American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism

American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism

American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism

American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism


Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was a powerful preacher who rejected the authority of the Bible and of Jesus, a brilliant scholar who became a popular agitator for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights, and a political theorist who defined democracy as "government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people"--words that inspired Abraham Lincoln. Parker had more influence than anyone except Ralph Waldo Emerson in shaping Transcendentalism in America.

In American Heretic, Dean Grodzins offers a compelling account of the remarkable first phase of Parker's career, when this complex man--charismatic yet awkward, brave yet insecure--rose from poverty and obscurity to fame and notoriety as a Transcendentalist prophet. Grodzins reveals hitherto hidden facets of Parker's life, including his love for a woman who was not his wife, and presents fresh perspectives on Transcendentalism. Grodzins explores Transcendentalism's religious roots, shows the profound religious and political issues at stake in the "Transcendentalist controversy," and offers new insights into Parker's Transcendentalist colleagues, including Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. He traces, too, the intellectual origins of Parker's epochal definition of democracy as government of, by, and for the people.

The manuscript of this book was awarded the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians.


People loved Theodore Parker, or they hated him. He was a saint, a prophet, and a tribune—or an infidel, a fanatic, and a demagogue. Many believed, and some feared, that he was the most influential minister in mid-nineteenthcentury America.

He pastored a “Congregational Society” that was the largest free church in the country and the largest church of any kind in Boston. in the 1850s, almost three thousand people went weekly to hear him preach (nearly 2 percent of the population of the city), and some 50,000 listened to him lecture every year, in lyceums from Maine to Illinois. Meanwhile, thousands more bought his published sermons and addresses, which he produced in a neverending stream, and which found readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Scholars and thinkers took his work seriously, and even hostile critics respected his vast erudition; he seemed able to discourse learnedly on almost any topic and could read more than twenty languages.

Notable men and women, not a few of them controversial figures themselves, proudly counted him their friend and, in many cases, their pastor as well. William Lloyd Garrison regularly attended his services, as did many other abolitionists, while antislavery politicians, prominent among them Charles Sumner and Horace Mann, turned to Parker constantly for counsel. Wendell Phillips and Parker were close partners; in 1855, the two nearly went to prison together for trying to prevent the return to slavery of the fugitive Anthony Burns. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was for a time part of his congregation, as were other leading advocates of women’s rights, including Julia Ward Howe, who credited Parker with encouraging her to become a writer. Louisa May Alcott considered Parker a decisive influence on her life and wrote warmly of her experiences with him and in his Society in her novel Work (in which he appears, thinly disguised, as the character Thomas Power). a generation of New England–born intellectuals, including Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Franklin Sanborn, and Caroline Healey Dall, regarded Parker as mentor.

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