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First Parish Sermon Archive » Blog Archive » Abner Knelland

Abner Knelland

by Rev. Ken Sawyer ~ January 30th, 2000 Options |Print This Sermon Print This Sermon

Every year I try to remember to preach one sermon on some figure from our denominational history. This year there will be two such sermons, because next week I’m going to preach on Maria Child, who used to attend church in this very room. This week, it’s Abner Kneeland, from the Universalist side of our merged denominational history.

The two have some things in common. They were both social activists in Boston in the 1830s, though I have seen no mention of their ever having so much as met. They were both writers, feisty crusaders, and theological radicals. And neither was comfortable within sectarian bounds, even though Kneeland was a minister for a while.

I have been thinking about preaching on Kneeland for quite a while, because I knew so little about him and I wanted the occasion to learn more. About all I knew was that he was a Universalist minister who went to jail for his beliefs. And I knew there is a Kneeland Street in Boston. Every time I was on it, I would wonder if it was named after Abner.

Then just last year, a colleague of mine, Stephan Papa, senior minister of the Universalist Church of Denver, published a little book, The Last Man Jailed for Blasphemy, all about Abner Kneeland. We would have copies for you to buy at next Sunday’s bookstore, but the UUA bookstore says mine is the last one they had.

But I’ve read it, anyway, and I think it’s pretty clear that Kneeland Street was not named after Abner — a great uncle, maybe, or a third cousin, maybe Horace Kneeland, the sculptor — but probably after not Abner, as well-known as he was in his time.

It turns out by the time he arrived in Boston, Abner was more radical than I had realized, more radical than I realized anyone was in the 1830s, and that was an era with lots of radical thought in Boston and nearby. Child, Garrison, and others argued for the abolition of slavery, Child’s ground-breaking attack being published in 1833; Bronson Alcott opened his innovative Temple School in Boston the next year; in 1836, Emerson published the first of his essays, Nature, and began meeting with others in what came to be known as the Transcendentalist Club; Fourierism and other utopian plans were in the air, and before long (in 1841) Brook Farm was founded in West Roxbury.

Not to mention the variety of novel beliefs within established churches. Not too far away were Shakers colonies. The American Unitarian Association had only been formed in 1825. And then there were the Universalists, all of them arguing that by the end of time, all souls will be with god in heaven and none left in hell, the more radical among them arguing that there is no hell. And the leading Universalist preacher and theologian, Hosea Ballou (remember the name) was both among the radical Universalists, and a minister in Boston.

But Abner Kneeland took matters even further. In both his religious and his social beliefs, he got way out ahead of the pack. The belief that was the overt cause of his imprisonment was his pantheism, perceived as atheism. He believed that God and nature are synonymous. But that went together with some other beliefs – many of them political or social — that probably contributed to the guilty verdict. I’ll mention them in time; I think they’re exciting and fun to hear. By now, his views are not unusual in a liberal congregation like ours. But to have aired them openly in 1833 got Abner Kneeland sixty days in jail.

But let me back up and fill you in on the long theological journey Kneeland had taken by then. For as a young man, a school teacher in Dummerston, Vermont, he had been baptized as a Baptist and done some lay preaching. But then he read an early Universalist book, and it showed. Talk arose about a heresy trial, and Kneeland became a Universalist. He was ordained in 1804, when he was thirty; Hosea Ballou gave the sermon.

Kneeland was an itinerant preacher for a year and a half before being called to the Universalist Church of Langdon, New Hampshire. While there he served two years in the state legislature. “In 1811 he became the first pastor of the Universalist Church in Charlestown, Massachusetts. During this time he was appointed clerk of the New England convention [sic] of Universalists several years running [eight]. With Ballou, he compiled the first authorized Universalist hymnbook. Abner wrote 138 of its hymns” [Papa 5] although it has been said, “They were not very good….” [Scott 71]

I hope you’ll forgive me if I stay with this brief biography a little longer. The research and many of the words are Papa’s, not mine, a point that Kneeland was not always as scrupulous about making himself: some years after he left the church in New Hampshire, the two farewell sermons he gave were to be published, until it was discovered that they repeated word for word a long sermon by Ballou.

That isn’t what got him a “vote of disapprobation” from the New England Convention of Universalists, though. No, they did that, and temporarily removed him from fellowship, because he resigned from the Charlestown Church to work in Salem in the dry goods shop, specializing in bonnets, owned by his new wife. This was his third wife, the first two having died while he was in New Hampshire.

Such commercial employment was felt to be unfitting for a man of his calling. Like Papa, I can’t resist quoting a minister [the Rev. Lemuel Willis] who later wrote that “it must have appeared ludicrous enough to persons who had seen this large man, of stately mien, in the sacred desk proclaiming with earnestness and solemnity the Everlasting Gospel, now behind the counter measuring off tape by the yard, selling nails by the pound, and disposing of dress patterns by the piece! He poor man, had ‘fallen into temptation and a snare.’” [Papa 7-8]

But the business failed in two years, and Kneeland returned to the Charlestown ministry for a few years, before moving on to successful ministries in Whitestown, New York, and Philadelphia. He was described in Whitestown as “calm, courteous, and gentlemanly in his deportment…, remarkably plain and intelligible in his discourse, he … enjoyed the highest confidence of his congregation” even if the writer thought Kneeland’s sermon topics too dry and metaphysical. [Papa 8-9]

Of his time in Philadelphia a colleague wrote, “He certainly was the most venerable man I ever saw in the pulpit. His commanding presence…; all illuminating blue eyes; his voice never boisterous, his temper never ruffled; … wonderfully impressive in calmness and persuasive candor — remarkably self-possessed…. Out of the pulpit he was remarkable. He was tall and erect, and there was a quiet dignity in all his movements…. Besides all this his moral character was as clear of blemish as we can reasonably hope to see anywhere.” [Scott 72-73]

Things went well at the church, and he had other interests, too. He was editor of a monthly journal. He published a second hymnbook. He did missionary work in North Carolina. He translated the New Testament. He “became ‘a pioneer in phonetic reform’” and developed his own alphabet as a way “to rid our language of silent letters.” [Papa 10] And he helped his wife at a bonnet store.

After seven years in Philadelphia, though, he moved to the Prince Street Universalist Society in New York City in 1825, and that’s when things run amuck. Looking back, one can see earlier signs of the trouble to come, like an unusually strong focus on nature in Kneeland’s hymns right from the first collection, or the correspondence he carried on with Ballou ten years before in which Kneeland expressed doubts about the Bible’s authenticity. When he went to Philadelphia, he reserved the right to interpret the church’s Articles of Faith for himself.

And “while in Philadelphia, he … associated with the followers of Joseph Priestly and others of a liberal mind [like the Welsh communitarian, Robert Owen], and he [grew] more and more radical.” [Scott 73] – theologically and politically. By the time he reached New York, Kneeland was increasingly open in proclaiming the Bible to have been written by people, not God, and to contain errors, meanness, and nonsense. His commitment to Christianity itself was questionable, whereas he was growingly  taken with progressive political plans and ideas like the Freethought Movement.

The Prince Street congregation, on the other hand, was one of the most conservative in Universalism. Their previous ministers had been Universalist, but from the Trinitarian, Calvinist wing. And now they had someone who seemed to some to be little short of an atheist. After two years, Kneeland was dismissed. Or maybe he left. It depends which account you read.

A sizable group of his supporters founded the Second Universalist Society for Kneeland to serve. It first met in Tammany Hall, and was successful for a while. But within two years, there was an awful congregational row. Maybe the precipitating event was Kneeland’s decision to let the very controversial Scottish social reformer Frances Wright, a cohort of Robert Owen, speak from the pulpit. Kneeland himself thought it was due to his heretical views of God, Jesus’ resurrection, the Bible, and the like. Whatever the reason, five members of the Board achieved a Board vote to dismiss him. A subsequent congregational meeting voted unanimously to condemn the Board, but Kneeland then resigned.

He also resigned from the Universalist ministry, and from Universalism. With a remnant of his previous congregation, he formed a Freethought Society called the Moral Philanthropists, which met in Tammany Hall. This was in 1829. The next year the New England Convention concurred and removed Kneeland from fellowship, along with Orestes Brownson.

But wait – the best part’s still ahead. Because now Abner Kneeland was free to pursue his thought without any church Board members or Universalist Conventions to try to ride herd on him. In 1831 he was off to Boston to lecture for the Free Inquirer’s Society, a “non-sectarian forum of opinion” that had been founded the year before; and to edit the Freethought movement’s weekly paper, the Boston Investigator. “The paper was devoted to social reform in behalf of such causes as a national educational system, abolition of slavery and imprisonment for debt, women’s rights, and the betterment of the ‘working classes….’” [Miller 190]

As former UUA president Bill Schulz notes, “it was not only philosophically that Kneeland outdistanced his contemporaries and the generations to come after him. His social views were even more startlingly progressive for his era. In his support for birth control, his approval of interracial marriage, his conviction that women can not only claim equal rights to men but equal worth, Kneeland anticipated views still being widely debated more than a century after he died.” [Papa B]

For example, it was in 1831 he wrote in the Investigator, “the basic principle of society should be the principle of perfect equality as to rights and privileges, totally regardless of sex; and I will now go one step further, and say, totally regardless of color…. What! To marry each other? Yes, to marry, if they love or fancy each other.” [Papa 30]

But his struggles with Universalists were not altogether over. As the historian Russell Miller has noted, “Part of his energies [during this time] were … devoted to replying to attacks by Universalist journalists who accused him, among other things, of conspiring with Fanny Wright and other to ‘overthrow society,’ and of using the Free Inquirer societies as agencies for subverting law and order.” [Miller 190-1]

You must imagine what an embarrassment Kneeland was to Universalists, who had a hard enough time trying to convince society that they were not a threat to all that is right and decent. Universalism itself was a radical movement, and a scary one to many on the grounds that if there is no fear of eternal damnation for those who do wrong, chaos will ensue.

Just as damaging was the charge that if you accept a liberal view of God, like Unitarians and Universalists alike had done, you are on the fast track to downright atheism. And here was Kneeland, a former Universalist minister, promoting all manner of social chaos and what looked for all the world like atheism, even if it wasn’t that to him.

Kneeland didn’t think he was an atheist at all, and it was a real sore point with him. He kept trying to tell people, far from not believing in God, he believed that everything is God. But he did not believe in the God that Universalists did, and he said so. He said so in print. And a grand jury indicted him for blasphemy, “alleging that the defendant, on December 20, 1833, unlawfully and wickedly composed, printed and published in a newspaper called the Boston Investigator, of which he was the editor and publisher, a certain scandalous, impious, obscene, blasphemous and profane libel, in which he ‘did wilfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by denying and contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government, and final judging of the world, and by reproaching Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost, and contumeliously reproaching the holy word of God,’” which was (and is) illegal.

Thanks to Beth Butler’s research, I am reading directly from the court record of the final decision in this case, rendered after three earlier appeals of the original court decision, made four years before. There were three articles in the indictment, but the first two were of little concern, since Kneeland had not composed them nor even known they were going to be printed. But he had definitely penned and published these allegedly “scandalous, profane and blasphemous words:

“1. Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but [I] believe that their god, with all his moral attributes (aside from nature itself) is nothing more than a mere chimera of their own imagination.2. Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but [I] believe that the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and a fiction as that of the god Prometheus….

3. Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but [I] believe that every pretension to them can 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 [I] believe 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….”

Many people in this room would disagree with Kneeland on one or more of these points, maybe all; but many others would say the guy was right on – and years before his time. As Bill Schulz has observed, “The Free Religious Association (which was the first organized attempt within Unitarian Universalism to propagate views similar to his) was not founded until 1867…. And humanism did not come into its own within Universalism, Kneeland’s erstwhile religious home, until Kenneth Patton became minister of the Charles Street Meeting House in 1949 – more than one hundred years after Kneeland’s death!” [Papa A-B]

Like most other people in 1838, the Supreme Judicial Court was not ready to hear it. It was those first nine words upon which the court decisions kept turning: “Universalists believe in a god which I do not….” Kneeland, who defended himself after the first appeal, his lawyer having died, pointed out that there was no comma, and that god was not capitalized, so he contended he was only saying, I don’t believe in the god that the Universalists believe in. I find the argument persuasive. After all, there is a comma in the other three statements.

But time and again, juries and judges were not persuaded. For them, the nine words meant that while Universalists believe in God, I, Abner Kneeland, do not. And under the law, “the denial of God, his creation, or final judging of the world, made wilfully [sic], that is, with the intent and purpose to calumniate and disparage him and impair or destroy the reverence due to him, is blasphemy.” As I say, that is still the law.

To Kneeland’s defense that he publicly declared he did believe in God, “a God that embraces all power, wisdom, justice, and goodness,” the Justices replied that “nothing can be plainer than that the word God was used by the legislature to denote that Supreme, Intelligent Being who is alike revered by Christians, Jews and Mahometans [sic], and not the material universe, which the defendant would substitute.”

As to Kneeland’s claim that the law violated the Constitutional protection of free speech, the Court said that the law “does not prevent the simple and sincere avowal of a disbelief in the existence and attributes of a supreme, intelligent being, upon suitable and proper occasions. But … it is impossible to believe that the authors of [the Second Amendment] intended to prohibit the legislature from reenacting a law, which had been in force since the first settlement of the country, a law … which had hitherto been deemed essential to the peace and safety of society…. The statute against blasphemy is not intended to prevent or restrain the formation of any opinions or the profession of any religious sentiments whatsoever, but to restrain and punish acts which have a tendency to disturb the public peace, [so] it is … but entirely consistent with the second article of the Declaration of Rights.”

Stephen Papa argues that Kneeland was being prosecuted as much for his political views as for his religious beliefs. Perhaps you can hear that in the Justices’ concern for public peace. It comes through clearer in the summation by the prosecuting attorney at Kneeland’s second trial:

“Gentlemen, Blasphemy is but one part of the system Fanny Wright has introduced among us. It is but one step, but a fatal one indeed, … in the road to ruin. It is to lead the way to atheism…. Atheism is to dethrone the Judge of heaven and earth; a future state of rewards and punishments, is to be described as a nursery bug-bear; moral and religious restraints are to be removed by proclaiming death to be an endless sleep; marriage is to be denounced as an unlawful restraint on shifting affections…; illicit sexual intercourse to be encouraged by physiological checks upon conception; the laws of property are to be repealed as restrictions upon ‘the greatest possible good’…. These horrible experiments are to be introduced here as fast as possible and to pervade the world…..“Abner Kneeland and his detestable dissemination of obscenity, and impiety, and blasphemy … may be considered by his acts and doctrines to be the common enemy of the human race….” [Papa 39]

There are many other examples from the trials of statements by the prosecuting attorneys and by the judges themselves that Kneeland was clearly being, in Papa’s word, railroaded, as a form of political as well as religious persecution. There were those who objected at the time. Our usual hero, William Ellery Channing, was one of two people who gathered up 168 signatures on a petition to the governor requesting a pardon, however “pernicious and degrading” [Miller 192] they said they might find Kneeland’s ideas to be. Included were Emerson, Theodore Parker, and Bronson Alcott. A counter-petition among conservative clergy drew 230 signers.

The governor granted no pardon, and Kneeland served his sixty days, angrily denouncing those he saw as the true blasphemers, who had betrayed the nation’s commitment to freedom. To their credit, many Universalist leaders, though lamenting Kneeland’s views, condemned the prosecution as unjust, unconstitutional, and an intrusion of the state into matters of faith. His old friend and former mentor, Hosea Ballou, visited him in prison, though the gap between them had grown impossibly hard to bridge.

Ballou did report that Kneeland was in good spirits, appearing to enjoy his martyr’s role. As Theodore Parker said, “Abner was jugged for sixty days…. He will come out as beer from a bottle, all foaming, and will make others foam….” [Miller 193]

But instead of staying as yeast in Boston’s brew, Kneeland decided it was time to follow through on a plan to establish an ideal, clergy-free community called Salubria in Iowa. His family and some others settled there, and it was there he died. His town never flourished, and has long since been abandoned. But Christian missionaries to the general area for years to come had to overcome the legacy of Kneelandism.

I am sorry, I get into these stories and they carry me away. But I know that in the end, I have to find some reason that I’ve told you all this, beyond the enjoyment that I and other history buffs find in the telling.

I guess, as a modern Unitarian Universalist, I like remembering that Abner Kneeland is a part of our tradition, even if he came to reject the form it took in his own time. I like it that he could see and say what one enlightened faith might look like, many years before almost anyone else was ready to accept it. I admire his courage and energy. And it doesn’t hurt that the faith he found so many, many years ago, though not exactly the same as my own, is one not far from it, and one that I know many of you believe in, too, more or less.

So good for Abner, impatient though he grew with us and as badly as he was treated by many in both of our traditions. Good for Abner Kneeland, and good for us to remember him with respect.

Ernest Cassara (ed.), Universalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)
Russell Miller, The Larger Hope (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979)
Stephan Papa, The Last Man Jailed for Blasphemy (Franklin, NC: Trillium Books, 1998)
David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985)
Elmo Arnold Robinson, American Universalism (New York: Exposition Press, 1970)
Clinton Lee Scott, These Live Tomorrow (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1964)