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Theodore Parker was born at Lexington, Massachusetts, August 24, 1810, and died at Florence, Italy, May 10, 1860. Although a precocious child, his schooling was limited by the family's poverty. From age 17 to 21 he taught at district schools. He passed the Harvard entrance examination but was too poor to enroll; instead he was given special credit and was graduated from the Divinity school in 1836 (Hart 633). From 1837 to 1845 Parker served as pastor of the West Roxbury, Massachusetts, Unitarian Church; but opposition to his liberal sermons caused him to resign. He became minister of the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston in 1845 (Webster 771) and was an associate of the Transcendentalists. Emerson, Channing, Alcott, and Wendell Phillips were among his friends (Hart 633-634).
Parker was involved in many of the social causes of the day including abolition, prison reform, education of women, and temperance (Webster 771). His sermons at the Twenty-eighth Street Congregational Society of Boston covered needed social reforms in addition to matters relating to religious education (Hart 634). In 1855 he preached on the "'reproach and odium' heaped on great reformers who were ahead of their time," among whom he included Jesus, Socrates, Garrison, and Abby Kelley Foster (Sterling 300). Elsewhere at the same time he lectured passionately against slavery and became actively involved in the rescue of fugitive slaves (Hart 634). Ruchames, in volume IV of The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, states that he was "perhaps the greatest American scholar of his day" (29). He established the Massachusetts Quarterly Review in 1847, editing it for the three years of its existence. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, he took a major part in protecting fugitives in Boston and enabling them to escape to Canada (IV 29). Parker was also a member of the committee that secretly helped John Brown, for he had became convinced that it was necessary to use violence to bring about the abolition of slavery (Webster 771; Merrill V 7).
La Roy Sunderland, one of Milo's correspondents, wrote of Parker from Charleston, Massachusetts, on September 11, 1849, as follows: During the past year I have often had the privilege of hearing Theodore Parker preach, and a privilege it is. I have enjoyed more of he Divine, and heard more Truth from that man during one of his sermons, than I ever conceived it possible for human beings to enjoy in this world. He is the best man I ever heard attempt to preach. I love him, and so do you, if you have read his "Discourses of Religion," which I saw on your table when I had never heard him.
Writing again about six months later (March 20, 1850), Sunderland returned to the subject, stating, "I had a long talk with that excellent man Theodore Parker. He s the highest of any man I ever saw, in his knowledge of the Divine ."
In Letter 161 below, the book to which Parker refers is his A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (1842), consisting of lectures he had delivered. The letter is addressed to Milo A. Townsend, Fallston, Beaver County, Penn. (At that time, because New Brighton had no post office, residents of that town received their mail through the Fallston post office.)
from Theodore Parker
West Roxbury [Mass] 5th Dec./45
I thank you for the kind things you suggest about my Book. It came out of deep experience of my life & if it reaches the heart of others & does them good I shall be much rejoiced. I have received numerous testimonials from men who have encouraged me in my work. They show me that I am not alone. I have found much more sympathy than at first I dreamed of & preach every Monday to a large audience in Boston-- tho' I am the minister of a small Parish in Roxbury. It seems to me there is little of the spirit of Xty [Christianity] in our churches. They are afraid of almost any thing but a sin. A Free thought - or a freeman frightens them half out of their wits. I do not wonder they say not a word against waving [?] at the truth when they fear so much the little freedom we have in the North. But I hope a better day is coming when the churches shall have the Spirit of the Lord-- & the Liberty which comes with the Spirit.
I have today sent a parcel of the Discourses, 6 in number, to you at "New Brighton, Beaver County-- care of C.H. Ray , Bookseller, Pittsburg Penn. The books will cost $1.50 each. The wholesale price in Boston is $1.75, but as you live so far away-- I put them at a lower price. If that is too much, I will make a still further deduction. Do not trouble yourself to send the money until it is entirely convenient. It will always give me pleasure to hear from you. I enclose bits of errata. I am.
[Signature cut off, but Milo's index to the letters lists it by number as being from Theodore Parker.]
In the next letter it is evident that Milo has not been able to get the money to Parker although he had sent it.
from Theodore Parker
West Roxbury 29th Oct. 1846
Yours of the 19th just came yesterday to hand. I am sorry you had all the trouble about the letter and its contents, but am glad the money got safe back to you again. Give yourself no uneasiness about the little sum owing to me-- keep it long as you need or wish it. I shall not be ruined if you never can return it. I am glad if my poor books can do men good in body or soul. I am just going to print a cheaper edition of the same work. That will sell for not much more than $1.00. I send you a "Sermon of War" and another little "Sermon of the Perishing Classes in Boston." Keep the $9.00 long as they will help you. Believe me.
Truly your friend
The handwriting in letter 162 below is especially difficult to decipher. The money has still not reached Parker.
from Theodore Parker
Boston 14th March, 1848
I ought to have answered your kind letter long ago, but have had so many things more pressing to attend to that it has been neglected till now. Pray never mention the little money matter again. If you had sent it, I should have spent it before now & I do not believe it would do me as much good as it will you, therefore I pray you never think of paying me. You are entirely welcome & I hope the Books are doing good. I send you a sermon I have just printed in the Sunday [?] -- which I hope may also do good. Some time or another I intend to visit the west at which time I think I shall make it my way to pass through your town and see you. Nothing very interesting is taking place in the way of theology or religion, [the general will of getting ever shaken, getting liberal, and telling a lie to man also-- never become so hopeful as it does now.]1 Good & Evil are both teaching us & if we cannot learn of them here, I trust we shall hereafter. Believe me
Truly your friend
Milo A. Townsend
1The the bracketed section of letter 162 is very uncertain.
If there were other letters from Theodore Parker, they have been lost.
Parker's public life was so strenuous that, becoming seriously exhausted and ill with tuberculosis, he went to Italy, hoping to recover his health; however, instead of becoming well, he died there in 1860 (Hart 634; Ruchames IV 29).
The death of Theodore Parker is reported in a newspaper clipping from one of Milo Townsend's scrapbooks:
The following, an extract from a private letter to Professor Newman, dated Florence, May 11, 1860, appears in the London papers received by the Arabia:-- "I have sad news to communicate. Our dear suffering friend, Theodore Parker, died yesterday evening. Yet there never was an easier end to a life but lately full of vigor. I saw him about three hours before he died, lying calmly, while life was ebbing away, unconsciously to himself..... He desired the eleven first verses of he Sermon on the Mount...to be read over his grave.... He was dreamy for some days, and talked dreamingly of two Theodore Parkers, one here and one planted in Boston, who would finish his work.... Among his last well connected words were these:-- 'Of course you know I am not afraid to die, though I wished to live and finish much work which I longed to do. I had great powers committed to me, and I have but half used them.'" (Scrapbook V 83)