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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Theodore Parker (1810–1860)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John White Chadwick (1840–1904)
 
THEODORE PARKER was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, August 24th, 1810; the eleventh and youngest child of John and Hannah (Stearns) Parker. His grandfather, John Parker, commanded the company of militia on Lexington Green, April 19th, 1775; and said to his men as the British soldiers were approaching, “Don’t fire unless fired upon; but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” A certain fighting temper in Parker rooted back into this family tradition, and was nourished by the circumstance that his father’s carpenter-shop was the belfry from which the summons to the farmer folk rang out on that eventful day. From his father, who was both carpenter and farmer, he inherited a strong and active mind, and a disposition “not to take things for granted”; from his mother his finer and more sympathetic qualities. Speaking of Daniel Webster’s mother, and thinking of his own, he wrote: “When virtue leaps high in the public fountain, you seek for the lofty spring of nobleness, and find it far off in the dear breast of some mother who melted the snows of winter and condensed the summer’s sun into fair sweet humanity, which now gladdens the face of man in all the city streets.”  1
  He was still a mere boy when he resolved upon a life of study and the work of a minister. His first book—ultimately one of some twenty thousand volumes and pamphlets—was a Latin dictionary, which he earned by picking berries in the Lexington pastures. One of his rarest books had long eluded him, when he finally got upon its scent in a Southern paper sent to him that he might have the benefit of some abusive article upon his antislavery course. In 1830 he entered Harvard College, and for four years kept pace with the studies there, while still working on the farm or engaged in teaching school. Harvard might well give him the degree A. M. in 1840; for by that time he was master of a dozen languages, with a good smattering of half a dozen more. He entered the Divinity School in 1834, midway of the course, and was graduated in 1836. His first settlement was in West Roxbury, Massachusetts; which, though a suburb of Boston, was then so much of a farming village that the young preacher, always soundly practical, found in ‘The Temptations of Milkmen’ an appropriate subject for a sermon. During his Roxbury ministry he was translating De Wette’s ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’; but his great acquisitions in the way of learning never burdened him in his pulpit work. Even when he waxed philosophical, he translated his philosophy into the vernacular speech.  2
  Whatever the natural tendencies of Parker’s mind, it is unquestionable that they were much affected by the Transcendental movement of which Emerson was the New England coryphæus, and which found its inspirations from abroad in Coleridge and Carlyle rather than in the great German idealists. So far as Parker’s Transcendentalism had any German stamp on it, it was that of Jacobi. It was certainly not that of Kant, whose God and immortality were not even inferences of the moral law, but good working hypotheses. Parker proclaimed the soul’s direct consciousness of all three of these great objects of belief. But it may well be questioned whether he was not a philosopher more by accident than by any natural bent, and whether his Transcendentalism was not rather a crude expression of the robust and joyous faith of his own believing soul than any doctrine of universals, carefully thought out. It is impossible to read him widely and not feel that in what is inductive and scientific in his thinking, much more than in what is deductive and metaphysical, we have the natural gesture of his mind. No one ever reveled in facts more joyously than he, or had more of a stomach for statistics which his digestion of them could not match.  3
  When Emerson gave his famous Divinity School address in July 1838, Parker was there to hear it with a quick-beating heart; and walking home that night, he resolved to keep silence no longer on the matters which that address made a subject of general discussion in the Unitarian churches. When, in 1839, Professor Andrews Norton animadverted on Emerson’s address as ‘The Latest Form of Infidelity,’ and George Ripley, of Brook Farm distinction, took Norton in hand, Parker also took part in the controversy, but, with becoming modesty, in an anonymous pamphlet. Anonymity was not, however, the habit of his life; though frequently resorted to when, as a notorious heretic, he feared to injure some good cause by having his connection with it known. On May 19th, 1841, he was engaged to preach the ordination sermon of Mr. Charles Shackford, in South Boston. He took for his subject ‘The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,’ and the sermon proved to be one of three of the most epoch-making in the history of American Unitarianism; Emerson’s address a second, Channing’s “Baltimore sermon” of 1819 the third. The doctrine preached was, that the moral and religious teachings of Jesus were permanent elements in Christianity, and that the miraculous element was transient. There was no denial that miracles had been associated with the origin of Christianity; only that they are necessary to its modern acceptance and support. But the conservative Unitarians contended that Christianity must be accepted because of the New Testament miracles, or it was no Christianity at all. Whereupon a controversy arose of great violence and bitterness. Without being formally excluded from the Unitarian body, Parker was shut out from all the prominent Unitarian pulpits; the ministers venturing to exchange with him being punished for their temerity by the secession from their societies of many “gentlemen of property and standing,” or by the entire loss of their positions. Thereupon certain persons came together, and voted “that Theodore Parker have a chance to be heard in Boston”; and he had it, giving in the form of lectures his ‘Discourse of Matters pertaining to Religion,’—the book which is at once the best expression of his theological mind and of his literary methods. In 1845 he began preaching every Sunday in Boston, without surrendering his Roxbury parish; but in 1846, finding this double work too arduous, he concentrated his energies on his Boston pulpit; first at the Melodeon and afterward at the Music Hall, preaching to a congregation much larger than any other in the city. This continued until 1859, when his health broke down. He went to the West Indies, and there wrote an elaborate account of his ministry, which is one of the most impressive and affecting of his many publications. From the West Indies he went to Europe, and died in Florence, May 10th, 1860. His body is buried there in the English cemetery.  4
  It was much easier for Parker to give up the traditional supports of religion, because he was naturally a believer of uncommon spontaneity. For all his denials, his piety was so warm and glad that it put to shame the colder temper of the Unitarians who could not endure his heresies. These were more pronounced as he went on. From denying the permanent necessity for the miraculous, he passed to a denial of its historical evidence, anticipating the position of Huxley and Matthew Arnold: in proportion to the divergence from our habitual experience, alleged facts must have more evidence to establish them, and the New Testament miracles do not meet this requisition. His published sermons do not in their aggregation give a just impression of his preaching in its proportionate character. They represent it as more controversial and occasional than it was. His ‘Ten Sermons on Religion’ is the volume most representative of his average strain; while for the tenderness of his piety one must see his ‘Prayers,’ caught as they sped to heaven by some loving friend, and the meditations of his ‘Journal’ as they appear in the ill-made but invaluable ‘Life and Correspondence,’ written and edited by John Weiss. The ‘Life’ by Frothingham is much better written, but far less rich as an expression of Parker’s wonderful range of knowledge, thought, religious sentiment, and passionate engrossment in political affairs.  5
  It is in the last of these particulars that a great many persons who conceive of Parker as believing quite too little or too much, find ample justification for the warmest eulogy. Think as they may of his theological opinions, or of the invectives which he launched at those of the traditional stripe, they cannot but perceive that he was one of the greatest leaders in the antislavery conflict, intimately associated with Garrison, Phillips, Sumner, Chase, John Brown, and others who were profoundly engaged in that conflict. On the best of terms with the abolitionists, and always welcome and willing to speak on their platform, he could not withhold himself from the political organization which, avowedly powerless for the destruction of slavery, sternly resolved upon its territorial limitation. This antislavery work was of itself sufficient to exhaust the energy of a much stronger man than Parker ever was. He was in constant correspondence with the great party leaders, advising them with an authority which they could not resent, such were its mass and weight. His lyceum lectures tended to the slavery question with an irresistible gravitation. He was moreover one of the principal managers of the “underground railroad,” among the first to know of any fugitive slave newly arrived in Boston, and one of the most active in such measures as were necessary to put him out of reach of harm. In Faneuil Hall he openly demanded armed resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law in behalf of Anthony Burns, and put to vote the question when it should begin. For this offense he was indicted; but greatly to his disappointment, was not brought to trial. He had, however, the satisfaction of publishing the ‘Defense’ he had prepared. He did not wait till great men died to prepare his sermon on their characters. His sermon on Daniel Webster was from three to four hours long, and it drew its waters from the whole area of our political history. He promised his hearers that they should not sit uneasily in their chairs; and except for the unqualified admirers of Webster, his promise was made good.  6
  Parker was much more an orator than a writer; and his published writings, with few exceptions, reflect two lights that flare upon the public stage. They are diffuse in matter, and loosely articulated in their form, in spite of the mechanical arrangement of their parts. What gives to them their greatest charm is a certain vivid homeliness of phrase, shaping itself upon the facts of nature and of our human life. Luther nor Latimer excelled him here. He wrote some beautiful hymns and other poems; but the best of his poetry will not be found in these, but in passages of his sermons, that go very near the tenderest joys and simplest tragedies of our experience. Not only was he so human that nothing human was foreign to him, but his sympathy was as keen as Wordsworth’s with all natural things, and something of nature’s wide inclusiveness and generous toleration was characteristic of his sympathy with universal life. It is suggestive of the homeliness of his affections that ninety-one of his words out of every hundred were Saxon, to eighty-five of Webster’s, and seventy-four of Sumner’s; though in the range of his reading and scholarship he was incomparably inferior to either of these men. In praising another for “words so deep that a child could understand them,” he was unconsciously giving a most apt description of his own.  7
 
 
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