“Oh don’t!” cried the one-and-a-half-year-old Theodore Parker, when they went to baptize him. He was sprinkled anyway. It was the start of a lifelong struggle with religious convention. As an adult he would declare baptism to have been one of Jesus’ mistakes. “Did he lay any stress on this watery dispensation; count it valuable of itself?” Parker asked in his summa, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (1842). “Then we must drop a tear for the weakness.”
What is religion for? The question is raised by the life story of Theodore Parker, a Transcendentalist theologian and abolitionist leader, the first half of which has been retold by Dean Grodzins with a scholar’s thoroughness and a detective’s inquisitiveness. Parker himself never raised it, however. Reversing the usual sequence of logic, he took religion for granted, then proved God by the fact of it. He noticed that every culture in the world had a religion and inferred that the impulse must be universal. Like the utopian socialist Charles Fourier, he was confident that appetites were proportional to destinies. A just god would never have created humans with a longing that could only be satisfied with a mirage. Therefore God must exist.
He never noticed the circle in this proof. As a good Unitarian, he was appalled by the idea of original sin and could not imagine that human nature might be conflicted and fantastic—that we might be condemned to feel what Emerson described as “a desire for the whole; a desire raging, infinite; a hunger, as of space to be filled with planets; a cry of famine, as of devils for souls,” without any prospect of appeasement. And so he never doubted. As William James noted in Varieties of Religious Experience, Parker’s faith was the healthy-minded, “once-born” sort. The dark was invisible to him.
It was invisible to his conscious mind, at any rate. But although he omitted to look at the shadow, many people mistook him for it. He was denounced as an atheist because he insisted on removing from Christianity all the particulars about which one might have doubts—the authority of the Bible, the infallibility of Jesus, salvation through him. To believe such unlikely dogmas was to start a bad mental habit, in Parker’s opinion, and the intellectual slovenliness would soon lead to moral confusion. Indeed, he was capable of blaming all the imperialist sins of Christendom on unexamined religious orthodoxy: “It is this false theology, with its vicarious atonement, salvation without morality or piety, only by belief in absurd doctrines, which has bewitched the leading nations of the earth into such practical mischief,” he wrote at the end of his life.
The purer that Parker’s faith became, the more furiously and compulsively he labored at it. Freud once suggested that an indulged child may develop a preternaturally harsh superego because he is unable to compare the rebuke inside his mind to any administered by his parents. Apparently there is no way to soften the inner voice if all the outer ones are even softer. What is religion for? Perhaps, like marriage, it chastens a human impulse by offering it a bounded expression. It might be a way of managing guilt and self-hatred collectively, and it might be especially therapeutic for people who fear that the moral standards that they have inherited are not high enough. If so, then Parker’s reforms—his attempts at a religion fully rational and humane—would inadvertently have deprived religion of its gentling effect. In his own case, although he believed in the mildest god imaginable, the inner voice seems to have been implacable.
He first heard it at age four, when he raised a stick to kill a spotted tortoise for fun. “It is wrong!” the voice said, and here is Parker’s memory of his mother’s explanation:
Some men call it conscience, but I prefer to call it the voice of God in the soul of man. If you listen and obey it, then it will speak clearer and clearer, and always guide you right; but if you turn a deaf ear or disobey, then it will fade out little by little, and leave you all in the dark and without a guide. Your life depends on heeding this little voice.
Evidently Mrs Parker felt that the little voice saying “Kill the beast, cut his throat, bash him in” could be safely disregarded.
In other words, Theodore learned early how to redirect aggression into moral po-facedness. His baptism was only his first rehearsal in the role of Christianity’s victim—its Christ, as it were. For his perfection of the role, his parents gave him every advantage. “Why, Miss Parker, you’re spilin’ your boy!” a neighbor warned his mother, who replied by kissing him. His father, a farmer and a mender of pumps, contributed a complicated envy of the upper middle class. Although John Parker wanted his son to be a lawyer, Theodore enrolled at Harvard without his knowledge, because he rightly guessed that his father would not approve of the expense, let alone bear it. When Theodore left his father’s farm early, he felt obliged to hire a man to work in his stead. Not surprisingly, his thinking about labor would turn out to be more hardheaded and much more personal than his fellow Transcendentalists.’ In “A Sermon on Merchants” (1846), perhaps his sharpest piece of social criticism, he wrote that “The poor man’s son, however well-born, struggling for a superior education, obtains his culture at a monstrous cost; with the sacrifice of pleasure, comfort, the joys of youth, often of eyesight and health. . . . If he have not an iron body as well as an iron head, he dies in that experiment of the cross..”
Parker’s laboriousness was a weapon as well as a crucifixion, and he was partial to it. In his autobiography, he described himself as having been “reasonably industrious all my life,” boasted that “I could work as many hours in the study as a mechanic in his shop or a farmer in his field,” and claimed that “To work ten or fifteen hours a day in my literary labors, was not only a habit, but a pleasure.” His intellectual diligence somewhat dismayed Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a fellow Unitarian dissident, who recalled that “I have more than once heard him give a minute analysis of the contents of some dull book read by him twenty years before, and have afterwards found the statement correct and exhaustive.” No doubt he found it exhaustive even before he checked it.
“I think I need fun, which I can’t easily get,” Parker once admitted. At age twenty-five, Ralph Waldo Emerson still liked to “put on my old clothes & old hat & slink away to the whortleberry bushes,” where he would “solace myself for hours with picking blue berries & other trash of the woods.” By contrast, even in his boyhood Parker picked whortleberries in order to sell them in Boston; with the proceeds, he bought his first Latin dictionary. In the Emerson family, a ministerial career was the default—you either yielded or dodged—and so Waldo’s deliberate exit from the ministry in 1832 felt like a psychosocial achievement. But in the Parker family, where money and status were scarcer, only achievement could count as achievement. It was hard work as a schoolteacher that paid Theodore’s way through Harvard; he graduated from the college in 1834 and from the divinity school in 1836. And it was hard work at Harvard that won him a pulpit in West Roxbury in the spring of 1837, enabling him to marry Lydia Dodge Cabot, of the prestigious Boston Cabots, to whom he had been engaged for three and a half years.
Both Lydia and the Unitarian ministry soon made Parker miserable, but he could not leave either one. He was too dutiful; he may also have been too proud of them as attainments. He came to new understandings of them instead.
Parker’s doubts about Unitarian orthodoxy simmered for years. Grodzins reports that in April 1836, while still a divinity student, Parker denied in print that Isaiah had prophesied Christ. It was not a novel debunking. Tom Paine had got there first, when he wrote in The Age of Reason, about a different verse in Isaiah, that “it has no more reference to Christ and his mother, than it has to me and my mother.” And in 1836 there were other Unitarians bolder than Parker in their skepticism of the Hebrew Scriptures. Still, for a minister-in-training, as yet uncalled by any congregation, it was moderately daring.
German biblical criticism was infiltrating Boston and Cambridge, and it was becoming more and more difficult for Christian intellectuals to take even the Gospels as, well, gospel. Self-consciously liberal in their theology, Unitarian ministers admitted their doubts to themselves and to one another, but most kept silent in public. As Dr. Nathaniel Frothingham confided to a fellow tactful skeptic, “What is the use of talking of it?”
Unitarians might never have seen any use in talking of it, if Emerson had not delivered a provocative address to Harvard Divinity School’s graduating class of 1838. Even today the speech will unnerve any conscientious person who has signed up with an institution that claims a high mission: “The man who aims to speak as books enable, as synods use, as the fashion guides, and as interest commands, babbles. Let him hush.” Emerson wanted not professionals but amateurs to preach, and he told his audience of ambitious young men that their lack of finish was the church’s only hope. “I wish you may feel your call in throbs of desire and hope.” Demoralizing critique, arousing flattery, erotic invitation: it was a masterly seduction.
But as is often the case with seducers, Emerson had not planned out what to do with the young men once he had won them. He didn’t ask them to leave the ministry. “Rather let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing,” he counseled. But he had left, and he did not spare from demolition very many motives for staying. As Emily Dickinson would put it a few years later, “Believing what we don’t believe / Does not exhilarate.” Emerson was suggesting that Christians should not bother trying to believe it anymore. Like most Unitarians at the time, he agreed with Tom Paine’s verdict on Jesus’ divinity, namely, that “he was the son of God in like manner that every other person is.” But Emerson went further than most Unitarians (if not further than Paine) and declared that the revelation given to Jesus was not unique; that Jesus’ miracles were only figures of speech, wrongly taken as literal by later generations; that it was “a profanation of the soul” to ground Christian faith on these purported miracles; and that the church erred in dwelling with “noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” He also hinted that God should be understood not as a person but as a universal spirit or system of laws and that there might someday be a “new Teacher” whose revelation would equal or outgo Christ’s.
Parker was in the audience that day, and he bought six copies of the address once it was printed. It affected him deeply. Emerson’s English would haunt Parker’s for the rest of his life, sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes out of them. Parker’s father had died in November 1836, and Grodzins believes that the death released a heretical series of questions in Parker’s private journal in early 1837. Emerson’s example provoked Parker to try out these heresies in public. Six months after the divinity school address, Parker began to preach to his West Roxbury congregation on the contradictions in scripture. To his surprise, his parishioners were not shocked. As he soon learned, shocks did not take place without a larger, more ecumenical, and more self-important audience.
Among scholars of Transcendentalism, the voguish new adjective for Parker and Emerson is “post-Christian,”, and indeed, in doctrinal particulars—insofar as Emerson can ever be nailed down to particulars—their heterodoxies mostly agree. Nonetheless the two did not think that they resembled each other. “I can well praise him at a spectator’s distance,” Emerson wrote in his journal after Parker’s death, “for our minds and methods were unlike,—few people more unlike.” Parker, for his part, wrote to a mutual friend that “I find perhaps the most light from [Emerson], when I differ most from him.”
Emerson’s god is abstract, whereas in Parker’s doctrine, it is as inaccurate to call God impersonal as to call him personal. But the more salient differences are temperamental. Parker begins his essay “The American Scholar” by emphasizing the scholar’s debts: “Men of a superior culture get it at the cost of the whole community, and therefore at first owe for their education.” Emerson’s essay of the same name, written twelve years earlier, famously repudiates them: “Free should the scholar be,—free and brave.” Whereas the keystone in Emerson’s thought is self-reliance, in Parker’s it is the “sense of dependence,” a phrase and concept which, characteristically, he takes from another theologian, Schleiermacher. “We are not sufficient for ourselves; not self-originated; not self-sustained,” Parker argues. He believes in self-unreliance, as it were. (In 1848, Parker would call South Carolina’s threats of nullification “a nice example of . . . self-reliance.” Take that, Waldo.) Parker refers to the sense of dependence as “this mysterious sentiment of something unbounded,” but it is not as ineffable as the oceanic feeling that Jean-Christophe would later describe to Freud. It is “a feeling of need, of want.” It would not have taken Freud the length of a book to trace it back to an infant’s memory of his mother. It no more proves God’s existence than a child’s cry proves its mother’s, but Parker was confident that it did.
Both Emerson and Parker appeal to a half-conscious or unconscious presence in the listener, a filament of the divine that reaches into every person. But here too there is a distinction. Emerson appeals to his listener’s imperfectly throttled love of beauty and thirst for knowledge and power. Parker, on the other hand, appeals to the little voice that says, “It is wrong!”
So much was wrong. And it is very hard to care. As Perry Miller complained about Parker in an essay published in 1967, “For us, almost all his once earth-shaking pronouncements are commonplaces, have become in fact platitudes.”
In Parker’s most controversial manifesto, “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity” (1841), he himself recognized that the religious quarrels of earlier eras rarely matter to later generations. “To look back but a short period, the theological speculations of our fathers during the last two centuries; their ‘practical divinity’; even the sermons written by genius and piety, are, with rare exceptions, found unreadable.” It is alarmingly difficult to keep Parker’s theological position in one’s head. Whenever one revisits one’s memory of it, it has become either more radical or more conformist than it in fact was. And then there are the eyes-crossing historical challenges of distinguishing what the Unitarians of 1840 already did not believe from what they did not yet not believe, and of summoning up enough Einfuhlung to appreciate that tears were shed and careers ruined for violations of this distinction.
For tears were shed. Parker cried in 1836 when Professor Henry Ware Jr. critiqued his very first sermon as dusty. He cried again in 1840 when Dr. Francis Parkman, the father of the romantic historian, buttonholed him after a lecture to complain that “When you talk about ‘future christs,’ I can’t beâr ye.” He cried yet again in December 1842 when, during a visit to fellow Roxbury minister George Putnam, he was accused of “revil[ing] the church, the Bible & the clergy.” And he cried most famously in January 1843, at the end of a three-hour conference with the Boston Association, a fraternal society of local Unitarian ministers, because after his colleagues rebuked him for trying “to dissolve Christianity in the great Ocean of absolute truth,” they unexpectedly “spoke in praise of [his] sincerity,” bestowing “many words of moral approbation.”
As the tears suggest, in his emotions Parker was no Tom Paine. He needed to belong to the group and to be hurt by it; he wanted approval as badly as he wanted to be defiant. The Unitarians, for their part, found it excruciating to censure someone for his beliefs. Only a generation ago, they had been cast off by orthodox Congregationalists for refusing to believe that God could be so cruel as to require the sacrifice of his son. The toleration of creedal difference seemed almost to constitute their creed. In A Fable for Critics, James Russell Lowell caught some of the humor in the struggle between the Unitarians and Parker:
They believed—faith I’m puzzled—I think I may call
Their belief a believing in nothing at all,
Or something of that sort; I know they all went
For a general union of total dissent:
He went a step farther; without cough or hem,
He frankly avowed he believed not in them;
And, before he could be jumbled up or prevented,
From their orthodox kind of dissent he dissented.
“I cannot be otherwise than hated,” Parker would boast in 1852. “I believe there is no living man in America so widely, abundantly, and deeply hated as I have been, and still continue to be.” No one, before or since, has managed to feel quite so put-upon by Unitarians.
One of Parker’s enemies asked in print the bedeviling question about him: “Why cling so tenaciously to a name out of which you take the peculiar and distinctive meaning?” Emerson did not believe in Jesus’ miracles or authority either, but he left the ministry. Only Parker took Emerson literally, by staying in the ministry, and took the Unitarians literally, by expecting them to tolerate his dismantling of their creed from within.
The dismantling was inexorable, if not original to Parker. In an April 1840 review of David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (later translated into English by George Eliot), Parker summarized the German “higher criticism” of the fabulous elements of Scripture. De Wette had argued that one must either accept or reject a narrative; there was no warrant for interpreting an alleged miracle as if it were a metaphor. Eichhorn had admitted De Wette’s point and tried to pick the myths out of the New Testament, leaving only the facts. But Strauss asserted that weeding was no less arbitrary than overinterpreting and that the Gospels were very likely myth all the way through—”the spurious productions of well-meaning men.” Strauss methodically unstitched the fabric of the New Testament, resolving its legends into their pre-Christian antecedents and the probable motives of their inventors. In his review, Parker sniffed that Strauss had been carried away by his “mythical hypothesis,” but the poison was in his blood. He would soon be converted to many of Strauss’s disbeliefs.
After Emerson’s divinity school address, Andrews Norton, the so-called Unitarian pope, carried out a war against him by pamphlet. Emerson did not reply, but his ally George Ripley did, at length. In May 1840, under the pseudonym “Levi Blodgett,” Parker intervened in the pamphlet war by publishing The Previous Question Between Mr. Andrews Norton and His Alumni. The “previous question,” the one neither combatant had raised, was, What disposes people to believe in religion in the first place? Parker’s answer was an innate and universal drive to worship. Without such a religious instinct, no one would be able to recognize a new religious truth. Natural religion was thus logically prior to revealed religion and trumped it. “Suppose a miracle-worker should assure a large audience in Boston, that it was a moral duty to lie, steal, and kill; . . . would they believe the new doctrine?” Parker/Blodgett asked. “We do not value [Jesus] for the miracles; but the miracles for him.”
The Previous Question was largely ignored, because few people knew who Levi Blodgett was. So Parker may not have expected to cause a controversy when he preached the same ideas at the South Boston ordination of a Unitarian named Charles Shackford in May 1841. As Grodzins explains, the archskeptic David Strauss provided the title of Parker’s sermon, “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity.” Transient, according to Parker, were the notions that the Bible was miraculously inspired, that Jesus was divine, and that either was infallible. Permanent was the religious truth conveyed by Jesus’ words. Christianity, Parker argued, could dispense with Christ: “If it could be proved,—as it cannot,—in opposition to the greatest amount of historical evidence ever collected on any similar point, that the gospels were the fabrication of designing and artful men, that Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, still Christianity would stand firm, and fear no evil.”
Ordinations were open to the Boston clergy, regardless of sect, and three Trinitarian ministers attended this one. They were horrified. In their transcription of Parker’s sermon, printed two weeks later in the city’s religious newspapers, his heresies were mildly distorted and wonderfully condensed. On the independence of Christian truth from Jesus’ personal authority, for example, they had heard Parker say, “If it could be proved that Christ never lived, or that he was an impostor, still Christianity would not be affected by it.” Left to their own devices, Unitarians might have ignored Parker’s heresy indefinitely. But the outsiders demanded that the Unitarians “declare explicitly whether they acknowledge Mr. Parker as a teacher of true Christianity.”
Parker’s career was launched. Within another two weeks he had printed his sermon. In the fall he gave a series of lectures on religion in Boston’s Masonic Temple. In the spring of 1842, the material in his lectures appeared as a book, A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion. The Discourse once more proved God’s existence from the widespread human wish for him and again advocated disintermediation in religion: “We have direct access to [God], through Reason, Conscience, and the Religious Faculty, just as we have direct access to Nature, through the eye, the ear, or the hand.” Theologically, it was the high point of Parker’s career. As the critic R. W. B. Lewis noted in 1955, “Nineteen years more of reading, writing and preaching would not bring Theodore Parker to elaborate very much upon that minimalist opinion.” Or, as Thomas Wentworth Higginson put it, almost a century earlier and rather more wearily, “It is astonishing to look over [Parker’s] published sermons and addresses, and see under how many different names the same stirring speech has been reprinted.”
The last full-dress biography of Parker was Henry Steele Commager’s, published in 1936. It has many errors, and Commager indulges deeply in baggy Whitmanian catalogues (“there was George Ripley, fascinated by the glittering idealisms . . . there was Dwight cultivating the Germans . . . there was Parker digging deep into Jacobi and Schleiermacher . . .”) and the junior-high-school-filmstrip use of the second person (“That decision was to cost you dear, Judge Loring. The women of Woburn sent you thirty pieces of silver, and you could travel the length of the Cape by the light of your burning effigies.”) Still, Commager had the advantage of writing for an audience who didn’t need to be told what Hunkerism was, who “Herndon’s friend” was, or how William and Ellen Craft managed their escape from slavery. So he didn’t tell them. He was compact and anecdotal; Grodzins is less mannered and better documented, but a bit flyaway. If the biographers were hairdos, Commager would be a thin but well-gelled Reaganesque cowlick, integral and stylish, and Grodzins would be an untreated Steven Pinker–esque mane, healthily profuse, with a dishevelment whose intentionality is undecidable. I doubt that anyone will ever know Parker better than Grodzins does or explain him more sympathetically. Nor do I see how his archival research or his explication of Parker’s Unitarian context could be surpassed. But from time to time I wished for a little more coiffure.
Grodzins is appealingly modest about his most startling triumph as a biographer, probably because he would rather advertise Parker’s virtues than his failings. It is quirkily foreshadowed in the “Note on Transcription” that begins the book: “A singular and unique instance of Parker double underlining a capitalized word is transcribed as underscored italicized capitals: ‘
The Parkers’ troubles resemble those of Emerson and his second wife and of Higginson and his first. Maybe there was a special Transcendental pattern. Or maybe all unhappy marriages are alike: One spouse feels need; the other, scorn; and love survives, if it does, submerged beneath these rigid feelings like Houdini under the ice of a pond. Like Lidian Emerson and Mary Elizabeth Higginson, Lydia Parker became harshly critical of her husband. A few months after their wedding, Theodore wrote a list of self-admonitions into his journal, including “Never contradict,” “Smother the ferocity of her ‘no’s,’ ” and “Ignore her scolding.” Unlike Lidian Emerson and Mary Higginson, however, Lydia Parker was neither an intellectual nor an invalid. Her aunt, Lucy Cabot, was both, however. Since childhood, Lydia had lived as her wealthy, unmarried aunt’s companion. Soon after Aunt Lucy bought a house in West Roxbury in the spring of 1837, Theodore and Lydia moved in with her.
Theodore came to feel that Aunt Lucy had educated Lydia in resentment and that Aunt Lucy’s peevishness spoiled any chances for tenderness between him and Lydia. Loyal to her religiously orthodox aunt, Lydia regarded Theodore’s ambitions as a radical coldly. In an unpublished 1837 poem, Parker cast his marriage as yet another crucifixion: ” ‘Tis hard, ’tis very hard to find, / One’s bosom partner prove unkind / I grasped at gold, it is but dross, / Oh grant me grace to bear the cross.” In 1840 he wrote a parable about the marriage of a swallow and a tortoise. When the swallow-husband confesses a wish to fly, his tortoise-wife rebukes him: “Go to now, & behave like the Tortoises as other people do. That alone is respectable. Don’t break your wife’s heart, kind & condescending as she has been to marry you, you thin-skinned, shelless son of an Egg.” When the swallow does fly, despite his wife, he is reproached for catching bugs for “Miss Swift-wing, Miss Fork-Tail, & Miss Fair-Shape” instead of for her.
In Parker’s journal, Grodzins has deciphered some provocative fragments from an entry written in pencil and later erased: “Anna . . . if it were not for my wife . . . keep me from . . . tempter . . . sometimes . . . .” In 1841, a young man who was courting Anna Shaw became mysteriously upset with Parker. Soon neighbors were talking, as well as the Transcendentalists Elizabeth Peabody and Orestes Brownson. Aunt Lucy advised Theodore that he was spending too much time next door. In 1842, the same year that he labeled his wife a “DEVIL” in his journal, Parker retreated from Anna to a conventional distance. He continued to write private, treacly poetry about her golden curls for years afterward, however.
Why was Anna tempting? She was an intellectual, as Lydia was not, and she may also have represented an escape from financial dependence on Aunt Lucy. The symbiosis of ivy and tree was a conventional image of marital interdependence, and in an 1838 sermon, Parker had used it to describe a marriage gone sour: “So the ivy clings to the tree & . . . affords beauty while it receives support. But when the faithless tree proves rotten & falls, . . . the faithful vine falls a melancholy ruin to the ground. . . . Many evils are there in life. But no evils like this.” As Grodzins notes, Theodore seemed to be commenting on his own experience with Lydia. It is intriguing that he cast himself as wifely vine and Lydia as husbandly tree. A few years later, while strolling through the woods with Anna, he presented the same symbol to her, and she suggested a telling revision: A marriage should be seen as the intertwining growth of two trees, not tree and parasitic vine. The illusion, perhaps, was that with Anna he would feel neither intellectually superior nor financially inferior.
Of course, since Anna’s family was even richer than Lydia’s, running off with her would only have aggravated Theodore’s dependence. His challenge was to become a tree, not to find a replacement tree sturdier than the one he was already hanging on. Fortunately he was soon given an opportunity to be supportive. When one of Lydia’s brothers died, he left an illegitimate son, George Colburn; in the summer of 1842, George lost his mother and became an orphan. The Parkers were childless, and in December Theodore was appointed as the boy’s guardian. Perhaps out of concern for the family honor, Aunt Lucy seems to have disapproved, and for the interim the boy was boarded at Brook Farm, the Transcendentalists’ experimental community, located nearby in West Roxbury. But in 1847 George would move in with Theodore and Lydia, and in 1848 his last name would be changed to Cabot. Theodore and Lydia were united in their wish to foster him. As Grodzins explains, the incremental adoption “redrew the line of battle in household. For the first time, Theodore did not stand alone against Lydia, Lucy, and their family. Instead, he and Lydia stood together against the others.”
In September 1843 Parker left America for a yearlong tour of Europe. While abroad, he and Lydia seem to have reached a deeper understanding. In Berne, Switzerland, Theodore was taken with the bears that the town kept as mascots, and he gave Lydia the nickname “Bearsie.” For the rest of his life he would collect bear figurines, bear mugs, and even bear candlesticks. Grodzins speculates that with the nickname Theodore meant to recognize, if not tame, Lydia’s ferocity of temper. In his journal the word seems to have been a code for marital strife and his efforts at acceptance. For example, in 1855 he would write, elliptically, that “The old evil returns. . . . I had hoped it was at an end—but the old curse has returned. . . . Bear & Forbear.” In a dozen lines from Tennyson quoted on the last page of Parker’s autobiography, the phrase appears again, perhaps as a private envoi: “Who will accomplish high desire, / Bear and forbear, and never tire—.”
Parker could not follow Emerson out of the ministry. And yet, like Henry Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Wentworth Higginson, he had to figure out how to live after Emerson’s example—how to succeed him. Parker’s experiment was to continue the tone of voice and constellation of emotions characteristic of the ministry, even after he had jettisoned the dogma associated with it. The experiment leaves one with mixed feelings. Emerson liberated awe from the church, and there is something at once progressive and reactionary about Parker’s wish to mend the church so that he could return awe to it.
Parker’s persistence in his experiment, on the other hand, is easy to admire. In the short term, his heresy cost him labor as well as emotional pain. After his 1841 “Discourse of the Transient and Permanent,” few ministers were willing to exchange pulpits with him. This increased his workload, because preaching to a visitor’s congregation while he preached to yours cut down on the number of sermons to be written. Though informal, the custom also served to define the boundaries of Unitarianism as a sect. Trinitarians refused to exchange with Unitarians, and after 1841, most Unitarians refused to exchange with Parker. When John Sargent did in November 1844, he was forced to resign. When James Freeman Clarke exchanged with him in January 1845, part of his congregation seceded. The day after Parker’s exchange with Clarke, the Boston Association relinquished control over its rotating Thursday lectures, in order to avoid a choice between excommunicating Parker and listening to him. Parker feared that soon he might not be able to reach any audience beyond West Roxbury.
Outside the Unitarian hierarchy, however, the rebel had become more popular than ever. On January 22, 1845, a group of Bostonians met and resolved “that the Rev. Theodore Parker shall have a chance to be heard in Boston.” They hired out the Melodeon Theater for Sunday mornings, and on February 16, 1845, Parker preached three times—first at the Melodeon Theater, then at his home church in West Roxbury, and then again at the Melodeon Theater. After a month of this routine, Parker abandoned the afternoon sermon at the Melodeon. After a year, he abandoned West Roxbury.
The unorthodox new church was formally constituted as the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society of Boston. Napoleon-like, Parker administered his installation service himself, and his sermon on the occasion omitted any biblical text. His new salary, more than triple what he had received in West Roxbury, was paid not by pew sales but by subscriptions and voluntary contributions. He preached to an audience of two or three thousand, though only a small fraction of those who came gave money—”even less . . . than the proportion of a modern audience that contributes to its public radio station,” to borrow the apt comparison that Grodzins makes in an essay on the congregation published elsewhere. Since there was no assigned seating, the “pews” were racially integrated.
As minister to the Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society, Parker would never serve Communion and never baptize an adult. Without compromise to his principles, he had become independent of Aunt Lucy. In January 1847 he and Lydia moved to Boston. George Colburn joined their new household; Aunt Lucy did not.
If Lydia Parker en famille wielded talons worthy of a bear, she and her husband were well-matched. The tortoise-killer in him was never quite put down. “T. P. has beautiful fangs,” Emerson once reported in his journal, “& the whole amphitheatre delights to see him worry & tear his victim.” After watching Parker lose his temper with Bronson Alcott, Emerson wrote that Parker had “wound himself around Alcott like an anaconda: you could hear poor Alcott’s bones crunch.”
As meals, neither cornered Unitarians nor woolly-minded utopians could have been very filling, however. Fortunately, at the end of Grodzins’s volume, Parker has found at last not only his adulthood but also something to sink his teeth into.
At the Melodeon, Parker began to worry and tear the class that he called “merchants,” which he recognized as “the most powerful and commanding in society.” He defined them as “men who live by buying and selling,” bankers and factory owners included. He insisted that there was nothing inherently shameful about their work or their elite position. In fact he believed that a merchant, if noble-minded, could be “the saint of the nineteenth century.” But since the merchant sat at the top of society, he would naturally be tempted to put his personal interest ahead of the general. As a class, merchants were exposed to “a temptation to abuse their political power to the injury of the nation, to make laws which seem good for themselves, but are baneful to the people.”
Alert condemnation of this sin would be Parker’s one idea in politics, just as the immediate and personal apprehension of the divine had been his one idea in religion. In Parker’s opinion, the elite were more or less unable to stop themselves from plundering the nation, unless they were resolutely dedicated to a higher idea. “The American idea,” he believed, was freedom. The special mission of the United States in history was “to organize the rights of man.” To save itself from corruption, therefore, the nation had to abolish slavery at once. Abolition became his great crusade. As he explained in “The Rights of Man in America” (1854), “There can be no national welfare without national Unity of Action. That cannot take place unless there is national Unity of Idea in fundamentals. Without this a nation is a ‘house divided against itself;’ of course it cannot stand.”
In The Trials of Anthony Burns, a history of the Transcendentalists’ engagement with abolition, the historian Albert J. von Frank speculates that this was the sermon by Parker that William Herndon, one of his disciples, pressed on his friend and law partner Abraham Lincoln. Of course Lincoln might have quoted Matthew’s gospel without Parker’s prompting. But from this or another sermon of Parker’s, he did borrow a nice turn of phrase. According to Grodzins, Parker first used it in his 1846 critique of the merchant class: “If we begin with taking care of the rights of man, it seems easy to take care of the rights of labour and of capital. . . . A nation making laws for the nation is a noble sight. The government of all, by all, and for all, is a Democracy.”