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Kneeland, Abner
(April 6, 1774–August 27, 1844)

–carpenter, teacher, minister, writer, newspaper editor, Bible translator, state legislator, and free thinker—was the sixth child of Timothy and Martha (Stone) Kneeland. Born in Gardner, Massachusetts, shortly before the Revolutionary War, he attended the Gardner common schools and, for one term, the academy at Chesterfield, New Hampshire. As a young man, he worked at his father's trade as a carpenter. He preached for the Baptist denomination and served one term in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

    Kneeland's desire for knowledge was unending; he taught himself Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. That same inquiring mind caused him to question many dogmas of the Christian faith. Unable to retain his faith in the Baptist tenets, Kneeland became a Universalist at age 29 and moved on to minister in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Throughout his entire career with the Universalists, Kneeland was subject to seasons of religious inquiry and doubt. At one time he left the Universalist church. After an exchange of letters with Rev. Hosea Ballou, his doubts, then on the divine authenticity of the scriptures, were relieved. He returned to the ministry and served as a Universalist minister for 26 years. His views on theological questions were published in Universalist newspapers and magazines, and he often edited those publications. He lectured extensively and published a version of the New Testament translated from the Greek. In a volume of his sermons published in 1818, his likeness was used as a frontispiece–the first lithograph ever produced in the United States. He contributed the text for 138 of the 410 hymns in a Universalist hymnal. Eventually, at age 55, his religious doubts and unorthodox views led to his departure from the Universalist church.

    Kneeland removed to Boston in 1831, founded the First Society of Free Enquirers, and published a weekly newspaper, the Boston Investigator, in which he carried on his arguments concerning religious thought, allying himself with the free thinkers of the day, including utopian Robert Owen, who became Kneeland's new mentor.

    Thousands attended Kneeland's lectures, in which he denounced the conservative influence of religion on society and called for racial equality and equal rights for women. He wrote in favor of birth control, divorce, and interracial marriage. For those of orthodox orientation, the ideas he expressed became intolerable. In his Philosophical Creed of 1833, Kneeland declared, "I believe... 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."

    Eventually, his published statements led to his arrest and trial for blasphemy. The articles of contention included a letter to the editor in which he wrote, "I believe that [the Universalists'] god, with all his moral attributes... is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination."The ensuing trials extended over a four-year period, and at the age of 60 Kneeland was convicted of blasphemy and served 60 days in the Boston common jail. Following the verdict, a strong public protest in defense of free speech resounded through Boston. William Ellery Channing, George Ripley, A. Bronson Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, and Ralph Waldo Emerson headed a list of petitioners demanding Kneeland's release, to no avail.

    During the period of his trials and imprisonment, Kneeland began to look for a more tolerant environment. Perhaps influenced by the social experiments at New Harmony and Nashoba (undertaken by his friends and former coeditors, Robert Dale Owen and Francis Wright), he selected a site on the Des Moines River in Van Buren County, Iowa Territory, and in 1839 started a small utopian community he named Salubria, which failed to thrive.

    Kneeland became a popular lecturer in southern Iowa and eastern Illinois. Admired by local Democrats, he was nominated to represent his region in Iowa's Third Territorial Legislative Assembly. He died from a stroke at age 70. Within the Unitarian Universalist tradition he is considered an important contributor to the freedom of religious thought.

    Kneeland married four times and was the father of 12 children.
Sources Primary sources include the Abner Kneeland Collection at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City and Des Moines; and the Louise Rosenfeld Noun Papers and Margaret Atherton Bonney Papers, Iowa Women's Archives, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. Secondary sources include Henry Steele Commager, "The Blasphemy of Abner Kneeland," New England Quarterly 8 (1935), 29–41; Edgar R. Harlan, A Narrative History of the People of Iowa (1931); Ruth A. Gallaher, "Abner Kneeland-Pantheist," Palimpsest 20 (1939), 209–25; Mary R. Whitcomb, "Abner Kneeland," Annals of Iowa 6 (1904), 340–63; Stephan Papa, The Last Man Jailed for Blasphemy (1998); and Stephan Papa and Peter Hughes, "Abner Kneeland," Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography (1999–2004).
Contributor: Margaret Atherton Bonney