Born in Gardner, Massachusetts, Abner was the sixth of ten children of Timothy and Moriah Stone Kneeland. His formal education stopped after a year in an academy in Chesterfield, New Hampshire. At the age of 21 Abner moved, with his older brother Asa, to Dummerston, Vermont in order to follow their father’s carpentry trade. While there he also taught school and compiled spelling books. In 1801, after joining the Baptist church in nearby Putney, he began to preach.
While still a Baptist lay preacher, Kneeland was converted to Universalism by reading the works of Elhanan Winchester. In 1803 he met Hosea Ballou, whose theology he shortly afterwards adopted. This discipleship was solidified by a personal friendship with Ballou that lasted, albeit with many vicissitudes, for three decades.
Kneeland began his Universalist career as an itinerant preacher in New Hampshire; he was ordained for this purpose as minister-at-large in 1804 with John Murray preaching the sermon. In 1805 with Ballou delivering the sermon, he was ordained again, this time as the minister settled in Langdon, New Hampshire. He served this church successfully for seven years, and was credited with the conversion of several orthodox preachers.
During the early years of his ministry Kneeland was a consistent participant in the affairs of the New England Universalist General Convention. He was chosen treasurer in 1809 and standing clerk in 1811. He served with Hosea Ballou and Edward Turner on a committee that compiled a new Universalist hymnal. Kneeland contributed 138 of the 410 hymns, most of which have been judged to be inferior. One of these confrontational hymns went, “As ancient bigots disagree, The Stoic and the Pharisee, So is the modern Christian world/ In superstitious error hurl’d.” The convention gave the hymnal a lukewarm reception, declining to subsidize the printing.
Kneeland moved to a new church in Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1811. Three years after establishing himself in this promising Boston area church, Kneeland suddenly resigned his pulpit, abandoned the ministry, and went into the dry goods business with his wife. The 1814 General Convention disapproved his leaving the ministry, and urged him to return. Although Kneeland claimed to be leaving the ministry for financial reasons, he was at that time also struggling with doubts about the authenticity of the scriptures and the authority of revelation. In this crisis Kneeland appealed to Hosea Ballou. The two friends entered into a friendly debate by correspondence, which was published in 1820 as A Series of Letters, in Defence of Divine Revelation; in Reply to Rev. Abner Kneeland’s Serious Inquiry into the Authenticity of the Same. Kneeland was reassured by Ballou’s arguments and returned to the ministry.
Kneeland was readmitted to fellowship in 1816 and settled at Whitestown, New York. However, his doubts about revealed religion quickly began to reassert themselves. He eagerly read any skeptical literature that he could find, including the writings of Joseph Priestley. Although Kneeland’s colleagues in central New York were impressed with his energy and personal presence, they expressed doubts about the content of his preaching, which one described as dry and metaphysical and the other materialistic and untrue. Such contradictory assessments of his ministry exist to this day.
In 1818, Kneeland was called to the Lombard Street church in Philadelphia, where he alienated some parishioners with his claim that he had the right to interpret the church’s articles of faith in his own way. Nevertheless Kneeland’s unitarian and ultra Universalist theology generated sufficient interest in the community at large to more than compensate for the resulting defections.
During the Philadelphia years Kneeland was almost superhumanly busy. He published sermons and tracts, edited denominational and secular newspapers, compiled a hymnal, made a translation of the New Testament, and developed a new system of spelling. Kneeland also engaged in several public debates, most notably a four-day marathon contest with a celebrated Presbyterian clergyman, William McCalla, on whether Universalism is taught in the scriptures. In addition to these ecclesiastical and scholarly pursuits, Kneeland found time to help his wife with a new store and to serve as government inspector of imported hats. Around 1824 Kneeland met and embraced a new mentor, the utopian industrialist Robert Owen, whose skeptical religious ideas supplanted the remaining influence of Hosea Ballou. Before this new revolution in his thinking led to conflict with the Philadelphia congregation, Kneeland moved to New York City.
Although his ministry at the Prince Street church in New York, 1825-27, began as a summer pulpit exchange, it was afterwards transformed into a regular settlement. Kneeland did not tell the congregation the extent of the transformation in his thinking until early 1827, when full disclosure of his theological opinions divided the church in two. Kneeland and his supporters emigrated to form a new congregation, the Second Universalist Society.
The new society but forestalled the end of Kneeland’s Universalist ministry. By 1829 he had offended the Second Universalist Society, primarily through his association with Frances Wright, an even more controversial communitarian than Robert Owen. He allowed her to speak in his pulpit when no one else in the city of New York would give her a forum. His freethinking public positions became so embarrassing to Universalists that denominational associations as far away as Maine were passing resolutions disowning him. In 1829 Hosea Ballou prepared a statement of voluntary suspension from fellowship, which he induced his friend to sign. The following year, on the basis of his renunciation of Christianity, Abner Kneeland was considered automatically disfellowshipped by the New England Universalist General Convention.
In 1831 Kneeland moved to Boston to become the lecturer of the newly formed First Society of Free Enquirers. He spoke to over two thousand people at gatherings on Sunday mornings at the Federal Street Theater in Boston, and to as many at his Wednesday evening lectures. In that same year he started his own newspaper, The Boston Investigator.
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.”
On December 20, 1833 he printed a letter he had sent to the Universalist editor Thomas Whittemore stating his differences with his former religious affiliates: “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.”
For this statement Kneeland was accused of being an atheist and underwent five trials on charges of blasphemy. In his defense Kneeland argued grammar and punctuation with the court. He pointed out that since there was no comma after the word “god” he was only saying he didn’t believe in the Universalists’ conception of god. He also argued theology, trying to make it clear that he was a pantheist, not an atheist. He claimed he had the religious right to be either.
But the court would have none of it. The prosecution portrayed his blasphemy as part of a pattern with his social thought. They were, in effect, trying him not just for his theology, but for his politics. For Kneeland had not only denounced the conservative influence of religion on society, but he had called for equal rights for women and equality of races. He had suggested women keep their own name and bank accounts. He had spoken out in favor of birth control, divorce, and interracial marriage. The prosecuting attorney for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts warned the jury that if Kneeland were 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.”
Kneeland spent sixty days in the Boston jail in 1838. William Ellery Channing put together a petition for his pardon based upon the principles of freedom of speech and press, which was signed by many prominent people, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, William Lloyd Garrison, and Bronson Alcott. Kneeland’s old friend Hosea Ballou was not one of these. Ballou did visit him in jail, though he provided more argument than comfort.
After emerging from jail, Kneeland moved to Iowa, and started a small utopian community he named Salubria (near present day Farmington). It did not continue long after his death in 1844.
In becoming the last man jailed for blasphemy in America, Kneeland contributed to the cause of religious freedom. He made it so embarrassing for the powers that be that though the blasphemy law is still on the books in Massachusetts, and there are similar laws in force in several other states, the authorities have never charged, tried, sentenced, and incarcerated another person for this supposed crime.
Some unpublished writings concerning Abner Kneeland are in the possession of the Iowa Historical Library in Des Moines, Iowa. The Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts has many useful material for the study of Kneeland, including contemporary newspapers and most Universalist publications. The minutes of the New England Universalist General Convention are housed in the library’s Unitarian Universalist Special Collections. Other important early published works can be found at the Boston Athenaeum, the Boston Public Library, and the Massachusetts Historical Society Library in Boston, Massachusetts. Documents pertaining to the blasphemy trials are collected in Leonard Levy, ed., Blasphemy in Massachusetts: Freedom of Conscience and the Abner Kneeland Case: A Documentary Record (1973).
Kneeland edited a number of religious periodicals, including the Philadelphia Universalist Magazine and Christian Messenger, the Olive Brach and Christian Inquirer, and the Boston Investigator. Among his other publications were The Child’s Spelling Book (1802), The American Definition Spelling Book (1802), The Columbian Miscellany (1804), A Brief Sketch of the New System of Orthography (1808), the Philadelphia Hymn Book (1819), American Pronouncing Spelling Book (1824), Key to the New System of Orthography (1827), Appeal to Universalists, on the Subject of Excommunication, or the Withdrawing of Fellowship, on Account of Diversity of Opinion (1829), A Review of the Evidences of Christianity; in a Series of Lectures, Delivered in Broadway Hall New York, August 1829 (1887), and A Review of the Trial, Conviction, and Final Imprisonment in the Common Jail of the County of Suffolk of Abner Kneeland for the Alleged Charge of Blasphemy (1838).
Most biographies of Kneeland are short, either articles, chapters, or monographs. These include Lemuel Willis, “Abner Kneeland,” in The Universalist (1874); Stillman F. Kneeland, a passage in Seven Centuries in the Kneeland Family (1897); Mary P. Whitcomb, “Abner Kneeland,” in Annals of Iowa (April 1904); Frank Burnside Kingsbury, History and Genealogical Register of the Town of Langdon, New Hampshire (1932); Harry S. Sherman, an unpublished thesis for Tufts University, “Abner Kneeland: Religious Pioneer” (1953); Clinton Lee Scott, a chapter in his biography collection, These Live Tomorrow (1964); ten pages in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870 (1979), and Olive Hoogenboom, “Abner Kneeland,” an entry in American National Biography (1999). The only book-length study of Kneeland is Stephan Papa’s The Last Man Jailed for Blasphemy (1998). Information about the later stages of Kneeland’s Universalist career can be found in Abel C. Thomas’s Autobiography (1852) and A Century of Universalism in Philadelphia and New York (1872) and in Richard Eddy’s The Life of Thomas J. Sawyer and of Caroline M. Sawyer (1900). For Kneeland’s post-Universalist Boston years consult Henry Steele Commager, “The Blasphemy of Abner Kneeland,” in The New England Quarterly (1935); Albert Post, Freethought in America: 1825-1850 (1943); and Roderick S. French, “Liberation from Man and God in Boston: Abner Kneeland’s Free-Thought Campaign 1830-1839,” in The American Quarterly (1980). The last phase of Kneeland’s life is treated in Margaret Atherton Bonney, “The Salubria Story,” in the Palimpsest (1975), a publication of the State Historical Society of Iowa.