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Subversive Nathan Parker Founded Unitarian Church in NH



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.


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Friday, February 23, 2018 
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