The Last Man Jailed for Blasphemy

On Sunday January 23rd, one of our new members, Linda Kneeland, gave us an excellent talk about one of her ancestors. It was about Abner Kneeland, who was Linda’s great, great grandfather, although he may have been her great, great uncle – she is not sure. 

Abner was born in 1774 in Gardner, Massachusetts. He was raised as a Baptist, but then he became a Universalist. He was ordained as a Universalist Minister in 1805. In those days Universalists were more liberal-thinking than other religions, but Abner’s views were even more liberal. Today, his views are considered mainstream in UU circles, but he was about 150 years ahead of his time. So he was kicked out of the ministerial fellowship. But he continued to preach as a lay preacher in Boston and New York. Eventually he started his own newspaper and when he was challenged to publish his religious philosophy, he did just that, but his writings were considered blasphemous. 

So, what were these radical ideas that got him in trouble? He believed in equal rights for women. He believed in equal rights for African-Americans. He believed in inter-racial marriage. He said if they love each other why not? He suggested that women should keep their own maiden names after marriage and maintain their own property. He advocated the right to birth control. He wrote of the right to divorce. He proclaimed that a woman shouldn’t have to suffer all of her life for a decision made when she was young and unwise in the ways of the world. Moreover, he had his own definition of God. 

Finally, he was arrested and tried for such “extreme” ideas. At the trial the prosecuting attorney said, “We can’t allow Mr. Kneeland to continue with what he is saying, or women and blacks will be wanting equal rights!” The Boston elite seemed to be more worried that his social reform ideas would become the norm – rather than be concerned about his religious beliefs. He was found guilty of trying to mix his religion and his politics. He served 60 days in a Boston jail in the summer of 1838. 

Linda’s ancestor was way ahead of his time. He and his family paid a heavy price for his radical views – they were shunned by “the proper” people of Boston.

Gabor Matyas

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