Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

A Powerful Pioneer Evangelist

A powerful pioneer evangelist whose ever-changing philosophy was driven by religious doubts, found his way to Van Buren County in 1838. He had been a Baptist, then a Universalist, but by the time of his arrival was consumed by a free spirited, pantheistic, religious theology. 

Abner Kneeland was born in Gardner, Massachusetts on April 7, 1774 to Timothy and Moriah Stone Kneeland. He became a school teacher, and compiled his own spelling books.

Kneeland’s preaching began in Putney, Vermont as a Baptist. He soon developed his Universalism theology, as he became a disciple of Hosea Ballou. For awhile, he was an itinerant Universalist preacher, and served on a committee that compiled a new hymnal. His contribution did not excite the Universalist General Convention, because his work was confrontational and controversial. For example, one of his 138 hymns read, “As ancient bigots disagree, the Stoic and the Pharisee, so is the modern Christian world, in superstitious error hurled.”

In Charlestown, Massachusetts he suddenly abandoned his ministry to help his wife run a dry goods store. Persuaded by his old friend Ballou, he was readmitted into fellowship in 1816. As he was actually going through a period of serious doubts, he read all of the skeptical literature he could find including the writings of Joseph Priestley (a scientist known for his inventions and discoveries; a Calvinist heretic). He had impressive energy but his preaching was dry, metaphysical, and often untrue.

When he began preaching at the Lombard Street Church in Philadelphia in 1818, he proclaimed he had the right to interpret the church’s articles of faith in his own way and became involved in editing denominational newspapers and compiling hymnals. He came up with his own translation of the New Testament, developed a new system of spelling, and engaged in public debates. From 1825-1827, he ministered at Prince Street Church in New York City and eventually made full disclosure of his theological opinions, which divided the church. Kneeland and his supporters formed a new congregation—the Second Universalist Society. But, it wasn’t long before he offended them and was disfellowshipped.

In 1831, Kneeland moved to Boston and became a lecturer for the newly formed First Society of Free Enquirers. He started his own newspaper, The Boston Investigator. In 1833, his creed declared “I believe that God and Nature, as far as we can attach any rational idea to either, are synonymous terms.” He declared himself to be a pantheist rather than an atheist, and defined the two terms. “All is God,” he said, “And the whole duty of man consists in living as long as he can, promoting as much happiness as he can.” In a letter he stated, “Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with all its moral attributes, is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.”

This is the statement that judged him to be an atheist and brought on five trials for blasphemy. In his defense, Kneeland argued grammar and punctuation. With no comma after “god” he pointed out that he said he didn’t believe in the Universalists’ concept of God. In his argument that he was a pantheist, not an atheist, he claimed he actually had the right to be either one.

There is no question but what the court jailed him for his political views as well as his theology. He called for equal rights for women and equality of race. He suggested that women keep their own names when married, and have separate bank accounts. He was in favor of birth control, divorce, and interracial marriage. The prosecuting attorney jumped all over this, claiming that if this man wasn’t stopped, marriages would dissolve and prostitution would become easy, safe and moral.

Abner spent 60 days in the Boston jail in 1838. William Channing put together a petition for his pardon based on the principles of freedom of speech and press, and this document was signed by many prominent people including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, George Ripley and William Lloyd Garrison.

Many of Kneeland’s closest friends and allies had migrated west to a place called Farmington, in Iowa Territory. When he emerged from jail, Kneeland moved to Iowa and started the small, Utopian community called Salubria.

If Kneeland had kept a low profile in Iowa, his movement would have gone unnoticed. But, he had political ambitions and thus his controversial ideas and opinions surfaced and drew negative public notice. Church ministers warned Iowa congregations, as Kneeland’s society under scrutiny was feared by many.

Abner Kneeland was the last man in America who was jailed for blasphemy. He contributed much to the cause of religious freedom. Blasphemy laws are still on the books in Massachusetts, but authorities have never since his time charged anyone with this supposed crime.

Kneeland edited religious periodicals, and had many publications ranging from spelling books to sketches of his philosophies. Included in his works is “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).” Many short biographies have appeared written as articles or chapters. The Iowa Historical Library in Des Moines has some unpublished writing. The last phase of his life is treated in Margaret Atherton Bonney’s “The Salubria Story,” in the Palimpsest (1975).

A grid of the town of Salubria was drawn up in Boston, but is not on file at the Van Buren County Courthouse. Salubria was in the tiny tail of Van Buren County south of Farmington, between Lee County and the Des Moines River. The town consisted of only six houses, but he had as many as 100 followers in the colony. After his death in 1844, the movement failed to thrive and was eventually absorbed into the church communities of Farmington and Bonaparte.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick