The Unitarian Minister in the Oval Office

The Unitarian Minister in the Oval Office

When President Obama addressed the nation a couple of weeks ago, the people got their first view of the newly redecorated Oval Office. Subsequent news reports have detailed the fine points of the new decorations. Around the edge of a newly woven wool rug appear five famous quotations – allegedly from the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Presidents Kennedy, Lincoln, and Roosevelt (both of them).

They are wonderful quotes, especially the ones attributed to Dr. King (“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”) and President Lincoln (“Government of the people, by the people, and for the people”).

But those two quotations are actually misattributed on the White House rug. Instead of being the words of Dr. King and President Lincoln, they are actually the words of the Reverend Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister, abolitionist and social reformer.

Parker’s exact quotes are longer: “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 toward justice,” (from an 1853 sermon). Theodore Parker penned the words “a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people” for a speech he gave in 1850.

Relatively unknown today, Theodore Parker drew large crowds to his speeches and church services. His Boston congregation numbered upwards of 7,000 members, and he spoke around the country attracting large crowds wherever he went. His extensive published works were widely read both in America and abroad, where they were translated into numerous foreign languages. Although there is no record of Theodore Parker and Abraham Lincoln meeting face-to-face, President Lincoln was obviously familiar with Parker’s works.

Dr. King studied — and quoted — the abolitionists widely and, as such, he, too, would have read Theodore Parker’s works. He shortens Parker’s words, making them more memorable, but the genesis — and genius — of those words belong to Parker.

Is it too bad that Theodore Parker did not receive credit for his words when they were woven into the rug for the highest office of the land? Yes, of course. But Theodore Parker, one of the bright lights of our denominational history, is now getting some attention as a result of the mistake. Moreover, I am tickled that of the five quotations President Obama chose for the carpet, two of them came from a Unitarian minister, and one whose work I deeply admire.

Theodore Parker’s 200th birthday was on August 24, incidentally. He was born in Lexington, MA, the grandson of Captain John Parker, who led the forces on Lexington Green who touched off the Revolutionary War in April 1775. He died at the age of 49, before the Civil War began. He never lived to see the slaves freed. I like to think he died knowing they would be freed someday, though, because he believed “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

(Note: The full Parker quotations were taken from this article:
Theodore Parker and ‘The Moral Universe,” September 2, 2010 on

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