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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:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...