Theodore Parker (August 24, 1810 – May 10, 1860) was an American Transcendentalist and reforming minister of the Unitarian church. A reformer and abolitionist, his own words and quotes he popularized would later influence Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Theodore Parker was born in Lexington, Massachusetts, the youngest child in a large farming family. His grandfather was John Parker, the leader of the Lexington militia at the Battle of Lexington. Parker came from a colonial Yankee background and among his ancestors was Thomas Hastings (colonist) who came from the East Anglia region of England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634.
Most of his family had died by the time he was 27, probably due to tuberculosis. He was educated privately and through his personal study until he attended Harvard College and graduate in 1831. He then entered the Harvard Divinity School and graduated in 1836. Parker specialized in a study of German theology. He was drawn to the ideas of Coleridge, Carlyle and Emerson.
Parker spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and German. His journal and letters show that he was acquainted with many other languages, including Chaldee, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic and Ethiopic. He considered a career in law but his strong faith led him to theology. Parker held that the soul was immortal, and came to believe in a God who would not allow lasting harm to any of his flock. His belief in God's mercy made him reject Calvinist theology as cruel and unreasonable.
Parker studied for a time under Convers Francis, who also preached at Parker's ordination ceremony. In the 1830s, Parker began attending meetings of the Transcendental Club and became associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Amos Bronson Alcott, Orestes Brownson, and several others. Unlike Emerson and other Transcendentalists, however, Parker believed the movement was rooted in deeply religious ideas and did not believe it should retreat from religion.
While he started with a strong faith, with time Parker began to ask questions. He learned of the new field of historical higher criticism of the Bible, then growing in Germany, and he came to deny traditional views. Parker was attacked when he denied Biblical miracles and the authority of the Bible and Jesus. Some felt he was not a Christian, nearly all the pulpits in the Boston area were closed to him, and he lost friends.
In 1841, he presented a sermon titled A Discourse on the Permanent and Transient in Christianity, espousing his belief that the scriptures of historic Christianity did not reflect the truth. In 1842 his doubts led him to an open break with orthodox theology: he stressed the immediacy of God and saw the Church as a communion looking upon Christ as the supreme expression of God. Ultimately, he rejected all miracles, and saw the Bible as full of contradictions and mistakes. He retained his faith in God but suggested that people experience God intuitively and personally and it is in that individual experience that people should center their religious beliefs.
Parker accepted an invitation from supporters to preach in Boston in January 1845. He preached his first sermon there in February. His supporters organized the 28th Congregational Society of Boston in December and installed Parker as minister in January 1846. His congregation, which included Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, grew to 7000.
Parker's ill health forced his retirement in 1859. He developed tuberculosis and departed for Florence, Italy where he died on May 10, 1860, less than one year before the Union split. He sought refuge in Florence because of his friendship with the Brownings [Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning], Isa Blagden and F.P. Cobbe, but died scarcely a month following his arrival. Frances P. Cobbe collected and published his writings in 14 volumes; a headstone by Joel Tanner Hart was later replaced by one by William Wetmore Story. Other Unitarians buried in this cemetery include Thomas Southwood Smith and Richard Hildreth. Fanny Trollope, who is also buried here, wrote the first anti-slave novel and Hildreth wrote the second. Both were used by Harriet Beecher Stowe for Uncle Tom's Cabin. Frederick Douglass came straight from the railroad station to visit Parker's tomb.  After Parker's death, his ministry continued until 1889.
As Parker's early biographer John White Chadwick wrote, Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: "peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor" though none became "a dominant factor in his experience" with the exception of his antislavery views. Parker's abolitionism became his most controversial stance, at a time when the American union was beginning to split over slavery. He wrote the scathing To a Southern Slaveholder in 1848, as the abolition crisis was heating up.
Parker defied slavery and advocated violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, a controversial part of the Compromise of 1850 which required the return of escaped slaves to their owners. Parker worked with many fugitive slaves, some of whom were among Parker's congregation. As in the case of William and Ellen Craft, he hid them in his home and, although he was indicted, he was never convicted.
During the undeclared war in Kansas (see Bleeding Kansas and Origins of the American Civil War) prior to the actual outbreak of the American Civil War, Parker supplied money for weapons for free state militias. As a member of the Secret Six, he supported the abolitionist John Brown, whom many considered a terrorist, and wrote a public letter, "John Brown's Expedition Reviewed," defending John Brown's actions after his arrest, defending the right of slaves to kill their masters.
Boston's Unitarian leadership opposed Parker to the end, but younger ministers admired him for his attacks on traditional ideas, his fight for a free faith and pulpit, and his very public stances on social issues such as slavery. The Unitarian Universalists now refer to him as "a canonical figure—the model of a prophetic minister in the American Unitarian tradition."
In 1850, Parker quoted and made popular the words of John Wycliffe in his prologue to the first English translation of the Bible  to use the phrase, "of all the people, by all the people, for all the people" which later influenced Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
In words made famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. a century later, Parker predicted the success of the abolitionist cause: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one… And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."