Freethought of the Day

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There are 2 entries for this date: Elihu Palmer and Abner Kneeland

Elihu Palmer

On this date in 1764, Elihu Palmer, Thomas Paine's ardent supporter, was born in Connecticut. Palmer graduated from Dartmouth in 1787, read theology, and proved an unpopular minister in Presbyterian and Baptist congregations, where he spoke as a deist against the divinity of Jesus Christ. He switched to law and was admitted to the bar in Philadelphia in 1793. Yellow fever killed his young wife and blinded Palmer. He was invited to found the Deistical Society of New York, and lectured widely on the East Coast. He wrote orations, opinion pieces and the book Principles of Nature; or, A Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery Among the Human Species (c. 1801), in which he wrote that "the world is infinitely worse" for following Jesus. Palmer also founded Prospect, a journal that was published from 1803-1805. Unlike many Deists, Palmer argued that the flawed teachings of Jesus were responsible for Christianity's sordid history. According to Roderick C. French's entry in Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Palmer wrote that he preferred "the correct, the elegant, the useful maxims of Confucius, Antoninus, Seneca, Price and Volney." When Thomas Paine was universally ostracized for writing The Age of Reason, Palmer and his second wife, who nursed Paine, remained steadfast friends. Palmer was only 42 when he died during a speaking tour. D. 1806.

“Another important doctrine of the Christian religion, is the atonement supposed to have been made by the death and sufferings of the pretended Saviour of the world; and this is grounded upon principles as regardless of justice as the doctrine of original sin. It exhibits a spectacle truly distressing to the feelings of the benevolent mind, it calls innocence and virtue into a scene of suffering, and reputed guilt, in order to destroy the injurious effects of real vice. It pretends to free the world from the fatal effects of a primary apostacy, by the sacrifice of an innocent being. Evil has already been introduced into the world, and in order to remove it, a fresh accumulation of crimes becomes necessary. In plain terms, to destroy one evil, another must be committed.”

—-Elihu Palmer, Principles of Nature; or, A Development of the Moral Causes of Happiness and Misery among the Human Species, 1801

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Abner Kneeland

Abner Kneeland

On this date in 1774, Abner Kneeland was born in Massachusetts to a Congregationalist family. As a founding member of the Universalists, Kneeland served as a Universalist minister from 1804 to 1829. When freethinker Frances Wright embarked on her famous lecture tour, becoming the first woman to speak in public in the United States, New York City halls were closed to her. Kneeland invited her to speak from the pulpit of his Second Universalist Society in New York City in 1829, consequently lost his position and was later disfellowshipped by the church. Kneeland's lectures against Christianity in August 1829 were published as "A Review of the Evidences of Christianity." Kneeland founded a group of freethinking New Yorkers, which met in Tammany Hall for a decade. Kneeland's Rationalism of the Enlightenment made him a leading proponent of universal public education and the Workingmen Party.

Moving to Boston in 1830, Kneeland founded the Boston Investigator, the oldest 19th-century freethought newspaper in the United States. His Sunday lectures to the First Society of Free Enquirers attracted hundreds, as well as the attention of influential critics. Kneeland was charged with blasphemy in 1834 for saying he did not believe in God, undergoing three trials. The prosecuting attorney for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts told the jury that if Kneeland was not punished, "marriages [will be] dissolved, prostitution made easy and safe, moral and religious restraints removed, property invaded, and the foundations of society broken up, and property made common." His appeal to the state Supreme Court concluded with a split verdict of guilty in 1838. Kneeland, despite the intervention of prominent Americans, served a 60-day sentence. Kneeland moved to the Iowa territory, co-founding a freethinking settlement known as Salubria (near present-day Farmington) and becoming chair of the Van Buren County Democratic convention in 1842. An anti-infidel opposition party burned Kneeland in effigy and defeated his ticket, which was known by missionaries as "Kneelandism." His versatile writings included a popular spelling reader, an annotated New Testament, an edition of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, and the 2-volume The Deist (1829). D. 1844.

"Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes, (aside from nature itself,) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination."

—-Letter by Abner Kneeland to Universalist editor Thomas Whittemore, Dec. 20, 1833, published by Abner Kneeland in the Investigator, for which he was tried and convicted of blasphemy

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.

Freethought of the Day

Would you like to start your day on a freethought note? "Freethought of the Day" is a daily freethought calendar brought to you courtesy of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, highlighting birthdates, quotes, and other historic tidbits.

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