Abner Kneeland: The Omega Man of the Early 19th Century Freethought Movement

Imagine you are a citizen living within an irrational society that has laws which state if you blaspheme god, that you can be persecuted for your thoughts. Imagine that your ideas and writings regarding a natural and godless universe can, because of such blasphemy laws, allow the state to prosecute you and place you in jail. In this scenario, your mind may spark to modern-day examples, nations which have such laws like the countries of Iran, Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan. Rarely, if ever, would you think that a secular constitutional democracy like the United States of America would punish citizens for their views regarding non-belief.

Sadly, though, you’d be wrong. If you lived in the United States in the 19th Century you could be marked and persecuted as a heretic in several states for your non-belief. While the U.S. Constitution and federal law upholds the right for any citizen to be an atheist, affording such belief and giving it equal protection with religious ideas, individual states in the 1800s had blasphemy laws on their books and used them.  Agents of the state did indeed arrest citizens, local courts did prosecute them, and judges did in fact jail nonbelievers, skeptics, and atheists.

In 1838, American skeptic and freethinker, Abner Kneeland, was the last man prosecuted and jailed in the U.S. for the “crime” of blasphemy. He was tried and found guilty by the state of Massachusetts for his religious skepticism and writings. Being the first at something usually gives you iconic stature. Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris; Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile; Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon, each instill a pride and success of the human spirit. Unfortunately, the persons who are last at something may have historical notoriety but rarely do they stay in the conscience of a culture or the memory of the public for very long.

Kneeland’s journey from believer to skeptic to prisoner is an interesting one. Born in Massachusetts in 1774, he grew up a child of the American Revolution. He also grew up self-educated, learning Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. As an adult, he moved with his brother to Vermont to teach school, got married and eventually became a Baptist minister preaching the gospel. However, not unusual to the skeptical journey of modern clergy who give up their faith, the more Kneeland read the Bible the more he rejected it as the revealed word of god.

Kneeland became a Universalist minister in 1805 and preached, with his increasing skepticism growing, for more than two decades. In the 1820s he’d become the managing editor of three liberal and freethinker publications. It was during this time that his long skeptical writings, radical preaching and rationalist editing caused him to be labeled a blasphemer.

Not only a skeptic, Kneeland also advocated for access to birth control, supported equal rights for women; and supported inter-racial marriage as well as worker reforms. Kneeland was also a devoted abolitionist who frequently offered anti-slavery advocates safe space to share their views. He did this even while these same abolitionists were refused such accommodation by local churches. Also, as a growing materialist he wrote and advised others to fulfill truth through their own experiences and through understanding nature rather than through the words of the bible.

Kneeland’s blasphemy indictment claimed that he had written frequent, “attacks on Christian doctrine, that god was a figment of the people’s imagination, and that the story of Jesus was a fable.” He also wrote that miracles did not happen and that the idea of eternal life was unreal. All of these accusations were in fact true and well documented. Kneeland himself never denied his views and was a staunch supporter of free speech, writing several pamphlets in his defense while his case wound through the Massachusetts courts.

Kneeland chose to defend himself [Author’s note: An original copy of his many defenses survive in a bound volume in the American Atheists Library & Archive rare books room].  After years of trials, five to be exact, and multiple appeals, in 1838 the court eventually found Kneeland guilty of blasphemy. He was sentenced to sixty days in jail. There was a movement to release him early, but Kneeland refused to accept any special treatment and he did his two months in prison for the non-crime.

In 1839, Kneeland left Massachusetts and moved to Iowa. His goal was to set up a utopian colony out west, far from “the religious orthodoxy of the east coast.” He and the Society of Free Inquirers, a group from Boston, purchased land on the Des Moines River. They established a community and called it Salubria, a society dedicated to rationalism and the worship of nature. Sadly, the community did not maintain itself for long and, in 1844 with the death of Kneeland, soon disbanded.

In a life spanning seventy years, Abner Kneeland established himself as a fighter and freethinker. He was committed to the humanist ideas of secular democracy, equal rights, and intellectual freedom. He was a liberator of the mind and had hoped, as he later established Salubria, an advocate for reason and social justice.

A pillar of free speech and religious freedom, his memory should cast him high within the realms of the freethinker movement. Not only because he is an important historical figure but because we in the modern atheist, freethinker, and humanist movement are still fighting the same fights he pushed against almost two hundred years ago.

There is still rampant religious intolerance and interference in our secular democracy. There is still active suppression of freethinker rights. Many states still have blasphemy laws on their books. Others have laws which proclaim that nonbelievers cannot hold elected office. Of course these laws are unconstitutional and are unenforceable, but they still exist even as they are oppressively vestigial.

Abner Kneeland laid a cornerstone in the nascent American freethinker movement. It is our responsibility to not only keep his memory alive but to advocate and actively participant in our secular democracy. To keep it open, safe and free for those of us who are on their own skeptical journey, for the modern freethought activists and advocates and their communities, and for those who do not need or believe in god.