Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker (by John Weiss, 1863).
We have had occasion of late to notice the publication of several successive volumes of the works of Theodore Parker, who is probably entitled to be considered the most remarkable theological, political, and moral writer that has appeared in North America since the generation which achieved the independence of the United States passed away. His life and correspondence, in two thick volumes, have now been published. The life is just what such books always are. It is a heap of journals, letters, and other memorials, strung together by a thread of narrative written in a slightly though not very offensively stilted style, and containing on the whole as full a statement of everything concerning its here as his most ardent and patient admirers could possibly desire. Most of us know, by more or less dreary experience, what sort of book it is which answers to this description. A full, true, and particular biography of a popular preacher is not primâ facie an attractive work; but as Theodore Parker was something more than a popular preacher, his life is something more than a common religious biography. The literary merit of the book itself is small, but it gives its readers more light on American affairs, and on the passions by which the leading men of the parties to the present civil war are agitated, than almost any other recent work.
Theodore Parker was born at Lexington in the year 1810, being the eleventh and youngest child of a Massachusetts yeoman, whose great grandfather or had settled at Lexington, and whose ancestors had emigrated from England in the first half of the seventeenth century. The family might be taken as a type of the very best part of the population of the United States. When Theodore Parker was born, they had lived for just one hundred years in the same house, cultivating their own land, and working besides at a variety of country handicrafts. They were people of great strength of mind and body, and lived, with hardly an exception, to a great ago. John Parker, the grandfather of Theodore, was a captain of militia, and commanded the Lexington company which on the 19th of April, 1775, resisted the King’s troops and drew the first blood shed in the War of Independence. Captain Parker on that occasion took from one of the English soldiers the first musket captured in the war. It, and the one which he used himself, hung in his grandma’s house, and were wont to furnish him with a good deal of oratorical capital.
Young Parker had at first the ordinary common-school education of New England, but till he was seventeen years of age he was enabled to attend some school or other for part of the year. In his seventeenth year he began himself to teach, and between teaching and working he contrived, by his twentieth year, to enter himself at Harvard College. He remained there for some years, living partly at home under one of those arrangements by which, in America, poor students contrive to combine their studies with the earning of their livelihood. He appears to have Worked for five or six years exceedingly hard, an to have got through an immense amount of miscellaneous reading and learning of languages. He had always intended to be a clergyman, and he settled as a Unitarian minister at West Roxbury, near Lexington, in 1836. He led a studious life there for several years, and, pushing his investigations beyond the limits which even the members of his own body considered orthodox, soon fell into bad odour. At last, in 1841, he preached a sermon called “A Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” which was considered altogether beyond bounds, and caused him to be ex-communicated and repudiated by all the ministers of his own denomination. In 1844, some of his friends and admirers offered to make him minister of a congregation of his own in Boston. He accepted the offer, and assed the rest of his life in that position, and in lecturing all over the Northern States upon a variety of subjects, moral, religious, and political. His congregation was said to be the largest in America, and considering his great eloquence, learning, and warmth of disposition, this is not surprising. His lectures and other public appearances kept him in a constant state of feverish activity, and the excitement of speaking all day and travelling all night, aided by a constitutional tendency to consumption, broke down his health, and he came to Europe to die in 1859. His death took place at Florence, in May 1860.
The events of his life have in themselves little interest, but it is very different with the history of his mind and opinions. He would appear to have represented with singular completeness and fidelity one side of the American character. It would be hardly an exaggeration to call him the incarnation of American romance. Upon all subjects he held, in their strongest form, the doctrines characteristic of the most energetic of the nation to which he belonged—a nation which, With many weaknesses, must always be inexpressibly interesting to Englishmen, and which, notwithstanding all its drawbacks, is probably destined to play a prominent part in the history of mankind. The feeling that this is so—the feeling that they live in the shadow projected by coming evens as yet dimly seen, but of enormous weight and magnitude—is one of the great redeeming features in American life and literature. A superficial, and especially an unsympathetic, eye may easily regard the whole character of the United States as something petty and vulgar. In certain moods a man might readily adopt Mr. Carlyle's splenetic remark, that the Americans, after all, have one nothing more than “beget with unexampled rapidity thirty millions of the greatest bores in creation.’ He might ad with the same author, that there is nothing particularly noble or affecting in the American ideal of unlimited roast beef and plum-pudding for all sorts and conditions of men. It is easy to deny, and hard to prove the fact, that amongst the better kind of Americans, at all events, the process of becoming rich and powerful, of replenishing and subduing the earth, of throwing society into new shapes, of making men happier and richer, has its own poetry and pathos, and that it supplies the appointed means of increasing nobler and higher things than mere material prosperity—of making men not only happier, but wiser and better, because happier. No doubt there are in America, as elsewhere, a number, perhaps a majority, of persons who are utterly incapable of elevated views, and probably such a city as New York, the common sewer of contains an unusually large proportion of them; but it would most unjust to form the same estimate of the States in general, and especially of the New England States. Probably the New England farmers are, to the extent of their capacity, as open to patriotic feelings, and as much moved by high-minded and unselfish principles as any people in the whole world. It is said, and probably with perfect truth, that, whatever may have been the case in New York--which has somehow contrived to stand with many English people as the type of America at large—the New Englanders in the present war have made personal sacrifices of the most terrific kind, so that there are but few families which are not in mourning.
Theodore Parker, who by birth and breeding was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, threw all the feelings of his country into the strongest relief. To borrow his own his phraseology, he thoroughly expressed the American idea, and the history of his life affords, perhaps, the most accurate notion of that idea which can anywhere be found. We will try to show how its different manifestations were related to each other. The leading and central feature in all Parker's views was their trenchant dogmatism. No other modern writer of eminence has made so much use, in every department of thought, of the Absolute and the Infinite. The cardinal doctrine of his theology, morality, and politics, all of which in his mind were but so many limbs of one body, was that it is the very essence and specific characteristic of human nature to be able to take direct knowledge of certain great fundamental truths. He considered that no argument was needed to prove either the existence or essential attributes of God, the immortality of the human soul, or the first principles of morality—as, for example, that there is in the nature of things a distinction between right and wrong, that certain things are right and certain others wrong, and that we ought to regulate our conduct by this distinction. He was never tired of reiterating the assertions of the Declaration of Independence, that it is a self-evident truth that men have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; nor did he ever shrink from putting these propositions forward in the strongest form, and drawing from them eve inference which they could be made to bear. He thus consider himself to have obtained an immovable standing-point from which he could dogmatize on every subject and enforce his own views on all his fellow-citizens at least. The results, both positive and negative, of his belief that he had obtained what Archimedes required, were most remarkable. The first result was that he made by far the most plain-spoken attacks that have been made in the English language on all established systems of theology. He never hesitated to condemn, in the most peremptory manner, an doctrine, whatever authority it might claim, which appeared to him to conflict with what he descried as Absolute Religion; nor did he ever shrink, though a man of the deepest religious feeling, from insisting in the strongest and most pugnacious way, and in the presence of all who cared to listen, on all the historical, critical, an scientific objections to the received theology. The vigour and boldness with which he was accustomed, not merely to think and to write, but to preach and lecture on this topic, were sufficiently decisive. His theology, as is well known, was both simple and thoroughgoing. He absolutely rejected the whole of the supernatural art of Christianity, in Jesus Christ as a more men, an a man who had his defects. He renounced the Devil and all his works in a sense very different from that of the Catechism, and declared at once that no authority, miraculous or otherwise, could ever make him believe in the existence of such a being, or in the wider doctrine of absolute evil—the doctrine, that is, that anything whatever in the world is not, all things considered, the best possible. His thoroughgoing theoretical optimism forms a strange contrast with his furious practical indignation against what be viewed as immoral institutions, such as slavery. However he may have man to reconcile such a belief to his theories, he certainly considered that there were some uncommonly bad things in the best of all possible worlds.
Upon this foundation be erected a superstructure which was at all events consistent and harmonious. He denied, and even fiercely denounced, the whole doctrine of sin and all its consequences. “Vice I know, and crime I understand; but what is sin?" appears to have been his sentiment. That the best of men are “miserable sinners," and that neither the splendour of anything that is great nor the conceit of anything that is good in us ought to withdraw our eyes from looking on ourselves as sinful dust and ashes, were in his view damnable heresies. He held that most men were very reasonably good, and that what are generally described as good men are really good in the best, highest, and truest sense of the word. Hence his prayers, if prayers they are to be called, fell into the form of jubilant exultation, and his sermons turned continually on such broad practical questions as slavery, the laws relating to women, education, and he like, instead of turning, as is generally the case in our own country, upon feelings which he would have described as artificial, false, or trifling, or upon matters which the bulk of Christians consider to be religious duties, but which he denied to be duties at all.
It would be impossible within our limits to attempt anything like a discussion of these broad principles, or even to hint at the which his audacious denials, and even more audacious affirmations, would invite in an extended criticism on his life and writings. It may, however, be interesting to point out the intimate relation which exists between such a state of mind and the state of the country in which it was formed. Parker’s whole cast of mind was that of a man living in a country drunk with youth and strength. He not only had no difficulties, but seems not to have understood how any one else could have any. Everything was as clear to him as the sun at noonday. It followed from the idea of God, to use his own phraseology, that the universe is the best of all possible universes; that the laws (as he called them) by which it is governed are, in so far as they relate to human affairs, self-evident to all reasonable men who view the matter calmly; and that it is therefore not merely possible, but easy (at least to some people) to pronounce with infallible certainty upon the absolute justice or injustice, right or wrong, of every human institution, and thus to reconfirm the world on the footing of that perfection which be viewed as the natural and indefensible inheritance of all the children of men. Hence he preached up his own moral and political views, especially those which related to slavery, with a sort of ardour which is seldom manifested upon any subject in this country. The strange pamphlet by Mr. Francis Newman, on which we made some remarks last week, is but a reflection of the ardour of Theodore Parker. An English judge is not more sure that rape and murder are crimes than Theodora Parker was, not merely of the mischief of slavery, but of its toleration in any form being a hideous crime, an offence hardly to be spoken of. Whoever wishes to understand the spirit which animates the extreme Abolitionists— who are probably at the present moment the most consistent in the old United States, inasmuch as they alone of the Northerners have a thoroughly definite notion of their own objects—should study the life and correspondence of Parker. It will there be seen that the fierceness with which they advocate their view the violence of their language, their savage indignation against their opponents, are no accidents. They are part of a theory of the world at go, and of American society in particular, which is embraced by the most intellectual class of the most intellectual part of the United States, with a fervour identical in its character with that of the Puritans from whom they are descended. A more explosive compound can hardly be imagined than an intolerant optimism claiming to be based on transcendental truths, originally evoked by the enjoyment of boundless wealth and prosperity, and conscientiously believing itself to have a divine commission to remedy all the wrongs of the world and to convert society into a garden of Eden. We all know what resulted from somewhat similar pretensions in the case of the Jacobins. What it might be in the hands of a sterner and more determined race, far more tenacious of its opinions and in possession of infinitely greater resources, it is impossible to say. Happily for us, there is, and probably will continue to be, such a thing as the Atlantic Ocean.
As to the consequences to the United States, it would of course be rash to express any very positive opinion. It must, however be admitted that Parker had formed a surprisingly clear and correct anticipation of the course which, in point of fact, events have taken. His later letters are full of predictions of civil war and the disruption of the Union. He would seem, indeed, to have expected a dissolution of the Union by the North rather than the South, for the Union was not to him the idol that it is to the mass of his countrymen. He considered the two sections of the Union as two distinct nations, bitterly opposed to each other in their sentiments and feelings. He viewed the Fugitive Slave Law (and not perhaps alto ether unjustly) as an intolerable outrage on the North; and there appears to be no doubt at all that if a Southern candidate had been elected in Mr. Lincoln's place, and if the Federal Government had been, as usual, open only to Southern influences, Parker, for one, would have been in favour of secession by the North. This fact, in itself, throws great light on the civil war. It is plain enough that the extreme parties on the two sides—the Abolitionists on the one hand, and the Southerners on the other—would long since have torn the Union in half if they had been left to themselves; in fact, no Union would have been possible between them. The great bulk of the nation disliked both; but the Southerners having begun the actual fray, the majority sided, very reluctantly, but slowly and surely, with the Abolitionists, and it appears probable that, for a time at all events, they will have their way, as their Puritanical predecessors had in the seventeenth century. What may be the consequence no human creature can pretend to foretell; but, if we go by experience, it will not be favourable to the ultimate triumph of the Abolitionists and their principles. Parker cared little for experience. In speaking of America, he said, “History is against us, but I think human nature is with us.” He was of opinion that, if a civil war did take place, the South would win at first, but the North in the long run, by force of numbers. The following passage from a letter dated in January 1857 is very remarkable, though his anticipation of the part to be taken by the negroes has certainly not been confirmed by the event:—
‘I used to think this terrible question of freedom or all in America would be settled without bloodshed. I believe it now no eager. The South does not seem likely to give way; the termagant has had her rule so long. I think we should not consent to have democracy turned out of the American house, and allow despotism to sit and occupy therein. If the North and South ever do look horns and push for it, there is no doubt which goes into the ditch. One weighs seventeen millions, the other eleven millions; but besides, the Southern animal is exceedingly weak in the whole hind-quarters, four millions in weight; not strong in the fore-quarters of the same bulk, and stiff only in the neck and head, of which Bully Brooks is a fair sample; while the Northern creature is weak only in the neck and horns, which would become stiff enough in a little time.’In another letter, in 1856, he describes his view of the relations between North and South:—
‘I don‘t believe that any permanent union is possible between the North and the South. In ideas, aims, and habits of life there is more unity between the Neapolitans and the Swiss about the Vierwaldstatter than between the North and the South. Now a despotic Government like Austria can unite nations as unlike as the Hungarians and Venetians into one autocracy, for military violence is the stiff iron-hoop which holds these different stoves together. But in a republic a union must be moral, of principle; or economical, of interest; at any rate internal and automatic. None of these conditions seem likely to last long. Besides, just now there is a fierce hostility between the South and the North; the South hates the North worse than the Lombards hate i daanati Tedesehi, worse than the French hated l’Albion perfide in 1800-15.’These passages together are very memorable. They show clearly that, if the Abolitionists go to the lengths which are at present proposed, they will be obliged to disavow their own principles, and either to exterminate or to set up a despotism.
In this country it is far easier to see the weakness of such speculations as Parker‘s than to appreciate their strength and importance. We in England are rich, many of us are highly instructed, and of necessity sceptical. When a man proposes to set all things right out of his own resources, and with no other aid than that of self-evident truths, he excites in us little more than a certain languid curiosity. We take it for granted that his little theory will sooner or later go the way of all such theories—that it will first become obviously wrong, and then be exploded. There is of course a good deal to be said for this way of looking at things, but there is also another side to the question. Whatever may be the value of Parker's peculiar phraseology, and whatever may be the real weakness of some of the principles on which his theories depend, it must never be forgotten that, if human society is to go on at all, it is perhaps necessary that some sort of phraseology should be found for the purpose of expressing a great part of what Parker believed. His theology, no doubt, was open to much criticism, but it had one merit which belongs to very few theological writings. Whatever else it may have been, it was the genuine result of the reflections of a powerful and perfectly honest mind, vigorously applied to the subject matter with which it dealt. His sermons have many faults, and much might be said on the whole method which he pursued, and on the specific results at which he arrived; but, whatever he says or leaves unsaid, he does really say something. He does not occupy himself, as so many writers on such to ice do, with the task of devising reasons for not saying what he thin s, and for not thinking what he believes to be true. This is an inexpressible satisfaction. It is always a virtue in a man to speak out; but simple as such a. virtue may seem, it is exercised by an incredibly small number of persons; and it is a most curious and important truth that it appears to be almost, if not quite, as rare in the United States as in England. Though — or perhaps because— he was a representative man, Parker was intensely unpopular. For a long time he was, as he says himself, one of the most unpopular men in America. He was unpopular because he put the unconscious and half-formed convictions and tendencies of is age and country into a broad theoretical shape, and, according to the usual practice in such cases, they recoiled before the plain statement of their own tendencies. Parker was excommunicated by his denomination, and was forced to set up a private congregation of his own. Many of the opinions which he held would no doubt have been illegal in the Church of England, or in any other Church. In holding others almost equally unpopular he would probably have been protected by the law, and this fact throws a curious light on the way in. which the voluntary and the Establishment systems favour freedom of thought upon religious subjects. Inquiry in general is probably more active under a system like our own. Ordinary men who have not the energy to set up a new sect, nor the tastes and powers which enable a man to form a congregation, are probably more disposed to inquire if they are members of an Established Church whose doctrines are ascertained and enforced by law, than they would be if they were ministers of a voluntary sect whose dominant opinion for the time being is their only rule; and as the existence of an Established Church does not prevent people from setting up new sects, it does not hamper exceptional men like Theodore Parker.
The state of religion in America, and the effects of the state of society there on both religion and theology, form a most curious subject of inquiry. Theodore Parker’s life affords an important contribution towards such an inquiry, but it could not be successfully prosecuted without an intimate acquaintance with American society and literature. Any one who possesses that knowledge might do a great public service by thoroughly examining the subject.
Saturday Review, January 9, 1864.