FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH OF PHILADELPHIA
A UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CONGREGATION
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PARKER’S CONTROVERSIAL THEOLOGY
Delivered by Mark DeCourval on August 22, 2010 Reading The Starfish – Author Unknown There was a young man walking down a deserted beach just before dawn. In the distance he saw a frail old man. As he approached the old man, he saw him picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea. The young man gazed in wonder as the old man again and again threw the starfish from the sand into the water. He asked, “Old man, why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?” The old man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun. “But there must be thousands of beaches and millions of starfish!” explained the young man. “Will any of this make a difference?” The old man looked at the starfish in his hand and as he threw it into the safety of the water, replied “It only has to make a difference for this one.” Sermon This month marks the 200th birth anniversary of Theodore Parker who was born on August 24, 1810 and died fifty years later on May 10, 1860. Now-a-days, he is cited as one of the prophets of Unitarianism along with William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today, with your indulgence, I would like to take a few minutes to explore the person of Theodore Parker, some of his theology, what made him controversial, and what meaning it has for us today. The person of Theodore Parker: He was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, the youngest son of a large farming family. He was educated privately until he went to Harvard College where he graduated in 1831. He considered a career in law but his strong faith led him to theology. Accordingly, he then went on to Harvard Divinity School where he specialized in a study of theology and languages. He graduated from there in 1836. He excelled in his studies and he learned no less than twenty languages while there. However, Parker considered Harvard to be an “embalming” institution and found himself discarding much of the theology being taught there. By graduation day, he had begun to have doubts about the miracles described in the bible and the virgin birth of Christ. He was ordained in 1837 and almost immediately found himself involved into the religious controversies that were boiling up in the Boston area. He was increasingly sympathetic to the leaders of the transcendental movement, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. He embraced their core belief of an ideal spiritual state that "transcends" the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual's intuition, rather than through the doctrines of established religions. Like Emerson, he favored a religion that dispensed with creeds, rituals, and church polity and substituted the relation of the individual soul to the oversoul.
Parker, not only, accepted the transcending ideas without shadow of qualification but was able to state them with concrete sharpness. An example is his word formula of a republican government – “a government of the people, by the people, for the people” which later influenced Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Parker was a preacher more than theologian, philosopher or scholar. He had a great gift of language and the ability to employ resources of illustration from history, literature, biographies, theology, and nature. His emotions were genuine and deep ranging from humor to tender tears. However, Parker was also guilty of personal injustice in holding individuals answerable for their sins and for vices transmitted to others. He had little tolerance for injustices afflicted onto the innocent. Parker was said to be a person of favoring equity and this was attributed to his faith. His spiritual philosophy was one which affirmed the worth and dignity of all persons being that they were children of God. He worked hard for social and political causes. In lectures and sermons he fought hard for the improvement of public education, prison reform, equal rights for women, elimination of poverty conditions, and the abolishment of slavery. Regarding women, he stated: “Woman I have always regarded as the equal of man… entitled to the same rights as man… and only kept from the enjoyment of these by might not right.” The deep struggle over slavery however aroused his greatest efforts as well as his fiercest opposition. He wrote a scathing letter “To a Southern Slaveholder” in 1848 where he stated that I think slave holding is a wrong in itself, and therefore, a sin. He took an active part in attempts to rescue fugitive slaves from the Massachusetts authorities, hid them in his home, and advocated violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Parker’s ill health forced his retirement in 1859. He developed tuberculosis and departed for Florence, Italy. Where he died in 1860, less than one year before the Union split. He had sought refuge in Florence because of his friendship with Robert and Elizabeth Browning. So perhaps you are wondering at this point so where is the controversial theology? So far it seems that he was quite the acceptable minister. He affirmed the worth and dignity of all persons, promoted a free and responsible search for truth, advocated justice, equity and compassion in human relations and respected the interdependent web of all existence. It sounds like Parker was embracing, living, and promoting our current principles. Yes, with respect to our current principles that is true but in the early and mid 1800s during Parker’s time, Unitarianism was more traditional and less liberal than it is today. Unitarianism at this time held a theology that advanced that Jesus was less than God (not equal and not of part of a Trinity deity), but one that still accepted Jesus as the chosen prophet of God, fully human, yet exalted above all the other prophets of God and accordingly considered itself still a Christian faith. This Unitarianism embraced the miracles and supernatural events of Jesus that characterized his life and ministry as necessary evidence of God’s election of Jesus as his chosen one. It also held that the Gospel was of divine authority founded on a special and miraculous intervention of God for the redemption of mankind. As previously mentioned, as early as Parker’s graduation from Harvard Divinity School, he was already having doubts about the validity of the miracles described in the bible and on resting his beliefs on the biblical doctrine. In 1839, only two years after his ordination, he delivered his infamous sermon entitled “The Transient and the Permanent Christianity” at the ordination of Charles Shackford of the Hawes Place Church in South Boston; wherein, he expressed his doubts and suggested that
Christianity could not be validated by miracles or by scriptural authority or even by the authority of Jesus Christ. He went on to say that if Christianity is true, its truth must be self evident, and would be just as true if Jesus had never existed, or the message had been claimed elsewhere. The forms and doctrines of Christianity, he insisted, are all transient. What is permanent is the word of God expressed in each human heart, the word of God spoken through Conscience, Reason and Faith and that truth existed before Jesus, and after him and in all times and places. I quote from his sermon. “Christianity does not rest on the infallible authority of the New Testament… I cannot see where it depends on the personal authority of Jesus… Jesus was an agent through which God spoke… If Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, the truths of Christianity would still stand firm… If Christianity be true, we should think it was so; not because its record was written by infallible pens; nor because it was lived out by an infallible teacher – but that it is true, like the axioms of geometry, because they are true of their own accord… If it rests on the personal authority of Jesus alone, there is no certainty of its truth…” Parker had made it clear that Christianity was to be seen as one expression of eternal truth; that the same truth found expression in other religions and was rooted in the human soul. Many of the more conservative in the audience were hurt and shocked by what he said. Several took notes and published their review of Parker asked whether he represented the thinking of the denomination. They suggested that in all fairness, Unitarians should either disown the heresy preached by Parker or else make public that he did represent the position of the Unitarian denomination. Stung by the suggestion that Parker’s views were normative in the denomination, many ministers were eager to distance themselves from him. Some, calling him an unbeliever and an atheist, refused to speak to him, shake his hand, or sit next to him in meetings, Most of the Boston ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him. Many of his friends doubted that he could be considered a Christian anymore. In 1843, the Boston Association of Congregational Ministers sought his resignation (he refused) and which could not be forced since under congregation polity there was no way to remove him from ministry while he was supported by own congregation. Boston’s Unitarian leadership opposed him to the end, but the younger ministers admired him for his attacks on traditional ideas, his fight for a free faith and pulpit and his very public stance on social issues such as the abolishment of slavery. They determined that he should still be heard and in 1846 organized the Twenty-Eighth Congregation Society, with Parker as its settled minister. For years, Parker, rejected by his own denomination was one of the most popular and influential preachers in Boston. He continued to insist that systems and doctrines were inconsequential, rejected the divinity of Jesus and advanced that reason should be used in bible interpretation. He was seen to have taken the tools handed to him by a liberal tradition and used them against the tradition. It was so much so that in 1853, the American Unitarian Association flirted with creedalism in adopting a declaration affirming a belief in Jesus Christ as the everlasting Son of God. The statement was for the most part forgotten later in the century. As controversial as was his theology, his stance of slavery was considered even more so. He was adamantly against slavery and would write sermons with a loaded pistol on his desk to defend the runaway slaves that he was harboring and denounced the Constitution of the United States as a pact with the devil because of its position regarding slavery. In his journal entitled
“Experience as a Minister”, he wrote that Christian piety is not enough. It must liberate humanity from oppression. We need that great charity that alleviates the effects of wrongs and the greater justice that removes the cause. And now we come to the question of what meaning does all this have for us today. I would suggest that it serves to reaffirm our loyalty to the principle of free inquiry with all its potential consequences. To covenant and affirm a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. To draw upon the words and deeds of women and men which challenge us and the wisdom from the world’s religions that inspire us. To promote the inherent dignity and worth of every person. To accept one another and encourage each other’s spiritual growth. To seek justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And to close with a Parker quote: “put not your trust in transient notions but in the eternal truths.” You might ask as did the young man in today’s Starfish reading – “Will any of this make any difference?” Recall now the old man’s reply – “It only has to make a difference for one.”