In 1837, Second Church Roxbury, having only recently re-written its original Puritan charter to reflect the more liberal Unitarian values of the congregation, called as its new pastor the Reverend Theodore Parker, newly minted graduate of the Harvard Divinity School. Parker was already well-regarded as a classical scholar, fluent in multiple languages, whose first works advocated skepticism toward literal interpretations of Christian scripture, a topic that would continue as a theme throughout his career.
From his pulpit in West Roxbury and in guest appearances at other congregations, Parker earned a reputation as a gifted orator with a profound grasp of spiritual issues. His 1841 sermon, “A Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” so shook the traditional Boston religious establishment that he eventually had to relinquish his formal position and continue writing and speaking in other venues–including the Boston Music Hall, where he preached to crowds of upwards of 2,000 people.
Parker’s opposition to slavery and oppression of all forms, his rejection of Scriptural literalism, and his embrace of equal rights for women deeply influenced the Unitarian Church over time, and a number of his writings became the source for subsequent well-known American political rhetoric. Lincoln’s “Of the people, by the people, for the people” description of democracy, Martin Luther King’s, “The moral arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward Justice” call for racial equality, and Betty Friedan’s quote that confining women only to domestic roles “is a monstrous waste of the most precious material God ever made”, all stem from Theodore Parker’s writings.
Not long before his passing in 1860, Parker’s old parish became First Church West Roxbury when the town seceded from Roxbury proper. In 1892, after fire destroyed the old meeting house, the congregation moved to its present site at Centre & Corey Streets. In 1902, the Boston Art Commission sponsored the bronze statue of Parker that now stands in front of the church. Finally, in 1962 the West Roxbury and Roslindale Unitarian congregations merged and took as their name, Theodore Parker Unitarian Church, in honor of its former pastor and great American theologian, Theodore Parker.