Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker

“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.” –Theodore Parker

Theodore Parker is not a household name in the 21st century–and needless to say his name also wasn’t one near the end of the 20th.  But given the extraordinary week that the country just experienced it seems apropos to write a short post about Unitarian Minister Parker.  His life was a relatively short one.  He was born in 1810 in Lexington, Massachusetts, and died in 1860 in Florence, Italy while seeking a cure for tuberculosis.  Yet, he influenced social reformers as varied as Abraham Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Martin Luther King, and Betty Friedan.  The quote that opens this post was later paraphrased by Dr. King in his book Where Do We Go From Here?

Parker was a controversial figure in his time as a minister, but also very popular and influential, drawing thousands to his 28th Congregational Society church and to his lectures around the country.  He eschewed all claims of supernaturalism and revelation in scripture and viewed the world through the lens of Transcendentalism: that the world and universe itself was divine.  Thus, rather than an unbending scriptural interpretation of creation, Parker saw that the Universe would reveal its truths if people were wise enough to use the tools at hand to see it.  Writing as he did on the cusp of the first discoveries under the modern conception of science–as well as the lectures and views of Ralph Waldo Emerson–he came to view the religious writings of a more primitive people by nature flawed, with religious experience having to be directly experienced by the individual through one’s direct connection with nature.  Interestingly, one can see some of these ideas expressed in the recent Encyclical “Laudato Si'” by Pope Francis.

In 1843 he took a sabbatical to Europe and there saw first hand political despotism and great inequality of wealth and condition.  Combined with his conception of Transcendentalism he began thinking about the relationship of the individual to civil society, and what a democratic society meant.  He came to advocate just about every type of social reform that came to the forefront of the later social movements: the abolition of slavery, the equality and improved social condition of women, free public education, prison reform, and the alleviation of class inequality.

The distillation of his philosophy is best found in his lecture now known as “The American Idea”, which he gave to the New England Anti-Slavery Convention in Boston on May 29, 1850.  A distillation and comparison of this speech can be found here, though the citation for the speech is wrong.   The citation for the actual sermon can be found here, thanks to Project Gutenberg.  In it he said:

There is what I call the American idea. I so name it, because it seems to me to lie at the basis of all our truly original, distinctive and American institutions. It is itself a complex idea, composed of three subordinate and more simple ideas, namely: The idea that all men have unalienable rights; that in respect thereof, all men are created equal; and that government is to be established and sustained for the purpose of giving every man an opportunity for the enjoyment and development of all these unalienable rights. This idea demands, as the proximate organization thereof, a democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people; of course, a government after the principles of eternal justice, the unchanging law of God; for shortness’ sake, I will call it the idea of Freedom.

That is one idea; and the other is, that one man has a right to hold another man in thraldom, not for the slave’s good, but for the master’s convenience; not on account of any wrong the slave has done or intended, but solely for the benefit of the master. This idea is not peculiarly American. For shortness’ sake, I will call this the idea of Slavery. It demands for its proximate organization, an aristocracy, that is, a government of all the people by a part of the people—the masters; for a part of the people—the masters; against a part of the people—the slaves; a government contrary to the principles of eternal justice, contrary to the unchanging law of God. These two ideas are hostile, irreconcilably hostile, and can no more be compromised and made to coalesce in the life of this nation, than the worship of the real God and the worship of the imaginary Devil can be combined and made to coalesce in the life of a single man.

Whether one accepts his theological views or not, his proposition, borrowed by Lincoln famously in the Gettysburg Address, is a simple, direct, and perpetually expanding and evolving view of freedom.  It hews to no ideology that promises some future nirvana or pie in the sky, or acts as an artificial brake on human action, demanding “sacrifices” in the short term for some long term achievement of perfection, nor does it accept the presumption of superiority of one over another.

Plain Yankee common sense is clear here:  the world is imperfect, our experience in it is immediate, our solutions must be real and practical, opening oneself up to that which is around us opens our minds and allows us to see more clearly than we otherwise would, given this information we must dedicate ourselves to doing what is right and good and just given the proposition of human dignity, and that this demands a type of democracy that eschews not only slavery, but feudalism, oligarchy, monarchy, and any form of class rule, authoritarianism, or subjugation.  Thus, one can see in Parker’s own growth and evolving philosophy the evolution and connections in the American experience from Transcendentalism to American Pragmatism.  His ideas are as vital today as they were when he was alive.

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