Abner Kneeland occupies a unique place in the history of religion-- he stands as last person convicted and jailed for blasphemy in the United States. His ‘crime’? The espousal of Pantheism in an era when Christian authorities frowned on dissent. Kneeland also championed unpopular social reforms which compounded his plight. His largely unsung deeds deserve wider airing.
Born in Gardner, Massachusetts, on April 6, 1774 (two years before the Declaration of Independence), young Kneeland completed his formal education at age 21. He then helped in his father’s carpentry trade, taught school, and wrote spelling books. A religious calling led him to a Baptist church and to preaching. Kneeland shortly began to question bible scriptures, converted to more liberal Universalism, and became an ordained minister at age 30.
A congregant described Kneeland as “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.”
But a church spokesman called Kneeland "the most controversial character ever ordained to the Universalist ministry.” For three decades he had an on-again off-again roller coaster relationship with fellow Universalists, one that eventually jumped the tracks entirely due to his iconoclasm.
Energetic and multi-talented, Kneeland did more than minister. He variously worked as a writer, newspaper editor, businessman, public debater, bible translator, government inspector, and state legislator. He had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, including a personal friendship with George Washington.
Kneeland cared deeply about women and family issues (he married four times, widowed trice, and fathered a child by his fourth wife in his sixty’s). In a storied incident, during a lecture, Kneeland read from a bible ‘suffer not a woman during her time of month to be near you because she is unclean.’ "That's not true!" railed Kneeland, "Women are not unclean at any time. Good Book? This isn't a very good book." Then he tossed the Bible down.
Far ahead of his time, Kneeland courageously advocated equal rights for women and blacks, birth control, divorce rights, and even interracial marriage. “The basic principle of society,” wrote Kneeland, “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.”
Such visionary thinking roiled the establishment, as did his endorsement of a national education system, anti-monopoly laws, improved working conditions, and land reform. In the trial to come, prosecutors claimed his activism tore at the fabric of society, but Kneeland’s major “blasphemy”stemmed from his profession of Pantheism and renunciation of traditional beliefs.
As early as 1811, he had composed hymns prefiguring a Nature-based spirituality:
Can I not read in nature's book
The tokens of thy grace?
Where'er I turn my eyes to look,
I see thy smiling face.
To celebrate divinity in Nature hinted at heresy, as did another hymn’s derision of dogma:
As ancient bigots disagree,
The Stoic and the Pharisee,
So is the modern, Christian world
In superstitious error hurl'd.
Kneeland’s disbelief grew apace. By 1830, his outspoken rejection of Christianity had alienated most everyone in his denomination, and led to disfellowship by the New England Universalist General Convention. Undeterred, he spoke his mind at the newly formed First Society of Free Inquirers in Boston, drawing weekly crowds of over two thousand persons to his lectures.
In 1833, at age 59, Kneeland wholeheartedly proclaimed Pantheism in his Philosophical Creed:
“I believe that the whole universe is NATURE, and that the word NATURE embraces the whole universe; that GOD and NATURE, so far as we can attach any rational idea to either, are synonymous terms. Hence, I am not an Atheist, but a Pantheist; that is, instead of believing there is no God, I believe that in the abstract, all is God... it is in God we live, move, and have our being; and that the whole duty of man consists in living as long as he can, and in promoting as much happiness as he can while he lives.”
Briefly thereafter, he penned a letter to enumerate his differences with Universalism:
“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 chimera of their own imagination.
2.Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but (I) believe that 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 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 (I) 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’s detractors seized upon the first statement, claiming he propounded atheism. A grand jury upheld the allegation, which led to the indictment for blasphemy. Kneeland underwent five trials between 1834 and 1838. Four times he won appeals of the guilty verdicts. The fifth time he lost.
In his defense, Kneeland pointed out that the phrase "Universalists believe in a god which I do not" had neither a comma after the word ‘god,’ nor capitalization of the word ‘god.’ He was saying he adhered to a different concept of god than the one held by Universalists, rather than to godlessness. He avowed his Pantheism and distinguished it from monotheism as well as atheism. And he argued his Constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
But the final jury maintained that Kneeland naysayed deity. According to the court record, “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.”
Regarding Kneeland’s Pantheistic idea of god, the court rejoined 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.”
Following his conviction, most clerics clapped. Latitudinarians lamented. A noted Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, circulated a petition for pardon, signed by many prominent individuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Ripley, and Bronson Alcott. Conservative clergy mounted a counter petition. In the end, the governor granted no pardon and Kneeland spent sixty days in the Boston jail.
Imprisonment failed to silence him. Kneeland decried his prosecutors, the real blasphemers in his view, who besmirched the nation’s constitutional guarantees of free speech and religion. Cell house callers found him in fine fettle, engaged in his martyr’s role. “Abner was jugged for sixty days,” said one visitor, “He will come out as beer from a bottle, all foaming, and will make others foam....”
Kneeland indeed effervesced through the halls of jurisprudence. According to biographers Stephan Papa and Peter Hughes, the self-professed Pantheist, “made it so embarrassing for the powers that be that though the blasphemy law is still on the books in Massachusetts, and there are similar laws in force in several other states, the authorities have never charged, tried, sentenced, and incarcerated another person for this supposed crime.”
Upon his release, Kneeland bid adieu to the constraints of organized religion. He gathered followers, moved to the midwest frontier, and started a small utopian community named Salubria (near present day Farmington, Iowa).
Salubria never flourished, and folded soon after Kneeland’s death in 1844; only a few headstones remain to mark the first Pantheist-inspired settlement. But descendants of his colony still live in the area and historians remember him as a founding father of the state of Iowa.
Abner Kneeland clearly merits remembrance. He pioneered Pantheism in early America, he spurred freedom of religion, and he advanced social reforms that benefit countless lives today.
Papa, Stephan. The Last Man Jailed for Blasphemy. Franklin, North Carolina: Trillium Books, 1998.
Papa, Stephan, and Hughes, Peter. “Abner Kneeland.” The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography, Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, 2002.
Sawyer, Ken. “Abner Kneeland.” Sermon, First Parish in Wayland, Maine, January, 30, 2000.
Copyright © 2002 Gary Suttle