Unitarian Universalist Ghosts ­ Abner Kneeland

a sermon delivered
by the Reverend Barbara Morgan
on Sunday, October 17, 1999
at Community Unitarian Universalist Church
in Daytona Beach, Florida

One of the joys of being a minister is that we ­ you and I ­ work together in a synergistic way. I present ideas to you, and you present ideas to me. This exchange happens in different ways. When I am teaching an adult religious education program, the synergy is intense. I learn as much as I bring, about you and about the way you see the world. I'm looking forward to learning what you and others in the wider community have to contribute to our Healing Holiday Heartache workshops, which begin this week.

You also help to shape my ministry and my ideas when you take part in our worship services. When you are the worship associate it is a blessing to hear the words you select for our chalice lighting and chalice extinguishing rituals. When you contribute to joys and concerns you tell me what is important to you. Your responses to stories, readings, prayers, and sermons let me know your thoughts; they become part of the mix as I form and reform my own world view.

When you serve on committees or meet as a congregation, I always take something valuable away from your discussions and debates. The group process itself also informs my thought. And at least once a week ­ sometimes more often ­ one of you tells me about a book or a web site or an article or your library or some other resource that has great meaning for you. I try to follow up on your suggestions, to look at the world through the windows you point out to me.

Today's sermon was inspired by Gordon Hart. He began by asking me if I'd heard about or read a book written by one of his former ministers. It's called The Last Man Jailed for Blasphemy, and it was written by the Reverend Stephan Papa. When I said I had never heard of the book, had only vaguely heard of Rev. Papa, and didn't rush out to buy the book, Gordon lent me his copy. That was a while ago. Ever since, every time I saw Gordon he'd ask me if I'd read the book yet. I'd have to confess I hadn't. Yet I was so motivated by Gordon's enthusiasm that I "assigned" the book to myself. I decided to make the subject of the book our first Unitarian Universalist ghost this October.

Last year I began a tradition of taking time during the month of October to honor two "ghosts" in our tradition ­ one Sunday a Universalist and one Sunday a Unitarian. Today I will tell you about Abner Kneeland, a Universalist minister and "the last man jailed for blasphemy." Next Sunday I will talk about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two Unitarians who will be profiled in early November on public television in a documentary entitled "Not For Themselves Alone."

Abner Kneeland was born in the 18th century ­ two years before the United States Declaration of Independence was signed, in 1774 in Gardner, Massachusetts. I want to tell you his story in four parts. First, I will give you an overview. Next, I will read to you some of his writings, giving you the flavor of his thought. Third, I will tell you the events which lead to his incarceration. Finally, I will share with you briefly his biographer's critique of Abner.

Rev. Papa tells us very little about Abner Kneeland's early life except that his father was a carpenter. One story survives, however. His father took him to church one Sunday in a new church, built with exposed rafters. On the way home Abner talked about the building from a carpenter's perspective. He recounted the number of rafters there were, the number of mortises, the number of holes without pins, the number of holes with pins, and the number of mistakes the carpenters who built the building made. Abner's father was astounded, and took his son severely to task for having studied the structure of the building to the exclusion of the sermon. Abner replied by repeating the Bible text upon which the sermon was based and then the sermon, almost word for word.

Abner intended to support himself as a carpenter, however his health didn't permit rigorous physical labor. He was a school teacher for awhile in Dummerston, Vermont, and became immersed as a Baptist. He was also a lay preacher during this time, however his ideas were beyond the orthodox confines, and, through his sister he became a Universalist. Thus he avoided a trial for heresy while he was in his twenties.

At the age of 29 Abner was fellowshipped by the Universalist Church of America and at age 30 he was ordained. On that occasion the sermon was preached by Hosea Ballou, Universalism's then leading theologian.

We don't know a lot about Abner's personal life. We know over his entire life he was widowed three times and married four. We know he had descendants, one of whom was conceived while he was in his sixties and married to his fourth wife. We also know he had a wide variety of interests and was a versatile man. He served in the New Hampshire legislature for two years. When his third wife's dry goods business was failing, he left ministry to help out in the store, and, later, waited on customers at a bonnet shop she opened after the dry goods store closed. At one time he also served as a government inspector of imported goods. He took an interest in orthography and published the American Pronouncing Spelling Book based on phonetics when he was 50. His system was did not gain wide acceptance.

His main vocation, however, was ministry. He was a preacher and a publisher, as well as a hymnist, who published three hymnals. He also created his own translation of the Christian Bible. He served Universalist churches in Langdon, New Hampshire; Charlestown, Massachusetts; Whitestown, New York, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and two congregations in New York City. After he left the Universalist Church of America he became a lecturer, serving one society in New York City and another in Boston, Massachusetts. He edited several journals -- The Philadelphia Universalist Magazine, Christian Messenger, Olive Branch and Christian Inquirer, and Boston Investigator. It was in New York City, when he was in his fifties, that Abner first became notorious and in Boston, when he was in his sixties that he was jailed for blasphemy. After his release from jail, he founded a utopian community named Salubria, in Iowa.

Abner Kneeland comported himself with dignity and calm. A colleague wrote of him when he was in his forties:

He certainly was the most venerable man I ever saw in the pulpit. His commanding presence; slightly florid complexion; all illuminating blue eyes; his voice never boisterous, his temper never ruffled; not eloquent according to received standards, but wonderfully impressive in calmness and persuasive candor-remarkably self-possessed: All these qualities have fastened him in my memory as a man if ever excelled in the pulpit-in manner and appearance, I mean. Out of the pulpit he was remarkable. He was tall and erect, and there was a quiet dignity in all his movements. He was never in haste. It is questionable whether even a pursing mob could have quickened his steps into a hurry; not can anyone who knew him forget his serene courtesy in social life. Besides all this his moral character was as clear of blemish as we can reasonably hope to see anywhere.

Abner Kneeland's unorthodox ideas about religion were expressed as early as 1811, when he was in this thirties. For example, look at the words of the hymn we sang earlier, in particular the second stanza:

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.

This hymn reveals the naturalistic bent of his theology and hints at his mistrust of the orthodox source of knowing ­ the scriptures. In that same hymnal, another hymn discloses his discontent with orthodox behavior:

As ancient bigots disagree,
The Stoic and the Pharisee,
So is the modern, Christian world
In superstitious error hurl'd.
God, when shall all these errors cease,
And Christians learn to live in peace,
And every weapon disapprove,
Except the sword of truth and love?

In 1833, when Abner Kneeland was 59 he wrote what he called a "Philosophical Creed."

I believe in the existence of a universe of suns and planets, among which there is one sun belonging to our planetary system; and that other suns being more remote, are called stars; but that they are indeed suns to other planetary systems. 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; and that all power that is, is in God, and that there is no power except that which proceeds from God. I believe that there can be no will or intelligence where there is no sense; and no sense where there are no organs of sense; and hence, sense, will and intelligence, is the effect, not the cause of organization. I believe in all that logically results from these premises, whether good, bad or indifferent. Hence, I believe, that God is all in all; and that 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.

Contrast this creedal statement with the 1782 statute (amended in 1812) which trumped Abner Kneeland's ministry:

Be it enacted by the State and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, That if any person shall willfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing, or reproaching Jesus Christ, or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching the Holy Word of God, that is the canonical scriptures, contained in the books of the Old and the New Testaments, or by exposing them, or any part of them to contempt and ridicule; which books are as follows:[and here they listed all the books of both the Old and the New Testaments, and then continued]every person so offending shall be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, by sitting in the pillory, or by sitting on the gallows, with a rope about the neck.

Stephan Papa astounds his readers with the news that this more-than-two-hundred-year-old statute is still on the books in Massachusetts, although, according to Papa, Abner Kneeland was the last man to be tried for blasphemy in Massachusetts or any other state. Yet, in this day of tension between the conservative religious right and the liberal religious left, it is scary to think that such statues are still there to be used by a prejudicial judiciary fed up with the content and style of an individual's religious life.

For it was more events than emanations, more style than statements which lead to Abner Kneeland's trial.

It was in the mid-to-late-1820's, when Abner was in his mid-to-late-fifties and preaching and writing in New York City that the crisis developed. First of all, Abner was extremely popular. As many as 2000 people would come to hear him on a Sunday. Clearly, he was attracting attention. Second, the Universalist Church of America was in its formative years, wanting to make a clear case for a doctrine of universal salvation. The State Supreme Court of Connecticut had ruled in the late 1820's that "Universalists were incapable of giving testimony under oath", presumably because they did not fear eternal punishment for lying. Abner's popularity threatened to eclipse and confuse the new denomination's good news and legitimacy. Third, Abner's style and pulpit guests spoke of issues that were only beginning to be debated in American society, let alone Universalist churches, which labeled him a radical. Let me quote Stephan Papa on this latter point.

It has been suggested that Abner's problems with his congregation in New York reached a crescendo when he was the only person in town willing to offer his pulpit as a speaking place to the notorious Francis "Fanny" Wright D'Arusmont in January 1828. She was called the "Red Harlot of Infidelity," and with Robert Dale Owen, was co-leader of the radical Freethought movement. He was infamous for his utopian communitarian experiment in New Harmony, Indiana, which started in 1824 and fell apart in 1828. She was disliked because of her social experiment in Nashoba, Tennessee, in which she purchased 2400 acres in 1825 to set up a utopian community for Negroes. Wright and Owen were hated because they spoke in favor of equal rights of women. Negroes, children, and working men, and, because they were agnostics, who denigrated religion, and socialists, who derided the rich, and because they were in favor of the right to divorce, and because Robert Owen published a tract explaining birth control[Also] Owens and Wright made Abner president of the Association for the Protection of Industry and the Promotion of National Education, which called for establishing a "State Guardianship Plan, wherein all children would be fed, clothed, and educated at public expense."

In Boston, Abner Kneeland also shared his pulpit with the Reverend William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist ­ again, because no one else would allow him to speak. Therefore, Boston's first anti-slavery lecture came at Abner's instigation.

So it was for his views on social issues as well as his theology that the powers that be wanted to silence Abner. Their method was to charge him with three counts of blasphemy, based on two Boston Inquirer articles reprinted from the Owens/Wright Freethought journal and a letter written by Abner to Thomas Whittemore, editor of the Trumpet magazine, published in both that journal and the Boston Inquirer. Here is the text of the letter:

Dear Sir:
You observed to me the other day, that people still consider me a Universalist, and said to me "If you will acknowledge that you are not, I will publish it." I told you, in substance, that in some respects I am still a Universalist; but that in others, I am not. I shall now answer you more at large, which I hope you will publish in full, and thereby redeem your pledge.

I still hold to universal philanthropy, universal benevolence, and universal charity. In these respects, I am still a Universalist. Neither do I believe in punishment after death; so in this also I agree with the Universalists. But as it respects all other of their religious notions in relation to another world, or a supposed other state of conscious existence, I do not believe in any of them; to that in this respect, I am no more a Universalist than I am an orthodox Christian. As for instance:

1.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.

2.Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but believe that whole story concerning him is as much a fable and a fiction, as that of the god Prometheus, the tragedy of whose death is said to have been acted on the stage in the theatre in Athens, 500 years before the Christian era.

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.

Hence, as Universalists no longer wish to consider me as being of their faith, and I no longer wish to be considered as belonging to their order, as it relates to a belief in things unseen, I hope the above four articles will be sufficient to distinguish me from them and them from me. I profess to believe in all realities of which I can form any rational conception, while they believe in what I believe to be mere ideal nothings to which they give both a "location and a name."

In giving the above a place in the Trumpet you will let me tell your readers, in my own language, what I do, as well as what I do not, believe and thereby oblige your once brother of the same faith with yourself, and still your personal friend.

Abner was tried five times. Four times he appealed guilty verdicts. Four times he won his appeals. The fifth time he did not. During the trials his third wife died, and he remarried. His fourth wife bore him a son, who died in early infancy. Abner blamed both deaths on the stress of the judicial process. He served a six month sentence and emerged from jail a broken man.

He left Boston to travel to Iowa, where he founded a utopian community called Salubria. He tried running for public office, and failed. He sold everything he owned to pay his debts. He tried politics once more, creating a ticket of two individuals he could support. The ticket failed. Salubria failed, and Abner was forced to work as a teacher again to support himself. In 1844, at the age of 70 Abner Kneeland died.

Stephan Papa does not count Abner Kneeland as a failure, however. While others count him audacious, heretical, arrogant, and an infidel, Papa counts him a hero,

authentically searching for truth, and trying to reform religion and society. I think he was laboring for truth, for goodness, for equality, for economic justice, for religious freedom. He wasa man of integrity, intelligence, courage, compassion, principle. He was a man of freedom who developed and lived his faithHis life was one of honest religious development.

I want to close with a story from Abner Kneeland's personal life. His great, great granddaughter lives in Denver. She is a white woman married to a black man. They have four children. She commented to Stephan Papa during a visit, "I wonder what my great, great grandfather would think of my family?" Stephan was pleased to be able to cite her great, great grandfather's support of interracial marriage, publicly professed in an 1831 Boston Investigator article:

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 colorWhat! To marry each other? Yes, to marry, if they love or fancy each other.

Perhaps, in the end Abner Kneeland's lasting legacy was a family free to love whom they will.