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Subversive Nathan Parker Founded Unitarian Church in NH
Nathan_Parker_House_SignHISTORY MATTERS

The Nathan Parker House at the dead end of Livermore Street in Portsmouth is on the market for $3,750,000. Nathan who? The name no longer rings a bell, but in the 1820s Parker was the talk of the town. (Continued below)


Rev. Israel Putnam of the North Congregational Church called him an "infidel" and a "subversive" intent on destroying Christianity. Parker’s "radical" beliefs split the city’s Congregationalists and led to the building of the granite Unitarian church on State Street in 1826.

The great schism

Portsmouth’s religious battles began long before Rev. Nathan Parker arrived here in 1808. The "great schism" began in 1713 when a progressive group of Congregationalists rebelled against their harsh Puritan roots. They abandoned the strict Calvinist doctrines of the South Parish (site of the South Ward Meetinghouse today) and pushed inland to establish the North Church at what is now Market Square. Under the Rev. Samuel Haven in the late 1700s, however, it was the old South Parish that adopted more liberal views while the north-enders grew more orthodox.

When the beloved Rev. Haven died in 1806, his parish almost fell apart. That same year a massive fire spread from the city center up Daniel Street. Flames destroyed Queen’s Chapel, now St. John’s Episcopal Church. While rebuilding their church in brick, its Anglican members worshipped with the Congregationalists in the South End of town. By 1808, after two years without a minister, South Church was, according to one historian, "a feeble and distressed society, struggling for very existence." It was largely due to the expansive Haven family (Rev. Haven’s wife had 17 children) that the church survived.




Rev. Parker arrives

In 1808 Parker appeared as a guest pastor at Portsmouth’s South Church. The young Harvard graduate, then tutoring at Bowdoin College in Maine, apparently gave a stirring sermon. He was quickly ordained as interim minister and stayed until his death 25 years later. The son of a farmer from Reading, Massachusetts, like Haven before him, Parker believed that Christians should be "useful" above all. It was more important, he said, to pattern one’s life after the actions and teachings of Jesus Christ, than to focus on church rituals and "iron-clad" doctrines. Although such talk was heretical to orthodox Congregationalists, Rev. Joseph Buckminster at North Church admired Parker and the two ministers were like father and son. (Buckminster’s large yellow house survives on Islington Street across from the Discover Portsmouth Center.)

Rev. Parker was less interested in what his parishioners said or believed, he told them, and more interested in what they did. "One cannot learn to lay a stone wall by piling up feathers," he was fond of saying. Although reserved, often sickly, and a less-than-stellar orator, Parker inspired and united his congregation. He started the first local Sunday School and insisted that church members reach out to Portsmouth’s less fortunate.

During the devastating downtown fire of 1813, according to one account, Rev. Parker walked through the smoldering streets with a friend to calm the terrified victims. When Parker’s friend offered asylum to a woman they knew, the minister objected. "No, no, she has friends," Parker said. "Let her go to them. Reserve your room for those who have none."  

Home and family

Rev_Nathan_Parker_IllustrationNathan Parker married Susan Pickering in 1815. It was the Pickering family of Puritan origin that owned much of the South End in the city’s founding years, and it was Capt. John Pickering who had bitterly opposed the "great schism" that established the North Church. It was Pickering land that formed much of Pleasant Street, once called Divinity Street, where the Parkers built their stately brick house on the edge of the South Mill pond. Livermore Street now faces Haven Park (the park with the statue of the man on a horse) where Rev. Samuel Haven’s house once stood.

Henry Ware, Parker’s biographer, makes only passing mention of the three-story Federal-style building on Livermore Street. Historians often describe the house as a wedding gift to the Parkers. Technically, the house belonged to 93 South Parish shareholders who loaned the funds for its construction. Although a plaque incorrectly dates the building to 1810, the Parker House does not appear on the town map of 1812. Following the fire of 1813, the "Brick Act" outlawed houses made of wood near the city center. The house was built for $5,800 on land sold by Alexander Ladd. It was likely completed in July 1815.

Although the Ladd and Haven families clearly intended the house to pass on to the next pastor of South Church, the Parkers ended up as owners. Prof. Richard M. Candee has documented the complex process by which Susan Pickering Parker and her only surviving son Francis gained a controlling interest in the property. Some shares were purchased, others donated. It has been privately owned ever since. Expanded and restored the house now includes 4,642 square feet of living space and a manicured half-acre garden. A portrait of Rev. Parker still hangs in the parlor of his home.



Banned and reborn

Just as Rev. Haven had been influenced by the Great Awakening of religious ideas in the 18th century, Parker too was drawn to the shifting views of his era. Parker grew frustrated with those who attended church services simply to hear a good sermon. He spoke openly against ministers whom he said "deprive the gospel of its nerve, and make preaching a holiday entertainment."

The second schism in the city’s Congregational church began when Rev. Buckminster died in 1812. Parker was invited to lead the memorial service for Buckminster and he presided over the installation of Rev. Israel Putnam at the wooden North Church building in 1815. Putnam stricter more orthodox approach, however, turned off many parishioners and between 60- and 80 families migrated to Nathan Parker’s church. They moved from North to South in search of a warmer climate, according to Portsmouth lore. Both ministers were under pressure to build newer more modern churches.

Then in 1819 Rev. Parker crossed the line. He attended the ordination of a liberal minister in Baltimore where he heard a revolutionary address by William Ellery Channing entitled "Unitarian Christianity." Channing’s speech defined the boundaries of the up-and-coming new sect of the Congregational Church. Unitarians, he said, questioned the Calvinist view of original sin and the Fall of Man. They abandoned the concept of the Trinity (Father, Son & Holy Ghost) in favor of a single God, and they questioned the duality of Jesus as both man and God.

Parker returned to Portsmouth and converted South Parish to the Unitarian faith. His congregation then built the Greek-revival church --made from Rockport granite -- that stands on State Street (formerly Broad Street).This placed South Church downtown just a block behind North Church – a geographical puzzle that has confused many Portsmouth residents. Rev. Putnam, with his membership waning, lashed out at Parker’s "subversive" teachings. The South Church minister was virtually excommunicated from the Congregational Church, spurned by his peers statewide, and forced to "voluntarily withdraw" from the Piscataqua Association of Ministers.



Sick, dying & unbowed

Even as Parker was ostracized and maligned by his orthodox colleagues, he was also extremely sick. As a child he had suffered from "inflammatory rheumatism". By 1821 he had developed severe nasal polyps that made it difficult to breathe or talk. These fleshy growths had to be surgically removed. The "bloody torture" required repeated and exhausting trips to Boston, so Parker purchased the surgical instruments and learned to operate on himself in the privacy of his own home. Through the worst, according to reports, Parker remained calm and resolute. He refused to strike back against his detractors. Parker continued to minister to churchgoers when his health allowed, and worked among the sick and needy of Portsmouth. During his 25 years at South Church, membership grew from 70 to 226 families.

In 1831 Parker made a painful journey to New York where he took "the water cure" at Saratoga Springs, but to no avail. During the summer of 1832 he "took the air" at the Isles of Shoals. His illness spread to his lungs and, although able to gasp only a few words between spasms of coughing, he tried to be "useful" and to keep working. Perpetually cheerful in public, Parker admitted to friends that he was a "broken and decaying man." His "shy and scholarly" 22-year old assistant, Andrew Peabody (Harvard’s youngest graduate at age 15), took over when Nathan Parker died the following year. He was just 51. Parker "did not leave the world as he found it," his biographer wrote.

Unable to reconcile himself with Parker’s liberal views and unable to raise funds for a new North Church in Market Square, Rev. Israel Putnam resigned. The current brick church with its iconic wooden steeple was finally completed in 1855. When the Universalist Church on Pleasant Street burned in 1947, its members joined with the South Parish to form the modern Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in Parker’s historic church.  

Unitarian minister Alfred Gooding notes in his brief history of South Parish (published 1901) that South Church refined and shortened its doctrine three times in little more than a century. Eventually, he wrote, the church "outgrew" its need for a defining creed in its search for spiritual truth. In the tradition begun by Haven and Parker, South Church simply offers the welcoming phrase "Love God, love man" to all who wish to join.


Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is the owner and editor of the history Web site For more information on the sale of the Nathan Parker House visit the Olde Port Properties Web site at or call 603-766-0424.

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