Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Edwin Percy Whipple (18191886)
[From American Literature, and Other Papers. 1887.]
EMERSON, though in some respects connected with the Unitarian movement as having been a minister of the denomination, soon cut himself free from it, and was as independent of that form of Christian faith as he was of other forms. He drew from all quarters, and whatever fed his religious sense of mystery, of might, of beauty, and of Deity, was ever welcome to his soul. As he was outside of all religious organizations, and never condescended to enter into any argument with his opponents, he was soon allowed silently to drop out of theological controversy. But a fiercer and more combative spirit now appeared to trouble the Unitarian clergyman,a man who considered himself a Unitarian minister, who had for Calvinism a stronger repulsion than Channing or Norton ever felt, and who attempted to drag on his denomination to conclusions at which most of his members stood aghast.
This man was Theodore Parker, a born controversialist, who had the challenging chip always on his shoulder, which he invited both his Unitarian and his Orthodox brethren to knock off. There never was a man who more gloried in a fight. If any theologians desired to get into a controversy with him as to the validity of their opposing beliefs, he was eager to give them as much of it as they desired. The persecution he most keenly felt was the persecution of inattention and silence. He was the Luther of radical Unitarianism. When the Unitarian societies refused fellowship with his society, he organized a church of his own, and made it one of the most powerful in New England. There was nothing but disease which could check, and nothing but death which could close his controversial activity. He became the champion of radical as against conservative Unitarianism, and the persistent adversary even of the most moderate Calvinism. Besides his work in these fields of intellectual effort, he threw himself literally head-foremostand his head was large and well storedinto every unpopular reform which he could aid by his will, his reason, his learning, and his moral power. He was among the leaders in the attempt to apply the rigid maxims of Christianity to practical life; and many Orthodox clergymen, who combined with him in his assaults on intemperance, slavery, and other hideous evils of our civilization, almost condoned his theological heresies in their admiration of his fearlessness in practical reforms. He was an enormous reader and diligent student, as well as a resolute man of affairs. He also had great depth and fervency of piety. His favorite hymn was Nearer, my God, to Thee. While assailing what the great body of New England people believed to be the foundations of religion, he startled vigorous orthodox reasoners by his confident teaching that every individual soul had a consciousness of its immortality independent of revelation, and superior to the results of all the modern physical researches which seemed to place it in doubt. Indeed, his own incessant activity was an argument for the souls immortality. In spite of all the outside calls on his energies, he found time to attend strictly to his ministerial duties, to make himself one of the most accomplished theological and general scholars in New England, and to write and translate books which required deep study and patient thought. The physical frame, stout as it was, at last broke downhis mind still busy in meditating new works which were never to be written. Probably no other clergyman of his time, not even Mr. Beecher, drew his society so closely to himself, and became the object of so much warm personal attachment and passionate devotion. Grim as he appeared when, arrayed in his theological armor, he went forth to battle, he was in private intercourse the gentlest, most genial, and most affectionate of men. And it is to be added that few Orthodox clergymen had a more intense religious faith in the saving power of their doctrines than Theodore Parker had in the regenerating efficacy of his rationalistic convictions. When Luther was dying, Dr. Jonas said to him, Reverend father, do you die in implicit reliance on the faith you have taught? And from those lips, just closing in death, came the steady answer Yes. Theodore Parkers answer to such a question, put to him on his death-bed, would have been the same.