“Fashionable Deists with Good Moral Lectures” April 30, 2021

 Last Sunday I gave a sermon on the Rev. Hosea Ballou (considered the “father” of Universalism). Of course, I often find I don’t have the time to include all the stories I would like to share in the service time we have available, and this Sunday was no different. So here’s a story I didn’t include–but that I think is interesting, nonetheless.

One of Hosea Ballou’s friends was the Rev. Abner Kneeland who, together with Ballou, had written many of the hymns for the denomination’s hymn books. (As I mentioned Sunday, the verses Ballou wrote were not all that good, and as new hymn books were published more and more of his hymns were deleted, so that by1917 only two remained. Today none of his hymns are present in our hymn books–although the Christian Science hymnal includes one.)

Now, Ballou’s friend (and fellow hymnist) Abner Kneeland was happy for a time in the Universalist denomination, but he gradually came to doubt the truth of the Bible and asked to be suspended from the Universalist Convention. Then he announced through the newspapers that he was now an atheist, and he gathered a little congregation around him that met in a Boston theatre. According to an eye-witness account, the services he conducted were quite dramatic: “Mr. Kneeland would read portions of the Old Testament, not designed for public reading in a non-Jewish assembly; he would dramatically cast the Bible across the hall as a book not fit to be kept in decent company.”

Not too surprisingly, Kneeland was eventually arrested and charged with blasphemy. Interestingly, although Ballou visited and comforted his old friend in jail, he did support the State’s right to prohibit blasphemy–even though Universalism itself had always been considered blasphemy by its opponents!

The clergyperson who rallied to Kneeland’s defense was actually William Ellery Channing, the leader of the Unitarians!  (Just another example of the 150-year courting ritual that eventually led to the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961.)  Although Channing definitely did not agree with Kneeland’s anti-biblical tirades, he did believe in Kneeland’s right to teach his own convictions–a First-Amendment right we still cherish today.

After Abner Kneeland got out of jail, he decided to move to Iowa. Before leaving his First Society of Free Enquirers, he asked them to stay together on their own, as long as they could. And then to join the Unitarians. Why the Unitarians? Well, in his own words: “The Unitarians are nothing more than a fashionable kind of deists.  …They have little to say in their preaching about heaven or hell, God or devil, in a way by which anybody can tell what they mean, while, as I am told, they deliver many good moral lectures.”

I’m not sure if there are any lessons to draw from this bit of history; but I do think it’s interesting that certain ideas that seem radical even today were circulating two hundred years ago. And Abner Kneeland’s description of Unitarianism, although it sounds somewhat negative (“they have little to say…in a way by which anybody can tell what they mean”), does seem prescient in a way. After all, we still try to use inclusive theological language (instead of just “God,” we may refer to “the holy” or “the divine” or “the most precious”)–which may lead some people to wonder exactly what we all believe. And as for being “fashionable deists” who deliver “many good moral lectures”–well, I’ve been called worse!

Anyway, as your fashionable deistic moral lecturer, I wish you thoughtful joy in the week ahead. Along with, of course, a little…

peace and unrest,

tony