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Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker
Theodore Parker circa 1855
Born (1810-08-24)August 24, 1810
Lexington, Massachusetts
Died May 10, 1860(1860-05-10) (aged 49)
Florence, Italy

Theodore Parker (Lexington, Massachusetts, August 24, 1810 – Florence, Italy, May 10, 1860) was an American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church. A reformer and abolitionist, his words and quotations which he popularized would later inspire speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.


  • Early life, 1810-1829 1
  • College and Divinity School, 1830-1836 2
  • Early Home Life and Career, 1836-1842 3
    • Marriage 3.1
    • First Pastorate 3.2
    • Transcendentalism 3.3
    • Break with Orthodoxy 3.4
  • Mature Home Life and Career, 1843-1859 4
    • Travel to Europe 4.1
    • Independent Boston Pastorate 4.2
    • Reform Movements and Social Theology 4.3
  • Death 5
  • Film & TV 6
  • Legacy and honors 7
  • See also 8
  • Further reading 9
    • Primary sources 9.1
  • Notes 10
    • Bibliography 10.1
  • External links 11

Early life, 1810-1829

Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Massachusetts,[1] the youngest child in a large farming family. His paternal grandfather was John Parker, the leader of the Lexington militia at the Battle of Lexington. Among his colonial Yankee ancestors were Thomas Hastings, who came from the East Anglia region of England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634, and Deacon Thomas Parker, who came from England in 1635 and was one of the founders of Reading.[2][3][4]

Most of Theodore's family had died[5] by the time Parker was 27, probably due to tuberculosis. Out of eleven siblings, only five remained: three brothers, including Theodore, and two sisters. His mother, to whom he was emotionally close, died when he was eleven. He responded to these tragedies by refusing to lapse into what he called “the valley of tears,” focusing instead on other events and demands, and by affirming “the immortality of the soul,” later a benchmark of his theology.[6]

Descriptions of Parker as a teenager recall him as “raw” and rough, emotional and poetic, sincere, “arch,” “roguish,” volatile, witty, and quick. He excelled at academics and gained an early education through country schools and personal study. He studied long and late when farm chores allowed, tutoring himself in math, Latin, and other subjects. At seventeen he began teaching in local schools. He continued tutoring himself and private students in advanced and specialized subjects.[7] He learned Hebrew from Joshua Seixas (son of Gershom Mendes Seixas and Hannah Manuel), whom he may have baptized in a covert conversion to Christianity.[8] He also studied for a time under Convers Francis, who later preached at Parker's ordination.[9]

College and Divinity School, 1830-1836

In 1830, at age 19, Parker walked the ten miles from Lexington to Cambridge to apply to Harvard College. He was accepted but could not pay the tuition, so he lived and studied at home, continued to work on his father’s farm, and joined his classmates only for exams. Under this program, he was able to complete three years of study in one.[10] He then took various posts as a teacher, conducting an academy from 1831-1834 at Watertown, Massachusetts, where his late mother’s family lived. At Watertown he met his future wife, Lydia Dodge Cabot. He announced their engagement to his father in October, 1833. Theodore and Lydia were married four years later on April 20, 1837.[11]

While at Watertown, Parker produced his first significant manuscript, The History of the Jews, which outlined his skepticism of biblical miracles and an otherwise liberal approach to Bible.[12] These were to be themes throughout his career.

Caricature by Christopher Pearse Cranch depicting Parker's interest in German thinking

Parker considered a career in law, but his strong faith led him to theology. He entered the Harvard Divinity School in 1834.[13] He specialized in the study of German theology and was drawn to the ideas of Coleridge, Carlyle and Emerson. He wrote and spoke (with varying degrees of fluency) Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German.[14] His journal and letters show that he was acquainted with many other languages, including Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic and Ethiopic. He completed divinity school program quickly, in 1836, in order to marry and begin preaching without delay.[15][16]

Early Home Life and Career, 1836-1842

Parker called the late 1830s a “period of…disappointment.” Citing “home; children; & a good professional sphere,” he wrote in his journal that “All fail me, & all equally.”[17] Increasing controversies in his career culminated in a break with orthodoxy in the early 1840s. The fallout from these events affected him deeply, and it took him a few years to land on his feet and move forward.


Parker and Lydia Cabot married in 1837, but the union was rocky at first due to environmental stresses and incompatibilities, and both were saddened to have no children.[18] In 1840 he sought emotional release in the company of a neighboring woman, Anna Blake Shaw, who had a similar theology and temperament to his own, but the friendship was by all accounts not sexual. This attachment naturally increased problems at home, where he may have found it difficult to meet the emotional needs of his wife.[19]

First Pastorate

Parker had spent 1836 visiting pulpits in the Boston area (G 80), but for family reasons accepted a pastorate at West Roxbury in 1837. At first, he found the location less than stimulating and work constraining.[20] He adapted to pastoral life, however, and preached in many pulpits around Boston as a visitor. He gained a wide reputation as an earnest, effective speaker. In 1840 Harvard awarded him an honorary master’s degree on the basis of his extensive learning.[21]

Parker delivered one especially popular sermon twenty-five times between 1838 and 1841. In it, he argued against the popular notion that religion could be reduced to morality. “The principle of morality is obedience to the Law of con[science],” he wrote, while religion required more: that we “feel naturally, allegiance to a superior Being: dependence on him & accountability to him.” (The theme of dependence echoes Schleiermacher, an indication of the German influence on his theology.) Morality involves right acting, while religion requires love of God and regular prayer, which Parker considered essential to human life. “No feeling is more deeply planted in human nature than the tendency to adore a superior being,” he preached, “to reverence him, to bow before him, to feel his presence, to pray to him for aid in times of need” and “to bless him when the heart is full of joy.”[22]


In 1837, Parker had begun attending meetings of the group later known as the Transcendental Club. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address that year had been deeply arresting to him,[23] and he welcomed the opportunity to associate with Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, and several others.[24] Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau and Parker wrote of the world as divine, and of themselves as part of this divinity. Unlike Emerson and other Transcendentalists, however, Parker believed the movement was rooted in deeply religious ideas and did not believe it should retreat from religion. All shared a conviction that slavery should be abolished and social reforms should take root.[25]

Parker gradually introduced Transcendentalist ideas into his sermons. He tempered his radicalism with diplomacy and discretion, however. “I preach abundant heresies,” he wrote to a friend, “and they all go down—for the listeners do not know how heretical they are.”[26] For years he had wrestled with the factuality of the Hebrew Scriptures, and by 1837 he was wishing “some wise man would now write a book…and show up the absurdity of…the Old Testament miracles, prophecies, dreams, miraculous births, etc.’” He was hardly alone. “‘What shall we do with the Old Testament?’ asked James Walker in 1838. ‘That question is of such frequent recurrence among laymen as well as clergymen, that any well-considered attempt to answer it, or supply the means of answering it, is almost sure of hearty welcome."[27] Questions regarding biblical realism and meaning, and the answers clergy increasingly found through the German-based higher criticism, formed the basis of liberal Christianity as it emerged and developed throughout the nineteenth century.

In 1838 Parker published his first major article, a critical review of an orthodox work written by his former professor John Gorham Palfrey. In it Parker broke for the first time with supernatural realism, as he also increasingly did in his sermons.[28] To him, Christianity was natural rather than miraculous. More and more, he praised social reform movements such as those for temperance, peace, and the abolition of slavery. In 1840 he described such movements as divinely inspired, though he added that they did not fully address the spiritual and intellectual ills of society.[29] Controversy mounted regarding these and other Transcendentalist elements in his work. So did criticism, which often saddened and distressed him.[30]

Break with Orthodoxy

In 1841, Parker laid bare his radical theological position in a sermon titled A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity, in which he espoused his belief that the scriptures of historic Christianity did not reflect the truth. In so doing, he made an open break with orthodox theology. He instead argued for a type of Christian belief and worship in which the essence of Jesus’s teachings remained permanent but the words, traditions, and other forms of their conveyance did not. He stressed the immediacy of God and saw the Church as a communion, looking upon Christ as the supreme expression of God. Ultimately, he rejected all miracles and revelation and saw the Bible as full of contradictions and mistakes. He retained his faith in God but suggested that people experience God intuitively and personally, and that they should center their religious beliefs on individual experience.[1]

Parker’s West Roxbury church remained loyal. Sermons and media attacked him, however, when he denied Biblical miracles and the literal authority of the Bible and Jesus. Many questioned his Christianity. Nearly all the pulpits in the Boston area were closed to him,[31] and he lost friends. Parker reacted with grief and defiance.[32] He remained unwilling to concede that his views placed him beyond the outer bounds of Unitarian liberalism. After this unwilling break with the Unitarian establishment, he spent two years (1841-1843) adjusting to the reality of his newly controversial and independent career and increasing his social activism on religious grounds. He began to see himself as a prophetic religious reformer.[33]

Parker circa 1850
Parker's statue in front of the Theodore Parker Church,[34] a Unitarian parish in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

Parker accepted an invitation from supporters to preach in

  • Works by Theodore Parker at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about Theodore Parker at Internet Archive
  • TranscendentalistsDirectory of Theodore Parker biographies, works and articles at
  • (1879)The Collected Works of Theodore Parker: Sermons. Prayers
  • (April 1840)The Christian Examiner from Life of JesusReview by Parker of David Strauss's
  • (January 1842)The Dial"Primitive Christianity" from
  • Theodore Parker Church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts
  • (1865)The Life and Writings of Theodore Parker by Albert Réville
  • "The Good Boy; or, Is Christ Necessary?" by Caleb Crain, a review of American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism by Dean Grodzins
  • Listings of in the Andover-Harvard Theological LibraryThe Centenary Edition of the Works of Theodore Parker at Harvard Divinity School
  • Listings of in the Andover-Harvard Theological LibraryThe Papers of Theodore Parker at Harvard Divinity School
  • Descendants of Thomas Hastings website

External links

  • Grodzins, Dean (2002). American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. Chapel Hill, NC:  
  • Hankins, Barry (2004). The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Westport, CT:  


  1. ^ a b Hankins (2004), p. 143
  2. ^ Buckminster, Lydia N.H., The Hastings Memorial, A Genealogical Account of the Descendants of Thomas Hastings of Watertown, Mass. from 1634 to 1864. Boston: Samuel G. Drake Publisher (an undated NEHGS photoduplicate of the 1866 edition), 30.
  3. ^ Parker, Theodore, John Parker of Lexington and his Descendants, Showing his Earlier Ancestry in America from Dea. Thomas Parker of Reading, Mass. from 1635 to 1893, pp. 15-16, 21-30, 34-36, 468-470, Press of Charles Hamilton, Worcester, MA, 1893.
  4. ^ Parker, Augustus G., Parker in America, 1630-1910, pp. 5, 27, 49, 53-54, 154, Niagara Frontier Publishing Co., Buffalo, NY, 1911.
  5. ^ a b c Dean Grodzins. "Theodore Parker". Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. 
  6. ^ Grodzins (2002), pp. 27–28 Theodore's sisters Rebecca, Ruth, and Hannah all died before he was five; by the time he was eleven, his grandmother and loved mother had also died. His brother John and two remaining sisters, Emily, Mary, and Lydia, died while he was a young man.
  7. ^ Grodzins (2002), pp. 20–21
  8. ^ Shalom Goldman, God's Sacred Tongue: Hebrew & the American Imagination (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 187. Also see Shalom Goldman, "James/Joshua Seixas (1802-1874): Jewish Apostasy and Christian Hebraism in Early Nineteenth-Century America," Jewish History 7:1 (1993), 65-88.
  9. ^ Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 117. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8
  10. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 22
  11. ^ For Parker's time in Watertown and engagement, see Grodzins, American Heretic, 36; an earlier and more poetic account is in Henry Steele Commager, Theodore Parker: Yankee Crusader (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1947), 23. For marriage, see Grodzins (2002), p. 87
  12. ^ Grodzins (2002), pp. 31, 391. For an account written by a contemporary describing Parker's time and writings at Watertown, including A History of the Jews, see Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Theodore Parker: A Biography (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1880), 39.
  13. ^ Hankins, Barry. The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004: 143. ISBN 0-313-31848-4
  14. ^ For his lack of speaking fluency in French and German, despite translating thousands of pages in writing, see Grodzins (2002), p. 381.
  15. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 39
  16. ^ Commager, Theodore Parker, 23-24.
  17. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 118
  18. ^ Grodzins (2002), pp. 91–102 sketches out the initial difficulties of their marriage. Also see the journal entry reprinted as the figure “Marital strife” in Grodzins (2002), p. 294, and taken from the Theodore Parker Papers, bMS 101, Andover-Harvard Theological Library of Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  19. ^ For his relationship with Shaw, see Grodzins (2002), p. 177; for the relationship with his wife, see Grodzins (2002), pp. 100–102.
  20. ^ For pulpit touring, see Grodzins (2002), p. 80; for his initial response to West Roxbury, see Grodzins (2002), p. 89.
  21. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 175
  22. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 145
  23. ^ Gary J. Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900, 77. Dorrien writes that Emerson’s Harvard address “had a formative and catalyzing effect” on Parker.
  24. ^ Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003: 32–33. ISBN 0-674-01139-2
  25. ^ Hankins, The Second Great Awakening and the Transcendentalists, 28; 105; 143. On 105, Hankins notes that Parker was a Transcendentalist antislavery advocate and considered “perhaps the most important theologian the movement produced.”
  26. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 148
  27. ^ Shalom Goldman, God's Sacred Tongue, 187.
  28. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 156
  29. ^ Grodzins, American Heretic, 205.
  30. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 184 records one such experience of criticism, after which he “went weeping through the streets.”
  31. ^ a b "Theodore Parker".  
  32. ^ Grodzins (2002), pp. 307, 361
  33. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 344 shows his first open support for Temperance activism; Grodzins (2002), p. 340 notes that “For Parker, the ideal religious reformer was the solitary, heroic prophet. He was starting to see himself in this role.”
  34. ^ "History of the Theodore Parker Church". Established as a Calvinist Protestant church, the congregation adopted a conservative  
  35. ^ a b c "Parker, Theodore".  
  36. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 370. In Grodzins (2002), pp. 401–402 Grodzins write that in Europe, “Parker’s temperament grew steadier. The extraordinary sensitivity to rebuff, the intense ‘agony of spirit,’ seemed to disappear. Before his trip to Europe, he burst easily and often into tears; afterward, he almost never did so. He later would confront controversies far more severe, opponents far more dangerous, than any he had faced in 1841, 1842, and 1843; but none would so deeply affect him.”
  37. ^ For “kind as an angel,” see Grodzins (2002), p. 414. For renewed affection between the Parkers during and after their European trip, despite ongoing marital issues, see Grodzins (2002), pp. 387–401. For more interest in political and social issues, see Grodzins (2002), p. 403.
  38. ^ Grodzins (2002), pp. 412, 431
  39. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 457
  40. ^ Grodzins (2002), p. 460
  41. ^ On his resignation in West Roxbury and choosing a name for his new congregation, see Grodzins (2002), p. 476. Also see Grodzins. "Theodore Parker". Unitarian Universalist Historical Society.
  42. ^ On the size of Parker's Melodean congregation, see Grodzins (2002), pp. 477, 491.
  43. ^ Kathi Kern, Mrs. Stanton's Bible (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001). For "soul-satisfying," see 45. For "Heavenly Mother," see 165.
  44. ^ Buescher, John. Keep Your Top Eye Open. Accessed 2 June 2011.
  45. ^ Potter, David Morris., and Don E. Fehrenbacher. The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, New York: Harper & Row, 1976
  46. ^ Gura, Philip F. American Transcendentalism: A History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007: 248. ISBN 0-8090-3477-8
  47. ^ Polner, Murray (2010-03-01) Left Behind, The American Conservative
  48. ^ Paul E. Teed (2001). "A Brave Man's Child: Theodore Parker and the Memory of the American Revolution". Historical Journal of Massachusetts Summer 2001 issue. Theodore Parker's 1845 pilgrimage to Lexington was a defining moment in the career of one of New England's most influential antislavery activists. Occurring as it did in the very midst of the national crisis over Texas annexation, Parker's mystical connection with the memory of his illustrious revolutionary ancestor emerged as the bedrock of his identity as an abolitionist.
    “While other abolitionists frequently claimed the revolutionary tradition for their cause, Parker's antislavery vision also rested upon a deep sense of filial obligation to the revolutionaries themselves.
  49. ^ "The Slave Power".  
  50. ^ Charles Stephen (25 August 2002). "Theodore Parker, Slavery, and the Troubled Conscience of the Unitarians". 
  51. ^ William Wesselhoeft (1794-1858) - Pioneers of homeopathy by T. L. Bradford
  52. ^ Official guidebook written by Pastore Luigi Santini, published by the Administration of the Cimitero agli Allori in 1981. "American Tombs in Florence's English Cemetery". 
  53. ^ Theodore Parker at Find a Grave
  54. ^ Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1893. NY: Library of America, reprint, 1994:1015
  55. ^ For more on UUism claiming Parker as a founding figure, see Daniel McKanan, "Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism," Religion Compass 7/1 (2013), 15-24.
  56. ^ Theodore Parker (29 May 1850). The American Idea:" speech at N.E. Anti-Slavery Convention, Boston""".  
  57. ^ Wikiquote:John Wycliffe
  58. ^ The American Monthly Review of Reviews. Retrieved 2010-09-12. 
  59. ^ Manker-Seale, Susan (2006-01-15). "The Moral Arc of the Universe: Bending Toward Justice". Retrieved 2008-02-29. 
  60. ^ Stiehm, Jamie (2010-09-04). "Oval Office rug gets history wrong". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2010-09-04. 


  • Commager, Henry Steele, ed. Theodore Parker: An Anthology (1960)
  • Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Theodore Parker: A Biography (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1880), 39. Early attempt to memorialize Parker. Most conclusions, methods, and evidence have been superseded, but a valuable early record written by a contemporary.

Primary sources

  • Bowden, Henry Warner. "Parker, Theodore" in 2000American National Biography Online
  • Chadwick, John White. "Theodore Parker: Preacher and Reformer." Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1901. Early biography memorializing Parker.
  • Commager, Henry Steele. Theodore Parker (1947), first scholarly biography excerpt and text search
  • Commager, Henry Steele. "The Dilemma of Theodore Parker," New England Quarterly (1933) 6#2 pp 257–277. in JSTOR
  • Dirks, John Edward. The Critical Theology of Theodore Parker (1948) online
  • Fellman, Michael. "Theodore Parker and the Abolitionist Role in the 1850's," Journal of American History (1974) 61#3 pp 666–684. in JSTOR
  • Grodzins, Dean. American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Highly acclaimed, award-winning scholarly biography. Examines new evidence and reassesses conclusions of earlier biographies.
  • White, Peter. "Reason and Intuition in the Theology of Theodore Parker," Journal of Religious History, (1980) 11#1 pp 111–120.

Further reading

See also

  • In 1963, Betty Friedan's influential best seller, The Feminine Mystique, believed to have sparked the 1960s and 70s women's movement, bore the following epigraph from Theodore Parker:
    "The domestic function of the woman does not exhaust her powers... To make one half of the human race consume its energies in the functions of housekeeper, wife and mother is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made"(1853).
    Eight months after the publication of Friedan's book, Kurt Vonnegut uses the same quote in his short story "Lovers Anonymous," first published in the October issue of Redbook magazine and reprinted in Vonnegut's 1999 collection Bagombo Snuff Box.
  • The new beige rug chosen for President Barack Obama's remodeled Oval Office in August 2010, was bordered by five quotations, two of which (by Lincoln and King) are inspired by the writings of Parker, as noted above.[60]
A century later, Martin Luther King, Jr. paraphrased these words to great effect in his famous "Where Do We Go From Here?" speech of August 1967 to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, when he said, "The arc of the Moral Universe Is long, but It bends toward Justice".
  • Unitarian Universalists honor Theodore Parker as "a canonical figure—the model of a prophetic minister in the American Unitarian tradition."[5][55]
  • The church in West Roxbury where Parker held his first pastorate (1837-1846) was renamed Theodore Parker Unitarian Universalist Church in 1962. It retains this name today.
  • Frances P. Cobbe collected and published Parker's writings in 14 volumes.
  • In a speech delivered in 1850, Parker used the phrase, "A democracy — of all the people, by all the people, for all the people;"[56] which later influenced the wording of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. (Parker himself might have developed his phrase from John Wycliffe's prologue to the first English translation of the Bible.)[57][58]
  • Parker predicted the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause this way:
    "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."[59]

Legacy and honors

In the 2015 documentary film The Gettysburg Address, Parker is portrayed by actor Aidan Quinn.

Film & TV

Parker's headstone by Joel Tanner Hart was later replaced by one by William Wetmore Story. Other Unitarians buried in the English Cemetery include Thomas Southwood Smith and Richard Hildreth. The British writer Fanny Trollope, also buried here, wrote the first anti-slavery novel and Hildreth wrote the second. Both books were used by Harriet Beecher Stowe for her antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).

Parker was a patient of William Wesselhoeft, who practiced homeopathy. Wesselhoeft gave the oration at Parker's funeral[51] He is buried in the English Cemetery in Florence.[52][53] When Frederick Douglass visited Florence, he went first from the railroad station to Parker's tomb.[54]

Following a lifetime of overwork, Parker's ill health forced his retirement in 1859.[35] He developed tuberculosis, then without effective treatment, and departed for Florence, Italy where he died on May 10, 1860. He sought refuge in Florence because of his friendship with Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Isa Blagden and Frances Power Cobbe, but died scarcely a month following his arrival. It was less than a year before the outbreak of the American Civil War.

Theodore Parker's tomb in Florence
Theodore Parker's first headstone.


During the undeclared war in Kansas (see Bleeding Kansas and Origins of the American Civil War) prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, Parker supplied money for weapons for free state militias. As a member of the Secret Six, he supported the abolitionist John Brown, whom many considered a terrorist. After Brown's arrest, Parker wrote a public letter, "John Brown's Expedition Reviewed," arguing for the right of slaves to kill their masters and defending Brown’s actions.

As Parker's early biographer John White Chadwick wrote, Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: "peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor" though none became "a dominant factor in his experience" with the exception of his antislavery views.[46] He "denounced the Mexican War and called on his fellow Bostonians in 1847 'to protest against this most infamous war.'"[47] Yet his abolitionism became his most controversial stance.[48] He wrote the scathing To a Southern Slaveholder in 1848, as the abolition crisis was heating up and took a strong stance against slavery[49] and advocated violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 which required the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Parker worked with many fugitive slaves, some of whom were among his congregation. As in the case of William and Ellen Craft,[50] he hid them in his home. Although he was indicted for his actions, he was never convicted.[31]

After 1846, Parker shifted from a focus on Transcendentalism and challenging the bounds of Unitarian theology to a focus on the gathering national divisions over American Civil War in 1861, only twice were slaves captured in Boston and transported back to the South. On both occasions, Bostonians combatted the actions with mass protests.[45]

Reform Movements and Social Theology

Parker’s congregation grew to 2,000—then three percent of Boston’s population—and included influential figures such as Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe (a personal friend), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.[35][42] Stanton called his sermons "soul-satisfying" when beginning her career, and she credited him with introducing her to the idea of a Heavenly Mother in the Trinity.[43] Parker was increasingly known for preaching what he and his followers identified as a type of prophetic Christian social activism.

In January, 1845, a sizeable group of supporters gathered at Marlboro Chapel in Boston and resolved to provide Parker “a chance to be heard in Boston.” Calling themselves “Friends of Theodore Parker,” they hired a hall and invited him to preach there on Sunday mornings.[39] Despite misgivings, Parker accepted and preached his first sermon at the Melodean Theater in February. Although the arrangement was temporary at first,[40] he resigned his West Roxbury pastorate in early 1846 (to the dismay of his faithful parishioners there). He elected to call his new congregation the 28th Congregational Society of Boston.[41]

Returning to the United States, Parker found Unitarianism on the cusp of a division over his right to fellowship as a minister. His controversial 1841 sermon had created a stir that ballooned into an all-out storm in 1844. The debate over the nature and degree of Parker’s “infidelity” caused Unitarians to adopt a liberal creed, which they had formerly declined to do based on an inclusive principle. Their position proved too orthodox to include Parker.[38]

Independent Boston Pastorate

In 1843 and 1844, Theodore and Lydia traveled in Europe. While there his theology, career, and personal life matured and steadied. He was no longer as sensitive to criticism and bore difficulties more easily.[36] Away from extended family problems in West Roxbury, his marriage seems to have improved and become more steadily affectionate. Despite complex issues that occasionally resurfaced, he and Lydia were happier. “My wife is kind as an angel,” he would write in his journal during denominational trials in 1845. His travels also seemed to stimulate a growing interest in political and social issues.[37]

Travel to Europe

Parker's family life, temperament, and work steadied during the 1840s. The second half of his career revolved around antislavery, democracy, and religious social activism.

Mature Home Life and Career, 1843-1859

[35], grew to 7000.Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Julia Ward Howe, William Lloyd Garrison, Louisa May Alcott His congregation, which included [5]

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