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"Scholars of American religious history owe a debt to Grodzins for a masterful treatment of Parker's life and times. . . . A fresh look at an important figure in American religious history."
— Journal of American Academy for Religion
"This fascinating biography of one of the leading intellectuals in the Transcendentalist movement brings together an intimate insight into Parker's personal life with a vivid depiction of the European cultures that engaged him. Dean Grodzins has opened his subject's inner life and has used it to restore drama and depth to a major phase of American intellectual history. (John Higham, The Johns Hopkins University)"
"Elegantly written and thoroughly researched, Grodzins's biography promises to be the standard life of Parker for our generation and beyond. (Charles Capper, author of Margaret Fuller: An American Romantic Life)"
"On the 24th of August, 1810, early on a hot, sweltering morning, I came into this world of joys and sorrows," wrote Theodore Parker forty-nine years later, shortly before his death. He first saw light in a hodge-podge farmhouse in "Kite's End," the southern district of Lexington, Massachusetts, a swampy village northeast of Boston that was home to a thousand people and half as many cows. He was the last of eleven children, with nine surviving sisters and brothers, ages four to twenty-five, most of them still living under the family roof. Theodore-"the gift of God"-was the child of his parents' old age. His father, John, was forty-nine, and his mother, Hannah Stearns, was a remarkable forty-six. His father's mother, the "Widow Pierce," still hale at seventy-nine, had a room of her own upstairs.
Theodore later remembered the Parker farmhouse as a "cheerless shelter." It faced South, with two stories in front, one in back, a huge, central chimney made of bricks laid in clay, and massive oak beams protruding from the older, western part, which had been built by his grandfather's grandfather. The few large rooms were dark, for the windows were tiny. Theodore much preferred being outside, weather permitting. Among his earliest memories was a longing to see the winter gone, and the greatsnowbank out the front door melted, so that he need no longer be confined to the kitchen.
Then came the first warm days of spring, "which brought the blue birds to their northern home, and tempted the bees to try short flights, in which they presently dropped on the straw my provident father had strewn for them over the snow about their hives." Finally the snow would melt, and the little blond boy in homespun brown petticoats would be allowed a free range. There was much to explore. Out the front door was a gentle slope down into the "Great Meadow," a grassy, spongy valley; in back the house was sheltered from the north winds by a steep, rocky hill. Theodore would delight in the smell of the damp earth, or sit in some dry spot and watch "the great yellow clouds of April" roll by. In May, the fruit trees would bloom-plum, peach, cherry, and apple-followed in June by the blossoming of a nearby grove of white locust. In his sisters' garden grew "crimson peony, daffodils, white and yellow narcissus, white and red roses," and nearby could be found the "handsomest flowering shrubs and plants of New England." The summer slowly passed to autumn, when the brilliant foliage came-"How red the maples were, how yellow the birches and the walnuts, and what richly tinted leaves did the chestnut shake down!" Too soon it grew cold, and the child was brought back indoors for the winter. The snows would pile as high as the top of the kitchen window, while he built corncob houses and hoped that his father or a brother would take him to the barn, "where the horse, the oxen and the cows were a perpetual pleasure," or that "sleighs full of cousins" would come to visit.
Such joys cost little; they had to, for his family was not prosperous. His father's father, a farmer and wheelwright who had commanded the Lexington militia in the first battle of the Revolutionary War, had had a respectable property, but three years after his death in 1775, his widow, Lydia, had made a second marriage to one Ephraim Pierce, which, wrote Theodore, "both she and her children had bitter cause to repent." Her new husband was improvident and had nine children to support, while she had seven of her own. Soon, most of the estate was wasted, and they were all forced to live off what was left, her "widow's thirds." About 1784, her eldest son, John, had married Hannah Stearns, the daughter of a neighboring farmer, and "went back to the original homestead to take care of his mother, while he should support his handsome young wife and such family as might happen."
A large family happened, and he did support them, mostly by building pumps and cider presses-"he was the only man about there that did that," recalled Theodore's orphaned nephew, Columbus Greene, who came to live with the family in 1819, when he was seven-and by repairing wagons, tools, and ploughs. Yet John Parker also "had lost a good deal of money and had debts on responsibilities for others that were not paid till near his death." He worked hard in his little shop, and while he taught his boys to be handy with wood, their big job was to run the farm. Theodore remembered that his father was "a skilful farmer; though, as he lived not on his own land, but on 'widow's thirds,' which his mother had only life estate in, he was debarred from making costly improvements in the way of buildings, fences and apple trees, which are long in returning profit to him that plants." Greene remembered that "the farm was run down and was running down." They did have a small orchard that produced fine peaches, and Greene recalled raising corn, potatoes, beans, other "vegetables," and apples. John let the boys sell what they grew "on commission," and later for themselves, sometimes as far off as the market in Boston. The women of the family took in sewing, and the Parkers "lived with rigid economy."
"I have often been praised for virtues which really belong to my mother and father," Theodore later wrote, "and if they were also mine, they must have come so easy under such training, that I should feel entitled to but small merit for possessing them." He remembered his parents as very different from one another, his father a figure of intellect and authority, his mother one of sentiment and love. The distinctions he drew between them sometimes appear as if he were determined that they had governed separate spheres. He asserts, for example, that although his mother "[l]oved Poetry ... could repeat a good deal of Poetry-especially Ballads and religious Poems, Hymns, &c.," his father "did not like poetry"; but he also remembered that his father read Pope, Dryden, Milton, Shakespeare, John Trumbull, "Peter Pindar" (John Wolcot), and Abraham Cowley. Yet his parents did seem to have different outlooks and temperaments, and to relate differently to their youngest child. Theodore was emotionally close to his mother, as he was not with his father. Each had a distinct influence on his religious training.
John Parker was "stout, able bodied," and "'uncommon strong'"-"only one man in the town could surpass him in physical strength"; Theodore's own existence was evidence of his continued virility. He was a "thoughtful, reading man-not restless," with "all the manners of the neighborhood," who wore his hair tied in back (the old-fashioned way), and followed the "ancient Puritan custom" of seating his family at dinner by age. The adjective most often used to describe him was "silent"-an indication of his considerable reserved dignity. When he died in 1836, the minister recorded his name in the church records as "Mr. John Parker." In those days, at least in old-fashioned villages like Lexington, "Mister" was still an honorific reserved for gentlemen; it was seldom bestowed on a pump maker of yeoman stock and modest means. He clearly had the respect of his community-even though he was, by Theodore's admiring account, "fearless in the expression of opinion," and one of only five Federalists in the town. His neighbors often called on him to arbitrate disputes, administer estates, and serve as guardian for widows and orphans. The records of several estates that he administered survive, and they show that the trust in him was well placed. He also was respected at home. Greene remembered that his grandfather "kept good discipline in family-always used to read [aloud] in evening and with a wave of the [hand?] dismissed the children to bed at 8. Did not whip the children but they always obeyed him.... [He] had perfect government in his family and governed easily."
John's formal schooling had ended at age fourteen, when the Revolution broke out, but he had gone on to educate himself. He had helped to found the small Lexington circulating library and in his spare moments he was usually with a book. He enjoyed reading history and travel (which is mostly what the library stocked), but was particularly "fond of Metaphysics-Psychology and all departments of intellectual and moral Philosophy." Greene did not think there was anyone in Lexington who had read so much as his grandfather. He needed only five hours sleep and would rise before the sun in the winter to study-a habit Theodore also acquired. There survives, as testimony to John Parker's painstaking efforts, a small, homemade book, dating from the 1790s, in which he carefully practiced his handwriting and worked out problems of applied mathematics, such as this one: "Passing by a Steeple I measure the Shadow and find it 45 Feet, at the same time my staff being 4 feet Length set up Perpendicular casteth a Shadow 18 inches in Length now I would know the Height of the Steeple?" The answer, he correctly calculated, is 120 feet. According to Theodore, in later life his father understood not only trigonometry, but algebra, plain and solid geometry, and logarithms.
Theodore seems to have been in awe of his father. He sought his approval, but never his intimacy. The approval came sparingly enough, even though Theodore early established himself as the family's intellectual star. Greene recalled that although his grandfather enjoyed his son's conversation, he did so "quietly and in silence-He never boasted of it and never made remarks that would tend to make Theodore self-conscious or vain." Theodore never forgot the rare occasions when his father did praise him, even indirectly. Eight years after John Parker's death, his son delivered a lecture in Boston before a meeting of "men of colour" and was enthusiastically received as a "friend of mankind." He wrote in his journal that he had only been "so much gratified but once before," when he was a little boy at a public, oral examination in school: "One of the spectators-one of the general committee of the town asked my father-'Who was that fine boy who spoke up so smart'? My father said 'Oh that was one of my boys, the youngest.'! When my father told it at home-that John Muzzey [the eminent townsman] had asked so-I felt a deep Joy-not so much for my sake-as for the satisfaction it seemed to give my father."
Although craving his father's sanction, Theodore did not, and perhaps could not, confide in him. "I don't think Theodore consulted his father much concerning his plans for education," recalled Greene. "He knew his father couldn't help him and so he laid his own plans and carried them out." When he decided to try to enter Harvard in 1830, he told his father nothing. Later, he courted Lydia Dodge Cabot for a year, yet his father knew nothing about her until Theodore announced to him that they were engaged.
He recalled that his father's religion was more a matter of the head than the heart, and Greene confirms this portrait. John Parker was "a great reader of the Bible," owned a church pew, attended services regularly, gave his children religious instruction, and required them to say prayers and hymns before going to bed-but he was not deemed very pious by the high standards of New England. He did not have his children baptized until his wife insisted, nor, apparently, did he take communion. He led no family prayers and ceased saying grace at meals when Theodore was about ten. He was an "independent thinker in religion" who did not believe in eternal damnation, nor in "the grotesque miracles" of either Testament. Like most religious liberals of the time, he disliked equally the New Divinity Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards and the near-secular utilitarianism of William Paley's ethics. He was "very well read in English philosophy," "a powerful controversialist when engaged in argument," and "nice & acute in metaphysical analysis," but never passionate.
Theodore did acquire one passion from his father-for learning. John Parker's example was the model for Theodore's own awesome self-education. A schoolmate recalled that Theodore was inclined to stay "at home in the chimney corner" with a book, and observed that this "disposition he inherited from his father, who very rarely went from home to visit his neighbors ... but read books a good deal." With his father's quiet encouragement, he also early developed interests in botany, geology, and astronomy. The impression of his father's religious opinions, however, was not to be revealed for some time. Although John Parker rejected the "grotesque miracles" of the Bible, Theodore did not until years after he left home. Theodore's rationalistic habits of mind came from his father; his religion, as he often said, "was the inheritance my mother gave me."
His mother, Hannah, was a slender woman of medium height, with fair hair turned grey, blue eyes, "and a singularly fresh and delicate complexion, more nervous than muscular." She would wear a workaday blue check dress until dinner was served at noon, but after the cooking, eating, and cleaning were over, would change into something prettier. A neighbor remembered her as a "very mild and amiable woman" with a "remarkable memory." Theodore confirms that she knew the Bible "thoroughly," as well as a great many ballads, hymns, and religious poems, and "knew by heart" many New England family histories, which she would tell to him. She was "imaginative, delicate-minded, poetic, ... Fond of Literature," and "nice in her perceptions and judgements." Greene recalled fondly how she "used to lead us to bed with a light-and then came up to see that [we] were comfortable and tuck in the clothes and tell them [sic] to say their prayers."
Hannah had certain strengths perhaps so taken for granted that they were never noted. Any woman, living before modern medicine and conveniences, who could survive eleven childbirths, the last when she was in her late forties, and who successfully could rear ten children on very little money, must have had extraordinary inner resources, a remarkable capacity for hard work, and a constitution of iron. Her health eventually did give way, however, and she died of overwork and consumption. Her life pattern was to be repeated by her youngest son.
They were emotionally very close. His first biographer speculates that because there was a gap of several years between him and his next older sibling, his sister Emily, he "had no playmate for a time but his mother." It certainly seems as if he was his mother's favorite. "As the youngest child," he recalled, "it may be supposed I was treated with uncommon indulgence, and probably received a good deal more than a tenth of the affection distributed. I remember often to have heard the neighbors say, 'Why, Miss Parker, you're spilin' your boy! ...' To which she replied 'she hoped not,' and kissed my flaxen curls anew."
Theodore often wrote that his mother took "great pains" with his religious education and that her religious opinions were undoctrinaire. She "cared little for such doctrines as Trinity &c.... [but saw] Religion as Love and good works." Elsewhere, he claimed that "the dark theology of the time seems not to have blackened her soul at all." In particular, he claimed that she instinctively denied the conception of God as wrathful: "To her the Deity was an Omnipresent Father, filling every point of space with His beautiful and loving presence." In turn, she taught him to "love and trust the dear God." And yet, a remark he made in a sermon in 1842 suggests a different story: "Perhaps there is no one of us, who believes the theology in which we were instructed by our mothers."
Excerpted from American Heretic by Dean Grodzins Copyright © 2002 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
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