Theodore Parker’s Pistol
a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at First Unitarian Church of Alton, Illinois, November 4, 2007
Theodore Parker had a New England pedigree. The Parker family had already been in America for several generations when Theodore’s grandfather, Captain John Parker of Lexington, Massachusetts, fought in the skirmish that signaled the beginning of the American Revolution. The musket used by the Captain as well as a British one that he captured in Lexington Square that day came to hang on the wall of his grandson’s study as a constant reminder of the battle for freedom. Captain Parker was credited with uttering words of challenge before the skirmish: “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” Those words impressed themselves on Theodore early on and he followed them himself in many ways throughout his life.
The life and career of Theodore Parker give us who follow in his religious footsteps many things to ponder. The last of ten children born to his parents, he was to lose his mother by the time he was twelve. Several of his siblings also died of consumption, and Theodore was left in the care of his father, a Yankee farmer who saw little value in education and kept the boy at work for as many years as he could. Theodore would try to hide the calluses on his hands when he finally went to school and when he went to teach or to minister in Lexington, and even more so in Boston where he never really fit in with the blue-blooded, parlor-room elite.
Precocious enough to find a job as a school teacher in 1826 at the age of sixteen, Parker applied to Harvard three years later and was accepted, but couldn’t afford the tuition - he read everything on the syllabus on his own anyway. In 1832, he started his own academy in Watertown, Massachusetts, and met his wife-to-be, Lydia Cabot, the daughter of a wealthy Boston family. In 1834, he dropped his plans for a law career and followed a call to the ministry, applying again to Harvard, this time to the graduate Divinity School without benefit of undergraduate hours of any kind. This time when Harvard accepted him, he was ready (and apparently, someone in Lydia’s family picked up the tab).
The curriculum was easy enough (for him…) that Parker could study languages in his spare time. He set himself the goal of learning a new language each month, and by the time he graduated he boasted that he could read some twenty languages all told.
When he finished seminary, he married Lydia and was ordained as minister of the small West Roxbury Church near his wife’s family home. In addition to ministering to that parish, he began to write scholarly articles and sermons that he offered for wider publication. He continued to read at an ungodly rate, especially German works in the new field of historical criticism as applied to the Bible.
It was about this time that his evolving theology first got him into trouble.
Accepted Unitarian doctrine of the day called for the use of reason in determining religious truths; each person could find God in his or her own way by simply thinking about it. But these truths had to be supplemented by further revelation, especially through study of the miracle stories of the Old and New Testaments. When Parker publicly questioned the veracity of Old Testament miracle stories and began to interpret them as natural occurrences, other Unitarian ministers shunned him, called him dangerous, and tried to sever all ministerial ties with him.
Based on ideas gleaned from German scholarship, Parker began to see the stories of the Bible not as historically true but as myth - narrative that conveys basic truths borne within poetry and metaphor. He spoke of Jesus, not as uniquely divine but as a great teacher inspired in the same manner that all might be inspired; Jesus, he said, had simply been able to open himself to truth to a greater degree than the rest of us. The religion that Jesus preached was not made authoritative by the messenger who preached it; the religion that Jesus preached was authoritative on its own because it was a natural religion, an absolute religion that had much less to do with the nature of Jesus than with the nature of those things that are true in all places and in all ages.
When he happened to be in the pews at Harvard Divinity School for the ordination of Jared Sparks in 1838, he heard with his own ears Ralph Waldo Emerson deliver his landmark Divinity School Address and he knew he’d found his place in the budding Transcendentalist movement. He began to attend Transcendentalist Club meetings, submitted articles for publication in Emerson’s Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, and was included in gatherings at Emerson’s home along with Thoreau, the Alcotts, and Margaret Fuller.
In 1841, Theodore Parker was the featured speaker at an ordination service and he wanted to use the opportunity to say more about his idea that it was the message Jesus preached that was important, not whether Jesus was divine or not. In A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity (we heard a reading from it earlier) Parker spoke of the mythic quality of the miracle stories and denied outright that the authority of the Bible or the authority of Jesus might rest on miraculous events. He went home that night not realizing he had fired a Howitzer through the ranks of Unitarians and Trinitarians alike. Trinitarians attacked, deriding Parker’s heresy and by association all Unitarians who might still dare to call Parker a Christian. Unitarian ministers, more in response to their disgust at Parker than the attacks of Trinitarians, wrote him off as un-Christian and ceased exchanging pulpits with him. The Unitarian ministers’ association even tried to remove him from fellowship and asked him to resign. But Parker kept attending meetings, as difficult as he found them, believing that he should be there, believing that he still belonged, believing that he was still a Christian and that he had a ministry to perform among them.
The controversies would not go away; however, they were responsible for helping Parker become the most famous preacher in America. In 1845, he began preaching on Sunday mornings to large audiences at the Melodeon Theater in Boston, for a time traveling back to West Roxbury for an afternoon sermon there. The services at the Melodeon drew two thousand people and more, and that congregation soon had to rent the larger Boston Music Hall to accommodate the throngs. Parker’s printed sermons circulated widely across America, his books were well received, and his columns and criticisms and articles were published in many magazines and pamphlets.
Finally he lost what standing he had with the Unitarian ministers’ association, and his Boston congregation no longer was considered Unitarian. But he continued to speak out on matters theological, philosophical, religious, and social, arguing for the rights of women and workers and against the institution of slavery.
His great passion was his work toward the abolition of slavery. When he married Lydia, he found her conversation salted with a loathing of the ‘peculiar institution,’ and he began to think and speak more and more about it. Active in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Parker at times kept escaped slaves and Freedmen in his home to protect them from roving gangs of slave hunters - yes, slave hunters were active even in Boston; slavery’s reach seemed without bounds.
In 1854, he was indicted for harboring a fugitive and obstructing justice; the charges were eventually dropped but the experience took a toll. Many times, Parker wrote sermons about justice and freedom and compassion for humanity with a loaded pistol resting beside the manuscript on his desk. “If they mean to have a war, let it begin here,” his grandfather Captain John Parker had said. And Theodore Parker lived out that statement in so many ways, even raising money in support of John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry, an attempt to foment an insurrection of slaves across the South that would have left many, slave and master alike, dead.
When Parker’s health began to fail from tuberculosis at the age of 48, he left for the Caribbean and Europe with Lydia. A year and a half later, on May 10, 1860, Theodore Parker died in Florence, Italy, and was buried there.
Theodore Parker was a complicated person. He could be quick-tempered and irascible, but completely loving to friends. He could say harsh things about individuals and institutions both publicly and privately, but he often cried while pronouncing those judgments. He believed the Bible to be full of mistakes and built upon faulty history, but he preached the principles that Jesus preached and spoke of the Absolute Religion contained within the pages of the Good Book. He was a tireless and committed abolitionist, but believed the white race to be superior to all others in most respects.
Parker was a man of paradox, as are we all. The paradox that I am most struck by is that pistol I picture next to his sermon manuscript. The object of the good sermon is, in my estimation, the edification of the listener, the articulation of a truth, the speaking of a possibility to be pondered upon and perhaps lived into existence. A sermon must be intended to shine a light on justice and freedom and compassion for humanity, however it might finally fall short of its objective. A pistol in plain view of the preacher seems a short-circuit of the possibility for the salvation of a congregation or the redemption of a message. Certainly killing is the short-circuiting of the possibility of life, but there are no reports that Parker ever resorted to such a thing himself (at least by his own hand - his support for John Brown and war upon the slave states notwithstanding).
I have heard that if one carries a weapon, one had best be prepared to use it. I know some of you are possessors of firearms and carry them when and where you can. I assure you that it is not my awareness of your weaponry that keeps me courteous and respectful among you; I trust that I could be courteous and respectful in an unarmed, even pacifist society. I once considered myself quite a pacifist - and would fight anyone who said otherwise. Then I had children and realized that even if I could accept some level of degradation to myself, in defending my children I would use whatever means necessary.
If Parker procured a pistol, and if he was prepared to use it in defense of those he patronizingly considered “his children,” should we still sanctify him? Is he the model of ministry we seek? Is justice to be brought about at the business end of a gun?
I had a professor in seminary - a Dr. Kinnamon - who repeatedly said that if we could not speak our theology to the children who were about to enter the ovens at Auchswitz, then we had best reconsider that theology.
I believe that Parker’s theology of justice - that which said it was permissible to protect escaped slaves with a pistol - would pass Dr. Kinnamon’s test as redemptive for the doomed, the downtrodden, the enslaved. I cannot say how I would personally react to the need to point a pistol and pull a trigger; I am, after all, privileged in the extreme to be older and middle-class and American here in the new millennium. I can, however, after much reflection, suggest that building a theology that doesn’t take into account the brokenness of the world is at best a short-sighted construction project; writing a sermon without imagining a powerful weapon - whether revolver or nonviolent resistance - at hand to protect the innocent may be a shallow effort indeed. Justice will not prevail without our involvement and our willingness to change first ourselves and then, through our actions, the structures that enslave and oppress.
In a sermon entitled “The Effects of Slavery on the American People,” Parker wrote that “democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people.” In a copy of that sermon Parker sent to his friend William Herndon in Springfield, Illinois, Herndon underlined the passage and showed it to his law partner. That partner, a Mr. Lincoln who was himself no stranger to the need to take up arms, would lift Parker’s words in the form “government of the people, by the people, for the people” and use them to immortal effect in an address at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a few years later.
Notice also the quote from Parker at the top of your Order of Service. It is where Martin Luther King picked up his oft-quoted statement that “the arc of the universe bends toward justice.” Parker’s words are the words of America.
Reviled by the establishment while he was alive, Parker’s star rose again as he began to be remembered as an architect of liberal religion, a defender of the free pulpit, and a crusader for human rights. He knew or corresponded with the lights of his age, and everyone who was anyone knew him or knew of him. Many of the tenets of his theology are still taught in seminaries today; he preached that religion is a matter of practical ethics, and for that alone we could honor him. But it is his willingness to engage the world as he found it and to act on his principles that most moves me at this juncture in our history.
May we remember that what we say and do affects others beyond what we are aware.
May we honor those who have gone before, built their theologies upon solid ground, and acted them out in the world.
And may we go forth and do likewise.
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