Mr. Parker’s Discourse

This sermon was preached by our minister on August 23, 2015 during our Sunday morning service.

Unitarian Identity: Mr. Parker’s Discourse

It strikes me that the three documents I’ve been studying this month and sharing with you in sermons on our Unitarian Identity in the past two Sundays and today were all sermons themselves. All were prepared originally to mark the rites of passage into Unitarian public leadership. William Ellery Channing’s 1819 sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” was preached in Baltimore to welcome Jared Sparks to the primary leadership position at one of our two predecessor congregations, First Independent Church of Baltimore, which would merge in the 1930s with Second Universalist to become the church we have today. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School Address would encourage six divinity school graduates as they prepare to go into the world and take on the mantle of Unitarian leadership as ministers. And today’s matter of study is the 1841 sermon by Theodore Parker, the minister of Second Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” a sermon preached at the ordination of Charles C. Shackford to the ministry of the Hawes Place Congregational Society in South Boston, Massachusetts.

It may be a part of our Unitarian character that we take a deep breath, as it were, when we set aside time to be together to mark publicly the setting aside of some of our leaders for primary leadership. We don’t hold a theology that, as in the case of Roman Catholicism, exactly equates ordination for the priesthood with marriage for the laity; we don;t have much of a system of specifying certain acts as sacramental evidence of God’s grace; but we do set aside time at ordinations and installations so that we might learn; so that we might reflect together on the greater questions of our faith, of our churches, of the culture we inhabit, of our lives.

And we allow for substantial discourse! Mr. Channing, Mr. Emerson and Mr. Parker each gave a sermon of ten to twelve thousand words, about an hour and a half to deliver each one—and I did, in the pulpit in our Sanctuary, in the course of my study! We allow our pastor-scholars at these important public occasions a chance to reflect deeply on the subjects they choose, and we expect to be given something to think about.

Theodore Parker, one of the leading members of the Transcendentalist Club, was a startling personality. During his ministry in Boston, the 28th Congregational Society formed at the Odeon Theater, and then constructed the Boston Music Hall as a place for Parker’s preaching. This 3,000 seat hall included space on its stage for some 300 leaders. You may have seen the lithographs of those days, and the astonishing thing was that those 300 people on stage represent the membership of the church.  The thousands in the auditorium floor and loges are visitors—many repeat visitors—the public who came to church no longer because of Puritanical social requirements, but for their own moral uplift, and entertainment.

Preaching to 7,000 people a weekend was a great opportunity and a huge challenge, and Parker met that challenge by overwork. Here’s what Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg, minister of the UU church in Frederick and teacher of UU history at Wesley Seminary recently wrote: 

Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (1810-1860), “The great orator and important abolitionist . . . often credited with giving one of the three most influential sermons in Unitarian history” on “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity” also worked himself to the point of exhaustion. To take just one example, in the 28 months leading up to a desperately-needed, year-long sabbatical, Parker “read at least 109 books (most of them scholarly tomes in languages other than English, and many of them multivolume), preached 221 times, lectured at least 64 times, wrote 194 sermons and 14 lectures, and published over 2,000 pages of material, including 3 pamphlets, 3 lengthy articles for the Dial, and 3 books” (Dean Grodzin, American Heretic). . . . [Parker] was forced into an early retirement because of ill health, eventually developed tuberculosis, and died at the far too young age of 50.

The sermon itself, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” makes the startling assertion—that if all we have of the religion about Jesus were to pass away, all sects and orders, all theologies and philosophies, all moral codes and even all Scriptures—if all were the pass away, Christianity still would be in the Truth that Jesus exhibited in his own life. That which is permanent in what Jesus revealed is our capacity to know God directly, as he did, and to practice loving God with all our hearts and all our minds, and all our strength; and of loving our neighbor as ourselves. And for this, the man who made church in a music hall, the transient customs and institutions were on the one hand unnecessary, and on the other hand sure to pass away.

For a person like me who depends on the institutional church for my very livelihood (and some day even my retirement), this is a frightening notion, that our institutions are only transient accidents of a permanent truth; but remember Parker’s reality. The religion he practiced was the institutional church of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, since 1620 in Plymouth, since 1629 in Salem and 1630 in Boston; and it remained the established religion for over 200 years until it was disestablished in 1833, not a decade before Mr. Parker’s discourse. The congregation he addressed in Hawes Place was itself discovering the challenge of needing to live on its own resources—the substantial resources of a wealthy congregation, including the Hawes family that built the church, but no longer the system of public taxation that had supported the Standing Order of established churches. No. Something transient had passed away. The permanent needed to be asserted.

Mr. Parker challenges assumptions. Is the Bible permanent, for example. Isn’t that the inspired word of God which is eternal? No, says Parker. The Bible is a collection of oriental poetry and mythological history, creative prophecy and rudimentary law; but the Bible is internally inconsistent, understandable as coherent only by the construction of a secondary interpretive structure, one which, in the case of Protestantism, diminishes the meaning of the Hebrew text in itself to point to the Greek scriptures around the life of the Jew Jesus. The Bible itself, read with faith, has an interpretive coherence for a people in a time; but the discoveries of the 2nd century differ from the conclusions of the 6th century, metamorphose in the 11th century, get to be studied anew in the 19th century—the interpretive constructs are transient. 

The institutional church: transient, not permanent. The Bible: transient, not permanent. What about Jesus? Certainly he has to be one of the “permanents” in Christianity. Shocking to his listeners, even the person of Jesus is not permanent, to Parker. 

On its face, this is true for all of us. Our existence on this earth is just a moment, in the grand scheme of things. “For a thousand years in the thy sight are but as yesterday, and as a watch in the night,” says the Psalmist. Our lives are the blink of God’s eye; the man Jesus walked on theis earth not a full live’s length. And then he was gone.

And the story of the life of Jesus, again, is full of contradiction as it is told from disparate points of view by witnesses who may have not witnessed events at all but passed on what they were told or what they invented. What is a miracle story may be a teaching tool; what is a birth narrative may be a theological assertion; what is a philosophical treatise is but the working out of temporary answers to time-bound questions.

If Christianity is to be based on the Person of Jesus, we are lost; because the Person of Jesus is transient, not permanent.

But if Christianity is built on what Jesus discovered that we may discover; if it is built on a great and enduring Truth, a grand Permanence, then we may use Christianity to find ourselves the great Permanent Truth that undergirds human life.

Of course, what undergirds human life for this Transcendentalist is Nature. Not our theories of nature, not the sciences we create to dissect and understand and maybe control nature, not our natural constructs; but Nature herself. Nature (even as I anthropomorphism her and give her a gender), nature is permanent. 

Now the true system of Nature which exists in the outward facts, whether discovered or not, is always the same thing, though the philosophy of Nature, which men invent, change[s] every month, and be one thing at London and the opposite at Berlin. Thus there is but one system of Nature as it exists in fact, though many theories of Nature, which exist in our imperfect notions of that system, and by which we may approximate and at length reach it. Now there can be but one Religion which is absolutely true, existing in the facts of human nature, and the ideas of Infinite God. . .


Like the clouds of the sky, they are here to-day; gone to-morrow, all swept off and vanished; while Christianity itself, like the heaven above, with its sun, and moon, and uncounted stars, is always over our head, though the cloud sometimes debars us of the needed light. It must of necessity be the case that our reasonings, and therefore our theological doctrines, are imperfect, and so perishing. It is only gradually that we approach to the true system of Nature by observation and reasoning, and work out our philosophy and theology by the toil of the brain. But meantime, if we are faithful, the great truths of morality and religion, the deep sentiment of love to man and love to God, are perceived intuitively, and by instinct, as it were, though our theology be imperfect and miserable. . . .

Compare the simpleness of Christianity, as Christ sets it forth on the Mount, with what is sometimes taught and accepted in that honored name ; and what a difference. One is of God ; one is of man. There is something in Christianity which sects have not reached ; something that will not be won, we fear, by theological battles, or the quarrels of pious men ; still we may rejoice that Christ is preached in any way. The Christianity of sects, of the pulpit, of society, is ephemeral — a transitory fly. It will pass off and be forgot. . . .

If we look carelessly on the ages that have gone by, or only on the surfaces of things as they come up before us, there is reason to fear ; for we confound the truth of God with the word of man. So at a distance the cloud and the mountain seem the same. When the drift changes with the passing wind, an unpracticed eye might fancy the mountain itself was gone. But the mountain stands to catch the clouds, to win the blessing they bear, and send it down to moisten the fainting violet, to form streams which gladden valley and meadow, and sweep on at last to the sea in deep channels, laden with fleets. Thus the forms of the church, the creeds of the sects, the conflicting opinions of teachers, float round the sides of the Christian mount, and swell and toss, and rise and fall, and dart their lightning, and roll their thunder, but they neither make nor mar the mount itself. Its lofty summit far transcends the tumult ; knows nothing of the storm which roars below ; but burns with rosy light at evening and at morn ; gleams in the splendors of the mid-day sun ; sees his light when the long shadows creep over plain and moorland, and all night long has its head in the heavens, and is visited by troops of stars which never set, nor veil their face to ought so pure and high. 

The South Boston sermon was not heard in 1841 the way we might hear it today. The more conservative Unitarians (remember, the people who had been upholding the Standing Order) were shocked by some of Mr. Parker’s departures; but the fact that these departures were aired in public with other voices present was, for many Unitarian, difficult shaming. Three guests, a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Trinitarian Congregationalist, published the following statement that helped isolate Mr. Parker and the Transcendentalists from the Unitarian mainstream:

We the undersigned, being present by special invitation at the recent ordination of Rev. Charles C. Shackford as pastor of the Hawes Place Congregational Society in the Twelfth Ward of the City of Boston, heard a sermon preached by Rev. Theodore Parker of Spring Street, Roxbury, in which sentiments were advanced so contrary to our ideas of Christianity that we feel ourselves constrained by a solemn sense of duty to which we owe the Church of Christ, to inquire whether the Unitarian clergymen of Boston and vicinity sympathize with the preacher in his opinions as expressed join that occasion.

 You may know that many did not. And Mr. Parker, isolated from the Unitarian mainstream, found his ministry in his work for abolition of slavery, in his leadership among the Transcendentalists, and in his enormous and influential public pulpit.

This weekend, five people from our congregation are participating the the Jubilee Anti-Racism workshop offered among congregations in the national capitol region. Ginny Slothaur-Hudnall, Melissa Feliciano, Lynda Davis, Laura Laing and I are doing some of the work that needs to be done for us to be part of the transformation of our lives, of our church, and of the Unitarian Universalist Association toward an anti-racist reality.  (I myself will be leaving to get back to Bethesda as soon as the final hymn is sung!)

During our work this week, I was reminded of that peculiar moment in Unitarian history: when the US Senator from South Carolina, Unitarian John C. Calhoun, charter member of All Souls Church in Washington DC, proposed the Fugitive Slave Act as a part of the Compromise of 1850; when President of the United States, Unitarian Millard Fillmore, signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law; and when Unitarian Theodore Parker swore that he would meet the request for the guarantee of freedom by any fugitive slave with the loaded pistol that he kept in his desk. Parker would provide aid to anyone seeking freedom—even a lawbreaker. This set of contradictions in Unitarianism between an apologist for slavery, a conciliator with slavery, and a staunch abolitionist, represents the breadth of our movement at a particular time. It represents our social location in the halls of power, too; and the contradictions of an identity that finds itself in religious and political pluralism. There are some who see Fillmore’s act as taken in deference to his office and as a way to limit and gradually begin to dismantle slavery. Parker’s influence along with other abolitionists led to decisions by the governments of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York and Ohio to refuse to enforce the Fugitive Slave law. And thus Calhoun’s people began to advocate against “state’s rights,” demanding, instead, that the state police and state militias of those dissenting states be required to enforce federal law. The Civil War began, then, as a fight against state’s rights, in favor of federal control specifically to enforce slavery. A century later, those re-writing history would argue that the Civil War was about “state’s rights,” which it certainly was not; but then again, they were arguing in the 1950s and 60s for states rights against a federal power that was enforcing desegregation laws. This, of course, is the matter for another sermon; but the figure of Theodore Parker and his own bravery in defending the fugitive in spite of transient human-constructed laws in favor of permanent, divinely-granted law I find coherent with his sermon.

Finally, if you will allow me, I offer Parker’s own words about the relationship between a congregation and the minister that they call. See if you think this is true.

Your own conduct and character, the treatment you offer this young man, will in some measure influence him. The hearer affects the speaker. There were some places where even Jesus “did not many mighty works, because of their unbelief.” . . .

But, on the other hand, you may encourage your brother to tell you the truth. Your affection will then be precious to him ; your prayers of great price. Every evidence of your sympathy will go to baptize him anew to Holiness and Truth. You will then have his best words, his brightest thoughts, and his most hearty prayers. He may grow old in your service, blessing and blest. He will have 

“The sweetest, best of consolation,
The thought, that he has given,
To serve the cause of Heaven,
The freshness of his early inspiration.”

Choose as you will choose; but weal or woe depends upon your choice. 

Blessed be.

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