The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - by R.W. Emerson Institute, Jim Manley, Director -

XII Theodore Parker



“HERE comes Parker, the Orson of parsons, a man
Whom the Church undertook to put under her ban.–

There’s a background of God to each hard-working feature,
Every word that he speaks has been fierily furnaced
In the blast of a life that has struggled in earnest:
There he stands, looking more like a ploughman than priest,
If not dreadfully awkward, not graceful at least;

But his periods fall on you, stroke after stroke,
Like the blows of a lumberer felling an oak,
You forget the man wholly, you’re thankful to meet
With a preacher who smacks of the field and the street,
And to hear, you ‘re not over-particular whence,
Almost Taylor’s profusion, quite Latimer’s sense.”
– LOWELL, A Fable for Critics.


AT the death of a good and admirable per-son we meet to console and animate each other by the recollection of his virtues.

I have the feeling that every man’s biography is at his own expense. He furnishes not only the facts but the report. I mean that all biography is autobiography. It is only what he tells of himself that comes to be known and believed. In Plutarch’s lives of Alexander and Pericles, you have the secret whispers of their confidence to their lovers and trusty friends. For it was each report of this kind that impressed those to whom it was told in a manner to secure its being told everywhere to the best, to those who speak with authority to their own times and therefore to ours. For the political rule is a cosmical rule, that if a man is not strong in his own district, he is not a good candidate else-where.

He whose voice will not be heard here again could well afford to tell his experiences ; they were all honorable to him, and were part of the history of the civil and religious liberty of his times. Theodore Parker was a son of the soil, charged with the energy of New England, strong, eager, inquisitive of knowledge, of a diligence that never tired, upright, of a haughty independence, yet the gentlest of companions ; a man of study, fit for a man of the world; with decided opinions and plenty of power to state them ; rapidly pushing his studies so far as to leave few men qualified to sit as his critics.’ He elected his part of duty, or accepted nobly that assigned him in his rare constitution. Wonderful acquisition of knowledge, a rapid wit that heard all, and welcomed all that came, by seeing its bearing. Such was the largeness of his reception of facts and his skill to employ them that it looked as if he were some president of council to whom a score of telegraphs were ever bringing in reports ; and his information would have been excessive, but for the noble use he made of it ever in the interest of humanity. He had a strong understanding, a logical method, a love for facts, a rapid eye for. their historic relations, and a skill in stripping them of traditional lustres. He had a sprightly fancy, and often amused himself with throwing his meaning into pretty apologues ; yet we can hardly ascribe to his mind the poetic element, though his scholar-ship had made him a reader and quoter of verses. A little more feeling of the poetic significance of his facts would have disqualified him for some of his severer offices to his generation. The old religions have a charm for most minds which it is a little uncanny to disturb. ‘T is sometimes a question, shall we not leave them to decay without rude shocks? I remember that I found some harshness in his treatment both of Greek and of Hebrew antiquity, and sympathized with the pain of many good people in his auditory, whilst I acquitted him, of course, of any wish to be flippant. He came at a time when, to the irresistible march of opinion, the forms still retained by the most advanced sects showed loose and lifeless, and he, with something less of affectionate attachment to the old, or with more vigorous logic, rejected them. ‘T is objected to him that he scattered too many illusions. Perhaps more tenderness would have been graceful ; but it is vain to charge him with perverting the opinions of the new generation.

The opinions of men are organic. Simply, those came to him who found themselves ex-pressed by him. And had they not met this en-lightened mind, in which they beheld their own opinions combined with zeal in every cause of love and humanity, they would have suspected their opinions and suppressed them, and so sunk into melancholy or malignity – a feeling of loneliness and hostility to what was reckoned respect-able. ‘T is plain to me that he has achieved a historic immortality here ; that he has so woven himself in these few years into the history of Boston, that he can never be left out of your annals. It will not be in the acts of city councils, nor of obsequious mayors ; nor, in the state-house, the proclamations of governors, with their failing virtue – failing them at critical moments – that coming generations will study what really befell ; but in the plain lessons of Theodore Parker in this Music Hall, in Faneuil Hall, or in legislative committee rooms, that the true temper and authentic record of these days will be read. The next generation will care little for the chances of elections that govern governors now, it will care little for fine gentlemen who behaved shabbily ; but it will read very intelligently in his rough story, fortified with exact anecdotes, precise with names and dates, what part was taken by each actor ; who threw himself into the cause of humanity and came to the rescue of civilization at a hard pinch, and who blocked its course.

The vice charged against America is the want of sincerity in leading men. It does not lie at his door. He never kept back the truth for fear to make an enemy. .But, on the other hand, it was complained that he was bitter and harsh, that his zeal burned with too hot a flame. It is so difficult, in evil times, to escape this charge ! for the faithful preacher most of all. It was his merit, like Luther, Knox and Latimer, and John Baptist, to speak tart truth, when that was peremptory and when there were few to say it. But his sympathy for goodness was not less energetic. One fault he had, he overestimated his friends, – I may well say it,- and sometimes vexed them with the importunity of his good opinion, whilst they knew better the ebb which follows unfounded praise. He was capable, it must be said, of the most unmeasured eulogies on those he esteemed, especially if he had any jealousy that they did not stand with the Boston public as highly as they ought. His commanding merit as a reformer is this, that he insisted beyond all men in pulpits – I cannot think of one rival – that the essence of Christianity is its practical morals ; it is there for use, or it is nothing; and if you combine it with sharp trading, or with ordinary city ambitions to gloze over municipal corruptions, or private intemperance, or successful fraud, or immoral politics, or unjust wars, or the cheating of Indians, or the robbery of frontier nations, or leaving your principles at home to follow on the high seas or in Europe a supple complaisance to tyrants, – it is a hypocrisy, and the truth is not in you ; and no love of religious music or of dreams of Swedenborg, or praise of John Wesley, or of Jeremy Taylor, can save you from the Satan which you are.

His ministry fell on a political crisis also ; on the years when Southern slavery broke over its old banks, made new and vast pretensions, and wrung from the weakness or treachery of North-ern people fatal concessions in the Fugitive Slave Bill and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Two days, bitter in the memory of Boston, the days of the rendition of Sims and of Burns, made the occasion of his most remark-able discourses. He kept nothing back. In terrible earnest he denounced the public crime, and meted out to every official, high and low, his due portion.’ By the incessant power of his statement, he made and held a party. It was his great service to freedom. He took away the reproach of silent consent that would otherwise have lain against the indignant minority, by uttering in the hour and place wherein these outrages were done, the stern protest.

But whilst I praise this frank speaker, I have no wish to accuse the silence of others. There are men of good powers who have so much sympathy that they must be silent when they are not in sympathy. If you don’t agree with them, they know they only injure the truth by speaking. Their faculties will not play them true, and they do not wish to squeak and gibber, and so they shut their mouths. I can readily forgive this, only not the other, the false tongue which makes the worse appear the better cause. There were, of course, multitudes to censure and defame this truth-speaker. But the brave know the brave. Fops, whether in hotels or churches, will utter the fop’s opinion, and faintly hope for the salvation of his soul; but his manly enemies, who despised the fops, honored him ; and it is well known that his great hospitable heart was the sanctuary to which every soul conscious of an earnest opinion came for sympathy-alike the brave slave-holder and the brave slave-rescuer. These met in the house of this honest man – for every sound heart loves a responsible person, one who does not in generous company say generous things, and in mean company base things, but says one thing, now cheerfully, now indignantly, but always because he must, and because he sees that, whether he speak or refrain from speech, this is said over him ; and history, nature and all souls testify to the same.

Ah, my brave brother ! it seems as if, in a frivolous age, our loss were immense, and your place cannot be supplied. But you will already be consoled in the transfer of your genius, knowing well that the nature of the world will affirm to all men, in all times, that which for twenty-five years you valiantly spoke ; that the winds of Italy murmur the same truth over your grave ; the winds of America over these bereaved streets ; that the sea which bore your mourners home affirms it, the stars in their courses, and the inspirations of youth; whilst the polished and pleasant traitors to human rights, with perverted learning and disgraced graces, rot and are forgotten with their double tongue saying all that is sordid for the corruption of man.

The sudden and singular eminence of Mr. Parker, the importance of his name and influence, are the verdict of his country to his virtues. We have few such men to lose ; amiable and blameless at home, feared abroad as the standard-bearer of liberty, taking all the duties he could grasp, and more, refusing to spare himself, he has gone down in early glory to his grave, to be a living and enlarging power, wherever learning, wit, honest valor and independence are honored.

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson