During his youth Joseph Parker was fascinated by the ideas and speeches of such radical reformers as Edward Miall (1809–1881) and Joseph Cowen (1800–1873). From the age of fourteen Parker had participated in local debates and boys’ meetings, but it was as a supporter of the temperance movement that he was given his first opportunity to exercise his gifts in public. In June 1848 he preached his first sermon on the village green and was enrolled as a lay preacher in the Methodist circuit. The family returned to the Congregational church and Parker felt that he was called into the Christian ministry. He wrote for guidance to Dr John Campbell (1794–1867) of Whitefield’s Tabernacle, Moorfields, and in his reply Campbell invited him to preach at his church for three Sundays. He left home for London on 8 April 1852. Such was the impression that he made that he was appointed assistant minister.
After Parker had spent nine months in London, where he attended lectures at University College, he accepted a call to the Congregational church at Banbury, where he was ordained minister on 8 November 1853. The congregation, initially of fifty members, soon became too large for the building and a new church had to be built. Parker also caused some consternation and some physical danger to himself by initiating open-air services on the cricket ground. He drew wider attention by challenging the formidable secularist George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906), and holding his own against him in public debate. It was at Banbury, too, that he began to publish books and articles, an activity that he was to continue vigorously throughout his career.
Among the numerous churches that now sought his services it was the prestigious Cavendish Street Congregational Church, Manchester, that persuaded Parker to become its minister. He accepted its call on 10 June 1858 and began his ministry at the end of the following month. Success attended him again and by 1863 there were over 1000 members in the church, including many wealthy leaders of commerce and industry. All 1700 seats in the church were occupied at the Sunday services.
On 1 October 1860 courses began at Cavendish College (later the Nottingham Congregational Institute), founded by Parker to provide basic training for men who had been deprived of educational opportunities. He shared the teaching with J. B. Paton and J. Radford Thomson of Heywood. After a clash over the expulsion of a student, Parker withdrew from teaching before the end of the first session and resigned from the board of management in 1862.
On 19 September 1869 Parker began his ministry at the oldest nonconformist church in London, the Poultry Chapel, Cheapside. It was not in a flourishing condition but was soon filled with eager congregations. On 23 September he began to hold a lunchtime service for city workers on Thursdays. Average attendance exceeded one thousand, and it attracted people of all denominations and made a significant contribution to ecumenical understanding, despite the fact that prominent Anglicans were officially inhibited from accepting his invitations to address the congregations. It continued for thirty-two years. From 1871 until 1874 he conducted an institute of homiletics to improve the standard of preaching. Parker’s success made a new building necessary. The Poultry Chapel was sold for £50,000 and the last service was held there on 16 June 1872. Services continued in temporary accommodation until the new church, erected at Holborn Viaduct and known, significantly, as the City Temple, was dedicated on 19 May 1876. Its marble pulpit was the gift of the corporation of the City of London. Here Parker ministered for the remainder of his life. The City Temple became the most powerful centre of nonconformist influence in the city and indeed far beyond, not least in the United States, a country which Parker visited five times. It was this transatlantic influence that prompted Dr T. L. Cuyler’s dictum that ‘the back galleries of the City Temple were in the Rocky Mountains’ (Adamson, 126).
In 1867 Parker was chair of the Lancashire Congregational Union and was twice elected chair of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, in 1884 and 1901. Between 5 and 8 February 1887 he was in Edinburgh where he lectured and preached at several venues, including the church of St Giles, and he was in Scotland again from 30 July to 16 August 1888 conducting a preaching mission. Then in May 1894 he addressed the general assembly of the Free Church of Scotland and spoke to the thousand ministers who were present on his objections to the higher criticism of the Bible. By these visits he became a familiar name to the Scots. In 1862 he was granted an honorary DD from the University of Chicago. On 4 October 1887, while on a visit to the United States, he delivered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the eulogy on his friend Henry Ward Beecher, who had died on 8 March 1887, and that event, he confessed, ‘was the most memorable public occasion in which I have taken part’ (Adamson, 192). His enthusiastic reception on his various visits to the United States sparked off rumours that he would be invited to succeed Beecher. But Parker had no thought of emigrating.
Parker’s consistent interest in contemporary politics led him to publish a manifesto as a parliamentary candidate for the City of London in the general election of March 1880. In it he supported disestablishment of the Church of England, abolition of the traffic in liquor, and an extension of peasant proprietorship of land. Although 1200 electors had promised their support, Samuel Morley MP (1809–1886) and others persuaded him to withdraw his name, which he did.
Parker was twice married. On 15 November 1851, at Hexham Congregational Church, he married Ann, the daughter of William Nesbitt, farmer, of Horsley. She died in 1863. A stained-glass window was erected in her memory at Horsley Congregational Church in 1899. On 22 December 1864 Parker married Emma Jane, daughter of Andrew Common JP, banker, of Sunderland. She died on 26 January 1899 and was buried at Hampstead cemetery. In her memory stained-glass windows were installed at City Temple and Union Congregational Church, Sunderland. At Sunderland, too, Parker founded in her memory the Parker Memorial Home for Girls. He never recovered from this bereavement and confessed that he did not find it unfitting to pray to her. There were no children. Parker died at his home at 14 Lyndhurst Gardens, Hampstead, on 28 November 1902 after a debilitating illness and was buried at Hampstead cemetery.
Parker was a prolific author and his published books amount to more than sixty titles. He also wrote a large number of articles and edited journals. His attempt to launch a daily newspaper, The Dial (1860–64), failed. His most ambitious publication was The People’s Bible (1885–95), which ran to twenty-five volumes and consists of the material used in his sermons over a period of years. Ecce Deus (1867) was a reply to J. R. Seeley’s Ecce homo (1865). His Six Chapters on Secularism (1854) represents his polemics against the kind of views espoused by Holyoake. His interest in improving the standard of preaching is demonstrated in Ad clerum: Advices to a Young Preacher (1870). Bible exposition was a passionate interest of his and permeates most of his writing. Tyne Chylde: my Life and Teaching (1883) and A Preacher’s Life (1899) are autobiographical. His ineffectual attempts at fiction are seen in Springdale Abbey (1868) and Weaver Stephen (1886). Most of what he published soon sank into oblivion. His verbose and over-heated prose proved not to be to the taste of a later generation, while his biblical studies, although often perceptive and moving, suffered from the lack of a firm basis in scholarly precision. Even so, his Pulpit Bible (1901) found a welcome in many churches.
Parker was a communicator of genius. The huge congregations that he attracted in England, Scotland, and the United States testified to a rare ability to make the Christian message relevant to his own generation. It put him in the front rank of English preachers. It is not easy for a later generation to account for his influence. In theology he was an evangelical, but not of a dogmatic kind. When C. H. Spurgeon initiated the ‘downgrade controversy’, Parker commented that Spurgeon’s hostility to theological change showed lack of trust in God’s providence, and to believe that the age was in decline was to be an atheist (The Freeman, Aug 1887). He combined his fairly conservative theological emphasis with a passionate Liberalism in politics. His leonine head and bold stance gave him an imperious presence in the pulpit. Most of his preaching was extemporary, and that enticed him to make unexpected outbursts that both astonished and attracted his congregations, as in his imprecation, ‘I say, God damn the Sultan’, delivered in his address on the tercentenary of the birth of Oliver Cromwell, 25 April 1899, or his assertion that ‘the Stock Exchange is the bottomless pit of London’, which came in his tirade against gambling in 1900. His sonorous voice, with its surprising modulations, as well as his dramatic delivery, his humour, his use of dialect, and his freshness, combined to make his oratory unique in the London of his day. Added to this were the puzzling contradictions in his personality. He could be brusque and gentle, sarcastic and mellifluous, full of self-esteem and yet dependent on the kindness and even flattery of those about him.
Parker’s career illustrates powerful tendencies in Victorian nonconformity. He began as a radical and republican, but as he came more into contact with rich and influential people he developed into a defender of the social and economic establishment as well as the monarchy. Although claiming to be a defender of Congregationalism in its stricter Independent form, in his speeches from the chair of the Congregational Union in 1901 he advocated a centralized form of Congregationalism. The plans he advocated aroused controversy, but he seems to have been intent on creating a united nonconformist church that would eventually embrace all denominations and be able to compete for social and religious pre-eminence with the Church of England. In his development he embodies the ambition to transform dissent into a powerful movement that would be socially respectable, morally influential, spiritually prophetic, and politically powerful. It was to be an unfulfilled hope.
W. Adamson, The life of the Rev. Joseph Parker, DD (1902) · J. Parker, A preacher’s life (1899) · G. H. Pike, Dr Parker and his friends (1904) · Congregational Year Book (1903), 208b–e · R. R. Turner, ‘Cavendish Theological College, 1860–63’, Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 21 (1971–2), 94–101 · J. H. Taylor, ‘Joseph Parker’s United Congregational church’, Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 19 (1960–64), 91–6 · A. Peel, The Congregational two hundred, 1530–1948 (1948), 208–9 · J. Parker, Tyne chylde: my life and teaching (1883) · Congregational Year Book (1885), 33–98 · Congregational Year Book (1902), 17–50 · BL cat.
- City Temple Sermons (1869-1870)
- The People’s Bible, in 25 vols (1885-1895).
- Springdale Abbey (1869)
- The Inner Life of Christ (1881)
- Apostolic Life (1884)
- Tyne Chylde: My Life and Teaching (1883; new ed., 1889)
- A Preacher’s Life (1899)
C. B. Birch, plaster bust, 1883, NPG · R. Gibb, portrait, 1894, RSA · J. Adams-Acton, bust · Ape [C. Pellegrini], chromolithograph caricature, NPG; repro. in VF (19 April 1884) · H. Furniss, caricatures, pen-and-ink sketches, NPG · E. Walker, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · photograph, repro. in Adamson, Life of the Rev. Joseph Parker · photograph, repro. in Parker, Tyne chylde · stipple and line print, NPG
Wealth at death
£289 3s. 5d.: probate, 17 Jan 1903, CGPLA Eng. & Wales
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