Theodore Parker: American Visionary

Theodore Parker Photo  Transcendentalism

Although relatively unknown today, Theodore Parker, who lived in the turbulent decades leading up to the Civil War, was an American whose life exerted a tremendous influence upon his own times, and whose thought and actions still reverberate at the very heart of modern day issues.

In one speech, Parker used the phrase, “A democracy of all the people, by all the people, for all the people”, which later influenced Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address.

Of the abolitionist cause he was advocating, he wrote: “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.”  These words later became the basis of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Parker ( 1810-1860) was a minister of the Unitarian Church.  He was also associated with the Transcendental Club, which included such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

In 1841, he gave a sermon titled “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity”, which set him on a collision course with orthodox Christian belief.  He argued that the essence of Jesus’ teachings remained the permanent essence of Christianity, but denied the churches’ reliance on miracles, revelation, dogma, and the literal authority of the Bible.

He was attacked, and most of the pulpits in the Boston area were closed to him.  His supporters, however, organized the 28th Congregational Society of Boston, where he was installed as minister in 1846.  His congregation, which grew to a membership of several thousand, included such famous social reformers as William Llloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

In the second half of his life, Parker was deeply involved in anti-slavery and social reform movements.

He fought and organized opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act, which required citizens of all states to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves.  He even hid fugitive slaves in his home.  He denounced the Mexican War.  He supported women’s right movements.

At the heart of all his work was his sense of himself as a religious reformer.  He felt that individuals should find their connection to a higher spiritual source, to God, without the need of intermediaries, without the trappings of orthodox Christianity.

Parker’s stances would put him at odds with the beliefs of most of the churches, religions, and faith traditions of Western civilization today:  A reliance upon the authority of the Bible; a belief in Biblical miracles; a belief in miraculous births, and atonement of sins; a belief in the infallibility of religious leaders and books; and the list goes on.

He wrote:

“Let then the Transient pass, fleet as it will, and may God send us some new manifestation of the Christian faith, that shall stir men’s hearts as they were never stirred; some new Word, which shall teach us what we are, and renew us all in the image of God”.

We live in a world of old, decaying ideas that have bound us for millennia.  We struggle in the dark, while our religions become instruments of division and hatred, anger and death.

Amid all the trappings of religion and religious faiths, we are still looking for that “Word”, which will reveal to all of us our true identity and the scope and meaning of our interconnectedness to this unbelievably vast universe we inhabit.

The Buddha is coming to America.

Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.


Traveling to a New AmericaJames Hilgendorf is a filmmaker, speaker, poet, and the author of ten non-fiction books that are opening the way to a new vision of ourselves, a new dream of America, a new religion for the world.  This year, he is traveling to towns and cities all across America, giving talks and readings, and holding discussions about the future of America – all under the banner of “Traveling to a New America“.

Follow the journey on Facebook.

To arrange talks, contact the author.

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