Classroom Activities

  1. Born and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, Theodore Parker was a grandson of revolutionaries, as well as a rebellious preacher. Do you think that the revolutionary legacy of the United States has influenced American religion? Are we more likely than Europeans, for example, to value rebellion and innovation in religious belief? What role has religion played in your life? And has it been different than that of your parents’ or grandparents’ generations?
  2. What are the elements of Parker’s rhetorical situation? What circumstances prompted the speech? To whom was it delivered? In what ways was it constrained? And do you think he delivered a fitting response?
  3. How would you assess the argumentative quality of Parker’s argument? Do you concur with his division of truths between transient and permanent? Or do you think he gets it wrong? In either case, why?
  4. What do you make of Parker’s comparison between religion and natural philosophy? Is it correct to say that human ideas about God are analogous to human ideas about nature? Using our own languages, symbols, and ideas, is it possible for us to reach objective, correct assessments of either?
  5. What does Parker’s argument have to say about the limits of language? Is it ever possible for humans to know truths about the world, or are we always creating truths that serve our purposes?
  6. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that God speaks to humans intuitively, such that we may hear the voice of God speaking to us in our own minds. Do you think Parker’s case fits within that characterization? Whether or not he can credibly call himself a Christian or a Unitarian, can he call himself a Transcendentalist?
  7. Why do you think idiosyncratic thinkers like the Transcendentalists became so active in American reform movements? What is it about this mindset that differentiates it from more orthodox forms of religiosity? And does this carry over into our own day and age? How does the form of one’s religious belief shape the sort of political or social action they embrace—or don’t?

Student Research

  1. Use Communication Source to search for relevant terms like “Theodore Parker” or “Transient and Permanent” and see what kinds of responses you get. Have communication scholars written much on these topics? If so, can you see how each successive essay builds on or responds to the work that came before? If not, try broadening your terms or parameters. In either case, do you see how a young scholar might work to close the existing gaps in the literature?
  2. Using the link to the Theodore Parker Papers under “Online Resources,” peruse some of Parker’s original sermon books. What might these teach us about working with primary sources? What sorts of opportunities and challenges do they disclose?
  3. Parker’s sermon marked a sequel, of sorts, to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Divinity School Address. Using your library or databases, find the text of Emerson’s address and read it in conversation with Parker. What are the ideas, assumptions, and themes that these hold in common? In what ways might Parker have built upon or expanded Emerson’s vision? With which points might their opponents have disagreed most sharply?
  4. Look, too, at the VOD unit on William Ellery Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity,” another precursor to Parker. What do Channing, Emerson, and Parker have in common? Why does Conrad Wright place them together as a sort of holy trinity of American Unitarianism? What arguments do they make, and how did they combine to expand the boundaries of acceptable thought and belief in American Christianity?
  5. Expand your lens to other Transcendentalists as well—folks like Orestes Brownson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. How were the ideas and controversies that occupied Parker handled by his contemporaries? How did he fit within—or how did he differ from—this interesting group of people? With which reforms did each become most occupied? What role did Parker play in the reform movements prior to the Civil War?
  6. Search for articles on American “Free Thought” or “Freethinkers.” Given Unitarian and Transcendentalist commitments to free inquiry, did these movements open any doors for, or establish any connections to, the agnostics and atheists of the latter nineteenth century? If not or if so, does that serve to confirm or disconfirm the accusations made against Channing, Emerson, and Parker?
  7. What is the difference between Unitarianism and Congregationalism? In what ways does Transcendentalism deviate from these earlier forms? How do each of these differ from other types of American Protestantism? And why does America have so many distinct forms of Protestantism? What is it that inspires us to splinter into so many separate groups, each committed to shared main points but divided over particulars?
  8. Take a look at the VOD unit on Harry Emerson Fosdick. In what ways were Parker’s concerns still applicable eight decades later? Had anything been resolved? Were the core contentions around orthodoxy and free inquiry still in play? How might Parker and Fosdick be read in tandem to draw conclusions about the durability of these problems in American religiosity?
  9. Finally, search for scholarly articles or books on some of these core themes. What other major American religious figures engaged these issues between 1800 and the present? What has the trajectory looked like over these years? How might you plan a longitudinal study that identifies and examines the state of the discourse over time?

Citizenship Resources

  1. The controversy over Parker’s address demonstrates that religious belief can be either intensely unifying or fiercely divisive. In your view, what role should religion play in public life? Given its potential to make people more generous, compassionate, and humble, as well its potential to make them more exclusive, judgmental, and critical, how should religion be contained, managed, or directed in the public square? And does it even lend itself to those guardrails?
  2. To what extent, if any, should religious beliefs be acknowledged or considered in public policy and lawmaking? Does religion reveal eternal truths or values that must be honored in our laws, norms, and customs? Are all religious doctrines the product of human beings operating in particular places and times? In either case, does this matter to non-religious people?
  3. Thomas Jefferson once referred to a “wall of separation” between church and state, suggesting that these institutions operate in separate spheres. And yet, there are a lot of opportunities for overlap and collision. In the mid-nineteenth century, Unitarian and Transcendentalist figures became active in a host of reform movements, including temperance, woman’s rights, and anti-slavery. Parker became one of the most outspoken abolitionists in the country prior to the Civil War. What do you think about the relationship between religious belief and political participation? To what extent are they complementary, and to what extent not?
  4. Though America is committed to freedom and liberty above all other values, these often run afoul of definitional boundaries. For example, Parker believed that he could be a Christian without believing in the divinity of Christ or the infallibility of the Bible. For many of his critics, such beliefs were disqualifying. How do you weigh the freedom to think or believe whatever you find persuasive against the desire to be included in groups with which you identify? Can you be a Christian agnostic, for example? Or an American communist?
  5. Finally, given how contentious these matters of belief and identity always are, what role is left for persuasion? Where politics and religion are concerned, is it possible to change minds or influence thought? Or have we insulated ourselves against arguments, evidence, and appeals that challenge our core beliefs, values, and identities? For example, what role have religion and politics played in recent presidential elections?