Theodore Parker: Preacher-Prophet
A 1910 address by rabbi Stephen Wise commemorating the centenary of the birth of abolitionist Theodore Parker. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Stephen Wise (1874-1949), born in Hungary, immigrated to the United States as a child. Wise was the founding rabbi of the Free Synagogue in New York City and became a major figure within Reform Judaism, the American Jewish community, and the Zionist movement. For further, see Melvin Urofsky, A Voice that Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1982).
Wise delivered this address before the Lexington Historical Society in the First Church, Lexington, Massachusetts, on September 26, 1910. The address was in commemoration of the centenary of the birth of abolitionist Theodore Parker (1810-1860).
Wise’s lecture indicates the depth of Parker’s reputation among progressive sectors of the US political scene in the early twentieth century. This appreciation of Parker’s contribution arrived during a period when mainstream opinion in the United States dismissed Parker and abolitionist culture as extremist. Wise, however, identified abolitionists such as Parker and Elihu Burritt as predecessors in US social justice movements. Parker was “perhaps the first great religious teacher in America, who attempted to link the church of God with a vast program of social reform.” (141) In Wise’s view, Parker was central in attacking the refusal of many American churches to address slavery and contribute to antislavery politics. He compares Parker, who he calls “a God-intoxicated man” (142) and a preacher-prophet, to William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown as “American immortals” (140). Adopting the viewpoint of a religious modernist, Wise argues that Parker’s legacy is to be found in reformulation of American religious life to support works of social redemption.
Text source: Wise, Free Synagogue Pulpit: Sermons and Addresses, vol. 2 (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1910) 139-147. See also Theodore Parker, The Slave Power.