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The Effect of Slavery on the American People


An 1858 antislavery July 4th sermon by Theodore Parker. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.

Theodore Parker (1810-1860) was as central and powerful an abolitionist voice as existed in the antebellum United States, co-equal in public reputation to figures such as Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips. He studied briefly at Harvard, but was largely self-educated due to inability to pay tuition.  He founded a school in Watertown, Massachusetts, in 1832.  Two years later Harvard's divinity school admitted him to studies, which he completed in 1836.  He was ordained a minister at a Unitarian church in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.  While he had early orthodox Calvinist leanings, Parker joined Transcendentalist circles during the late 1830s and formed a friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson.  His controversial theological position, including the denial of authority to Jesus, the Bible, or biblical miracles, led to his alienation within the Unitarian movement.  In 1845 his supporters organized the 28th Congregational Society of Boston, which moved it expanding membership into the Boston Music Hall to accomodate the crowds Parker drew.  This 'Parkerite' church drew many antislavery and reform figures. 

Parker opposed the Mexican War, supported women's suffrage, and promoted reform in education and prisons.  He was most closely identified with the antislavery cause and opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act.  Parker headed the Boston vigilance committee to aid fugitive slaves, personally cared for fugitives in his home, and was indicted in 1854 for inciting a mob to break into the Boston city jail to rescue imprisoned fugitive slave Anthony Burns.  In 1859 Parker became involved in aiding John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, and publicly defended the right of slaves to rebel.  For biographies, see Henry Steele Commager, Theodore Parker (Boston: Beacon Press, 1947); Robert C. Albrecht, Theodore Parker (New York: Twayne, 1971); Robert E. Collins, Theodore Parker: American Transcendentalist (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1973); David Chesborough, Theodore Parker: Orator of Superior Ideas (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999); and Dean Grodzins, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

Theodore Parker wrote voluminously and this July 4th sermon numbers among his numerous published sermons.  In it he  presents a characteristic argument that industrial democracy demands "toil and thought", and the use of slave labor prevents social progress.  He traces the effects of slavery on both slaves and free people of color, and provides evidence of its adverse  economic, cultural, religious and political effects.  Parker concludes that slavery will be swept away because it "stands in the way of that Automatic Instinct of Progress which is eternal in the human race and irresistible in human history." (p. 14)

- Joe Lockard

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