The Excellence of Goodness. A Sermon . . .

THE EXCELLENCE OF GOODNESS; A Sermon Preached at the Church of the Disciples, in Boston, on Sunday, January 26, 1845. By THEODORE PARKER, Minister of the Second Church in Roxbury. Published by request. Boston, Benjamin. H. Greene, 1845.

  This discourse derives interest, not so much from intrinsic claims, as from the circumstances under which it was delivered, and the position occupied by the preacher in New England.

  We cannot wonder at the hopes entertained by the ancient Catholic church, of seeing its dominion renewed and strengthened on earth, when we see the almost universal dereliction among Protestants from the great principle of Protestantism;—respect for the right of private judgment and the decision of conscience in the individual. From Luther downward, each sect claiming to be Protestant, has claimed no less to utter its anathema against those who differed from it, with the authority of a Golden Bull, nor were Lutherans distinguished for tolerating any new evidences of the spirit of Luther. In our own country this has been manifested in the most marked manner. The Puritans came hither to vindicate for themselves the rights of conscience, but learnt from their experience of suffering no lesson that enabled them to respect those rights in others. and, as yet, in this country, after so many years of political tolerance, there exists very little notion, far less practice, of spiritual tolerance. Men cannot be content, even in cases where they see the practice bear excellent fruit, to leave the doctrine between the man and his God. Each little coterie has its private pope, distinguished, indeed, from the old by the impossibility of obtaining from him indulgences (at least for heresy;) and an infidelity in the power of Truth, and the wisdom of the Ruler of the Universe is betrayed, which darkens the intellect and checks the good impulses of natural sympathy.

  The Unitarians of New-England saw these errors, in looking over the history of opinion, and promised themselves and others that they would refrain from such. They arrogated to themselves the title of LIBERAL CHRISTIANS, and they did not fail to be steadily admonished, by the dread, the scorn, or unthinking blame, heaped by other sects upon them, of the desirableness of reviving in Christendom the spirit of him who feared not to call the Gentile to his flock, and had no difficulty in worshiping upon the mountains outside Jewry, “By their fruits,” said he, “Ye shall know them.”

  There have not been wanting some among them who were true to this desire, and could be called liberal Christians, not only in reference to those who did not go so far, but to those who went a little farther than themselves. The late Dr. Channing, the greatest man who has yet arisen among them, was truly a liberal Christian. He had confidence in the vital energy of Truth, and was not afraid to trust others with the same privileges he had vindicated for himself, even if they made use of them in a different manner. He had preached much of “the dignity of human nature,” and he showed by his tolerance of its varied manifestations and modes of growth, that he deeply believed what he preached.

  How often must we mourn his departure! for there seems to be no mind which, by its union of decision and mildness with an appreciation of its own principles, could so well fulfil the office of a Peace-maker. For that office consists not in hushing up truth, or stifling individual feeling, but in allowing distinctly the claims of all, and casting a light from above upon their nature and their significance. He is much wanted now to cast this light upon the course taken by the Unitarian clergy in the case of Mr. Parker.

  Mr. Parker was a highly esteemed member of the Christian Unitarian body till, some four years since, he uttered himself with freedom on a few points, in a way distasteful to the majority. Part of the offence consisted in views expressed by him as to the nature of inspiration, and the facts of Bible history, in which he really differs from the majority; part in attacks upon abuses which he saw, or thought he saw, in the church to which he belonged, such as may be inferred from the heads of “The Pharisees,” “Idolatry,” &c.

  Then arose a good deal of outcry which was well, for it called on Mr. Parker to explain himself, and give the multitude of hearers an opportunity to consider his arguments, and judge whether they coincided with his censures. He delivered many lectures to full and eager audiences, and, no doubt, where there existed in that community a tendency congenial with his, has been a principal agent in its development. At the same time, a very strong and wide dissent was manifested

  A tacit persecution followed on the part of the clergy, in which they were sustained by a part of the community. It was almost impossible for Mr. Parker to obtain an exchange with any pulpit. As to this, we think that a clergyman has a right to avoid uncongenial cooperation in this way, just as he has to decline uncongenial books, or uncongenial visitors, but we think also that it is unwise to exercise this right. 1st; because we all need uncongenial statements, and the view of the other side, to prevent the mind from becoming petrified and narrowed. Free air is needed, even if it doesn sometimes come harshly, sometimes sultry. 2d; it is the sure way to give the proscribed party influence. So it was in this case. The flock ran out of the fold to seek the wolf. Mr. Parker was invited to lecture every where, and the meeting-house was deserted for the lecture-room.

  There seemed reason too to think that the clergy were not only repelled by the opinions of Mr. Parker, but nettled by his assaults, and extremely afraid of the scandal; that they had not confidence enough in those principles which had been the animating soul of their body to be raised above dread of the comment passed by other sects upon this latitudinarian conduct among them. “It will do great hurt,” they cried, and, in so doing, echoed the tones of bigotry about themselves and deserted their banner.

  Still it was not so bad while each one, for himself merely, abstained from exchanging with Mr. Parker and cast private blame on the few who did, as they might have censured any other act in which they, as men, did not sympathize. Their censure was personal more than clerical. But there has lately been an attempt to put down bodily any willingness to make these exchanges, which deserves severe censure, and will receive it from the page of history.

  Two clergymen, the Rev. Mr. Sargeant and the Rev. Mr. Clarke, of the Church of the Disciples, have this winter chosen to exchange with the excommunicated preacher, not, as they explicitly declare, from sympathy with his doctrines, but with the wise and generous perception that, in so doing, they upheld the principles of liberal Christianity, allowing to each man the right of private interpretation as to the great truths he professes to acknowledge, and the right to be heard, if he can find persons disposed to listen. For these acts they have been visited, the one by the associate clergy, the other by certain self-elected deacons of his church, with a sort and degree of reproof entirely false to the basis Unitarian Christianity assumed in its early stages. Much has been spoken and published on this subject and much in a spirit of narrowness, and short-sighted self-conceit, mortifying to those who look upon Massachusetts as a candle set upon a hill. Remarks have been published such as could not have been expected at this stage of mental development in the civilized world. The effect, of course, of all the opposition has been to strengthen Mr. Parker. Hundreds go to hear him to one that went before.

  The Rev. Mr. Clarke, of the Church of the Disciples, has, in the public prints upon this occasion, in a truly manly and enlightened manner, exhibited the true grounds and modes of tolerance.

  The discourse before us is the one preached upon the occasion of his exchange with Mr. Parker.—There is nothing very marked in it; except a large and healthy manner of treatment; the writer did not take the occasion to bring forward his peculiar views.

  Mr. Parker is a man of vigorous abilities and extensive information. He writes in a forcible and full, but not diffuse, style. His great attraction for his hearers is his perfect frankness. He is willing to lay his mind completely open, without circumlocution or complaisance, and possesses the power of doing this adequately. What God sees, man may see and make what use of it he can.—He is no orator, but has a full and manly style of speaking commensurate with his matter. We do not find in Mr. Parker a depth of spiritual discernment, nor the poeticfaculty. He is, as a mind, more broad than high or deep. Persons of far inferior mental development can see clearly fallacies in his estimate of facts in religious history. He is too combative for our taste; he loves to assail the false, or what he esteems to be such, as well as to declare truths. But his large ken and mental integrity entitle him to be heard. We doubt not that any agitation caused by him in the atmosphere will show, in its results, the purifying power of electricity. And we regret that, in the nineteenth century, “liberal Christians” should not be liberal enough cheerfully to allow an honorable mind free course, and fearlessly leave the result to God and His unfailing Agent, Time.*

“The Excellence of Goodness. A Sermon . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 26 February 1845, p. 1.