Parker and the Permanent in Christianity

Theodore Parker (1810-1860)

Theodore Parker (1810-1860)

From the 1620s to the 1630s, before American Independence, there was an event known as the Great Migrations, a period in which English Puritans with a strong Calvinistic bent felt themselves so oppressed under the rule of Charles I, that they migrated in their tens of thousands to Barbados, the West Indies, and Massachusetts, to find religious freedom - freedom to establish their intensely religious, tight-knit communities. One such couple from East Anglia, Thomas and Susan Hastings, boarded The Elizabeth here in Ipswich on the 30th April 1634, bound for Massachusetts. The Hastings were a prominent puritan family. They had many children, and thus many descendants. Many Americans today can trace their roots back to them. Jumping forward two centuries then, to 1810, one such descendant was born in Massachusetts: Theodore Parker. Like all prominent 19th century American Unitarians, like William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker was a student of Harvard. He was there for six years, in which time he got married, and qualified as a Unitarian minister. His academic focus was in Biblical Criticism, which is what we do here when we consider the Bible - we read it critically, allowing our historical, cultural, and scientific knowledge to bear upon the text, not merely taking the text at face value. Though this was his academic focus, he didn’t allow (at first) the deeper implications of his studies to impact on how he conducted himself as a Unitarian minister.

We think today of Unitarianism going hand-in-hand with this more critical approach to faith. You expect the Bible to be read critically. The Unitarianism of Parker’s day though was on the whole not like that; it was far more literal in its reading of the Bible, far more conservative. Whatever his motives were, probably a desire not to rock the boat, in the first few years of his ministry he was broadly in line with this more conservative Unitarian approach. But it didn’t sit well with him. He felt himself to be deeply conflicted, he thought his sermons were terrible, he felt overly nervous and anxious all the time, he was struggling to find a church that would take him on full time, and his marriage was not going well. He was conflicted, in particular, by Emerson’s ideas, by Transcendentalist thought. He was attracted by such ideas, but feared that embracing them entailed too much of a departure from Christianity. The main sticking point was around religious inspiration. Did religious inspiration come through revelation to particular historical figures, like Jesus and his disciples, or (taking the Transcendentalist view) was religious inspiration universal, which is to say are we today just as capable of accessing all the profundity of the sacred as, say, St Paul was? His thinking slowly creeped in that direction, and this coincided with Parker and Emerson becoming good friends.

This transcendentalist approach reframes how we might think about Christianity. It moves it from a past-orientated faith to a present-orientated faith. It’s not about the historical revelation preserved in a holy book and passed down generation after generation - Christianity was about the voice of God speaking to everyone’s soul today. This awareness of the Spirit nudging us in our own lives was what Emerson and Parker believed Jesus was pointing us towards. A living faith. This refocusing along Transcendentalist lines was expressed most clearly in a sermon he gave aged 31 in 1841, titled ‘The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.’ Preaching the sermon Theodore Parker did required him to speak his truth, to no longer play the role as he imagined it to be – some imagined conception of the Christian Unitarian minister, but to be authentic to the truth as he understood it, to be a true contrarian. This sermon, ‘The Transient and Permanent in Christianity’, is considered the second most important 19th century American Unitarian sermon to have been preached. The most important being ‘Unitarian Christianity’ by William Ellery Channing a couple of decades prior. ‘The Transient and Permanent in Christianity’ is about emphasising the important, timeless aspects of the Christian faith, not the mere expressions of Christianity as we see them manifest up the road or here in this Meeting House. The fundamental question the sermon is dealing with then is simply, what is a Christian?

Here in this Meeting House we are a community where some of us would use the Christian label of themselves and some of us wouldn’t. I for the most part would use the Christian label for myself. But then I hear what is said by others in the name of Christianity, and I’m not so sure. Or I speak to my ‘very Christian’ friends, and I am further convinced, ‘okay well I’m not a Christian in the sense that they’re a Christian’. It’s a worthwhile question to consider, I think, – what is it to be Christian? Theodore Parker said in his sermon that the Bible was purely the work of human beings; it was not directly inspired by God. And that the way we have understood Jesus has changed throughout history. Both of these comments are pretty innocuous by today’s Unitarian standards, but when he said it, it caused a lot of controversy. To the conservative Christian Unitarians present, they wanted to believe that their understanding of Christianity was timeless, in the same way that Calvinist Christians want to imagine their understanding of Jesus is timeless. They have it right, and no one else does. So the Christian Unitarians wanted to believe that their more human Jesus was the truth that others had failed to see: a timeless truth. Theodore Parker is saying ‘not so much – at different times throughout history Jesus has been thought in different ways’. That’s partly the trouble with these “most notable sermons” - the reason they’re so famous and remembered today is because at the time they offended so many people. Nice sermons are not remembered it seems.

He also argued that rituals too are created by people. Baptism, christenings, communion, marriage - none of these are created by God. They may have a useful effect, but they’re not divinely ordained. They’re not more sacrosanct than our own humanity. “Pure religion” or “pure Christianity” as Theodore Parker called it, these were the deeper aspects of faith, those bits that supersede our traditions and ways of doing things, those aspects of faith that did come from God, this was our calling to love God and love people – everything else is secondary. The reason for this is quite simple. Jesus never wrote anything down, Jesus never established a church, he never instigated some great order to carry his message forward, he just quite simply spoke his truth wherever he happened to find himself, in a boat, by the side of the lake, by a well, in the synagogue. “He only bids his friends give freely the truth they had freely received.” True religion, the love of God and the love of people, is always the same in all lands, discernible by all people. But Christianity in its varied form is ever in flux, taking many different forms throughout the ages.

If you picture the scene: he’s in the pulpit in a Boston Unitarian Church, and in every pew these conservative Unitarian Christians all with their arms crossed are looking up at him as he says these words. “The difference between what is called Christianity by the Unitarians of our times, and that of some ages past, is greater than the difference between Mohammed and the Messiah.” I think you can imagine how much this must have irritated people. Too much focus has been put upon what you or I believe, and not enough on the divine life of the soul – love of God, and love of people. But if we could read the Bible with our historical, cultural, and scientific eyes open, we would see that the Christianity of today, be that Unitarian, Anglican, Baptist or whatever, is nothing like the Christianity of Bible times. But that’s not a problem, that’s fine, it demonstrates that the deeper things, the ‘pure religion’, is not in the trapping of form, but beyond these things, within our love of one another.

Sadly though, this so rarely happens. According to Parker, many of us start with our preconceived notions and refuse to look beyond them. We allow what we think is true to shape the world as we see it, instead of the other way around, instead of allowing the world, or nature, or the Spirit of God within us, to speak to us. In this way, we allow our ideas, our theology, and our narrow vision of the world to stand between us and God. So the doctrines, the beliefs, the theology, are all transitory, changing from age to age. The heresy of one age is the orthodoxy of the next. But Parker makes a bold claim; he asserts that even if our theology is corrupted, as it surely must be, our interior intuition, our God within, will nevertheless show us the truth. It will simply be apparent to a discerning individual of whatever creed or culture that all comes down to a love of God, and a love of people.

The Bible is not inspired by God; the early church did not consider the letters and Gospels of the New Testament as being from God, but our intuition is, our intuition is the voice of God within. So, if someone discerns the truth in this way, when they in turn hear the teachings of Jesus they believe it true, not because it’s coming from Jesus, but because it chimes with what we have already discerned within us to be true. And so finally we get to his most controversial point of all. He states that if it could be proven in some way that Jesus was never in fact alive, not an actual historical person, but merely a composited-together literary character for instance, even then, the truths of “pure Christianity” would not be undermined. For pure Christianity to Parker is merely this – Love God, and love people. Even though then Parker is denying that Christianity was a miraculous revelation from God, denying even God as he has been traditionally understood, he is nevertheless insisting that he himself is still a Christian. And I personally feel very in tune with that sentiment.

Now for all this, Theodore Parker came perilously close to being thrown out of the church. The closest the Unitarian Church has ever come to conducting a heresy trial took place a year after the sermon was preached – a ‘friendly chat’ to see where the young Theodore Parker had gone so terrible wrong. The conclusion of the meeting was a recommendation that Theodore Parker resign immediately. Of course, he refused to do that. Instead he stated his position all the more clearly, and all the more publicly. And despite the great opposition against him, as a commentator said, ‘Of course I disagree with him entirely, but we are a non-creedal church, are we not? And so, we must surely allow him to stay.’ The irony is of course that the Christianity of Theodore Parker (that we love one another, and love God, however we understand God) is still alive in the Unitarian church today, whereas the conservative bible-based form of Unitarianism of his peers is entirely dead.

Theodore Parker demonstrated the importance of remaining true to his own personal search for the sacred, the importance of free thought, and the importance of freedom of conscience, and I think that alone is worthy of our admiration. He was a trailblazer for all of us. He continued to have his problems. Many Unitarian churches continued to refuse to let him preach in their pulpits, but he remained true to his beliefs, and as a result he remained culturally out of step with the majority of his peers. He was, for example, an ardent abolitionist, where others, including Emerson, took a more softly-softly approach. He was champagning women’s suffrage and promoting better education of all. He became nationally regarded as a prominent public intellectual, whose opinion was always sought on matters pertinent to the nation. And he always remained true to his core principle – that Christianity is a simple thing, and it’s known to all intuitively if we will but listen to the voice of God within. We will know that all stems from a love of one another, and a love God. Let us remain then true to ourselves, and true to our search after the sacred, here within this our spiritual home.



Lewis Connolly