater, if not the best writer, in Divinity Hall. He finished his term at the divinity school in the summer of 1836, and, after preaching as a candidate in Barnstable, Greenfield, Northfield, and other vacant parishes in Massachusetts, accepted a call to settle in West Roxbury, where he was ordained in June, 1837. This was a quiet country place. His parish was small; and composed mostly of plain people, and his salary of six hundred dollars afforded no bewildering temptations; but the village was near Boston and Cambridge, and promised leisure for the work on which his heart was set. The absorbing pursuit of this period was the literature of the Bible. He devoted a share of his time to the Egyptian and Phoenician alphabets; he dallied with ancient inscriptions and coins; the Orphic poems attracted his attention; but the Bible literature led all the rest. Still, all literature in his eyes was sacred literature. All facts were divine facts. He came to look upon man as a progressive being, and developed by studies a theory very much like that of the modern development theorists, Lubbock, Tylor, Hittel, etc.; only he was more considerate to Christianity. Parker's journal is filled with curious inquiries into the mysterious phenomena of nature and life. To the last he was always gleaning accounts of miracle and prophecy. His reading was universal in its range. He took up Chapman the poet, Herrick, Wither, Drummond, Wotton Flecknoe, Surrey, Suckling. There was honey for him in every flower. The early Christian hymns, the Milesian fables, Cupid and Psyche, Campanella, biographies of Swedenborg and other famous mystics were his mental recreations. Hume, Gibbon, Robertson were trifles; Schleiermacher, Bouterwek, Baur, Hegel, Leibnitz, Laplace were more serious. Bopp's Comparative Grammunar, Karcher's Analecta, Meiier's History of Religions, Rimannlus's History of Atheism (Latin) are examples of the solid reading. The books that were not at hand, Abelard, for instance, and Averroes, he sought from afar. Wilkinson aind Rosellini were familiar to him. Hesiod he commented on minutely. Plato was a constant companion. No book is mentioned without some notice of its contents and critical remarks. So extensive was his course of study that the truthfulness of his statements have been called in question; and Prof. Prentice, in his reviews (Meth. Qu. Rev. Jan. - Oct. 1873), after detailed examination, pronounces Parker guilty of exaggeration and very, inaccurate in scholarship. "'The truth is, that accurate scholarship was not his gift. Mr. Parker read too much, his life through, to read well; he attempted too many languages to know any accurately. The merest inspection will show not only that his mode of life was unfavorable to study but also that he had more than enough to busy his mind with." We cannot endorse this harsh critique. Theodore Parker's' intellectual ability has been surpassed very rarely in this country. With naturally great powers, he had subjected himself to a thorough discipline, till he attained to a surprising degree of mental strength and vigor. His memory was very retentive: and it is said that he could repeat a whole volume of poetry, and would often learn by hearing a poem of four or five hundred lines from a single reading. It had been carefully cultivated, but not, as is too often the case, to the neglect of the other faculties. We must confess, however, that Parker's range of studies was too vast and too superficial to avail much, and that his intellectual constitution unfitted him for original work. True, his intellect was keen and subtle, and bored into everything, determined to find the kernel, if it had any. But it had no constructive power, and its range was lateral and horizontal, and lacked both height and depth. He saw sharply through sham reasoning in other people, could prick all wind- bladders with the needles of his criticism and satire, or, as Mr. Beecher has it, "he had a habit of striking at the root of things with very vigorous blows," and hence was quick to run down a falsehood, but he was just as impotent to establish a truth. His intellect was colored mainly by his tempestuous sensibilities. He had not even enough of the intuitive faculty, ,notwithstanding his abundant nomenclature about the consciousness, which he learned from Kant, for intellectual sympathy, and hence he could not enter into other people's beliefs so as to understand them and get their outlook.
The society which Parker found at West Roxbury was of special value to his culture. His immediate neighbors were a choice circle of cultivated persons used to the refinements of life, accomplished in literature and art, with high tone of sentiment, and "that rich flavor of character which distinguishes people well bred." In his student days at Cambridge, and in his earliest days of ministerial life, Theodore Parker had been a most ardent admirer of the Unitarian Channing. But gradually Emerson's influence came to predominate and crowded out Channing. In 1837 Parker and Channing read Strauss's Leben Jesu together, and in the discussion of their own views on this subject it soon developed that Channing was a conservative and Parker a radical theologian. By 1839 Emerson's influence was most decidedly in the ascendency, and fast growing, though silently, to vast power. This is very clearly apparent in an article which Parker published about this time in the Boston Qu. Rev. on "Palfrey's Lectures on the Jewish Scriptures and Antiquities," and in the Thursday lecture on "Inspiration," preached in January, 1840, in which he talks about the folly of thinking that the divine goodness had exhausted itself, and the probability that new Christ would be manifested among mankind. He began to hint, too, that we might equal or even transcend Jesus Christ in spiritual insight and moral excellence. In November of this year he gave, further proof of his departure from conservative theology by attending the Chardon Street Convention, then held in Boston. This meeting was called to discuss the ministry, the Sabbath, and the Church. Men of all shades of opinion were invited, under the management of Edmund Quincy, to share in the deliberations. Parker was advised by Channing to keep clear of the affair, but was bent on going. Of course the convention was a motley throng, and the extremists took virtual possession of the meeting. No candid and thoughtful believer had much chance of a hearing, and a questionable fame hangs over the convention. Parker seems to have taken no active part in their discussions; but a record in his journal shows that he meant to push his peculiar views: "I have my own doctrines, and shall support them, think the convention as it may." In this mood he resolved to write a sermon on Idolatry, and he minutes the points for discussion. These will help us to detect the drift of his meditations. After a few well-delivered blows at mammon and love of a good name, he uncovers the real objects of the discourse by saying that the Church makes an idol of the Bible; that it loves Jesus Christ as God, though he is not God; that the Church, ministry, and Sabbath are regarded as divine institutions, though they are merely human. This sermon he preached on the occasion of the Rev. C. C. Shackford's ordination at Howes Place Church, South Boston, May 19, 1841. The discourse was entitled The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity, and in it he flatly repudiated the theory of the infallible and miraculous inspiration of the Bible. The general verdict was that the temper of the discourse was harsh and sarcastic. The more conservative Unitarians were shocked at such sentiments, and a general dissatisfaction arose that a man holding. these views should be recognized as a Unitarian clergyman. His connection with them could only be an embarrassment to them and a discomfort to himself; yet, on the pretext that the rights of free thought and free speech were involved in the question, he refused to withdraw from them, as they would gladly have seen him do. They, on the other hand, refused to expel him from their association lest he should thus be afforded the position of a martyr. Yet he was punished for his heresy. For ecclesiastical and civil ostracism social proscription was substituted. People ceased to know him, ministers refused to exchange with him; he found the journals shut against him, and the effort was made to reduce him thus to silence. Debarred from the general privileges he had hitherto enjoyed, he withdrew himself altogether to his vicarage at West Roxbury, where, however the storm might rage elsewhere, he always found peace. It speaks well for him that all attempts to alienate the affections of his parishioners failed. They were his firm and constant friends. In this quiet abode he continued to study, read, think, and find domestic happiness; yet his eye watched the movement of the storm he had raised, and ever and anon he intervened in the conflict. Early in May, 1842, he sent the last sheet of his Discourse on Matters pertaining to Religion to the printer, and in somewhat more than a twelvemonth later his translation of De Wette's Introduction followed. Of the former work, we may say in this place that it was evidently an effort on the part of its author to clear what he conceives to be religion from entangling alliances. It is a vigorous rejection of the authority of the evangelical faith. The peculiar dogma of the book is the sufficiency of human nature for all its functions. "Man's religion is a joint development from the nature within him and the outward world. God, duty, and immortality are conceptions which arise of themselves in human souls. Out of these fundamental ideas all religious, systems have been built up." The autumn of 1843 found Parker so much worn out by toil that a voyage to Europe was recommended for recreation. A friend was near to supply the pecuniary needs of such a journey, and he set out September 9 to remain a whole year on the other side of the Atlantic. It proved no holiday trip for sight-seeing, but a serious pilgrimage. He returned like a student from his task. Unfortunately, however, his visit to the Old World had filled him with vast and ambitious schemes. The little church, of which he had borne a pencil-drawing on the fly-leaf of his European journal, in sight of the splendid cities with their vast cathedrals, had made him discontented with his circumscribed sphere, and he longed for broader fields and greater responsibilities. He deemed himself called to higher work. But how to get beyond his circumscribed circle of influence at West Roxbury, now that even the most radical of Unitarian clergy dared not to invite him to his pulpit, was the question. His sympathizers were numerous in all the churches, and evinced their love for him by constantly crowding his little country church Sunday after Sunday, whither many came from the city to sit under his preaching. He soon saw very clearly that he must first leaven the little lump that came to his own door, and so he wrought with them until they were powerful and enthusiastic enough to promise his support in the metropolis; and in January, 1845, about a year and a quarter after his return from Europe, Parker removed to Boston, with a view of forming a permanent congregation in that city. It was as yet simply an experiment, but it proved successful. The masses are ever ready to applaud the destructive elements in society. Those who toil quietly to build up are hardly known, but those who come to tear down and destroy are warmly welcomed, loudly proclaimed, and constantly cheered. So it happened that within a twelve month Parker was firmly established as a religious teacher. He preached in the Melodeon, and became the minister of what he always called "The Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston." In there and then presented the extraordinary spectacle of a man who vigorously and emphatically repudiated all the fundamentals of Christianity, and who denied that there was "any great moral or religious truth in the New Testament which had not been previously set forth by men, for whom no miraculous help was ever claimed," still professing to be a Christian minister! There was no Church organization, and no sacraments were administered. The public services consisted simply of a single discourse every Sunday on some literary, philosophical, theological, or political topic, having more or less of a moral or religious bearing, with music and a certain kind of prayer. His congregation, which was large, as might be expected, was made up of men of diverse religious opinions, comparatively few of whom agreed with him, except in his thorough opposition to evangelical Christianity and his general philanthropic sentiments. The mass of his hearers were men of considerable thought, who had a taste for religious discussion, but who had reasoned themselves away from the Bible — had become dissatisfied with the churches, and had passed into various phases of unbelief. There were atheists, deists physical and spiritual pantheists, fatalists, spiritualists, come-outers, universal skeptics, and secularists. There were many persons of high culture, wealth, and social position. The more radical reformers, dissatisfied with the indifference of some of the churches to great public vices, and the complicity of others in them naturally gathered around a man who boldly attacked all public sins, and delighted to pour forth his scorching invective upon those religious bodies who only rebuked unpopular wickedness. Thus a large element of his congregation consisted of those who, having no especial religious or irreligious principles, were attracted by the fascinating manner, the novel matter, the trenchant wit, and other high intellectual qualities, of his discourses. He was not what is popularly termed an eloquent speaker — though he was something far better. Neither his person, attitude, gesture, nor elocution indicated the great orator. There was no splendid declamation, no soaring flight, no electrifying of the audience as by some rhetorical machinery. He had learned, what so few of our scholars ever know, how to convey great thoughts in common language. Not that his vocabulary was meager or vulgar — though there was sometimes an approach to coarseness in his expressions. On the contrary, his range of language was remarkably extensive, and his command of appropriate terms almost unlimited. He was thus able to popularize the most abstruse thought, and convey it in the most familiar words. His fertility of illustration was unbounded, and his brief similes and metaphors sometimes gave possession of a valuable idea which whole pages of writing might otherwise have failed to bring out. In reading as well as in hearing him, all felt that an ordinary man was placing before them extraordinary thoughts. It is true that sometimes when discoursing on some popular sin before which the Church and the political parties had been awed into silence, his soul would become mightily stirred, and then the momentum was almost terrible. A natural rhetoric would marshal his phrases in wonderful order; his fiery words would tingle in the ears of those who heard them; there was then an eloquence which inspired whole multitudes after the sublimest manner. Ordinarily, however, he spoke in a plain, easy, conversational way, using familiar but striking illustrations, garnishing, and yet helping the argument with strokes of irresistible humor, not sparing the terrible sarcasm in which he was an adept, often palpably extravagant in his statements, now and then violating the conventional canons of good taste, but always making his point tell, at whatever sacrifice. Besides preaching on Sunday, Theodore Parker is said to have engaged largely in parochial duties, attending to the wants of the poor, and the afflicted. Of these, we find no definite account; but from the benevolent character of the man we have no doubt that he devoted some time to these, genial employments. In addition to the duties of his parish, his public labors were very numerous. He lectured before lyceums all through New England and many other Northern states, to the amount of eighty or one hundred times in a year;
was present at and addressed many kinds of meetings for the promotion of temperance, antislavery, education, the rights of women, etc.
Though often in feeble health, Theodore Parker seldom allowed physical languor to intermit his work. He knew nothing of the necessity of sleep, exercise, or recreation. He grew up thoughtless of the simplest conditions of physical health. For more than ten years before his death he manifested symptoms that caused great anxiety to every one but himself. But it was not till the beginning of 1859 that he was compelled to relinquish his pulpit, and seek for the improvement of his health in another climate. On February 3 he sailed for Santa Cruz, where he remained until the middle of May, when he took passage from St. Thomas for Southampton. His stay in Switzerland and Italy was to no purpose. The fatal moment did not long delay to strike. After suffering intensely from the capricious climate, and still more from the spiritual atmosphere of Rome, he found a welcome resting-place in the beautiful Florence, where in the midst of flowers, which he loved so well, he died May 10, 1860. He had often expressed a desire in earlier life that, like Goethe and Channing, he might not be deterred from labor by the prospect of immediate death. Shortly before his decease he addressed to his congregation in Boston a letter containing his experience of the fourteen years' pastorate at the Melodeon. He now rests in the little cemetery outside the walls of Florence; his tombstone, at his own request, simply recording his name and the dates of his birth and death.
See, besides the preface to his works, his Life by Weiss (lost. 1864, 2 vols. 8vo), and by Frothingham (1874); A Discourse occasioned by the Death of Theodore Parker, delivered by P.W. Perfitt in South Place Chapel, Finsbury, on Sunday evening, May 27, 1860 (1860); The late Theodore Parker, a discourse delivered in South Place Chapel, Finsbury, on Sunday morning, June 3, 1860, by Henry N. Barnett, published by request (1860); Three Discourses delivered on the Occasion of the Death of Theodore Parker, by the Rev. Messrs. Warren, Newhall, and Haven (N. Y. 1860); Hurst, History of Rationalism, p. 564 sq.; Farrar, Critical History of Free Thought, p. 323 sq.; Methodist Qu. Rev. April-Oct. 1873; July, 1859, p. 433; Brit. and For. Ev. Rev. Oct. 1857,- art. viii; Lond. Qu. Rev. vol. iii, art. i.