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Erik Visits an American (Abroad) Grave, Part 1,405

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This is the grave of Theodore Parker.

Born in 1810 in Lexington, Massachusetts, Parker grew up in an old, old Massachusetts family, going all the way back to the beginning of Puritan settlement. But although the family was a reasonably well off group of farmers, his childhood wasn’t so happy because the family was noted for its lack of health. Many of his siblings died young and his mother died when he was 11. This shaped the young man and he turned toward religion and philosophy as a strategy to deal with the grief, which he refused to admit he had. He was a brilliant kid, though a very emotional one, enough so that this was commonly discussed by others. Parker taught himself most of what he knew, after his long chores on the farm ended. He was driven and determined to succeed and get off the farm.

In 1830, Parker applied to Harvard. He was accepted, but he couldn’t pay the tuition. So they offered him a deal. Learn it all yourself well enough to take the exams and we will give you a degree. Seems odd to me, but whatever. He completed three years of education in one this way. He started teaching and found some success in this field. At least it wasn’t farming. He wrote A History of the Jews, which was a Biblical work that took the history as real and the miracles as a bunch of dumb stories. This got him into Harvard Divinity and he worked hard to integrate the contemporary ideas of German philosophy into his own thinking. He rushed through the program, completing it in 1836, so he could work, marry, and preach.

It was kind of a rough go for Parker though, at least for the first several years. He seems to have been a very difficult man. He had a terrible marriage that was a disaster from almost the beginning. He was successful enough as a minister, but didn’t really believe that the tenets of mainstream Protestantism were correct, so he wasn’t happy here either. What changed his life was becoming associated with the Transcendental movement around Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Orestes Brownson, and others. For a lot of these guys, including Emerson, the ideas of social reform were more important than religion and they moved toward a gentle semi-atheism, but for Parker, it just deepened his faith and he sought to bring these ideas into his preaching. This could alienate his listeners very easily, so he took his time and slowly introduced them to his congregation and other parishes were he preached. That he already saw the miracles of the Bible as complete trash helped him come to grips with how to bring Transcendentalism into his ideas, but doing so in a way that wouldn’t outrage people was tougher. For Parker, you did not need miracles, not when there was slavery to fight and not when people were drinking alcohol.

Now, Parker was already at the outer limits of acceptable liberal Christianity. His parish was a Unitarian one in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. But Parker went further than even the Unitarians would allow. In 1841, he just came out with it. He gave a sermon titled A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity that laid out how the miracles were hogwash. His argument was that the words of Christ were timeless, but that nothing else in the Bible had much value for study today. The modern Christian should take Christ’s words and apply them to the politics of the present. The response to this was….not positive. He became persona non grata in much of the Boston area religious community. Friends abandoned him. Many called him an atheist.

Parker’s response to all this was just to simply believe he was correct. By 1843, he basically saw himself as a prophet and social reformer bringing the words of Christ to the evils of the 19th century. He traveled in Europe for a couple of years to meet people and continue his studies. In 1845, his friends organized a new space for him to preach that met at the Boston Music Hall and while he was hesitant to return to this life, he flourished in it. He became the minister of radical Christianity in America. He started attracting many of the biggest names in Boston to his sermons–Louisa May Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

As he grew in stature, Parker turned more toward the political problems of the day. In 1846, the United States declared an unjust war against Mexico and over the next two years stole half the country in order to expand slavery. For Parker, this was pure evil, as indeed it was. Now, let’s be clear–Parker wasn’t some ideal of 21st century liberalism. Part of the reason he opposed the war is that he thought Mexicans were ignorant Catholic peons who were racially inferior to whites and had no place in America. But he also saw the war to expand slavery for what it was. And then when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, Parker was outraged. It was one thing to have slavery in the country. It was another to see slavecatchers in Boston. Parker led the resistance to it, urging stopping it all costs, including the use of violence. Parker personally hid people wanted by the slavers in his house. Everyone knew it. He was indicted for violating the law. He didn’t care. He was never convicted. No one was going to convict him in Boston, in part because he had whipped the city into a frenzy against the law. The South knew that the Fugitive Slave Act was effectively null and void in Boston and this led to them greater radicalism and anger against the North.

As for the violence, Parker actively supported John Brown. He was part of the Secret Six, the wealthy northern abolitionists who funded Brown’s schemes. Unlike many of them–Gerrit Smith for example, Parker did not run and hide when Brown actually committed violence to fight slavery. Parker thought it was great. The only downside for him is that it failed. He urged more of this. After Brown’s attack, Parker wrote a public pamphlet that urged slaves to kill their masters.

Alas, Parker was already heading back to Europe for his health, which did make it easier for him to praise Brown. In fact, of the Secret Six, only Thomas Wenworth Higginson actually stuck around the U.S. and said, yep good job Brown! He had tuberculosis. Desperate for a cure and to stay alive, he decided to leave the cold, moist climate of New England. Many of these types might have gone to the South, but let’s just say that wasn’t really an option for our radical friend here. So he went back to Europe and decided to live in the expatriate community of Florence, Italy. But by the time he got there, his health was really too far gone to have any chance of turning around. He died less than a month after his arrival, in 1860. He was 49 years years old.

Much later, when Frederick Douglass toured Europe, the great freedom fighter and orator went to Florence. The first thing he did upon his arrival in that city was to get a ride from the train station to the cemetery in order to visit the grave of Theodore Parker.

Theodore Parker is buried in English Cemetery, Florence, Italy.

If you would like this series to visit other abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Franklin Sanborn is in Concord, Massachusetts and George Luther Stearns is in Cambridge, Massachusetts. These are the last two of the Secret Six not covered yet in this series. Previous posts are archived here and here.

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