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Subversive Nathan Parker Founded Unitarian Church in NH

 

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.

Nathan_Parker_portrait 

 

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.

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

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