Sunday, November 28, 2010

All the Other Ministers

I read several pieces about Theodore Parker recently. (This year is the 200th anniversary of his birth.) One item noted about his life is that he was shunned by nearly all the other Unitarian ministers in Boston. The stories about Parker mostly note this in passing as a sign of the strength of his independence of thought and action.

But what about all those other Unitarian ministers?  We are told that almost no minister in Boston would share a pulpit with him, and no Unitarian publishing house would publish his sermons. And it wasn't as if the population of Boston was out in the streets protesting Parker's heretical views. On the contrary, he had to get a larger hall to accommodate the thousands that showed up to hear him preach each Sunday.

The 1840s weren't the Middle Ages. Parker may have been one of the first but cannot have been the only clergyman to have read any of the Biblical "higher criticism" coming out of Germany. And these ministers were already on the Christian fringe - they were Unitarians - non-believers in the Trinity, catalyzed two decades earlier by William Ellery Channing's heretical non-Trinitarianism. And they had Emerson's Transcendentalists in their midst. So it wasn't as if none of them had encountered or held any unorthodox thoughts about Christianity.

No, it makes me wonder if the other ministers were simply acting in solidarity. Even those that might have had some intellectual agreement with Parker found it more important (or less scary) to maintain solidarity and status with their peers.

Parker's particular heresy might seem quaint or irrelevant in the Unitarian world of here and now, but the tale of all the other ministers remains cautionary. We like to claim descent from Channing, Emerson, Parker, and others dissenters. But on what issues or modern orthodoxies do ministers (or the rest of us) maintain solidarity even when not really in agreement, just because breaking ranks would be scary?

Selected Readings
Parker's Transient and Permanent sermon:


  1. Hi Tom, great post.

    I can think of multiple issues that are orthodox to the UUA and many of its members that would cause such a shunning. Be it denial of anthropogenic global warming alarmism, the need for a safe and secure national border, the benefits of capitalism and free market solutions etc. I would love to see such a minister(s) emerge!


  2. What would get a minister excommunicated from the UUA?
    Being pro-life and loud about it.
    Being against gay marriage.
    Being against the inclusion of pagans, atheists and humanists within the UUA.
    Being supportive of George W. Bush after 9/11.
    Being against national health care.
    Being against illegal immigration and sanctuary cities.


  3. J @1, @2 - Wow. Well, most of those weren't exactly the kinds of things I had in mind... I will address a few.

    One where I might find some common ground with you would be views on markets and capitalism. Some/many UUs talk as if all of capitalism is evil. But even there you and I probably diverge. As an economist, I view a market economy as a useful, efficient mechanism for creation of goods and services, but (along with Adam Smith) I think it needs oversight - sometimes a lot. There are entire economics courses on (inherent) market failure and appropriate government solutions for them.

    A second (with reservations) would be George Bush. Unlike some UUs, I don't think he was the devil incarnate. Contra some of your other comments, pre-9/11 it looked like he was actually on the road to comprehensive immigration reform. This is not just a politically liberal UU position; even as deeply theist an organization as the Catholics thinks that our current immigration system is immoral.

    Regarding pro-life: I can see someone having reservations about abortion; but I think we should be able to agree with Clinton that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare." As UUs I think we treat ethical decisions as the responsibility of each person, and I don't think any woman takes the decision lightly.

    Finally, the existence and anthropogenic source of global warming are based on solid science. There are some questions about the magnitude, but these range from bad to horrible. It is a valid question as to whether this is the highest priority for a church - there are lots of other organizations focused on this issue. The moral question for a church would be a general examination of our consumption-focused culture - whether we are right-living.