Thursday, August 14, 2008

Abner Kneeland don't get no respect ...


… at least not much in Iowa, including Farmington down in the southeast corner of Van Buren County, where the grand old infidel rests on a hill overlooking the Des Moines River valley with his fourth wife, Dolly, and other family members by his side. You’d expect at least a plaque when you’ve got custody of the mortal remains of one of the most innovative (and controversial) religious thinkers of the first half of the 19th century, the last man tried and jailed for blasphemy in Massachusetts and, some say, the nation.

Abner also, in 1839, was the first Iowan to launch a utopian community (this one for free-thinkers) at his Salubria along the river about two miles south of Farmington --- establishing a tradition carried forward by others, including arguably the most successful to date --- the Christ-centered Community of True Inspiration’s Amana Colony. And if you think that tradition is dead, consider Maharishi Vedic City north of Fairfield, founded in 2001 by followers of Maharashi Mahesh Yogi, the guy who brought us Transcendental Meditation. Ah, heaven on earth and the wonderfully whacky notion we can create it (overlooking the possibility the Creator may already have done that and we're just not paying attention).


Abner is a fascinating guy, born 7 April 1774 in Gardner, Massachusetts. Largely self-educated and trained to be carpenter, he moved as a young man to Dummerston, Vermont, where he married in nearby Putney the first of four wives (all removed in sequence by death save the last, Dolly, who survived him), Waitstill Ormsbee.

At Putney, he was duly dunked by the Rev. Josiah Goddard, became a member of the Baptist church and in 1801 began to preach. But Abner was by nature a seeker --- and soon the notion of universal salvation then rising in New England attracted him. Most Baptists were not amused by the idea of universal salvation.

That Universalist line of thought --- that God has an open-door policy --- developed in an era when it generally was felt one needed the proper combination to unlock the door to salvation (as a good many Christians still profess). In Universalism, the concept of hell went to hell, and that was considered heresy by many anxious to see those who disagreed with them fry. Still, Universalists (many of whom also were unitarian in outlook, dismissing the notion of the Trinity as fanciful) were more strongly Christocentric than the Unitarians and few of either profession dispensed entirely with God.

Abner was licensed as a Universalist preacher in New Hampshire in 1803 and ordained in 1805. He subsequently served Universalist societies in Charlestown, Mass., Whitestown, N.Y., and Philadelphia before relocating in 1825 to the Prince Street Universalist Society in New York City where his increasingly pantheistic views split the fellowship and led to his eventual withdrawal and finally disfellowship.

In 1831, he moved to Boston to become lecturer for the new First Society of Free Enquirers and with a long history in writing, pamphleteering and editing, founded his own newspaper, The Boston Investigator. By this time, he had tossed Christianity and organized religion as a whole out with the bath water and in the process of doing so landed himself in hot water.

The straw that broke the Boston establishment’s back was published in The Investigator of 23 December 1833:

“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 the whole story concerning him is as much a fable and fiction as that of the god Prometheus, the tragedy of whose death is said to have been acted on the stage in the theater in Athens five hundred years before the Christian era.

“3. Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can 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 extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.”


Holy heresy! After three trials stretching over a five-year period, Abner finally was jailed for 60 days in Boston in 1838.

The whole process, however, was something of a turning point, although a far from complete one, in U.S. views of religious dissent. Even firm and convicted Christians began to understand what could happen if they dared express a view that seemed unorthodox to whoever was in charge at the time.

And Abner himself stoutly maintained that he was in no way an atheist --- merely a pantheist: "I had no occasion to deny that there was a God; I believe that the whole universe is nature, and that God and nature are synonymous terms. I believe in a God that embraces all power, wisdom, justice and goodness. Everything is God. I am not an atheist but a pantheist," he wrote.

Backing up 30 years, you’ll remember perhaps that Abner had married Waitstill Ormsbee in 1797 in Putney, Vermont. They became the parents of four children before her death in 1806. He then married Lucinda Mason of Wrentham, Mass., in 1806 and they had four children as well before her death in 1812. In 1813, Abner married as his third wife Mrs. Eliza (Deland) Osborn of Salem, Mass., and although that union produced no children it endured until her death, too, Finally, in December 1834, he married Dolly Lovering Rice whom he had met a year earlier when she asked him to officiate at the funeral of her late husband, James Rice, who died 5 December 1833. Abner was 60 at the time of the marriage and Dolly, in her early 30s with four children of her own Abner and Dolly went on to have four more children, the youngest of whom was born in Iowa when he was 68.

Out of Jail in 1838 and with the backing of the Boston First Society of Free Enquirers, Abner looked west for a new home where he and others could perhaps escape militant Christianity and found a city of free thought, set on a hill.

It‘s not especially clear who conceived the idea of the community called Salubria or who alighted upon its location about two miles south of the frontier village of Farmington on the east bank of the Des Moines in what became Van Buren County. More than likely it was a collaborative effort of several Society of Free Enquirers members and Kneeland. But when Abner decided to go there, he became its leader and prime mover.

Abner came west in May of 1839 with his stepson, James Rice, and they built a home. Dolly and her four daughters, three Rice and one Kneeland, followed, leaving Boston in June and arriving in Iowa in July.

Some misunderstandings about Salubria have developed over the years. It was in no way intended to be communal, for example; merely free of organized religion. By some estimates there were as many as 100 Salubrians in and around the community center. And there was some evangelizing going on. Abner is known to have lectured in the river towns of Farmington, Bonaparte, Bentonsport and Keosauqua and elsewhere and to have continued contributions via letter to The Investigator back in Boston.

The Christian preachers arrived hot on Abner’s tail --- and probably because most of them outlived him by many years, it doesn’t take long with a Google or other search to find several instances online of preachers strutting around crowing about how they bested Abner in debate and sent the Godless infidel running for cover.

This all seems unlikely, since Abner was by all accounts a gifted speaker and debater and the most gentlemanly of contenders, and unlikely to run from anyone. He who lives longest sometimes wins merely by doing so, however, and Abner didn’t.

Abner was old in terms of those days and his followers were few and his sudden death on 27 Aug 1844 at age 70 pretty much removed the unlikely possibility that Iowa would develop as a pantheistic paradise rather than as one of the stronger links in the Bible belt of America.

Abner was buried with others in a little cemetery at Salubria and remained there for somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 years. Among those who joined him were his stepson-in-law, Thomas Crim, who died June 6, 1858; his stepdaughter, Dorcas J. (Rice) Crim, who reportedly died in 1864; a James Kneeland, whom I can’t identify because I can’t read the inscription on his tombstone or find anything else to tell me precisely who he was; and Dolly, who died at Keokuk at the home of her daughter, Dolly L. (Rice) Drummond/Farris, on 5 November 1871, age 71.

All still were at Salubria in the late fall of 1880 when the following report appeared in The Farmington Bee of 6 November: “On last Sabbath it was our pleasure to visit the grave of the aged and celebrated Pantheist, Abner Kneeland. This noted man established himself two miles south of this city, in a small colony which he called Salubria. In the month of August, 1844, he very suddenly died. His grave is marked by a plain marble slab, surround by some half dozen other mounds. Over the sleeping-place is growing kenicanick and briars, the whole surrounded by a field of green growing wheat, and in the distance is still standing the house built by his hands. The place is, indeed, salubrious and romantic. One standing upon this beautiful spot cannot help being struck with the former bravery and wisdom of the venerable sleeper.”

Not long thereafter, perhaps because of the abandoned nature of the cemetery, the Kneelands and their tombstones were brought into Farmington and the bodies reinterred in a new addition to the Farmington Cemetery, located on a bluff just east of town. And there they remain to this day.

And I think some sort of minor monument explaining a bit of this history to passers-by is in order. The people of Van Buren County might consider this, the Unitarian Universalists (who consider Abner a founding light on the road to rationalism), even a coalition of Christians: There’s nothing better for stirring up revival, after all, than the sort of righteous indignation a pain in the ass like the Rev. Mr. Kneeland can and did inspire.


The grave of Dorcas J. (Rice) Crim, one of Dolly's daughters by James Rice, is located just south of Abner's. She reportedly died in 1864 although most of the inscription on her tombstone either is below ground or, if this is just a tombstone fragment, missing entirely.


Dorcas J. Rice's husband, Thomas Crim, who died in 1858, is buried just south of her. Like the others buried on this lot, his original resting place was the small cemetery at Salubria about two miles south.


This appears to the top part of a larger tombstone. The inscription begins, "In Memory of James Kneeland," but I simply couldn't make out the rest. I do not know who James was. He was not a child of Abner, however.


This is a view, looking northeast, of the entire Kneeland lot. The stubby marble obelisk at the south end of the lot has simply dissolved over the years and there's not a trace of an inscription although probably there once was one to tell us whose grave it marks.

To reach the Farmington Cemetery, turn east off Highway 2 in the east part of town onto Van Buren County Road J56 (Pearl Street) and follow it up around the hill on which the cemetery is located. The cemetery is full and a newer burial place in south Farmington has supplanted it. In addition to some interesting old tombstones, many in deplorable shape, the old cemetery contains some of the finest oaks I’ve seen, trees that perhaps predate this hill’s present use. You can turn onto short circling drive through the newer east part of the cemetery. But be warned if you’re tempted to drive into the old cemetery on what looks like a grass trail you’ll have to back out, dodging tombstones and trees all the way. It’s best to park and walk. You’ll find the Kneeland lot in the extreme northwest corner of the cemetery, out on a point west of the original hilltop burying ground.


There’s a good deal of material about Abner available online and, of course, in print. I’ve relied heavily on Mary P. Whitcomb’s excellent article entitled “Abner Kneeland: His Relations to Early Iowa History” published in the April 1904 edition of Annals of Iowa (I lifted the alleged heretical statements published in The Investigator from this source); Stillman F. Kneeland’s 1897 Seven Centuries of the Kneeland Family, where I found the report of a visit to Abner’s grave as reported in the Farmington Bee; and an excellent concise summary of his life found on the Web site of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society.

3 comments:

Ed Abbey said...

Although I am familiar with the story of Abner and Salubria, I didn't know he was buried there. Very interesting blog.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone visited the new Salubria lately? I hadn't been down the river road past Farmington for a few years, and when I decided to try to find the Salubria Cemetery today that appears on a map, I was a bit shocked to find a faux-Western village/campground. When I asked a woman who perhaps is one of the owners about it, she said that the gravestones had been smashed into the ground before they bought the property, and that I wouldn't want to see it because it is "too heartbreaking". Well, actually, I would love to see it, but she didn't act like she wanted anyone to intrude, so I didn't push it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article. After reading so many really negative articles about Abner Kneeland this was a very welcome change.
I am a descendent of his, so this especially touches my heart.


Thank you.