Theodore Parker.

Genealogy and biographical notes of John Parker of Lexington and his descendants: Showing his earlier ancestry in America from Dea. Thomas Parker of Reading, Mass., from 1635 to 1893 online

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Online LibraryTheodore ParkerGenealogy and biographical notes of John Parker of Lexington and his descendants: Showing his earlier ancestry in America from Dea. Thomas Parker of Reading, Mass., from 1635 to 1893 → online text (page 23 of 47)
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closet and preach another in his pulpit ! Over his study and over
his pulpit might be writ ' EMPTINESS ' ; on his canonical robes,
on his forehead and right hand, 'DECEIT, DECEIT.'"

In short, he appealed to what was noble in man. All
nature came in for a share in his worship ; he showed how to
practice direct prayerful communion at all times ; taught duty
by a marvellous example as well as advice ; taught that man
could make the inspiration of his own conscience his sure and
constant guide. He loved to "apprehend religious truths
directly from the Almighty without the mediation of sacra-
ment, creed or Bible." He believed in the final redemption of
the whole human race. His belief was that

"So a man is a Christian, it makes little diflerence whether he is
a Calvinist or Lutheran, Papist or Protestant. We all know that
each sect contains in its instructions enough of pure vital Christian
advice to insure our salvation, so far as this depends upon ourselves
or our fellow mortals."

His conscientious decisions were the result of his constant
study, reflection, his strong mental philosophy and his great
knowledge of men and things. He was a member of the
Boston Association of Unitarian Ministers, who strongly criti-
cized his religious views as not being confined to their sect.
Theodore answered their attacks by an able letter of great
length, therein declaring his principles, and nobly challenging
any of their best speakers or writers to come forward and
manfully discuss the great question on its merits. It was a
Challenge that was never answered and quiet was for some
time restored. But the brotherhood forbid all exchanges with
Mr. Parker on penalty of expulsion from the society. The
people at large were now becoming interested.

His own words appropriately reveal the magnitude of his
great undertaking, his indomitable will and courage.



*'I feel it is a great work that I have undertaken. I know that so
far as the ministers are concerned, I am alo?te^ — all alone. But I
have no ambition to gratify, and so neither fear the disgrace nor
covet the applause they can give me. Blessed be these iron times !
there is something for a man to do, and. still more, there is some-
thing for man to think.

. . . " If I had the presence of two men, I would be two minis-
ters, one here, and the other in Boston. ... I pray God for the
permanence of my ability ; I have greater deeds to do, greater deeds
to dare. ... I knew always the risks that I run in saying what
was hostile to the popular theology. But I care not what the
result is to me, I ask only a chance to do my duty. 1 know men
will eye me with suspicion and ministers with hatred; that is not
my concern. . . . The thought that I am doing my duty is of rich
reward to me ; I know of none so great. I see men stare at me in
the street and point and say, ' That is Theodore Parker,' and look at
me as if I were a murderer. Old friends, even parishioners, will
not bow to me in the street. I knew all this would come. It has
come from my religion ; and I would not forego that religion for all
this world can give. . . . Some of my relations, two or three hun-
dred years ago, lost their heads for their religion. I am called on to
no such trial, and can well bear my lighter cross. ... I consider
man's duty to be this, — to do the most good a?id the least evil possi-
ble. As for the consequences of such action, I fear them not ; they
lie not with me."

But a great part of Theodore Parker's fame as a preacher
is associated with the Boston Music Hall. The society re-
moved from the Melodian to their new place of worship Nov.
21, 1852. Here Theodore made his greatest power felt. In
this spacious temple he could let in the world of mankind ; it
was the world he wanted. The assemblies were on the whole
the most remarkable and nearly the largest that ever gathered
statedly within four walls in America. He at once attracted
and held a considerable body of earnest and truth-seeking men
and women ; and besides these, a large floating mass was
drawn towards that centre, persons who were impelled by vari-
ous motives, and who did not regard themselves as members
of that Society, though many of them subsequently became
so. For 14 years he occupied this position, preaching to the
largest audience that gathered in any church in Boston, com-
prising all sorts and conditions of men, from the most cultured


to the least, — each finding something to satisfy him. His
earnestness and sincerity, his vast range of information, em-
bracing every department of human knowledge, his wealth of
illustration, his aptness in discriminating between shams and
realities, his felicity of language, and his wonderful faculty in
adapting his speech to the comprehension of listeners of all
grades, — made his sermons a delight to the minds and a
refreshment to the souls of those who heard them. He
preached the "absolute religion," and its adaptation to every
department and phase of human life and conduct, exposed the
falseness and hollowness of the popular theology, held up to
view and denounced the sins of the nation and of society, —
war, slavery, intemperance, the degradation of women, covet-
ousness and minor vices, — portrayed with masterly hand many
prominent men of the nation, as warnings or examples, set up
a lofty ideal of manhood and womanhood, and sought to bring
all up to that high standard of virtue and excellence. The
richness of his intellect, the sensitiveness of his conscience,
the tenderness of his heart, the yearning of his soul for the
"first good, first perfect and first fair," his love of truth, his
hatred of wrong and injustice, his moral courage, his intense
humanity, and his fervid piety, were expressed in his sermons
and prayers, which lifted his hearers to a higher plane and
gave them new life and strength and hope. None such had
been heard in Boston before nor have been since.

His biographer, O. B. Frothingham, well known pastor of
the Third Unitarian Church of New York, thus gives us a few-
interesting facts :

•'Mr. Parker's central position commanded a broad view. He
moved but little as he spoke ; his hand only occasionally rose and
fell on the manuscript before him as if to emphasize a passage to
himself; but his person was motionless and his arm still. He was a
scholar and a teacher, who addressed the individual understanding
and the private conscience. He had no accessories of rite, symbol,
ceremony, doctrinal or ecclesiastical mystery. His prayers weie
expressions of devout feeling, personal and tender, but without
humiliation, superstition or the least recognition of dogma at begin-
ning or end. The sermons were seldom less than an hour in length,
often more ; and were crammed with thought. To listen to him
regularly was indeed a liberal education, not in theology or even in


religion alone, but in politics, history, literature, science and art.
His audiences were held in breathless attention by the spell of earnest
thought alone, uttered in language so simple, that a plain man hear-
ing him remarked on leaving the church, 'Is that Theodore Parker.-*
You told me he was a remarkable man ; but I understood every word
he said.' His rule was to have no sentence that was above the
comprehension of the simplest intelligence. The style was never
dry ; the sentences short and pithy ; the language was fragrant Avith
the odor of the fields, and rich with the juices of the ground.

"So fervent was his utterance, so natural and human his cry, that
the flowers on the table before him colored his devout speech, and
the voices of the animals blent easily with his own. One Sunday,
a terrier dog, that had strayed into the hall, suddenly, in the midst
of the prayer, lifted up a piercing bark. 'We thank thee, O Father
of all, who hast made even the humblest dumb creature to praise
thee after his own way I ' responded the supplicating lips. He was
preaching a discourse, one winter's day, on • Obstacles.' Describing
a man to whom obstacles are helps, he said, ' Before such a man all
obstacles will ' — at this instant a mass of frozen snow that had col-
lected on the roof came down with a noise like thunder, that shook
the building and startled the audience with a momentary feeling of
dismay — 'slide away like the ice from the slated roof,' said the
preacher's reassuring voice."

He loved to preach ; subjects crowded on him faster than
he could deal with them. The Sundays were too few with
him, rather than too many.

"Is it not sometimes a burden to the preacher to go through the
devotional exercises of the Sunday.'"' asked one of his friends.
"Never to me," was the reply. "The natural aptitude of my mind
has always been prayerful. A snatch of such feeling passes through
me as I walk in the streets, or engage in any work. I sing prayers
when I loiter in the woods, or travel the quiet road ; these founts
of communion, which lie so deep, seem always bubbling to the sur-
face ; and the utterance of a prayer is at any time as simple to me as

A man of such commanding ability and genuine sympathy
with mankind could not be spared from taking an active part in
other movements for the amelioration and uplifting of the unfor-
tunate and down-trodden. He was an earlv advocate of tem-
perance and he entered into its encouragement with the same
thoroughness and activity which characterized all his labors.


In 1845 he joined the anti-slavery leaders in their work, and
from that time forward was one of the most conspicuous and
indefatigable laborers in that field. He did an immense ser-
vice in arousing and educating the conscience of the people,
in impelling them to recognize and oppose the evils of slavery,
and in enunciating and diffusing the principles and shaping the
policy which found practical expression in the national poli-
tics, and which led ultimately to the overthrow of that gigantic
wrong. He gave himself to this cause with all the ardor and
thoroughness which characterized his efforts in the theological
field, and lavished upon it all the wealth of his nature and
acquirements. His writings upon this subject form a body of
anti-slavery literature of great value for clearness and accuracy
of statement, historical narrative and pertinent facts and statis-
tics, — showing the rise and progress of slavery, and the devel-
opment of the southern policy, and painting the evils of the
institution in clear, bold colors ; setting forth also the great
American idea which gives to the Constitution and the Union
their value and glory, and rebuking with just indignation the
men in high places who betrayed that idea and imperilled the
safety and prosperity of the country.

Politically, he vigorously opposed the Mexican war. He
was bitterly opposed to the passage of the Fugitive Slave
Law, which was accomplished in 1850. Every case of at-
tempted rendition in Boston enlisted his personal activity. In
June, 1854, when Anthony Burns, a fugitive, was captured
and returned to his master, Mr. Parker delivered a stinging
speech against the action and against the fugitive slave law to
an anti-rendition meeting at Faneuil Hall. For this he was
indicted on the charge of "resisting a U. S. officer in his
attempt to execute process": was arrested and tried. But
Theodore made use of these circumstances to good advantage.
He prepared an elaborate defence, which he printed and cir-
culated. The charge was quashed upon a technicality, hav-
ing produced no disgrace to Mr. Parker's reputation, as his
enemies had desired. On the contrary, it was quite to his
satisfaction, for his masterly speech and also his defence, en-
titled the "Trial of Theodore Parker for the Misdemeanor of
a Speech delivered in Faneuil Hall against Kidnapping," was


read by thousands throughout all the land who now began to
take a lively interest in the anti-slavery movement.

His exposition of the wickedness and injustice of the Fugi-
tive Slave Law, and his denunciation of it, and appeals to the
higher law, when eminent clergymen, statesmen and mer-
chants combined to uphold it and secure its enforcement, form
a striking episode in the history of that eventful period. His
speech and action, when the kidnappers came to Boston in
search of their fugitive slaves, proved his courage and led to
his indictment and the writing of his "Defence," a remarka-
ble book, which will be of great value to the future historian.
It contains the best account to be found of judicial and legal
tyranny from the reign of James I. to the time of his own

At this time he began lecturing and preaching throughout
the Northern States. His name was spoken of with esteem
and with hate in every State ; throughout every town. His
printed sermons were sold by the thousand and read by the
ten thousand.

His efforts for the suppression of poverty, drunkenness,
ignorance, prostitution and crime, and the removal of their
causes, were vigorous and unceasing ; and the victims of these
vices found in him a wise friend and helper. These matters
are discussed with great efficiency and plainness in his books
and are abundantly illustrated with facts and figures. His
personal efforts, singly or in combination with others, for the
benefit of these unfortunate classes, were without stint, and
much of his time was consumed in that way.

The movement in behalf of the rights of woman and her
equality with man found in him a hearty and eloquent advocate,
and he was one of the foremost in denouncing the injustice of
those who deny these rights, in exposing the fallacies of their
arguments, and appealing to the common sense and justice of
mankind to accord to her her proper position and an equal
opportunity with man for culture, development and the exer-
cise of her natural talents in various directions.

His biographical discourses were models of thoroughness
and strength. While preparing his pulpit oration on John
Quincy Adams he reviewed the statesman's whole career.



read every speech, analyzed every argument, scrutinized
every act, went behind every piece of public policy, and laid
out the history so simply that the least instructed intelligence
could understand it. Before writing the greatest discourse of
them all, on Daniel Webster dead, he did more than this : he
gleaned from all credible sources information in regard to Mr.
Webster's private life and character ; probed the secrets of his
ancestry ; read the principal works of distinguished authors,
jurists and statesmen in England ; studied again the orations
of Demosthenes and Cicero in order to settle precisely in his
own mind the rank of the great American as lawyer, states-
man, orator and man. That wonderful oration was written
at a heat. The preparation for it covered weeks and even
years, but a few hours of solitary meditation in the country,
after the statesman's death, fused the mass of material so com-
pletely that it ran like molten metal into the literary mould.
The effect in the delivery was prodigious. The whole audi-
ence leaned forward in rapt attention, listening with breathless
intensity ; and when he spoke of his mourning for Webster,
and cried in choking voice, " O Webster, Webster ! my king,
my king! would I had died for thee!" every eye was wet
with tears.

He was the strongest man on any occasional platform on
which he stood, — always presenting his views with a force of
intellect, breadth of observation, homelike style of address and
superabundance of information that quite overshadowed those
whose lives had been spent in that special field of labor. His
opinions were broader, more practical and nearer to common
sense than the platform of the exclusive party with which he
was working at the time. In every conflict between barba-
rism and true civilization he always was found on the side of
the latter.

His preaching and other public speaking were not limited
to Boston. As he became more known, he was in demand in
the lecture-room and at gatherings of various kinds in New
England and beyond. During the last ten years of his active
life he lectured from eighty to a hundred times each year, his
field comprising every Northern State east of the Mississippi,
and once he spoke in a slave State, on slavery itself. Many


invitations he was compelled to decline. The people heard
him gladly and he made hosts of friends during these expedi-
tions, comprising man)^ of the best people in the various towns
and overcame much of the prejudice existing against him.

He spoke on the subjects in which he was so deepl}^ inter-
ested, mostly upon the various matters of reform to which he
had given his life, directly and simply, and won his hearers
to his side by his earnestness, candor and natural eloquence,
and his happy faculty of presenting great themes — often dry
and matter-of-fact in detail — in an attractive manner. As an
illustration of this, one of his friends says:

"I have always remembered a certain lecture of his on the Anglo-
Saxons as the most wonderful instance that ever came within my
knowledge of the adaptation of solid learning to the popular inellect.
There was nearly two hours of almost unadorned fact, — for there
was less than usual of relief and illustration, — yet the lyceum audi-
ence listened as if an angel sang to them. So perfect was his sense
of purpose and of power, so clear and lucid was his delivery, with
such wonderful composure did he lay out, section by section, his
historical chart, that he grasped his hearers as absolutely as he
o-rasped his subject. Without grace or beauty or melody, his mere
elocution was sufficient to produce effects which melody, grace and
beauty might have sought for in vain."

The same friend, one of the few eminent classical scholars
of New England, says :

"Theodore Parker was the only man with whom I could sit down
and seriously discuss a disputed reading, and find him familiar with
all that had been written upon it. I know for one, and there are
many who will bear the same testimony, that I never went to Mr,
Parker to talk over a subject which I had just made a specialty with-
out finding that on that particular matter he happened to know,
without special investigation, more than I did. This extended be-
yond books, as for instance any point connected with the habits of
animals and the phenomena of out-door nature. Such were his
wonderful quickness and his infallible memory that glimpses of these
thincrs did for him the work of years. It was in popularizing knowl-
edo-e that his great and wonderful power lay."

Although he was one of the giants of learning his style is
remarkable for its absence from all taint of scholastic and
metaphysical terms. Speaking of his mental qualifications,


James Freeman Clarke, one of the few noble men and Unita-
rians who believed in the freedom of thought, and stood by-
Mr. Parker when the clergy of that faith denounced him, and
remained his warm friend to the last, said of him :

" Some men's minds are filled with a great multitude of ill-assorted
knowledges, crowded confusedly together like a mob around a
muster-ground. Others have a very small number of very well
arranged and drilled opinions, like a militia regiment thoroughly
organized as regards its officers, but very thin as regards its rank
and file. The thoughts, opinions, convictions, varieties of knowl-
edge in Theodore Parker's mind are like a well-appointed and
thoroughly organized army, with full ranks, beautiful in its uniforms
and its banners, inspired by the martial airs of its music, complete
in all arms, — infantry, cavalry, engineers, artillery, — marching to the
overthrow of a demoralized and discouraged enemy."

His conversational power was marvellous. He could talk
upon any subject, and astonished and fascinated every listener,
pouring out a flood of various and delightful information, wit
and wisdom, adapted to the needs and capacity of the hearer,
and never failing to say the right thing in the right place.
Thackeray said, when he came to America, that what he
most desired was to hear Theodore Parker talk. In this
phase of expression it has been said that he had no Anglo-
Saxon rival except Macaulay, but he lacked the arrogance
and impatience of opposition which characterized the great

He had a very extensive correspondence with strangers and
personal friends, among whom were eminent scholars and
scientists in this country and Europe. The great leaders of
the Republican party were his friends, and undoubtedly his
influence was exerted through them on the momentous quest-
ions of the day. William H. Seward said of him; "In his
grasp of the political issues of the times and their moral bear-
ings he surpasses us all."

He was the most generous of men. His sympathies were
world-wide and ever on the alert for the suffering and oppressed.
Refugees from foreign lands, hunted slaves, poverty-stricken
scholars, sorrowing women, all sorts of needy and unbefriended
mortals came to him, and found in him a true friend and wise


adviser. He helped them with money and lavished upon
them what was of far more value.

Spiritually he was of immense service to thousands of earn-
est men and women who had fallen into indifference or unbe-
lief in religious matters, a condition for which the false theolo-
gy and low spiritual state of the Church were largely respon-
sible. By the promulgation of his ideas he created a power-
ful revival of fundamental religion throughout the country ;
not by dealing with the mere superficial elements of human
nature and character, as did the Calvinistic Churches in their
so-called revivals. Their barbaric creeds, worldly policy and
social inhumanities, and their interpretation of the Bible had
repelled these people. His presentation of the natural relig-
ion, based on reason and the noblest instincts of humanity,
drew them to his side, and they found a peace and satisfaction
therein which they had not known before.

Mr. Parker's persistent and well-grounded attacks upon the
popular theology, and exposition of its absurdities, together
with the favor with which his teachings were received by a
large class of people, were a constant source of annoyance
and displeasure to the Churches which held to the old forms
of belief, and many were the denunciations and warnings
uttered from their pulpits against him and his heretical views.
This feeling found remarkable expression during a season of
revival in a prayer meeting held in Park Street Church, Bos-
ton, on Saturday, March 6, 1858, in which the Lord was be-
sought to "remove him out of the way and let his influence
die with him," to "send confusion and distraction into his
study this afternoon, and prevent his finishing his preparation
for his labors to-morrow," to "confound him so that he shall
not be able to speak," to "induce the people to leave him and
to come and fill up this house instead of that," to "put a hook
in his jaws so that he may not be able to speak."

These supplications were admirably answered by Mr. Parker
from his desk in the Music Hall, in two sermons preached on
the 4th and nth of April, on "A False and True Revival of
Religion," and "The Revival of Religion which we Need."
They furnished a striking instance of absolute, unvarnished


truth-telling, and are full of unsparing criticism, pure morali-
ty and tender devoutness.

His last sermon, entitled "What Religion may do for a
Man," was preached in Boston, January 2, 1859. ^^ ^^^
morning of Sunday, January 9th, the illness from which he
had been suffering for some years previous, the result of his
multitudinous and incessant labors in so many fields of useful-
ness and exposures incident thereto, culminated in a haemor-
rhage of the lungs. Consumption had been prevalent in his
mother's family for a long time. The absolute necessity of
stopping his work and devoting himself to an effort to restore
his broken health was thus forced upon him in such a manner
that he could not disregard the warning.

On the 3rd of February he left Boston never to return. He
spent some weeks at Santa Cruz and other places in the West
Indies, and then sailed for Europe, where he passed nearly a
year, mainly in Switzerland and Italy, and died in Florence,
May 10, i860, tranquilly and beautifully, full of the trust and
faith in God which he had so nobly preached. By his request

Online LibraryTheodore ParkerGenealogy and biographical notes of John Parker of Lexington and his descendants: Showing his earlier ancestry in America from Dea. Thomas Parker of Reading, Mass., from 1635 to 1893 → online text (page 23 of 47)