Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism

Article excerpt

American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism. By Dean Grodzins. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. xiii, 631. Illustrated. Cloth, $39.95.)

As Peter Berger once reminded us, the root word for heresy is haerisis, which literally means "choice." (Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural [1969], 45). He notes: "Every religious community in the pluralistic situation becomes a 'heresy,' with all the social and psychological tenuousness that the term suggests." Berger was speaking of the modern world in general and especially of the twentieth century, but his insight seems even appropriate to the United States in its infancy. Heresy has been, in principle, the coin of the American religious realm since the approval of the Constitution and has brought a steady flow of creativity as well as an unprecedented inflation of choice to United States religion. These days, it is in the realm of politics or intellectual life that heretics delight in slamming positions or methodologies. As for the American topography of faith, it has become so crowded with heresies that one hardly ever uses the word to distinguish one turn from another.

All the more reason, then, to find a certain poignancy in the title of Dean Grodzins's deeply researched, elegantly written, and altogether convincing portrait of Theodore Parker (1810-1860). The antebellum era encompassed the first great creative moments of heretical challenge to established and recently disestablished orthodoxies and often retained in its religious battles at least the aroma of apocalypse and martyrdom. Theodore Parker, the once famous Transcendentalist colleague of Emerson and Thoreau and minister to Boston's abolitionist community, was a warrior among warriors, a passionate believer who sought to rekindle the power of liberal faith in what he viewed as a moribund Unitarian community. For some decades lost on historians' long list of American reformers, good for a quote or caricature but dependent for continued existence on Henry Steele Commager's lively but dated Theodore Parker (1936), this complicated soul has finally found his consummate biographer. American Heretic, the first of two volumes, takes Parker from birth to 1845, the year before he founded Boston's "Free Church" and decisively entered into the political controversies of the day.

At the center of this era was Parker's dark and complicated journey of the soul, one that drew him to the ministry and transformed him from a Biblically-based Unitarian to an almost frighteningly creative Transcendentalist religious virtuoso. he began at Harvard's Divinity School in April 1834 and, following some of his teachers, soon began to imbibe early historical approaches to the Old Testament and prophecy. he also found models of inner religious commitment in Henry Ware Jr. and William Ellery Channing, whose moderate abolitionism also shaped Parker' s social vision. Yet it was the religious radicalism of Transcendentalism that brought him from apprenticeship to the full blossoming of his intellectual and religious powers. …

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