Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism

Theodore Parker

Paul P. Reuben
October 17, 2016

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| A Brief Biography |

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Source: Unitarians . . . : TP

Theodore Parker was a New England Transcendentalist heavyweight.  A Transcendentalist, theologian, scholar, Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and social reformer, Parker impacted America in more ways than most people imagine.  In his vigorous challenge to religious dogmatism, his tireless (and fearless) anti-slavery stance, and his fight for women's rights, he was years, decades, ahead of his time.  His brilliant sermon A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity (1841) is truly a Transcendentalist manifesto.

Parker was originally introduced to liberal religious perspectives in the early 1830s by Convers Francis of Watertown, Massachusetts.  He rapidly moved beyond traditional Unitarianism and joined the Transcendental Club in 1836.  In 1840, he debated conservative Unitarian leader and curmudgeon Andrews Norton over the significance of biblical miracles in a lengthy public letter written under the pseudonym "Levi Blodgett."  Essentially, Parker pursued Unitarianism much further than the Unitarians were willing to go.  His words and actions rightfully accused many Unitarian ministers of teaching a supernatural Christianity in which they no longer believed and insisting on conformity to a creed that they professed not to have.  Parker vigorously advocated social reform and personally aided and defended fugitive slaves in Boston.  He was a noteworthy contributor to the Dial and later founded his own magazine, the Massachusetts Quarterly Review (1847&endash;1850). Alcott Net

Selected Bibliography

Albrecht, Robert, C. Theodore Parker. New York: Twayne Publishers Inc. 1971.

Grodzins, Dean. American Herectic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002.

Grusin, Richard A. Transcendentalist Hermeneutics: Institutional Authority and the Higher Criticism of the Bible. Durham : Duke UP, 1991.

Weiss, John. Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker. 2 vols. New York : Bergman, 1969.

| Top | Theodore Parker (1810-1860): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Kevin Ross 

Theodore Parker lived, by standards of today, a very short life. Born on August 24, 1810 in Lexington, Massachusetts, Parker accomplished a great deal for himself and for others in his life of fifty years.

Most of Theodore Parker's education was self-attained. At the young age of twenty, Parker walked to Cambridge to enroll at Harvard after having passed the entrance examinations. He was not allowed to enroll, though, due to financial difficulties. However, he was allowed to take exams throughout the courses. He completed his studies and, in 1840, was made an honorary master of arts (Albrecht 19). In April 1834, Parker began his studies at Harvard Divinity School. He would become an ordained minister but would soon break away from the Unitarian beliefs to become one of their greatest critics. While at divinity school Parker contributed to and edited the Scriptural Interpreter which contained ideas that went far beyond Unitarian orthodoxy (Albrecht 25).

With the beliefs of Parker it was only a matter of time before he would meet up with the transcendentalists that inhabited Brook Farm. Brook Farm was only a two-mile walk from Parker's Roxbury home. He would go there, if for nothing else, to get exercise. He also enjoyed the company of his friend George Ripley (Swift 251). Parker also made many contributions to The Dial which was a magazine founded by Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

Parker felt that he needed a break and was glad to learn of the availability of a trip to Europe. He stayed in Europe for a year before he would come home. While in Europe, Parker learned much about his own interests and beliefs. What he learned would lead him to transfer his energy from his religious interests to social reform (Albrecht 61).

Parker's interest in social reform mainly involved slavery. By 1850 it had absorbed most of his time and interest. This was fueled mainly by his belief in Christianity (Albrecht 91). In 1848 Parker would write A Letter on Slavery. This was a one hundred page pamphlet that describes how slavery touches all citizens because the nation is supporting it through legislation and by looking the other way in regards to slave markets even in the capital (Albrecht 95). Parker believed that slavery was one of the main dangers of America and that it could be removed if men would recognize that the rights of man should prevail over the rights of property (Albrecht 112).

In 1854 Parker awaited his fate in the judicial system. During the Anthony Burns affair in which a fugitive slave had been captured, Parker would make a statement implying that the only means to obtain liberty was through non peaceful actions. It was statements such as these that got Parker thrown in jail. When Parker was denied the opportunity to speak in court he decided to publish his defense, and that is exactly what it was called, Parker's Defence. Parker's Defence was 221 pages most of which was a defense of his positions. He also brought up that in fourteen years of being attacked, this was his first defense (Albrecht 113).

In 1859 Parker's health began to fail him. On January 2, of the same year, he preached his last sermon. He then left America for the last time on a recuperative voyage to Italy. On April 19, he finished his memoir of the reform era in Boston "Theodore Parker's Experience as a Minister." On May 10, 1860 Theodore Parker died in Florence, Italy.

Works Cited

Albrecht, Robert C. Theodore Parker. New York: Twayne Publishers Inc. 1971.

Grodzins, Dean. "Theodore Parker." in Mott, Wesley T. ed. The American Renaissance in New England: Third Series. Detroit Thomson Gale, 2001.

- - -. American Herectic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002.

Han, John J. "Theodore Parker (1810-1860)." in Knight, Denise D. ed. Writers of the American Renaissance: An A-to-Z Guide. Westport, CT Greenwood, 2003.

Swift, Lindsay. Brook Farm: Its Members, Scholars, and Visitors. New Jersey: The Citadel Press. 1973.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Theodore Parker." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide your page date or date of your login).

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