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

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