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Transcendental Ideas: Political and Social Reform

Theodore Parker and Abolition

Shannon Riley, VCU

As a Transcendentalist and Unitarian Minister, Theodore Parker (1810-1860) dedicated his life to social reform, from higher critical methods of studying the bible to advocating women's rights and the abolition of slavery. He and Ralph Waldo Emerson were good friends, sharing similar transcendental views in living simply, honestly, through self-reliance and Reason. Emerson admired the man who wasn't reluctant to "shake up the system."

Theodore Parker was our Savonarola, an excellent scholar, in frank and affectionate communication with the best minds of his day, yet the tribune of the people, and the stout Reformer to urge and defend every cause of humanity with and for the humblest of mankind. He was no artist. Highly refined persons might easily miss him the element of beauty. What he said was mere fact, almost offended you, so bald and detached; little cared he. He stood altogether for practical truth, and so to the last. He used every day and hour of his short life, and his character appeared in the last moments with the same firm control as in the midday of strength. I habitually apply to him the words of French philosopher who speaks of "The man of Nature who abominates the steam engine and the factory. His vast lungs breathe independence with the air of the mountains and the woods." (Emerson, 1880)
In order to understand Parker's beliefs surrounding abolition, it is first important to have an understanding of the Unitarian thought. He is somewhat of a paradox (as many transcendentalists were), as we see in his Letters. In 1841 Parker delivered one of his most famous addresses, "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity." Here Parker claimed that the teaching of churches and sects would eventually fade, while the teaching of Jesus, being pure religion and morality, would last forever. He eschewed traditional dogma as posturing, and encouraged individuals to acquaint themselves "first hand with the deity." He believed that all human beings had an inherent spiritual faculty, and by reaching into and outside oneself, the path to the Divine and to Truth would be revealed. Real Christianity gives men new life…It makes us outgrow any form, or any system of doctrines we have devised, and approach still closer to the truth. Slavery was inherently opposed to the freedom that every individual needed and deserved in order to progress in God's moral laws, and this belief was a driving force behind Parker's staunch anti-slavery views. Parker's epitaph reads:
In A Letter to A Southern Slaveholder Parker asserted:

I think they are doing a great wrong to themselves, to their slaves, and to mankind. I think slave holding is a wrong in itself, and therefore, a sin; but I cannot say that this or that particular slave-holder is a sinner because he holds slaves. I know what sin is-God only knows who is a sinner. I have never had that temptation; perhaps if born in Georgia, I should not have seen the evil and the sin of slavery. I may be blind to a thousand evils and sins at home which I commit myself. If so, I will thank you to point the out. I hope you will write me again as frankly as before. I wish I could see Este's book. I will look nothing to gain personally by the abolition of slavery, and have, by opposing that institution got nothing but a bad name. I shall not count you for it, and study it, for I am working for the truth and right. I have my enemy, but am truly your friend.

In this quote we see both the abolitionist Parker and the forgiving minister Parker. It is clear too, that he made himself very unpopular with the Boston Brahmans to whom he preached against slavery.

However, as an advocate for abolition, Parker not only believed that although all men had the God-given right to be free, but that the white race was superior to all other races. And herein lies the paradox of Theodore Parker's thinking:

He said that the superior race had nothing to fear from them if they were set free. He said they were childlike, docile, and unintelligent. He said worse things about the Mexican population. Although he was against the Mexican American war, he described the Mexicans as "A wretched people; wretched in their origin, history, character, who must eventually give way as the Indians did. Yes, the United States would expand, but not by war, rather by the power of her ideas, the pressure of her commerce, by the steady advance of a superior race, with superior ideas and a better civilization, by being better than Mexico, wiser, humaner, more free and manly. (Howard Zinn, People's History of the USA).

At this time in history, many people believed that if slaves were set free, they would rebel and "punish" those who repressed them. And because they were indeed oppressed, many in society felt that the black slave population were uneducated (because they couldn't be educated) and thus were naturally inferior in intelligence to whites. While Theodore Parker certainly wasn't infallible, he did dedicate his life and reputation to fighting for the rights of slaves.

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