The Contributions of Freethinkers: Abner Kneeland

While some freethinkers have made contributions to science, the arts or the humanities, others are best known for exemplifying a sea change in human history – showing, by their lives, that one age was passing and another would soon dawn. Just so is today’s post on the life of an American freethinker who has the unique distinction of being the last man imprisoned in America for blasphemy: a courageous reformer and patriot by the name of Abner Kneeland.

Kneeland was born in Massachusetts in 1774, the sixth of ten children and the son of a carpenter. In 1801, he became a convert to the Baptist church, underwent immersion baptism and began to preach. But he soon got embroiled in doctrinal clashes with fellow believers, and his flirtation with Baptism didn’t last long. By 1803, he had decided he was no longer a Baptist, but a Universalist – an early liberal Christian denomination that didn’t believe in Hell. He continued his work as a lay preacher, but now in the service of Universalism.

Kneeland continued as a traveling preacher for several years, but eventually settled down at a Universalist church in New Hampshire. He served as an officer of the New England Universalist General Convention and helped to compile a new hymnal, though some of his verses, like this one, met with a lukewarm reception:

As ancient bigots disagree,
The Stoic and the Pharisee,
So is the modern Christian world
In superstitious error hurl’d.

He moved around over the next several years, from Massachusetts to Philadelphia to New York, and though he continued his work as a Universalist minister, his skeptical side was beginning to assert itself. He read the writings of some of the era’s most prominent religious skeptics, including the famous chemist Joseph Priestley and the Scottish utopian Robert Owen, and preached from the pulpit that he reserved the right to interpret the principles of Universalism in his own way. Slowly but surely, he began drifting away from Christianity entirely.

The last straw came in 1829 when Kneeland willingly loaned out his church as a platform for a controversial guest speaker, someone we’ve met before – the trailblazing freethinker and feminist Frances Wright. No one else in New York City would give Wright a place to speak, and the appearance of the “Red Harlot of Infidelity” in a church was too much even for the liberal Universalists. Kneeland was disfellowshipped by them and soon renounced Christianity altogether. He published a book that same year, A Review of the Evidences of Christianity, which made it clear just how far his theological position had shifted:

Like many others, I once thought that a belief in future existence was absolutely necessary to present happiness. I have discovered my mistake. Time, a thousand years hence, is no more to me now, than time a thousand years past. As no event could have harmed me, when I existed not, so no event can possibly harm me when I am no more. By anticipating and calculating too much on future felicity, and dreading, or at least fearing, future misery, man often loses sight of present enjoyments, and neglects present duties. When men shall discover that nothing can be known beyond this life, and that there is no rational ground for any such belief, they will begin to think more of improving the condition of the human species. Their whole thoughts will then be turned upon what man has done, and what he can still do, for the benefit of man.

In 1831 Kneeland moved to Boston, where he became a lecturer at the newly formed First Society of Free Enquirers and started his own newspaper, the Boston Investigator, whose motto was: “Truth, perseverence, union, justice – the means; happiness – the end. Hear all sides – then decide.” His weekly lectures, which drew as many as two thousand people, denounced the influence of religion on society and advocated the full equality of women, arguing that they should be permitted to use birth control, obtain a divorce, be paid equally for equal work, and be allowed to vote. He also argued for the equality of the races and, most shockingly, in favor of interracial marriage.

He also made the acquaintance of some influential people, most notably the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison had just arrived in Boston and was searching for a church or hall to rent to deliver lectures against slavery, but as with Frances Wright, seemingly no one was willing to give him the space. Kneeland again came to the rescue, offering Garrison the use of Julien Hall, where he delivered his own lectures. Garrison would later write, “It was left for a society of avowed infidels to save the city from the shame of sealing all its doors against the slave’s advocate.”

But despite its political and philosophical ferment, Massachusetts in this era was no friend to freethinkers. A still-enforced anti-blasphemy law from 1782 outlawed “denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching God”, and it was under this law that Abner Kneeland was arrested and charged for making statements like this:

1. Universalists believe in a god which I do not: but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.
2. Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not: but believe that the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and fiction, as that of the god Prometheus…
3. Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can either be accounted for on natural principles or else is to be attributed to mere trick and imposture.
4. Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, in immortality and eternal life, which I do not; but believe that all life is mortal, that death is an eternal extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.

Kneeland argued, unsuccessfully, in court that he was not an atheist but a pantheist. The prosecuting attorney, meanwhile, argued that if he were not punished for his opinions, “marriages [will be] dissolved, prostitution made easy and safe, moral and religious restraints removed, property invaded, and the foundations of society broken up”. (See any parallels?) In 1838, he was found guilty and sentenced to sixty days in jail.

After serving his prison term, Kneeland moved to Iowa with the intent of forming a utopian community similar to Owen’s and Wright’s, but it did not survive after his own death in 1844. Nevertheless, his life had left its mark. The uproar in Boston over his conviction, including numerous newspaper editorials defending the First Amendment and a petition to the governor signed by over a hundred prominent citizens, made such an impact that never again, in Massachusetts or anywhere else in America, was a freethinker imprisoned for violating blasphemy laws. Although there were a few more sporadic trials (most notably the 1886 Reynolds trial defended by Robert Ingersoll), Abner Kneeland’s greatest accomplishment was to show clearly that laws protecting religious feelings were archaic and incompatible with an increasingly modern and enlightened society.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • David D.G.

    Sounds like quite a guy. Thanks for telling us about him!

    ~David D.G.

  • http://infophilia.blogspot.com Infophile

    You know, there’s typically a guideline that we should judge historical figures not by the standards of our time, but by how far they rose above the standards of their own time. From the way you describe Kneeland, we don’t even need to do this. He’s solidly progressive by the standards of even modern America (only thing missing is support for gay marriage, but that issue didn’t even come into public view tehn). When you compare him to the standards of the time he lived in, it shows just what a phenomenal man he truly was.

  • Polly

    From the way you describe Kneeland, we don’t even need to do this.

    I’ve had a similar train of thought but in the opposite direction. If people were capable of thinking like this way back when, then that leaves less reason to excuse the quite irrational bigotry and superstition of everyone else of the period. The freethinkers of history are an indictment that ignorance is not a valid defense. Enlightenment has shone bright in every generation from even millenia ago.

    What one person can figure out, another can, too. They just don’t want to.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    What one person can figure out, another can, too. They just don’t want to.

    Before anyone can be a freethinker they have to be in the habit of thinking in the first place. Many of us aren’t.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    Cool post. Learned a bit. Yes to everything Infophile and Polly said.

    As no event could have harmed me, when I existed not, so no event can possibly harm me when I am no more. (Kneeland)

    Valid, but presupposition. He assumes he “existed not” and will be “no more,” but such is nothing more than superstition. What happens after death is unexplained and cannot be proven. Any truth claim to the contrary is superstitious, regardless of dressing.

    By anticipating and calculating too much on future felicity, and dreading, or at least fearing, future misery, man often loses sight of present enjoyments, and neglects present duties. (Kneeland)

    YES, and I wish you would’ve thrown that at Quixote. If you did and I missed it, I apologize.

    When men shall discover that nothing can be known beyond this life, and that there is no rational ground for any such belief…

    That “nothing can be known beyond this life” seems beyond our epistemological purview, so I reject that. If something beyond this life exists, it seems reasonable that some process for communicating data beyond this life to this life might also exist, and whether things beyond this life can be known rationally will vary according to the individual claim. Ironically, Kneeland’s statements here also lack rational ground.

    …they will begin to think more of improving the condition of the human species.

    Kneeland possibly looked saw plenty of social apathy like that which exists within organized religion today, but improving the condition of the human species and doing things for the benefit of our fellow living beings is what true religion is all about – if you ask me. That many or most religious folks miss this point doesn’t falsify their beliefs, and I’m not saying anyone has claimed otherwise.

  • http://piepalace.ca/blog Erigami

    Polly and Infophile: Well said.

  • Mathew Wilder

    Shorter cl: we don’t know that IPUs don’t exist, so we it’s wrong to claim they don’t, and we should admit the possibility that they do.

    That seems clearly absurd. Draw your own conclusions, everyone.

  • Maynard

    Any truth claim to the contrary is superstitious, regardless of dressing.

    That “nothing can be known beyond this life” seems beyond our epistemological purview, so I reject that.

    cl,
    Are you arguing in favor for belief in invisible pink unicorns, FSM, cosmic teapots, etc?

  • http://brilliant-blue.blogspot.com Josh SN

    I’m reminded of the WWII case before the US Supreme Court, Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, where the concept of “fighting words” was enshrined in precedent.

    A Jehovah’s Witness declared that organized religion was “a racket” and the cops trying to arrest him were “a damned fascist” and “a god-damned racketeer.”

    Which reminds me of Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, USMC (back when Major General was the highest rank the Marine Corps had) who wrote a pamphlet, War is a Racket, which he gave speeches about.

  • Aspentroll

    So much for the “New Atheism” a lot of people are touting.
    This guy Kneeland was saying all the things we are today
    about the religions. We are lucky we can state our minds
    these days as long as our jobs don’t depend on what we say.
    Kneeland was a champion for freethinking in his day.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    improving the condition of the human species and doing things for the benefit of our fellow living beings is what true religion is all about….

    What is the basis of this proposition?

  • Mathew Wilder

    Aspentroll – I agree. PZ has been saying the same thing too, since that label was created. But it’s just not new! You can go back even farther to Baron d’Holbach, who’s Good Sense could’ve almost been written a year ago!

  • Danikajaye

    You know that question: If you were having a dinner party and could invite any 5 people in history, dead or living, who would it be? Abner Kneeland is going straight on my list. It would make for very interesting dinner conversation.

  • exrelayman

    Besides the post, read the book cited. If the archaic writing is troublesome, skip forward to page 140. Good stuff. Nice find Ebon.

  • Brock

    That “nothing can be known beyond this life” seems beyond our epistemological purview, so I reject that.

    Can you explain, please the difference between “nothing can be known” and “beyond our epistemological purview?” It seems to me that you are rejecting the phrase in “gutsy” Anglo Saxon, and accepting the one stated in “intestinal” Latinate phrasing.

  • http://eatingcannibal.com/ Eating Cannibal

    “marriages [will be] dissolved, prostitution made easy and safe, moral and religious restraints removed, property invaded, and the foundations of society broken up”

    It’s kind of awful that this line of thinking still influences to the extent that it does in conversations of morality. Also, I particularly dig that prostitution being made safe is cited as a negative. I like my prostitution difficult and unsafe; I believe in God.

  • Scotlyn

    Eating Cannibal

    It’s kind of awful that this line of thinking still influences to the extent that it does in conversations of morality. Also, I particularly dig that prostitution being made safe is cited as a negative. I like my prostitution difficult and unsafe; I believe in God.

    Yeah, you could add to that, “I think abortions should remain backstreet, dangerous and dirty, just like prostitution…just so long as sinners are reminded that they are sinning!”

  • Scotlyn

    Ebon, nice post…it strikes me that this freethinker series of yours, dressed up with some archive photos, would make a great coffee-table book! I’d buy it as christmas presents for all my nieces and nephews and get their parents thoroughly upset with me!

  • Danikajaye

    “marriages [will be] dissolved, prostitution made easy and safe, moral and religious restraints removed, property invaded, and the foundations of society broken up”.

    That old chestnut. That line is used to argue against almost every advance in civil liberties. “If – insert issue of the day- is allowed then the world will descend into chaos and civilisation as we know it will end and we will all be damned to hell”. I recently heard an argument against gay marriage that basically said if same-sex marriage is legalised then “we” will be on a slippery slope that will eventually lead to the breakdown of sexual morality and to legalised paedophilia and beastiality. WHAT!?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    If people were capable of thinking like this way back when, then that leaves less reason to excuse the quite irrational bigotry and superstition of everyone else of the period.

    Excellent point, Polly. While I think it’s just a little unreasonable to expect everyone to rise above the prejudices of their own era, extraordinary individuals like Kneeland show that it is possible. If morality is indeed objective and accessible to reason, one would expect that there would be at least some people in every era who would recognize it, and I think his life is strong supporting evidence for that argument.

    Also, I particularly dig that prostitution being made safe is cited as a negative. I like my prostitution difficult and unsafe; I believe in God.

    Evidently so, EC. One would think that, if these people really believed in divine judgment, they wouldn’t care how risky or dangerous “sinful” acts are, because sinners will get their just desserts in the afterlife anyway. Instead, they seem hell-bent on making sure that those who deviate from their standard of morality suffer for it. It’s the same reasoning used by conservatives who oppose the widespread distribution of the HPV vaccine, apparently on the assumption that cervical cancer is a just punishment for teenagers who have extramarital sex.

    I recently heard an argument against gay marriage that basically said if same-sex marriage is legalised then “we” will be on a slippery slope that will eventually lead to the breakdown of sexual morality and to legalised paedophilia and beastiality. WHAT!?

    What amuses me about this argument is that the people who make it are basically saying they don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with those things. After all, if there are good reasons to be against pedophilia, then those will remain good reasons regardless of whether same-sex marriage is legalized. But the religious right seems to be saying that laws against gay marriage and pedophilia alike are arbitrary and reasonless traditions, and if any one is changed, they can’t think of any reason not to change all the others as well.

  • Scotlyn

    It’s the same reasoning used by conservatives who oppose the widespread distribution of the HPV vaccine, apparently on the assumption that cervical cancer is a just punishment for teenagers who have extramarital sex.

    Actually, Ebon, in my experience of these kinds of arguments (and we have lots of them in Ireland – see below*), the point about potential “just punishment” is less potent and attractive to your Christian “protect the Family” type, than EC’s parody above, to the effect that “sin” should feel like “sin” – it should be dangerous, and make you feel dirty while you’re doing it.

    *In Ireland we are well behind – no abortion, whatsoever, and the first notable protest when the feminist movement took off here in the early 70′s was a bunch of people buying thousands of condoms north of the border and declaring them “for personal use” in order to make a point about no contraception = enforced pregnancies. :)


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