A Brief Life of Joseph Parker

This seven-page biography will appear in print in Pioneer Library's new edition of Joseph Parker's monumental People's Bible (29 volumes), a series of over a thousand expository sermons, stretching from Genesis to Revelation. The sermons were first preached at London's City Temple.

An Atmosphere of Prayer

Joseph Parker was the only son of his parents, born in Hexham in the north of England. His father was a stonemason and a deacon of the Independent (Congregational) Church. He describes his father as having “the strength of two men and the will of ten; fierce and gentle, with passionateness burning to madness, yet with deepest love of prayer; no namby-pamby speaker.”1

“Deacon Parker was a staunch Calvinist,” like other leading men of their church.2 When Rev. James Frame, an Arminian, took up the pastorate, many disputes took place in the Parkers’ kitchen. The ironic end of the matter was that the Parker family left the Independent Church for a time to join the Methodists, though they retained personal connections to both bodies.

Parker remembers his first schoolmaster as a thorough masochist.3 Yet young Joseph Parker was “eager to understand whatever came before him to the minutest detail.”4 Adamson describes him as a “a young, ardent thinker, who spent much of his time in dreaming dreams and building aerial castles.”5

Called to Preach

At 14, Joseph was apprenticed to succeed his father as a stonemason. His parents believed his temperament was better suited for labor than for business. But Parker thrived in study, and within a year, he was sent back to school by his parents. While still a teenager, he began tutoring other students in Greek, Latin, algebra, and other topics. On Saturdays, he studied the Greek New Testament with a minister.6

Parker had an early start at both public speaking and Bible teaching. He taught Sunday school at the Congregationalist church. Afterward, he was influenced by the Chartists, and the temperance movement. He got his start making temperance speeches, and was soon in demand as a speaker. Parker describes his sudden call to preach in Hexham:

When I went to the village green I had no intention whatever of preaching my first sermon. The idea of doing so suddenly and overpoweringly seized me. Standing bolt upright on the cross- beams of the saw-pit, I read as my text these words: “It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.7

Holden Pike comments that Parker’s best preparation was “the atmosphere of prayer” which his parents nurtured. “He had received no college training, but the home discipline he had passed through, was on the whole probably more effective than any other by which he could have benefited.”8

He became a recognized lay preacher, in the tradition of the Methodist “local preachers”. He began to preach in the villages surrounding Hexham. While preaching in Horsley, he met his future wife, Annie Nesbitt, whose father was a deacon of the Congregational Church there.9 “Annie was gentle, domesticated, cultured, with a poetic turn of mind, and, like Mary of Bethany, religiously meditative. He, on the other hand, was strong, constituted for public life, full of fire, and prepared to take the Kingdom of Heaven with violence.”10 They were married in November 1851, when Parker was 21. At the time, he had no definite position, but that was soon to change.

Not long after his wedding, Joseph Parker wrote to Rev. Dr. John Campbell of Whitfield Tabernacle, Moorfields (London), requesting some guidance or training. Campbell generously invited Parker to take his pulpit for three Sundays, with a small allowance. According to Adamson, Campbell was the most prominent minister of the Congregational body at the time, and wielded a powerful influence as an editor. Parker left for London on April 8, 1852.11

Parker met Dr. Campbell on the day before Easter. Dr. Campbell lost no time, arranging for his apprentice to preach, starting with both Easter Sunday services. In the morning, Parker preached on Hebrews 12:18, and Dr. Campbell was heard exclaiming, “What a prodigy!” Parker stayed on as junior minister for nine months. Campbell gave him detailed training in sermon preparation, evaluating every aspect of his exegesis and delivery.12

Banbury (Congregational Chapel)

In 1853, after his training period, Joseph Parker accepted a rural pastorate in Banbury, Oxfordshire. He usually preached five or more times a week in addition to lectures.13 Some thought that the church was too far out of the way for such an up-and-coming preacher, but Parker was content. He writes glowingly of lovely surroundings, faithful friends, and Christian unity. During his five years there, Parker turned down seven invitations to leave Banbury.14 He later wrote, “It is prudent for young men to go to the Arabia of a limited sphere for the first four or five years of their work.”15

At Banbury, Parker held a public debate with George Holyoake, an avowed defender of secularism. Though they were opponents, Holyoake dedicated a book on public speaking to Joseph Parker, “because he had become a master of the art.” He added, “He alone seemed to possess the true sentiment of the dignity and integrity of the preacher’s calling.”16

During those Oxfordshire summers, Parker habitually preached in the open air in a large field near Banbury. When he spoke against the practice of Sunday outings, he aroused the rejection of the crowd. “The hatred was deep and intense. Sooty portraits of myself were strongly drawn on large calico sheets and waved in my face as I preached to the excited crowd. Then great shouts arose.”17 The mob threatened violence against the preacher, later visiting his house and shaking his likeness in the window. In his autobiography, Parker writes with sympathy of them as misunderstood men; moreover, he adds, “some who had assailed me were induced to hear me preach in quieter circumstances.”18

In 1857, he led the expansion of the Banbury Congregational Chapel.19 The “little old-fashioned chapel, hidden up an obscure lane” became too small, and was replaced with a larger church in the center of town with a vestry and schoolroom.20 R. W. Dale commemorated the occasion with a sermon and laid the foundation stone.21

Manchester (Cavendish Street Chapel)

Around this time, Parker was invited to preach two Sundays at Cavendish Street Chapel in Manchester. He remembers, “I never was more coldly received in my life. . . . Every man seemed to be looking at me over the top of a money-bag.”22 His host informed him, though, that his preaching had had a great effect on the congregation, and he was invited to preach a third Sunday. Afterward, they invited Parker to become their minister. He declined because of the debt he had incurred for the new chapel in Banbury, not wanting to leave this to a successor; but Cavendish Street Chapel paid the debt, and in June 1858, Parker became their pastor.23

Cavendish Street Chapel had seating for 1,666 people, and housed a number of institutions. Parker mused, “One deacon was a member of parliament, another was a knight, another was the senior surgeon of the city . . . And I was only twenty-eight!”24 His salary increased from £150 annually at Banbury to £425. He used the increase in salary to pay off his father’s debts.25

The church attendance grew from 350 to full capacity under Parker’s leadership. And Parker began to receive much more recognition. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1862. In 1863, he became a lifelong friend of Henry Ward Beecher, who was visiting Manchester. More than twenty years later, in 1886, Beecher and his wife came to London and spent six weeks with the Parkers. Pike compares their friendship to David and Jonathan, saying that Parker was “the Beecher of London” and Beecher was “the Parker of New York”.26 When Beecher died in 1887, Parker delivered a eulogy in Brooklyn.

Parker also befriended Charles Spurgeon. In 1865, Parker went to London to give two lectures at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. At the second lecture, the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which held 6,000 seats, was filled to capacity.27 Parker and Spurgeon were similar in many respects. Both were homegrown country preachers who began their ministries young; both had Puritan roots. In spite of occasional friction, the two men “drew closer together as time went on. They learned (surely in the school of Christ) to praise each other’s genius and to rejoice in each other’s success.”28

In October 1867, Parker was offered the pastorate of London’s Poultry Chapel. After consulting his church, Parker declined the invitation. But in June 1869, after a more persistent offer from Poultry Chapel, including a charge signed by all the deacons, Parker accepted the charge and relocated to London a second time at the age of 39; this time, not for training and discipleship, but to train and disciple others.

London (City Temple)

Poultry Chapel was founded in the time of Thomas Goodwin, if not earlier. Goodwin was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and Alexander Whyte stated that Joseph Parker was “a true and worthy successor to this great Apostolic Puritan.”29

The church had been in decline. The church’s building project was a condition of Parker’s acceptance, and it took nearly five years to transition from Poultry Chapel to City Temple.30 Joseph Parker’s church that he built cost £70,200 (roughly $10.8 million in 2021). Most was raised from selling the Poultry Chapel, and £20,000 in donations.31
On May 19, 1873, the foundation stone was laid by Thomas Binney. Binney was sometimes called “the Archbishop of Nonconformity”, and he had taught Alexander Maclaren to preach.32 Exactly a year later, 2,500 people attended the opening service. The Lord Mayor of London attended in State.

No Nonconformist chapel hitherto put up in London had cost half as much as the City Temple . . . Then it had been customary with Nonconformity to build its meeting houses aside from the public gaze of main streets; but in this instance a commanding site was occupied in the great metropolitan thoroughfare.33

It was the most costly Nonconformist church in England, but the pastor’s dream had loomed even larger.34 Parker followed the same pattern he had begun in Banbury: he wanted to bring public status and recognition to Dissenting churches.
The City Temple’s pastor had innovative ideas in bringing people in. He invited Thomas Huxley—the biologist who coined the term “agnosticism”—to lecture on “What Science Cannot Do”. Huxley would allow no introduction or discussion, and so the venture never materialized.35

When Parker came to Poultry Chapel in 1869, he started weekday services for businessmen. His best friend told him that the experiment would not last six months. “It was regarded as utterly reckless,” he recalls.36

[Men] came trooping in. In many of the business houses the clerks used to draw lots as to who should go. . . . When people first saw the throngs of businessmen, there was quite a sensation. They asked if it was a betting place. That seemed to be the most likely solution of the mystery.37

Ministers of all denominations attended Parker’s weekday sermons, as well as non-Christians. Young Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi visited several London churches, favoring City Temple above the others. “It was [Parker’s] appeal to the thoughts of young men that laid hold of me, and I went again and again.”38 In his autobiography, Gandhi called Parker’s People’s Bible “morally stimulating,” though he was not persuaded to be a Christian.

Parker had considerable sway in governing his London congregation. He pursued preaching and teaching with singlemindedness, freed from the pull of “various societies” and “committee meetings” in Manchester.39 He regularly preached to 3,000 at both Sunday services, and 1,000 on Thursdays.

In 1901, when Parker was made chairman of the Congregational Union of England and Wales, the union supported 400,000 church members. In a joint assembly, Dr. Parker stood alongside Dr. Alexander Maclaren, chairman of the Baptist Union, and called for greater institutional unity among Dissenting churches. His goal was to bolster rural churches and streamline Protestant ministerial education, but his proposal was rejected.

His Manner and Method

Joseph Parker’s method in preaching was neither a cold verse-by-verse analysis, nor a three-point topical sermon. Instead, he would meditate all the week on a Bible book as a whole, trying to crystallize the most important themes and messages in Scripture as a whole. He probably had ample solitude to reflect on his message as he tramped the three miles to City Temple every Sunday. The resulting expository sermons are dynamic, meditative, rich in both language and conviction. Adamson wrote:

He is an extempore preacher, but not an extempore thinker, the subject being considered for days. His topics are ruminated over, looked at on every side, and through and through until they become part of his spiritual self.40

Supposedly, when a lady asked him about his favorite hobby, his instant reply was “Preaching.”41

Parker never wrote his sermons. They were recorded in shorthand and printed almost verbatim. Spurgeon spent much of his Mondays correcting his Sunday sermons for publication, whereas Dr. Parker’s were printed “practically as his hearers received them.”42 In most cases, he never handled any manuscripts of them until they were printed as volumes.

As for notes and outlines, he often wrote two or three headings on blank pages as guideposts, but he rarely looked at them.43 His advice to young preachers was, “Be earnest; be natural; be as unlike a book as possible.”44

The People’s Bible

Parker speaks with great trepidation of his first encounters with editors and publishing houses. One of his many memorable sayings was, “Speak with caution—fast and pray before you write.”45

When he arrived in London, he had published eight books on various topics. In London, his expository sermons began to be printed: six volumes in The City Temple Pulpit, twenty-five volumes in The People’s Bible, and six more in Studies in Texts. His works, then, number at least 45 volumes, most of which are over 400 pages, in addition to numerous articles.

The People’s Bible is his magnum opus, comprising over a thousand addresses. It is not strictly a Bible commentary, though commentary was added for print publication. Rather, they were expository sermons preached over a seven-year period. His mission was to magnify the Bible for his listeners.

Let the Bible itself, in its own language, in its own way, in its own spirit, be heard, circulated, understood; and even yet we may rescue it from the hands of the conjuror, tear it away from the hands of the priest, and make it God’s own word to God’s own children.46


Notes

1 William Adamson, _The Life of Joseph Parker, Pastor of City Temple, London_. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1902, p. 2.
2 The Life of Joseph Parker, p 13–14.
3 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 7–8
4 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 6.
5 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 17.
6 Joseph Parker, A Preacher’s Life: An Autobiography and an Album. Boston: T. Y. Crowell & Co., 1899, p. 34–37.
7 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 23.
8 G. H. Pike, Dr. Parker and His Friends. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1904, p. 31–32.
9 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 26
10 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 27.
11 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 33–34.
12 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 36–38.
13 Joseph Parker, A Preacher’s Life, p. 140.
14 A Preacher’s Life, p. 134.
15 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 42. See Galatians 1:15–17.
16 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 253–254.
17 A Preacher’s Life, p. 135.
18 A Preacher’s Life, p. 136.
19 A Preacher’s Life, p. 144.
20 A Preacher’s Life, p. 137. The chapel is now a listed building.
21 A Preacher’s Life, p. 405–407.
22 A Preacher’s Life, p. 142–143.
23 A Preacher’s Life, p. 144–145.
24 A Preacher’s Life, p. 146–147.
25 A Preacher’s Life, p. 147–149.
26 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 192–197
27 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 274.
28 A. Cunningham Burley, Spurgeon and His Friendships. London: Epworth, 1933, p. 49—50.
29 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 132
30 A Preacher’s Life, p. 150, 156.
31 Charles T. Bateman, R.J. Campbell, M.A., Pastor of the City Temple, London. London: S. W. Partridge & Co., 1903, p. 71. Inflation was calculated using the Bank of England website’s inflation calculator.
32 James Branwhite French, Walks in Abney Park. London: James Clarke & Co., 1883, p. 59. In a sketch, Binney was called “the head of the Dissenters,” with reference to the imposing size of his head. Pike, p. 340.
33 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 111–112. Sadly, the City Temple was destroyed in the Blitz of London during World War II. Later, it was rebuilt on the same site.
34 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 105
35 A Preacher’s Life, p. 411–412.
36 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 86. See also Parker’s recollection “A Generation in the City Pulpit.” The Times, September 22, 1902.
37 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 86–87.
38 Joseph J. Doke, M. K. Gandhi. Madras: G. A. Natesan & Co., 1909, p. 33.
39 A Preacher’s Life, p. 153.
40 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 171.
41 John Edwards, Nineteenth Century Preachers and Their Methods. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1902, p. 101.
42 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 21.
43 The Life of Joseph Parker, p. 171.
44 Joseph Parker, Ad Clerum: Advices to a Young Preacher. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1871, p. 10.
45 Dr. Parker and His Friends, p. 43.
46 Joseph Parker, The People’s Bible: Discourses upon Holy Scripture, vol. 2. San Antonio: Pioneer Library, 2021 (forthcoming), p. 188.

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