Theodore Parker and the Coherence Factor

A sermon presentation by Jaco B. ten Hove (with Leo Jones)
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church
Adelphi, MD
March 9, 2003

READING (intro:)

I suspect I shall return to the body of work by and about Theodore Parker again and again for fresh perspective and inspiration; there is much to consider here for my life and my world—indeed for our world. As you'll find out, Theodore Parker (1810-1960) was a prophetic sort of minister who didn't tell people just what they wanted to hear. He was a notorious critic, but not without a sense of humor. Our first encounter, embodied by the voice of Leo Jones, finds him surveying the sad state of 19th century church life…

You look about in what is dryly called "the religious world." What a mass of machinery is there! What a jar and discord of iron clattering upon iron! Action is of the machinery, not of life. So [people] grow dull in their churches. What a weariness is an ordinary meeting on one of the 52 ordinary Sundays of the year! What a dreary thing is an ordinary sermon of an ordinary minister! He does not wish to preach it; the audience does not wish to hear it. So he makes a feint of preaching, they a feint of hearing him preach… He is as dull as the cushion he beats, they as the cushions they cover. A body of people met in a church for nothing, and about nothing, and to hear nobody, is a ghastly spectacle.

Much of our ecclesiastical machinery tends to make [people] into mere fixtures in a mill. So there must be a continual accession of new religious life from without into the churches. [People] of religious genius it is who bring it in…

Sermon: Theodore Parker and the Coherence Factor

See the unnatural disparity in [the human] condition — bloated opulence and starving [poverty] in the same street… See the poor, deserted by their elder brother, while it is their sweat which enriches your ground, builds your railroads, and piles up your costly houses.
(Crusader, pg. 181)

140 years ago Unitarian minister Theodore Parker said this to the congregation he served. I wonder if any of us would be secure enough in ourselves to put out such a message today, accurate as it may remain? Perhaps it would be easier for some of us to say, as he did, that

If woman had been consulted,…theology would have been in a vastly better state than it is now…

or that

Proper notions of marriage and divorce can only come as the result of a slow but thorough revolution in the idea of woman.
(Cloyd, p. 9)

And any critics of our country's penal system could likely count Parker as a hefty supporter, declaring as he did so many generations ago, that

…our whole method of punishing crime is a false one. Little good comes of it. We beat the stool we stumble over… Anyone with half an eye must see the falseness of present methods. To remove evil we must remove its causes.
(Tolen, p. 9)

A pretty clear and loud voice for reform, Theodore Parker. And I've yet to touch on his most noted arenas: a radical theological critique of the Christianity of his day, and the abolition of slavery. His provocative perspectives challenge us anew to look at both our complicity with injustice and our own process of building true inner security.

Because always, as he went to the front lines of important reform issues Theodore Parker was also linking surface symptoms to deeper systemic, and often spiritual causes. He was a holistic thinker who acted, the likes of which we could no doubt benefit from encountering today.

None of that renowned New England reserve for Parker; he was impassioned in his efforts and encyclopedic in his research. Despite frequent censure from many of his colleagues and other authorities, he became popularly known—in his own time—as "the Great American Preacher"; people loved to hear him speak his very full mind.

But, how could he do it—stand up to the mighty establishments of the era and shout down all compromise of principle? What powered that dynamo of critical activism and pioneering religiosity? Is there a lesson in his story for us?

It might be this: that the eternal struggle to live out our beliefs, to make our actions coherent with our philosophies—to practice what we preach—this struggle that we all know benefits from an inner solidarity and trust of self.

An inner solidarity. But in what is that rooted? How is an inner solidarity and trust of self developed? Well, in the case of the intricate historical character before us, it was a relatively simple but formative cultivation. Let me tell you some of his story…

Parker was a man of the New England soil. He never tired of telling that his grandfather drew the first sword in the American Revolution. His father and brothers were farmers. Lexington, Massachusetts—glorious Lexington—was his home. In all his subsequent scholarly pursuits, he never lost the wonder of nature or the love of his New England roots.

Theodore, whose name means "gift of God," was the last of 11 children, borne in 1810 by Hannah Parker when she was 47 years old. This patient and pious mother survived only 13 of Theodore's years, but decidedly set the stage for his life's work by instilling in the young boy the value of his conscience.

Later, Parker would look back on one of these early lessons:

I must relate one example to show… [the] delicate care she took of my moral culture. When a little boy in petticoats in my fourth year, one fine day in spring,…I saw a little spotted tortoise sunning [it]self in [some] shallow water. I lifted the stick I had in my hand to strike the harmless reptile; for, though I had never killed any creature, yet I had seen other boys out of sport destroy birds, squirrels and the like, and I felt a disposition to follow their wicked example.

But all at once something checked my little arm, and a voice within me said, clear and loud, "IT IS WRONG!" I held my uplifted stick in wonder at the new emotion…

I hastened home and told the tale to my mother, and asked what was it that told me it was wrong? She wiped a tear from her eye…, and taking me in her arms, said, "Some…call it conscience, but I prefer to call it the voice of God in [our] soul. If you listen…it will speak louder and clearer, and always guide you right… Your life depends on heeding this little voice."

…I am sure no event in my life has made so deep and lasting an impression on me…
(Anthology, pg. 21)

Young Theodore was guided by his inner voice into education to an extreme, like no Parker before him. He had a voracious appetite for knowledge that the farm could never satisfy. He knew he was destined to be either a lawyer or a minister, and could be seen about to run his plow into a ditch while making famous orations to the crops. He chose the ministry because he felt that lawyers had no compunction about integrity. (When, later, he discovered that lawyers could actually plead a defense of slavery, he knew his misgivings were well-founded.)

His classmates at Harvard Divinity School regarded Parker as "a prodigious athlete in his studies." He devoured books, often reading as he walked. (He was once was very unathletically knocked unconscious by a tree that must have jumped in front of his studious path.) Soon he would be suspected by friends of "an ambition for omniscience." While just in the Divinity School he learned the basics of 14 languages, and such feats continued throughout his life.

Even before graduation from Harvard, Parker had already taken aim at traditional theology. He passed judgment on the historical hierarchy of the Christian Church and its self-perpetuating doctrines.

…the Scriptures have been interpreted in the interest of dogmatism, from Christ to the present.
(Crusader, p. 32)

Dogmatism. His was a mind far too inclusive to be restricted by the narrow parameters of past theologies that were so clearly lacking in conscience. IT IS WRONG!

As he settled in his first parish in West Roxbury, outside Boston, Parker prudently resolved to examine life firsthand,

…to preach nothing as religion that I have not experienced inwardly and made my own.
(Crusader, p. 42)

It was the start of an dramatically integrity-laden career, sustained well by a happy marriage to Lydia Cabot; happy, that is, but for the singular disappointment of never having children.

After witnessing firsthand the trumpet call of Ralph Waldo Emerson's notorious Divinity School Address at Harvard in 1838, Parker was ready to move. That speech of Emerson's—one of the classic utterances of American Unitarianism—was revelatory to Parker, who was only seven years younger than Emerson. The Sage of Concord held forth to his newer colleagues the vision of religious self-determination in words like these: "Know then that the world exists for you… What we are, that only can we see. Build therefore your own world." Emerson had issued the challenge. Parker was up to it.

The movement known as Transcendentalism was suddenly alive and the establishment was fuming. The American Unitarian Association was only a dozen years old at this time. It was stabilized by the now-orthodox theology of the older liberals: a view that rationally rejected Calvinist doctrines of the Trinity and Original Sin, but relied nonetheless on Biblical miracles as proof of Christianity. This older generation of Unitarians had indeed done its part in developing liberal religion, but they appeared visibly entrenched in their own doctrines.

They knew not what they encountered in the upstart Transcendentalists, who were holding forth the radical notion that religion lay not in doctrines and miraculous accounts or scholarship alone, but in personal intuition and Universal Truths that transcended particular dogma. This new generation was building its own world.

Ignited by Emerson, who then quickly backed out of the fray—and indeed had already left the ranks of ministry anyway, the fight against what he had termed "corpse-cold" Unitarianism was carried into the 1840s by a few others, notably Parker. Theodore was all of 30 years old now and he very much trusted his small voice within, his conscience, his intuition. And he knew he was onto something. He entered what became known as "the Unitarian Controversy" with a pamphlet in which he declared that the miracles performed by Jesus were merely further substantiation of already intuitive truths; the miracles were not essential to the practice of Christianity.

Within the next year, 1841, Parker had added his own classic statement, an ordination sermon entitled, "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity." Aptly named, this work went one step further and declared that Ultimate Truths would stand firm not only without the miracles, but even without Jesus, or even if he had been shown to be in error. The truth was permanent; personalities were transient. He declared:

…it seems difficult to conceive of any reason why moral and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal authority of their revealer any more than the truths of science on that of [whomever] makes them known first or more clearly.
(Crusader, p. 75)

Natural Laws of true religion, Parker argued, transcend any problematic doctrines or human personalities that are obviously transient entries.

All this was presented as part of an affirmation of the ongoing foundation of "permanent" Christianity, but its suggestions shocked and seriously ruffled the feathers of an already alert old guard, which was just not ready to acknowledge such ideas. Christianity without Jesus?! To declare as forcefully as Parker had that Jesus and the miracles were not essential was tantamount to modern heresy, and Theodore began to see less secure friends and colleagues fall away from his company.

He was a sensitive man and was hurt by the personal defections. Beyond that he was incredulous that the status quo could be so backwardly recalcitrant.

This is the 19th century! This is Boston! This, among the Unitarians!
(Crusader, pg. 73)

Normal opportunities for pulpit exchanges disappeared; he was now a dangerous association, this rascal Parker, even though his home parish in West Roxbury was supportive and essentially oblivious to the professional quandary. With martyrdom in mind, Parker consoled himself with the notion that there were probably only 10 churches in New England that would admit Christ himself.

In a marvelous display of ecumenical intrigue, Parker's words about the "transient" Jesus and his miracles were taken by conniving colleagues of other denominations and spread as a means of smoking out the Unitarians in general. Did they really allow and support this blasphemy in their ranks?

Soon, in the closest thing to an American UU heresy trial, Parker was asked—gently—to quit the ministry, as Emerson had done, and he—gently—refused. He loved the ministry and would not make it easy for them to discredit his very thoughtfully considered opinions. But the sentiment was fierce against him, and he suffered some long and lonely times, especially the winter of 1841-42.

But he never doubted the correctness of his position, never wavered in his trust of the inbred human power for knowing intuitive Truths that were more potent than any doctrinal suggestions. His inner solidarity was growing more and more secure.

Much of the man's awesome learning was in service of his conscience: a thirst for coherent justice driven by that "voice of God" in his soul. He trusted its guidance and soon found his outer voice in lecterns far and wide, thundering "IT IS WRONG!" to a comprehensive listing of the era's societal ills.

See the unnatural disparity in [the human] condition.— IT IS WRONG!

Besides becoming a very visible and thorny spokesperson for the Transcendentalists, Parker continued to substantiate his social reform ideas thoroughly, writing literally thousands of letters and speaking emotionally at hundreds of engagements. And there was no shortage of issues for Parker to address—arenas in which he could combat the evils of American society.

He moved forcefully, regardless how unpopular such activity made him. Indeed, his keen eye most often discovered powerfully privileged groups benefiting from systemic inequities, and such interests did not take kindly to Parker's fierce illumination. Along the way he became convinced of the interrelatedness of all social ills and he searched in deep sources for solutions.

He prepared stunning critiques of the inherently unChristian capital punishment.


Most people were for temperance, but how many would acknowledge that rum runners used church basements for storage?


He fired literary salvos at the glaring immorality of merchant greed.


In fact, he was merciless toward corrupt merchants for their role in oppressing the poor. He verbally blasted them out of Boston Harbor, so severely impugning their moral natures that he was branded a demagogue and a menace to society.

But it was all of a piece to Parker, and he insisted that the still new nation of America begin by taking care of the rights of each person, then the rights of labor and capital would follow easily. It was in this regard that he often brought out his favorite definition of the budding and ideal American democracy:

direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people.
(Collins, pg. 2)

President Lincoln would eventually pick up this political litany and immortalize it at Gettysburg, but it originated with this firebrand Unitarian. The next time you hear a reference to it, do your denominational duty and note the original author.

For Parker, the minister's role was to be both an honest judge of human institutions, and a paragon of virtue—elevating, instructing, inspiring by his character, and listening always to that little voice within. This was his task, his passion. This, then, was a vision that could fortify him against the religious, social, economic and political powers-that-be, most of which were aligned against him.

Nevertheless, with all these preliminaries under his belt, it was time for our Yankee crusader to tackle slavery—that most heinous of crimes against the universal truth of human dignity. Parker's most dramatic activity was on behalf of abolition; it was a path that led him into violent confrontation with Boston authorities who were capturing runaway slaves and deporting them back to their alleged owners.

What a spectacle it was; the army of the United States, the soldiers of Boston, sending an innocent man into Slavery! What a lesson to the children in the Sunday Schools…!
(Anthology, pg. 256)

He vehemently defied the authorities and aided refugees from the south, often placing himself in the heat of battle. What a powerful image we have of Parker writing sermons with a loaded pistol on his desk for protection of new parishioners hiding out in his house—this could be one of the great symbols of our movement, etched in our denominational psyche.

His authority was a Higher Law, the immutable goodness of every human being, a familiar refrain of the Transcendentalists. As for the questionable statutes of society,

If a law aims at justice, though it fail of the mark we will respect the law—not openly resist it…: [we'll] wait a little, and amend or repeal it. But when the law aims at injustice—open, manifest, palpable wickedness—why, we must be cowards and fools too, if we submit.
(Anthology, pg. 256)

His words to those supporting slavery were nasty and uncompromising. Perhaps on no other subject did the "voice of God" speak inside him so fervently: there was no excusing this doctrine of immoral inequity—


And I wonder, do we have enough inner solidarity to put out such a message today, accurate as it may remain? Certainly many of the unnatural disparities pointed out by Theodore Parker are still with us, albeit sometimes in refined form, such as racism, instead of declared slavery. But how do we rationalize an acceptance of what IS in our world and our lives with what our values tell us SHOULD BE?

This is related to what I call "The Coherence Factor," inspired by my exposure to the life of Theodore Parker. The Coherence Factor is the ratio of our actions in the world to our professed beliefs. Ideally the two are coherent, resonant, in harmony, in solidarity, one. What we do backs up what we say. (Ideally.) This very simple formula can be personally or collectively revealed. It is relevant for individuals and for groups or cultures.

The higher the Coherence Factor, the closer we live to our ideals. A few quick examples:

And the list could go on. In fact, if you shift your attention to the life you know best—your own—you'll no doubt recognize some of your behavior that attains or even aspires for high coherence between ideals and action. I honor your good intentions and activities.

No doubt you're doing some good work with your life, work that will, as they say, at least contribute more to solutions than to problems. Increasing our personal and community Coherence Factors IS good work, often not highlighted explicitly enough. So I say, congratulations!

On the flip side, a low Coherence Factor—discord between what we practice and what we preach—promotes a bunch of guilt, denial, excuses, and anxiety, often painfully below our awareness level, personally and culturally. It can be a disastrous source of psychic tension in our lives AND in our society. Such discord can appear in strange, destructive ways.

Examples here are unfortunately legion:

It is hard sometimes even to be aware of disparities in our human condition, let alone do anything to reconcile them. Even historically great people can fall short. Gandhi, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr.—prime candidates for sainthood, and still suspect because of inconsistencies in their personal behavior.

To Theodore Parker's critical eye: Rousseau was a bad man, Byron a libertine, and Goethe without moral standards. Perhaps Jesus of Nazareth receives the highest Coherence Factor rating, but then the media wasn't exactly up to snuff in his day. (I apologize for using all male examples here; I actually drew a blank trying to come up with incoherent women.)

Meanwhile, you and I try to live and spend our money without contributing to the ills of the world. The drive to live a life coherent with one's values is very human, and very complicated.

So, allow me to offer a reminder: part of the reason we come together in religious association is to both celebrate the power of our individual and mutual coherences and to renew together for the continuing tussle with the more difficult synapses of our moral existence. We hold up the destination—in this case a perfect Coherence Factor—but we hold onto each other along the inherently imperfect road toward the ideal. This is as it should be.

Theodore Parker campaigned for coherence at a furious pace, which began to take its toll. His inner solidarity could not ward off consumption; it would claim him shortly before his 50th year. His comment on the demise:

My candle stands in a current of air and so, I suppose, will burn away faster than if all around it were still.
(Crusader, pg. 272)

He was a harsh critic, but a lovable person—and extremely optimistic; he believed completely that Natural Laws were not invalidated simply because circumstances violated them. Idealism, coupled with education and example would carry the day, and he was determined—to a fault—to do his part.

Throughout his fast and controversial life, despite the risks and struggles that ensued, Theodore Parker heeded and trusted his "voice of God." This was the root from which sprang a powerhouse of energy and compassion, in the service of practical religion. He practiced what he preached; it infuriated and/or inspired those around him.

He holds out to us the vision of an active, forceful life centered on our conscience, that little voice within, as we hear it in our own hearts. His story cries out clear and loud about this: IT IS RIGHT!

"Then shall bloom in song and fragrance / Harmony in thought and deed,
Fruits of peace and love and justice / Where today we plant the seed."
[from Wonders Still the World Shall Witness — Hymn #139]



Cloyd, Royal. "Theodore Parker: A Unitarian Conscience," A Centennial Celebration, Boston: 1960, script. Reprinted, 1980 by UUA Worship Arts Clearing House.

Collins, Robert E. Theodore Parker: American Transcendentalist. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1973.

Commager, Henry Steele. Theodore Parker: An Anthology. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960.

Commager, Henry Steele. Theodore Parker: Yankee Crusader. Boston: Beacon Press, 1947.

Hutchison, William R. The Transcendentalist Ministers. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1959.

Wintersteen, Prescott Browning. Christology in American Unitarianism. Boston: The Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, 1977.

Wright, Conrad, intro. Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, l961.

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