WHAT WOULD THEODORE PARKER DO? A Meditation on Theodore Parker and the Call of Liberal Religion as a Compass in Hard Times

WHAT WOULD THEODORE PARKER DO? A Meditation on Theodore Parker and the Call of Liberal Religion as a Compass in Hard Times January 31, 2016

Theodore Parker Preaching
A Meditation on Theodore Parker and the Call of Liberal Religion as a Compass in Hard Times

James Ishmael Ford

31 January 2016

Pacific Unitarian Church

Rancho Palos Verdes, California

The compromise of 1850 was meant to dampen the smoldering tensions between free states and slave, and, I guess, in the narrowest of senses it was successful. At least in that it pushed the final and it seems inevitably bloody ending to that terrible sin which poisoned the heart of America off for another decade. But the cost was abhorrent. Among the features of the compromise was the noxious fugitive slave act baring the harboring of escaped slaves and requiring the cooperation of local authorities with slave catchers anywhere in the country.

In Boston it put Ellen and William Craft in grave danger. They had escaped slavery through what had become a famous and daring act. Ellen’s skin was light enough to pass. And they boldly made their way to freedom first by train and then on two different ships, with Ellen disguised as a white matron and her husband as her slave valet. Once free they settled in Boston where William became a successful furniture maker. They also became Unitarians, joining the then several thousand-member Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society led by the wildly popular, if also equally controversial preacher Theodore Parker.

With the passage of what I can only call that unholy compromise they were now liable to being taken by slave catchers at any time. Defying the law, their minister Theodore Parker took them into the relative safety of his own home, declaring “I will (help a fugitive slave) as readily as I would lift a man out of the water, or pluck him from the teeth of a wolf or snatch him from the hands of a murderer. What is a fine of a thousand dollars, and gaoling for six months, to the liberty of a man?”

During this time Parker composed his sermons with a pistol on his desk and a drawn sword resting nearby. I think about that pistol and that sword. For a cascade of reasons I find that pistol and sword impossible to forget. Finally, with Parker’s and other Bostonian abolitionists’ aid, the couple escaped to England. They stayed there until the Civil War settled the matter for good.

Others would not be so fortunate. It was a dark time as the nation crept inexorably toward blood and fire, gun and sword. And, Theodore Parker was there in the midst of it all, a prophet calling for the deep examination of our hearts, and actions that matched what we found. A prophet. I think about his life, and what it means for me, and what it means for us.

Theodore Parker was born in Lexington on the family farm, in 1810. His paternal grandfather, John, was in command of the Minutemen on that day in April, 1775, when confronting the British regulars, declared, “If they mean to have war, let it begin here.” Which, as many of us here know, it did.
So, a storied family. But not an affluent one. Theodore was the ninth child in the family, of which only five survived to adulthood. Everyone quickly saw the brilliance of their youngest child, who quickly moved beyond what was offered at local schools, teaching himself advanced math, Latin, as well as whatever else caught his interest. At sixteen he began teaching school, and with that money and what little the family could raise Theodore went off to Harvard, if only as a day student, which meant not eligible for a degree.
He quickly found himself moving in very interesting circles. Among his friends and mentors were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Maria Lydia Child. And pretty much all his friends encouraged him to enter the ministry. Around the same time he met Lydia Dodge Cabot of, yes, those Cabots, of whom it was later said, “the Lowells talk only to Cabots, and the Cabots talk only to God.” They fell in love. His parish minister Convers Francis found most of the necessary money, although the Cabot family appears to have helped, as well, to send him to Harvard’s divinity school. In 1837 he graduated, he and Lydia married and he was called to his first church, a tiny congregation of some sixty souls.

Now, the first wave of Unitarianism that had emerged a generation earlier was highly rationalist, setting a current that continues down to our day. But, quickly there were dissatisfactions; a sense the emerging tradition wasn’t complete. Seeking a fuller view, a more comprehensive religious tradition would birth as the Transcendentalist movement, a literary phenomenon for America writ large, but a burning theological concern among our spiritual ancestors.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leading light of that movement. But, Parker, widely read, multi-lingual, and by common ascent usually the smartest person in the room, was quickly seen as Emerson’s equal among the principal Transcendentalists. His place as a signal figure in our movement was secured with one sermon, which he preached in 1841 for the ordination of Charles Shackford at the Hawes Place Church, in Boston. It was titled “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” And with it we can say the second wave of Unitarianism was full upon us, a spiritual tidal wave.
Parker preached an “absolute religion,” where “God was immanent in matter and man,” totally accessible to each of us as our natural right directly through what was called both “reason” and now “intuition.” The discovery through this faculty with both those names was itself a turning of the heart, revealing God was in everything. Including, of course, you and me. The consequences of this assertion are many. In the same sermon, following Emerson’s even more famous “Divinity School Address,” Parker dismissed biblical miracles, indeed any miraculous authority ascribed to the Bible or Jesus. Instead authority was seated in the human mind, or, for the Transcendentalists, equally good language, the human heart.

I cannot overstate this. That sermon was a watershed moment. On the one hand he was denounced by both the orthodox and many of first wave Unitarians, even to the point of being denied pulpit exchanges with colleagues for many years. While on the other hand, his congregation, as I mentioned grew to several thousand, and swelled up to seven thousand when he preached on particularly controversial subjects.

While Parker’s Transcendentalism, like Emerson’s owed much to Platonism, with a constant call to some ideal beyond the body, there were at the same time other Transcendentalist currents, such as Thoreau’s attention to the “thing in itself,” an even more naturalistic view, with which I personally find more affinity.

But, whether it was Emerson and Parker’s Platonic idealism or Thoreau’s more naturalistic mysticism, Transcendentalism called us to examine our own hearts and the world through that faculty that can be called either “reason” or “intuition.” I find it really important how for them there was no particular difference between the two, reason from this angle, intuition from that. This is a much richer understanding of how we actually come to know things than many of us tend to notice. So, itself a great gift.

And when applied to life, it brings a new way of living in the world. Parker himself, in that sermon sorting the transient from the permanent, proclaimed, “Christianity is not a system of doctrines, but rather a method of attaining oneness with God. It demands, therefore, a good life of piety within, of purity without, and gives the promise that whoso does God’s will, shall know of God’s doctrine.” And with this Parker articulated a radical doctrine, declaring we are our true selves when we have nothing between God and us, between the ultimate and me, between the world writ large and you.

If his life stopped there, Theodore Parker would be assured a place in our liberal pantheon.

But there was also that man who wrote sermons with a pistol on his desk. I think about that, and that he also was a member of the Secret Six, who underwrote John Brown’s abortive attempt to arm a slave rebellion. In the wake of the attack on Harper’s Ferry and its failure, several of the six fled to Canada. Parker, as circumstances had it, had developed tuberculosis which had claimed many members of his family, and was in Europe, at the time, and where he died. Otherwise, who knows, he could have been arrested and charged with treason, today, perhaps abetting terrorism. I think of that old line about freedom fighter and terrorist and the eye of the beholder, and I think about Theodore Parker.

Parker’s sense was that his direct encounter with the divine also called him into a life of action, to see the divine everywhere, to perceive a divine harmony, and then to act in its service. One biographer noted his advocacy for “temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, (and) the physical destitution of the poor.” He called for universal suffrage for both women and African Americans. His views on race were in fact complicated, and evolved throughout his life. But he moved quickly to call for integration at home and abolition for the country, with ever increasing urgency. During that foreshadowing of the Civil War in Kansas, he raised money for guns and ammunition before joining in direct support of John Brown’s abortive slave revolt.

My own path is more wary of weapons, although I don’t and honestly can’t claim to be a pacifist. I could not be as a matter of moral argument, it is too unnatural, I believe; although I think about pacifism as an ethical, moral, spiritual discipline that one can consciously embrace. So, I dance close. I think the unintended consequences of violence are too many, and too ugly to argue for arms in any but the most extreme circumstances. And the horrors of chattel slavery are such that I find in that time, in that place, that pistol on that writing desk made a lot of sense. So, complicated. Our way calls for moderation in all things, including as the old saw goes, moderation itself. But. And. The conundrums of life lived.

Theodore Parker was a complex person. He did not, I gather, play well with others. And this caused a lot of probably unnecessary hurt. But, he also pushed our Association toward an ever-larger faith, one that would allow in good time, us, who we are today in all our wild glory. When he died in Florence, he was not quite fifty years old. On occasion I wonder, what if? Beyond the possible trial for sedition or treason, what if that fertile mind continued for another decade or two or three?

I find him enormously attractive, and so important. And he challenges us, even today. For instance, in 1853, Theodore Parker had preached another sermon, “Justice and the Conscience.” There he proclaimed, “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; (but) I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

A century and almost a decade later, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, another admirer of Parker, who often cited the old Transcendentalist in his sermons, called out to us, “I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow…. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

And Parker’s influence continues, modified, corrected, expanded. Four decades and three years after Dr King’s words, our president Barack Obama, speaking on the anniversary of King’s assassination, proclaimed, “Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice….”

Here I think we find what Theodore Parker called us to: To see the connections, to reflect on those connections, and then to act in the world inspired by those connections, each of us, in our own way.

I think about how we still live with the unfolding consequences of slavery and how we drew short at the moral repair called for in reconstruction. With terrible consequences. So, even today a rite of adolescence for a black youth is for his parents to have what they call “the talk,” about how to survive when going out in public in their, in our nation. Here in this country where slights and prejudice and a vastly greater likelihood of poverty follow being black like night follows day. And, with all of this, I find myself thinking of those young hotheads who put it all on the line in that loose alliance we call Black Lives Matter. And I think of what Reverend Parker would likely have said, and done. And I think about me, and I think about us.

So, what does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist? What does it mean to be a spiritual heir to Theodore Parker?

Well, you know, it’s pretty straight-forward. We commit to putting our hand on that arc. Of course we will make mistakes. But, unlike those foolish souls in Oregon waving their guns and calling for the dismantling of the republic, all in the name of an unaccountable autonomy they mistake for liberty, I look at the young people who are loudly and sometimes unpleasantly pushing us to look at the sins of race as they manifest today, and call us to correct this based in their knowledge, their body knowledge of mutuality, of interdependence, of our accountability to each other, and I know they are going in the right direction. And calling us along. This is the very same direction that informed Theodore Parker, and which informs our spiritual way. If you have the moral compass, if you see our essential connection with each other is nothing less than the divine itself, then with false steps and mistakes along the way, of course with false steps, we will nonetheless go in the right direction.

Our way is about paying attention, acting, correcting, reflecting, and acting again. And, here’s some good news: so far as our human lives are concerned, we do this, and on balance, on balance, mysterious, wondrous, joyful things will emerge. Our hands will join together on that arc, and push it toward justice.

We do this, and not only will our own hearts find healing, but, our world itself, and the arc of history might indeed, be bent in that divine direction.

This was Theodore Parker’s faith. And, dear ones, no doubt, it is ours.

So be it. Blessed be. And, amen.

"This post did not discuss P. Gage. It had some unrelated, brief comments, ending with ..."

Thinking of Phineas Gage, His Personal ..."
"Wonderful. It is good to be at home!"

Dreaming California
"To James Ford. You asked if there was any other Unitarian organization in the Philippines. ..."

Recalling the Unitarian Bishop Gregorio Aglipay
"I studied at a UMC seminary. The meeting was indeed sometimes discussed over a glass ..."

Was John Wesley Consecrated an Orthodox ..."

Browse Our Archives