I was listening to a National Public Radio’s broadcast about President Obama’s new oval office rug was interested to learn about Theodore Parker who was a minister of the Unitarian church (1810-1860). It turns out that Martin Luther King frequently used things Parker had said or written and that one of the quotes in the rug was attributed to King, but had originally been said by Parker. Jamie Stehm wrote an article in the Washington Post Oval Office rug gets history wrong about this. So who was this man Parker?

He was a Caucasian reformer and an abolitionist who spoke and wrote against the evil of slavery. Born a Lexington, Massachusetts Yankee, Parker spoke Latin, Greek, Hebrew and German. He also had knowledge Parker of many other languages. His grandfather commanded the Minuteman at the Battle of Lexington. He considered law as a career, but his strong faith led him to a religious career instead. Over time, he developed doubts about the Bible and orthodox theology. During his career he preached and wrote against slavery and advocated violating the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. He harbored run away slaves in a network of safe houses. People who joined his congregation included prominent people of the time like the poet Louisa May Alcott. He contracted tuberculosis and left for Florence, Italy hoping for a cure, but died there in 1860.

His writings and sermons were so powerful that Abraham Lincoln used a phrase from Parker he revised in the Gettysburg address "of all the people, by all the people and for all the people." Daniel Webster had said in 1830 that the government was made "for the people, made by the people and answerable to the people." The phrases and variations of it were used by others of that day, but came from Parker originally.

President Obama had included in the quotations on the rug a quote attributed to Martin Luther King "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." King was an admirer of Parker and had often quoted Parker when he would say: "How long? Not long. Not long because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That was an interpretation of what Theodore Parker had said long before in sermon he gave in 1853:

"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one. My eye reaches but a little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice."

Parker's sermons and writings were often quoted and used by others. I had never heard of Theodore Parker before, but having read some of the things he had to say I am very impressed with his wonderful ability with words. The great skill of oratory of that era is long gone and I doubt people would have the patience to listen anyway. So, here’s a tribute to Pastor Theodore Parker whose words are now woven into the rug in the Oval Office of the President of the United States even though they are attributed to someone else.

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