Sunday, 20 June, 2021: Thinking Too Freely?

Freethinkers were fine people, but they shouldn’t go around thinking just anything. — Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

In the turmoil of early 19th Century religious thought in the United States, the Universalist minister Abner Kneeland set a high standard for controversy. A supporter of radical social reform, women’s rights, birth control, and interracial marriage, his views were too much even for the Universalists, who by 1830 had kicked him out of the denomination. In 1838 he became the last person imprisoned in the United States for blasphemy.

Welcome before prelude

Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert Helfer and I feel blessed to serve this congregation as a lay leader. I’m glad to see all of you here today.

Thank you for joining us.

Let us use the prelude for centering. We are about to enter sacred time. We are about to make this time and this place sacred by our presence and intention.

Please silence your phones… and as you do so, I invite us also to turn down the volume on our fears; to remove our masks; and to loosen the armor around our hearts.


Let go of the expectations placed on you by others—and those they taught you to place on yourself.

Drop the guilt and the shame, not to shirk accountability, but in honest expectation of the possibility of forgiveness.

Let go of the thing you said the other day. Let go of the thing you dread next week. Be here, in this moment. Breathe, here.

Prelude: Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show, Neil Diamond

Welcome: To Learn More About Being Human — Erika A. Hewitt

Welcome to this morning, this day, and this opportunity to be together in community — which is a time of joy, comfort, and sometimes challenges. This Unitarian Universalist congregation is a place where we come to learn more about being human. We’re not here because we’ve figured out life’s questions, or because we think we’ve got it right.

We come here to learn more about being in relationship together: how to listen, how to forgive, how to be vulnerable, and how to create trust and compassion in one another.

Let us move into worship, willing to be authentic with each other, honest within ourselves, and opening to connection in all its forms.


Please rise in body or spirit and join in singing “Come, Come, Whoever You Are”
(Singing the Living Tradition, 188)

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again come

Chalice lighting: In Memory of All the Flames – Amarette Callaway

In memory of all the flames that didn’t die —
in the midst of darkness,
in spite of the darkness,
we light this flame today.

“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5 NRSV)

Principles of Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Story: How the Wren Became the King of the Birds
A tale from the British Islands, retold by Elizabeth Simpson

Invitation to Offering

Say to thyself, ‘If there is any good thing that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now; let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’
– Anonymous

Remember that our being here, together, all of us, in this space, is part of our offering, our sharing and building of this community. Let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use our time and talents during the next week for this community and for our larger society.

Épitaphe de Seikilos, Petros Tabouris Ensemble

Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received — and the gifts which we, ourselves, are — may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Song: We Are the Earth Upright and Proud
(Singing The Living Tradition, #303)


Abner Kneeland, from “Letter to Thomas Whittemore”

Kneeland wrote the following letter to Thomas Whittemore, editor of The Trumpet, in December 1833.

Dear Sir: You observed to me the other day, that people still consider me a Universalist, and said to me “If you will acknowledge that you are not, I will publish it.” I told you, in substance, that in some respects I am still a Universalist; but that in others, I am not. I shall now answer you more at large, which I hope you will publish in full, and thereby redeem your pledge.

I still hold to universal philanthropy, universal benevolence, and universal charity. In these respects, I am still a Universalist. Neither do I believe in punishment after death; so in this also I agree with the Universalists. But as it respects all other of their religious notions in relation to another world or a supposed other state of conscious existence, I do not believe in any of them; to that in this respect, I am no more a Universalist than I am an orthodox Christian.

1. 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.

2. Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but believe that whole story concerning him is as much a fable and a fiction, as that of the god Prometheus, the tragedy of whose death is said to have been acted on the stage in the theatre in Athens, 500 years before the Christian era.

3. Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can either be accounted for on natural principles, or else is to be attributed to mere trick and imposture.

4. Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, in immortality and eternal life, which I do not; but believe that all life is mortal, that death is an eternal extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.

Hence, as Universalists no longer wish to consider me as being of their faith, and I no longer wish to be considered as belonging to their order, as it relates to a belief in things unseen, I hope the above four articles will be sufficient to distinguish me from them and them from me. I profess to believe in all realities of which I can form any rational conception, while they believe in what I believe to be mere ideal nothings to which they give both a “location and a name.”

In giving the above a place in the Trumpet you will let me tell your readers, in my own language, what I do, as well as what I do not, believe and thereby oblige your once brother of the same faith with yourself, and still your personal friend.

Abner Kneeland

Abner Kneeland, “A Philosophical Creed”

I believe in the existence of a universe of suns and planets, among which there is one sun belonging to our planetary system; and that other suns, being more remote, are called stars; but that they are indeed suns to other planetary systems. I believe that the whole universe is NATURE, and that the word NATURE embraces the whole universe, and that GOD and NATURE, so far as we can attach any rational idea to either, are perfectly 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; and that all power that is, is in God, and that there is no power except that which proceeds from God. I believe that there can be no will or intelligence where there is no sense; and no sense where there are no organs of sense; and hence sense, will, and intelligence, is the effect, and not the cause, of organization. I believe in all that logically results from these premises, whether good, bad, or indifferent. Hence, I believe, that God is all in all; and that 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.

Lesson: Thinking Too Freely?
Robert Helfer, Lay Leader

“Freethinkers were fine people, but they shouldn’t go around thinking just anything.”
— Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

Today marks West Virginia’s 158th birthday. It’s also Father’s Day, and, by coincidence, the 111th anniversary of my father’s birth. The United Nations reminds us that it’s also World Refugee Day. And at 11:31 p.m. today the sun will stand still (or something like that), making today the longest day in the year — tomorrow the days begin to shorten again. (Midsummer is still four days in the future.) But as notable as all those things are, I’m not going to talk about any of them. Instead, I’m going to talk about Abner Kneeland.

Some years ago I discovered Kneeland while browsing aimlessly in Ernest Cassara’s Universalism in America: A Documentary History. I was taken by his short “A Philosophical Creed”, which I just read to you, and was somewhat startled by the fact that this statement of faith that seemed so modern and radical dated to 1833. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, since I’ve known of other, even more radical religious sentiments that date from centuries before Kneeland. But somehow it seemed out of place in the early 19th century. And so, since today I’m to speak on Unitarian Universalist history, Kneeland sprang to mind.

But I need to start this story a bit closer to the beginning.

Abner Kneeland was born April 7, 1774, in Gardner, Massachusetts, to Timothy and Moriah Stone Kneeland. When he was 21, he and his older brother moved to Vermont to follow their father’s carpentry trade. In 1801 Abner joined a Baptist church in Putney, and shortly after that he began to preach. While still preaching as a Baptist, he began reading the works of Elhanan Winchester (the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography describes Winchester as “the most wide-ranging and successful 18th century American Universalist evangelist”) and was converted to Universalism. In 1803 he met Hosea Ballou and formed a close friendship with him, and also adoped Ballou’s theology.

In 1804, with John Murray preaching the sermon, Kneeland was ordained as a minister-at-large, and soon became an itinerant preacher in New Hampshire. In 1805 he was ordained again, as settled minister of the church in Langdon, New Hampshire, this time with Ballou delivering the sermon. Lisa has discussed Ballou in the past, and I hope she will again.

Clearly Kneeland was among the stars of Universalism in the early 19th century. He was active in New England Universalist General Convention affairs, serving as treasurer in 1809 and standing clerk in 1811, and with Ballou and Edward Turner compiled a Universalist hymnal. Kneeland contributed 138 of the 410 hymns, but apparently he was getting more radical, and confrontational. One of his hymns, for example, included the words: “As ancient bigots disagree, The Stoic and the Pharisee, So is the modern Christian world/ In superstitious error hurl’d.” — words probably not conducive to good ecumenical relations with more conservative Christian ministers. The Convention declined to publish the hymnal.

In 1811 Kneeland moved to the church in Charlestown, Massachusetts, but in 1814 he suddenly resigned his pulpit and opened a dry goods business with his wife. When the Convention urged him to return to the ministry, he explained that he left the ministry for financial reasons. But he was struggling with doubt. He had come to doubt the authenticity of scripture and the authority of revelation. He turned to his friend Ballou, and they engaged in a debate by correspondence on these issues. Ballou reassured Kneeland, and he returned to the ministry. In 1816 he was settled in the church at Whitestown, New York. But Kneeland’s doubts persisted, and he sought out and read any skeptical literature he could find, including works of Joseph Priestly, beginning a drift toward unitarianism.

Perhaps this is a good time to widen the screen a bit. From around 1790 through 1840, the United States was immersed in what is now called the Second Great Awakening. This was a period of great religious turmoil and enthusiasm. It was a period of intense reassessment of Protestant Christianity. It was the era of Methodist circuit riders seeking out isolated settlers in the wilderness, emotional preaching, religious revivals, including “camp meetings” (such as “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show”), great increases in church memberships in new churches and, in Wikipedia’s words, “personal connection with God instead of relying on a minister”. New colleges, seminaries, and mission societies were founded. New denominations appeared — Latter Day Saints, Baptists, Shakers, the Adventist movement, and Spiritualism. And it was a time of social activism — abolitionist groups and the Temperance movement.

And in the midst of all this, Kneeland doubted Christianity.

In 1818 he was called to the Lombard Street church in Philadelphia, where he seems nearly immediately to have alienated a portion of the congregation with his non-traditional opinions. He was quite energetic during his time in Philadelphia. The Dictionary of UU Biography reports: “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. … 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.” He also met Robert Owen.

Owen was a Welsh-born industrialist, and Utopian socialist. In 1824 he moved to the United States and soon invested much of his fortune in an experimental socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana. But the frontier in 19th century North America was littered with failed Utopian communities. New Harmony failed after about two years, and in 1828 Owen returned to England. His followers and supporters, called Owenites, continued some of his efforts, but ultimately failed as well. But his thinking was influential in development of cooperatives and the trade union movement, and led to child labor laws and free co-educational schools.

In that brief time, Kneeland became a disciple of Owen. But before his new ideas could affect his position in the Lombard Street church, he moved to the Prince Street church in New York. He was in residence there from 1825 until 1827 when his transformed thinking divided the church. Kneeland and those who supported him then created a new congregation, the Second Universalist Society. And by 1829 Kneeland had managed to alienate this congregation as well.

He had become a notorious freethinker, denounced by churches all through the denomination. But perhaps the last straw for the Universalists was his support of the even more freethinking and scandalous Frances Wright. Fanny Wright was a Scottish-born social reformer. In the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s words, her “revolutionary views on religion, education, marriage, birth control, and other matters made her both a popular author and lecturer and a target of vilification”. And Kneeland didn’t just support her ideas or her right to speak them, he allowed her the use of his pulpit when no one else would let her speak.

Clearly, as far as the Universalists were concerned Kneeland was thinking too freely, and they had had enough. In 1829, under pressure from Ballou, Kneeland voluntarily withdrew from fellowship, and the following year the Convention automatically disfellowshipped him.

Losing his pulpit wasn’t really such a bad thing. His ideas may not have pleased the Universalists, but he definitely still had an audience. In 1831 he moved to Boston and became lecturer for the newly formed First Society of Free Enquirers. The Dictionary of UU Biography reports that 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.” He also published his own newspaper.

Kneeland’s scandalous career eventually caught up with him. He had spoken out not just on religious issues, but also social issues, expressing opinions that must have distressed the conservative population. In 1838 the authorities brought him to trial under the blasphemy laws of Massachusetts’ colonial charter. Quoting once again from the Dictionary of UU Biography,

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.”

It took 5 trials to finally convict Kneeland, and there was a huge uproar. He had many supporters. William Ellery Channing produced a petition to pardon Kneeland, based on freedom of speech and press. Among the many who signed were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, William Lloyd Garrison, and Bronson Alcott, stars of liberal religion at the time, but not his old friend Ballou. To be fair, though, I should note that petitions in support of the authorities carried more signatures, showing continuing public support for the old law. Channing’s petition was not successful; Kneeland served 60 days in the Boston jail, the last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy in the United States. After his release he moved to Iowa, where, like a good Owenite, he started a small Utopian community that he called Salubria. The community did not survive long after his death in 1844.

Is there something we can learn from this story? I don’t know. But I do think that I need to learn more about this person, who fits so amazingly into a time of transition and who propounded a wide range of social reform. It seems that much of what Kneeland supported would be supported by most current Unitarians and Universalists. And for me it’s a bit disturbing that so much of what he tried to accomplish has not yet happened, some 188 years later. Maybe we’re slow learners.

Music: Drift Away, Dobie Gray

Joys and Sorrows

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;

or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.


For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.


These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song Go Now In Peace (3 times)
Please rise in body or spirit and join in singing Go Now In Peace

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: Cherish Your Doubts — Michael A Schuler

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the servant of truth.

Question your convictions, for beliefs too tightly held strangle the mind and its natural wisdom.

Suspect all certitudes, for the world whirls on — nothing abides.

Yet in our inner rooms full of doubt, inquiry and suspicion, let a corner be reserved for trust.

For without trust there is no space for communities to gather or for friendships to be forged.

Indeed, this is the small corner where we connect — and reconnect — with each other.

The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.

Go now in peace.

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