The Preacher.

From: Transcendentalism in New England: A History (1880)
Author: Octavius Brooks Frothingham
Published: G.P. Putnam's Sons 1880 New York



  TRANSCENDENTALISM is usually spoken of as a philosophy. It is more justly regarded as a gospel. As a philosophy it is abstract and difficult—purely metaphysical in character, resting on no basis of observed and scientifically-proven fact, but on the so-called data of consciousness, which cannot be accurately defined, distinctly verified, or generally recommended. It must be, therefore, inexact and inconclusive; so far from uniform in its structure, that it may rather be considered several systems than one. As a gospel, it possesses all the qualities desirable for effect. It is worth remarking that its chief disciples have been clergymen. In Germany, Schleiermacher—if we may count him a Transcendentalist; he was the author of the doctrine, that the essence of religion consisted in the sense of dependence, which figured largely in the sermons of New England divines—was a clergyman; Fichte assumed the prophetic tone; the German professors associated religious teaching with the duties of their chairs. In England, Coleridge was a preacher by practice, and, part of his life, by profession; Carlyle was never anything else, his essays and even his histories being sermons in disguise, and disguise of the most transparent sort. In New England, Emerson began his career as a Unitarian minister; so did Walker; so did Ripley; so did W. H. Channing; so did J. S. Dwight; so did C. P. Cranch. Dr. Channing, a Transcendentalist without knowing it, was the greatest preacher of his generation. Brownson was a preacher of all orders in succession; Bartol preaches still; Clarke preaches still. Of the younger men, Johnson, Longfellow, Wasson, Higginson, are, or were, Unitarian clergymen. Alcott is a preacher without a pulpit. The order of mind that was attracted to the ministry was attracted to the Transcendental ideas.

  The explanation is easy; Transcendentalism possessed all the chief qualifications for a gospel. Its cardinal “facts” were few and manageable. Its data were secluded in the recesses of consciousness, out of the reach of scientific investigation, remote from the gaze of vulgar skepticism; esoteric, having about them the charm of a sacred privacy, on which common sense and the critical understanding might not intrude. Its oracles proceeded from a shrine, and were delivered by a priest or priestess, who came forth from an interior holy of holies to utter them, and thus were invested with the air of authority which belongs to exclusive and privileged truths, that revealed themselves to minds of a contemplative cast. It dealt entirely with “divine things,” “eternal realities;” supersensible forms of thought; problems that lay out of the reach of observation, such as the essential cause, spiritual laws, the life after death, the essence of the good, the beautiful, the true; the ideal possibilities of the soul; its organ was intuition; its method was introspection: its brightness was inspiration. It possessed the character of indefiniteness and mystery, full of sentiment and suggestion, that fascinates the imagination, and lends itself so easily to acts of contemplation and worship. The German Mystics were in spirit Transcendentalists. The analogies are close between Boehme and Schelling; between Eckardt and Fichte; Frederick Schlegel had much in common with Boehme; Coleridge acknowledged his debt to him and to other Mystics; even Hegel ran in line with them on some of his high roads. Minds as opposite as Alcott and Parker met in communion here—Alcott going to the Mystics for inspiration; Parker resorting to them for rest. The Mystics were men of feeling; the Transcendentalists were men of thought: but thought and feeling sought the same object in the same region. Piety was a feature of Transcendentalism; it loved devout hymns, music, the glowing language of aspiration, the moods of awe and humility, emblems, symbols, expressions of inarticulate emotion, silence, contemplation, breathings after communion with the Infinite. The poetry of Transcendentalism is religious, with scarcely an exception; the most beautiful hymns in our sacred collections, the only deeply impressive hymns, are by transcendental writers.

  This was the aspect of Transcendentalism that fascinated Theodore Parker. His intellect was constructed on the English model. His acute observation; his passion for external facts; his faith in statistics; his hunger for information on all external topics of history and politics; his capacity for retaining details of miscellaneous knowledge; his logical method of reasoning; his ability to handle masses of raw mental material, to distribute and classify;—all indicate intellectual power of the English rather than of the German type. It was his custom to speak slightingly of the “Bridgewater Treatises” and works of a similar class, in which the processes of inductive argument are employed to establish truths of the “Pure Reason;” but he easily fell into the same habit, and pushed the inductive method as far as it would go. His discourses on Providence, the Economy of Pain and Misery, Atheism, Theism, in the volume entitled “Theism, Atheism, and The Popular Theology,” are quite in the style of the “Bridgewater Treatises.” Parker was, in many respects, the opposite of a Mystic; he was a realist of the most concrete description, entirely at home among sensible things, a good administrator, a safe investor of moneys, a wise counsellor in practical affairs. But along with this intellectual quality which he inherited .from his father, was an interior, sentimental, devotional quality, derived from his mother. The two were never wholly blended; often they were wide apart, occupying different spheres, and engaged in different offices; sometimes they were in apparent opposition. Neither could subdue or overshadow the other; neither could keep the other long in abeyance. As a rule, the dominion was divided between them: the practical understanding assumed control of all matters pertaining to this world; the higher reason claimed supremacy in all matters of faith. But for the tendency to poetic idealism, which came to him from his mother, Parker might, from the constitution of his mind, have belonged to an opposite school. A passage in the letter from Santa Cruz, entitled “Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister,” is curious, as showing how the two tendencies of his mind overlapped; he is speaking of the two methods of developing the contents “of the instinctive intuitions of the divine, the just, and the immortal,”—the inductive and the deductive. After a few words respecting the inductive method of gathering facts from the history of mankind, he speaks thus of the deductive: “Next, from the primitive facts of consciousness given by the power of instinctive intuition, I endeavored to deduce the true notion of God, of justice, and futurity.” Then, forgetting that the power of instinctive intuition must be self-authenticating—cannot, at any rate, be authenticated by miscellaneous facts in the religious history of mankind—he continues:

  “To learn what I could about the spiritual faculties of man, I not only studied the sacred books of various nations, the poets and philosophers who professedly treat thereof, but also such as deal with sleep-walking, dreams, visions, prophecies, second-sight, oracles, ecstasies, witchcraft, magic-wonders, the appearance of devils, ghosts, and the like. Besides, I studied other works which lie out from the regular highway of theology; the spurious books attributed to famous Jews and Christians; Pseudepigraphy of the Old Testament, and the Apocrypha of the New; with the strange fantasies of the Neoplatonists and Gnostics.”

  Very important reading all this for one who studied to qualify himself to instruct his fellow men in the natural history of the world’s religions; but not so valuable as illustrating the “instinctive intuitions of human nature.” Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Boehme, Eckardt, never worked by that method, which may properly be called the method of Sensationalism applied to Transcendentalism. Parker, on the religious side, was a pure Transcendentalist without guile, accepting the transcendental ideas with no shadow of qualification; stating them with the concrete sharpness of scientific propositions, and applying them with the exactness of mathematical principles. He took them as he found them in the writings of the great German thinkers; shaped them as he, better than any body else, could shape thought in form of words,-as he shaped the formula of republican government—“government of the people, by the people, for the people”—from the looser statement of Daniel Webster,—and laid them down as corner-stones of a new theological structure. The materials were furnished by Schleiermacher, Spinoza, Jacobi, Schelling; the architectural skill was his own. Consciousness he did not undertake to analyze; the “facts of consciousness” he took on others’ verification; their spiritual import he perceived, developed and applied. Transcendentalism put into his hands the implements he was in special need of.

  It is not easy to determine the precise period at which Parker fully accepted, with all its consequences, the transcendental philosophy. He was not a Transcendentalist—not distinctly and avowedly one—at the time of his ordination, in 1837; he clearly was in 1840, the date of the Levi Blodgett letter, which contains the most thorough-going statement of the transcendental idea to be found in any single tractate. The probability is, that he always was one in sentiment, and became more and more consciously one in thought, as he found it necessary to shift his position in order to save his faith. So long as the beliefs he cherished seemed to be satisfactorily supported on the old grounds, he was content; but as the old grounds, one after another, gave way, the beliefs were transferred to the keeping of new principles. Then the sentiments of his youth hardened into ideas; the delicate creatures that lived and gleamed beneath the waters of faith’s tropical ocean, became reefs of white stone, that lifted their broad surface above the level of the sea, and offered immovable support to human habitations.

  Parker was, more than anything, a preacher;—preacher more than theologian, philosopher or scholar. Whatever else he was, contributed to his greatness in this. He had a profuse gift of language; expression was a necessity to him; his thoughts came swiftly, and clothed in attractive garments; he had wit, and he had humor; laughter and tears were equally at his command. His resources of illustration, drawn from history, literature, biography, nature, were simply inexhaustible; the fruits of enormous reading were at the immediate disposal of a memory that never lost a trifle of the stores committed to it. The religious emotions were as genuine with him as they were quick, and as deep as they were glowing: the human sympathies were wide as the widest, and tender as the tenderest. He had the power of persuasion and of rebuke, a withering sarcasm, a winning compassion. His indignation at wrong was not so qualified by sentimental regard for the wrong doer that invective was wasted on lifeless abstractions, nor was his judgment of evil doers so austere that wickedness escaped by being made incredible. It cannot be said of anybody that he has been able to discriminate nicely, in hours of moral feeling, between wrong doers and wrong deeds; that cannot be done in the present state of psychological science. We simply do not know what the limits of, personal responsibility are; how much power is entrusted to the will; how much allowance is to be made for temperament and circumstance; at what point the individual is detached from the mass of mankind, and constituted an accountable person. Parker was guilty, as others are, of personal injustice in holding individuals answerable for sins of their generation, and for vices transmitted with their blood; conscience and charity were occasionally at issue with him; but if righteousness was betrayed into intemperance of zeal, peace made haste to offer its kiss of sorrow, and unaffected tears damped down the flames of wrath when they threatened to consume the innocent. This two-fold power of blasting and of blessing, was vastly effective both on large audiences and on small. The personal integrity which no one ever doubted, the courage which was evident to even hasty observers, the mental independence which justified the boldness of its position by an indefatigable purpose to discover truth, were prime qualifications for the office he filled. The very disadvantages,—an unheroic presence, an uninspired countenance, an unmelodious and unpliable voice, the necessity of interposing glasses between his clear blue eyes and his audience, and thus veiling the heavens that lay behind them,—helped him by putting out of mind all thought of meretricious attempts at influence, and compelling recognition of the intellectual and moral force which could so easily dispense with what most orators consider invaluable aids.

  All that Parker had went into his preaching; the wealth of his library, the treasures of his heart, the sweetness of his closet meditations, the solemnity of his lonely musings. But it was not this that gave him his great power as a preacher. That, we are persuaded, was due in chief part to the earnestness of his faith in the transcendental philosophy. How cordially he entertained that faith, what to him it signified in politics, ethics, religion, may be learned by any who will take pains to read a lecture by him on Transcendentalism, recently published by the Free Religious Association. That he ascribed the popular interest in his preaching to his philosophical ideas will not perhaps be accepted as evidence on the point, for men are apt to be mistaken in regard to the sources of their power; but it is interesting as a testimony to his own belief, to know that he did so. In a sermon preached on November 14th, 1852, the occasion being his leaving the Melodeon for the Music Hall, he presents first the current modes of accounting for his success, and then his own.

  “The first reason assigned for the audience coming together was this: they came from vain curiosity, having itching ears to hear ‘what this babbler sayeth:’

  “Then it was said, men came here because I taught utter irreligion, blank immorality; that I had no love of God, no fear of God, no love of man; and that you thought, if you could get rid of your conscience and soul, and trample immortality under foot, and were satisfied there was no God, you should have a very nice time of it here and hereafter.

  “Then it was declared that I was a shrewd, practical man, perfectly well ‘posted up’ in every thing that took place; knew how to make investments and get very large returns,—unluckily it has not been for myself that this has been true. And it was said that I collected large headed, practical men to hear me, and that you were a ‘boisterous assembly.’

 “Then, that I was a learned man and gave learned discourses on ecclesiastical history or political history things which have not been found very attractive in the churches hitherto.

  “Again, that I was a philosopher, with a wise head, and taught men theological metaphysics; and so a large company of men seemed all at once smitten with a panic for metaphysics and abstract preaching. It was never so before.

  “Next it was reported that I was a witty man, and shot nicely feathered arrows very deftly into the mark; and that men came to attend the sharp shooting of a wit.

  “Then there was a seventh thing,—that I was an eloquent man; and I remember certain diatribes against the folly of filling churches with eloquence.

  “Then again, it was charged against me that I was a philanthropist, and taught the love of men, but did not teach at all the love of God; and that men really loved to love one another, and so came.

  “Then it was thought that I was a sentimentalist, and tickled the ears of ‘weak women,’ who came to delight themselves and be filled full of poetry and love.

  “The real thing they did not seem to hit; that I preached an idea of God, of man and of religion, which commended itself to the nature of mankind.”

  The great preacher is always an idealist, and according to the fervor of his idealism is he great. This was the source of Channing’s power; it was the charm of Emerson’s. In reply to a friend who questioned her as to the nature of the benefits conferred on her by Mr. Emerson’s preaching, Margaret Fuller wrote:

  “His influence has been more beneficial to me than that of any American, and from him I first learned what is meant by an inward ·life. Many other springs have since fed the stream of living waters, but he first opened the fountain. That the ‘mind is its own place’ was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind. Several of his sermons stand apart in memory, like landmarks of my spiritual history. It would take a volume to tell what this one influence did for me.”

  Mr. Parker’s ministry had three periods, in each of which the ideal element was the attraction. The first was the period of quiet influence in West Roxbury, where the stream of his spiritual life flowed peacefully through green pastures, and enriched simple hearts with its unintermitted current. Accounts agree that at this time there was a soul of sweetness in his preaching, that was a good deal more than the body of its thought. The second was the period at the Boston Melodeon, the first of his experience before the crowd of a metropolis. This was the controversial epoch, and, from the nature of the case, was largely polemical and negative as towards the popular theology. But even then the strain of spiritual faith was heard above the din of battle, and souls that were averse to polemics were fed by the enthusiasm that came from the inner heights of aspiration. The last period was that of the Music Hall-the famous period. Then the faith was defined and formulated; the corner-stones were hewn and set; the fundamental positions were announced with the fidelity of iteration that was customary with the “painful preachers of the Word” in churches where people were duly stretched upon the Five Points of Calvin. The three cardinal attestations of the universal human consciousness-

The Absolute God,
The Moral Law,
The Immortal Life,

were asseverated with all the earnestness of the man, and declared to be the constituent elements of the Rock of Ages.

  Standing on this tripod, Parker spoke as one having authority; he judged other creeds—Orthodox, Unitarian, Scientific—with the confidence of one who felt that he had inspiration on his side. It was difficult for him to understand how, without his faith, others could be happy. The believers in tradition seemed to him people who walked near precipices, leaning on broken reeds; the unbelievers were people who walked near the same precipices, with bandaged eyes.

  “If to-morrow I am to perish utterly, then I shall only take counsel for to-day, and ask for qualities which last no longer. My fathers will be to me only as the ground out of which my bread-corn is grown; dead, they are like the rotten mould of earth, their memory of small concern to me. Posterity—I shall care nothing for the future generations of mankind. I am one atom in the trunk of a tree, and care nothing for the roots below or the branches above; I shall sow such seed as will bear harvest to-day; I shall know no higher law; passion enacts my statutes to-day; to-morrow ambition revises the statutes, and these are my sole legislators; morality will vanish, expediency take its place; heroism will be gone, and instead of it there will be the brute valor of the he-wolf, the brute-cunning of the she-fox, the rapacity of the vulture, and the headlong daring of the wild bull; but the cool, calm courage which, for truth’s sake, and for love’s sake, looks death firmly in the face, and then wheels into line, ready to be slain—that will be a thing no longer heard of.”

  “The atheist sits down beside the coffin of his only child—a rose-bud daughter, whose heart death slowly ate away; the pale lilies of the valley which droop with fragrance above that lifeless heart, are flowers of mockery to him, their beauty is a cheat; they give not back his child, for whom the sepulchral monster opens his remorseless jaws. The hopeless father looks down on the face of his girl, silent—not sleeping, cold—dead. He looks beyond—the poor sad man—it is only solid darkness he looks on; no rainbow beautifies that cloud; there is thunder in it, not light; night is behind—without a star.”

  This is the way the Protestant Christians spoke of him; the “Evangelicals” spoke thus of the Unitarians; the believers in miraculous revelations spoke thus of the rationalists. They that are sure always speak so of those who, in their judgment, have no right to be sure at all.

  Yet Parker had a hospitable mind, and his hospitality was due also to his faith. The spiritual philosophy which maintained the identity in all men of consciousness, and the eternal validity of its promises, which no error or petulance could discredit, was indulgent to the unfortunates who had not the satisfaction of its assurance. It pitied, but did not reproach them. They were children of God no less for being ignorant of their dignity. It was impossible for Parker to believe that rational beings could be utterly insensible to the essential facts of their own nature. Their error, misconception, misconstruction, to whatever cause due, could be no more than incidental. Skepticism might make wild work of definitions, but ultimate facts it could never disturb; these would thrust themselves up at last, as inevitably as the rocky substratum of the globe presents itself in the green field. In a thanksgiving sermon he thanked God that atheism could freely deliver its creed and prove that it was folly. He was persuaded that the disbelievers believed better than they knew; in their paroxysms of denial, he saw the blind struggles of faith; he gave the enemies of religion credit for qualities that made their hostility look like a heroic protest against the outrages inflicted in the name of religion upon religion itself.

  “It is a fact of history, that in old time, from Epicurus to Seneca, some of the ablest heads and best hearts of Greece and Rome sought to destroy the idea of immortality. This was the reason: they saw it was a torment to mankind; that the popular notion of immortality was too bad to be true; and so they took pains to break down the Heathen Mythology, though with it they destroyed the notion of immortal life. They did a great service to mankind in ridding us from this yoke of fear.

  “Many a philosopher has seemed without religion, even to a careful observer—sometimes has passed for an atheist. Some of them have to themselves seemed without any religion, and have denied that there was any God; but all the while their nature was truer than their will; their instinct kept their personal wholeness better than they were aware. These men loved absolute truth, not for its uses, but for itself; they laid down their lives for it, rather than violate the integrity of their intellect. They had the intellectual love of God, though they knew it not, though they denied it.

  “I have known philanthropists who undervalued piety; they liked it not—they said it was moonshine, not broad day; it gave flashes of lightning, all of which would not make light. . . . Yet underneath their philanthropy there lay the absolute and disinterested love of other men. They knew only the special form, not the universal substance thereof.

  “Men of science, as a class, do not war on the truths, the goodness and the piety that are taught as religion, only on the errors, the evil, the impiety which bear its name. Science is the natural ally of religion. Shall we try and separate what God has joined? We injure both by the attempt. The philosophers of this age have a profound love of truth, and show great industry and boldness in search thereof. In the name of truth they pluck down the strongholds of error—venerable and old.

  “All the attacks made on religion itself by men of science, from Celsus to Feuerbach, have not done so much to bring religion into contempt as a single persecution for witchcraft, or a Bartholomew massacre made in the name of God.”

  Parker had human sympathies strong and deep, and could never have been indifferent to the pains and misery of his fellow creatures; yet these sympathies owed their persistency, their endurance, and their indomitable sweetness, to the spiritual faith which he professed. He had a passionate head-strong nature; he knew the charm of pleasant looks, congenial companions, elegant and luxurious circumstances. His love of leisure was keen; it was the desire of his life to enjoy the scholar’s privilege of uninterrupted hours, in the delicious seclusion of the library. With a different philosophy he would have been a very different man. The creed he held made self-indulgence impossible.

  “I have always taught,” he said—in a sermon before quoted, the last he preached in the Melodeon—“that the religious faculty is the natural ruler in all the commonwealth of man; the importance of religion, and its commanding power in every relation of life. This is what I have continually preached, and some of you will remember that the first sermon I addressed to you was on this theme:—The absolute necessity of religion for safely conducting the life of the individual, and the life of the State. You knew very well I did not begin too soon; yet I did not then foresee that it would soon be denied in America, in Boston, that there was any law higher than an Act of Congress.” The allusion is to the Fugitive Slave Bill then recently enacted, which brought to a close issue the controversy between the Abolitionists and the Government, and imposed on Mr. Parker and the rest who felt as he did, duties of watchfulness and self-denial, that for years put to flight all thoughts of personal ease.

  He continues:

  “Woman I have always regarded as the equal of man—more nicely speaking, the equivalent of man; superior in some things, inferior in some others; inferior in the lower qualities, in bulk of body and bulk of brain; superior in the higher and nicer qualities—in the moral power of conscience, the loving power of affection, the religious power of the soul; equal on the whole, and of course entitled to just the same rights as man; the same rights of mind, body and estate; the same domestic, social, ecclesiastical, and political rights as man, and only kept from the enjoyment of these by might, not right; yet herself destined one day to acquire them all.”

  The belief in the spiritual eminence of woman was part of the creed of the Transcendentalist; it was intimately connected with his reverence for interior, poetic, emotional natures; with his preference for feeling above thought, of spontaneity above will. In the order of rank, Parker assigned the first place to the “religious faculty,” as he termed it, which gave immediate vision of spiritual truth; the second place was given to the affections; conscience he ranked below these; and lowest of all stood the intellect. The rational powers were held subordinate to the instinctive, or rather the rational and the instinctive were held to be coincident. The feminine characteristic being affection, which is spontaneous and the masculine being intellect, which is not, the feminine was set above the masculine—love above light, pity above justice, sympathy above rectitude, compassion above equity. Parker had feminine attributes, and was slightly enamored of them; thought, or tried to, think them the glory of his manhood; but the masculine greatly predominated in him. To people in general; he seemed to reverse his own order, in practice. Weak, dependent, dreamy men he had no patience with; sentimentalism was his aversion; the moral element alone commanded his absolute respect. Masculine women were equally distasteful; while he admired the genius of Margaret Fuller, his personal attraction toward her seldom brought him into her society. That a man constituted as he was, self-reliant to aggressiveness, inclined to be arbitrary, dogmatical, and imperious, of prodigious force of will and masterly power of conscience, entered as he did into advocacy of the rights of the African and the prerogatives of woman, is evidence of the whole-heartedness with which he adopted the-transcendental philosophy. It was, indeed, a faith to him, that ruled his life and appointed his career. It gave him his commission as prophet, reformer, philanthropist. It was the consecrating oil that sanctified him, from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet.

  Parker believed in the gospel of Transcendentalism, and was fully persuaded that it was to be the gospel of the future. “The religion I preach,” he was accustomed to say, “will be the religion of enlightened men for the next thousand years.” He anticipated an earthly immortality for his thought, an extensive circulation of his books, a swift course for his word, among the people. The expectation seemed not unreasonable twenty years ago.

  The prediction has not thus far been justified. Parker died in 1860, on the eve of the civil war, which he prognosticated, sixteen years ago. The war fairly ended, efforts were made to revive the prophet’s memory and carry out the cherished purpose of his heart. But their ill success has gone far to prove—what needed no evidence—that prophecies may fail, and tongues cease and knowledge pass away. The philosophy that Parker combated and ridiculed and cast scorn at, declared to be self-refuted and self-condemned, has revived under a new name, as the “philosophy of experience,” is professed by the ablest thinkers of the day, taught in high places, in the name of science, set forth as the hope of man; the creeds he pronounced irrational, and fancied to be obsolete still hold nominal sway over the minds of men; the Christianity of the letter and the form is the only Christianity that is officially acknowledged; the gospel is an institution still, not a faith; revivalism has the monopoly of religious enthusiasm; preaching is giving place to lecturing; the pulpit has been taken down; science alone is permitted to speak with authority;—literature, journalism, politics, trade, attract the young men that once sought the ministry; the noble preachers of a noble gospel are the few remaining idealists, who have kept the faith of their youth; they are growing old; one by one they leave their place, and there are none like them to fill it. Parker was one of the last of the grand preachers who spoke with power, bearing commission from the soul. The commissions which the soul issues are, for the time being, discredited, and discredited they will be, so long as the ideal philosophy is an outcast among men. Should that philosophy revive, the days of great preaching will return with it. Bibles will be read and hymns sung, and sermons delivered to crowds from pulpits. The lyceum and the newspaper will occupy a subordinate position as means of social and moral influence, and the prophets will recover their waning reputation. Until then, the work they did when living must attest their greatness with such as can estimate it at its worth.

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