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Theodore Parker and the Turtle

Once upon a time there lived a little boy named Theodore Parker. He lived on a farm in Lexington, Massachusetts. His grandfather had been one of the militia-men who had stood up to the soldiers in the Battle of Lexington at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, protesting the injustice of the English King. The musket that his grandfather had carried on that day hung over the fireplace in the farmhouse.

One fine day in spring, when Theodore Parker was nearly four years old, his father led him by the hand to a distant part of the farm. Soon his father sent him to walk home alone. On the way, little Theodore had to pass a small pond in the field. A rhodora flower in full bloom drew him to the spot. There in the pond, Theodore saw a little spotted turtle sunning itself in the water at the foot of the flower.

Theodore went up to the turtle. He was carrying a stick in his hand, and he lifted up the stick to lifted the stick to strike it. All at once something checked his arm and stopped him from striking the turtle, and a voice within him said, clear and loud, "It is wrong!"

Theodore held his stick in the air, and wondered at this new feeling. Then he ran home, and told the story to his mother.

"What was it that told me it was wrong?" he said.

His mother took him in her arms. "Some people call it Conscience," she said. "I like to call it the Voice of God in the soul of people. If you listen and obey it, then it will speak clearer and clearer, and always guide you right. But if you turn a deaf ear, or disobey, then it will fade out little by little, and leave you all in the dark and without a guide. Your life depends on your heeding this little voice."

For the rest of his life, Theodore Parker listened to his conscience, that voice in his soul, and like his grandfather before him, he always tried to do what was right.


Source: One version of this story may be found in the Unitarian collection The Little Child at the Breakfast Table, by William Channing Gannett and Mary Thorn Lewis Gannett (Boston: Beacon, 1915), p. 16. The information about Parker's grandfather, and about Parker's claims that the Revolutionary War influenced his moral views, comes from American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism, by Dean Grodzins (Cahepl Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), pp. 10-12.