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Stirring Pamphlet Defense of Abner Kneeland in His Massachusetts Trials for Blasphemy
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In this pamphlet, a pseudonymous author defends rights of conscience, speech, and the press, amidst the trials of Abner Kneeland for violating a rarely enforced 1782 Massachusetts statute against blasphemy. Between 1834 and 1838, Kneeland’s words were the subject of four jury trials, two convictions, and a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court review of his conviction before he served sixty days in prison.

[CIVIL RIGHTS]. Pamphlet. A Review of the Prosecution Against Abner Kneeland, for Blasphemy. By a Cosmopolite [likely David Henshaw]. Boston: n.p., 1835. Includes a two-page manuscript laid in, “From the Boston Advocate, Nov. 19, 1834,” describing Kneeland’s trial and his representation of himself. 32 pp., 5¼ x 8⅝ in.

Inventory #25429       Price: $1,250


Among all the incidents of awakening interest which have excited the action, and called forth the opinion of the public during the past year, there is none which has occurred more vitally affecting, for good or for evil, according to its final termination, the civil liberties of the country, than the trial of Abner Kneeland, on an indictment for blasphemy. It strikes at the root of the liberty of conscience, and the freedom of the Press; and involves in its consequences the preservation or the destruction of the free institutions of this country.” (3)

The Massachusetts Constitution “intended to give, and does give, to all citizens freely to express and openly to publish their opinions upon religious subjects.” (3)

the idea is forced upon the mind that the Almighty might possibly, if he saw fit, protect his own reputation from the effects of slander, nearly as well as the Municipal Court do it.” (6)

It will never do in this free country for a believer in any religion, whether dominant or subordinate in point of numbers, to say you shall not question the divinity of my God—you shall not ridicule the forms of my church—you shall not doubt the orthodoxy of my creed—you shall not scoff at my religion, because its truth is undoubted, its holiness divine, and it wounds my feelings to have even an expression of unbelief in it.” (9-10)

It is well known that the fashionable, or good society religion of the region about Boston, is a bastard sort of faith, a kind of mongrel christianity, called Unitarianism, but in reality, little short of pure Deism.” (13)

The framers of the Constitution relied on other means than a gag-law for supporting religion and morality. They were evidently a religious people, protestant christians, and desirous of maintaining and advancing that faith, and of promoting morality. They point out very clearly in the Constitution how that shall be done, while they guard the rights of conscience and of the press.” (19)

religion and virtue may exist together, and they may exist separate—they are two different and distinct parts of the human constitution, and when this important fact becomes more generally understood, man will be appreciated for what he does, not for what he believes—for his works, not his faith.” (24)

We do not believe the public will at all acquiesce in a continuance of this prosecution; the public of this day are not the public of Cotton Mather’s, and the Sale witchcraft, time; they are not the public of 1782, that passed the blasphemy law; they are not the public of forty, nor of twenty, years back. They are a new race of young people, ardent, generous, liberal, moral people; and though we would not say that a majority of them are indifferent to the truths of the christian religion, or unbelievers in its dogmas, we do state it as our decided opinion, that a vast majority are disposed to have perfect freedom of thought and of discussion.” (31)

[Handwritten Note:] “His argument continued for three hours, was managed with signal ability, learning and propriety of manner.”

Historical Background

In July 1782, the General Court of Massachusetts passed “An Act Against Blasphemy,” specifying that if any person “shall willfully blaspheme the Holy Name of GOD, by denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching GOD, his Creation, Government, or final Judging of the World, or by cursing, or reproaching JESUS CHRIST, or the HOLY GHOST, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching the Holy Word of GOD...or by exposing them, or any Part of them, to contempt and ridicule...every person so offending shall by punished by Imprisonment not exceeding Twelve Months, by sitting in the Pillory, by Whipping, or by sitting on the Gallows, with a Rope about the Neck, or binding to the good Behaviour, at the Discretion of the Supreme Judicial Court before whom the Conviction may be, according to the Aggravation of the Offence.”[1]

Just over fifty years later, Abner Kneeland published three offensive articles in the December 20, 1833, issue of his Boston Investigator newspaper. The first two mocked the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ and ridiculed prayer, but they were reprints from a New York City publication. The third was by Kneeland himself, in which he compared his beliefs with those of Universalists, with whom he had been associated. Among its controversial statements were “Universalists believe in a god which I do not,” “Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not,” “Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not,” and “Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, immortality and eternal life, which I do not.”

Kneeland’s first trial took place in the municipal court of Boston in January 1834, with Judge Peter O. Thacher (1776-1843) presiding. County Attorney Samuel D. Parker (1781-1873), the son of an Episcopal bishop, prosecuted the case for the state, and attorney Andrew Dunlap (1794-1835) represented Kneeland. The jury found Kneeland guilty, but he appealed to the state supreme court. In the first trial before the supreme court, in May 1834, with Associate Justice Samuel Putnam (1768-1853) presiding, a lone juror refused to convict, and the judge declared a mistrial. In the second trial before the supreme court in November 1834, with Associate Justice Samuel S. Wilde (1755-1855) presiding, again a single juror refused to convict Kneeland, leading to another mistrial and the continuance of the case.

This pamphlet was published after Kneeland’s second jury trial before the Supreme Court and before his third trial there and conviction. The author may have been David Henshaw (1791-1852), leader of the Democratic Party in Massachusetts and future Secretary of the Navy for seven months under President John Tyler. A pamphlet with the same title as this one was also published in Boston in 1835 with Henshaw’s name.

The third trial in the supreme court was held in November 1835, again with Associate Justice Wilde presiding. In this trial, Attorney General James T. Austin (1784-1870) represented the state, and after the death of his attorney Dunlap earlier that year at age forty, Kneeland pleaded his own case. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and the judge sentenced Kneeland to sixty days in jail. Kneeland again appealed, this time to the full bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

In the spring of 1838, the case appeared before the supreme court, and again Kneeland argued his own case. Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw (1781-1861) presided over the court, which included Associate Justices Putnam, Wilde, Marcus Morton, and Charles A. Dewey. In his majority opinion, Shaw insisted that the law against blasphemy was constitutional, that blasphemy consisted in “speaking evil of the Deity with an impious purpose to derogate from the divine majesty, and to alienate the minds of others from the love and reverence of God,” and that Kneeland’s article fit this definition.[2] Associate Justice Marcus Morton (1784-1864) filed a dissenting opinion, insisting that Kneeland’s article was not guilty of wicked or malicious intent, which Morton found essential to prove an offence. Morton, a future Governor of Massachusetts, was the lone Democrat on the Supreme Judicial Court. Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett (1794-1865) refused to pardon Kneeland, and he went to prison. Everett achieved fame as an orator and later delivered a two-hour speech immediately before Abraham Lincoln delivered his two-minute Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery on the battlefield in Pennsylvania.

William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, William Lloyd Garrison, and many others signed a petition in support of Kneeland’s rights of free speech, but a counter-petition attracted even more signatures, and Kneeland remained in prison to serve the entire sentence. Many contemporaries and subsequent commentators believe that Kneeland was tried as much for his politics as for his theology. He had advocated equal rights for women and the equality of the races. He had also spoken in favor of divorce, birth control, and interracial marriage. Reflecting the sense that Kneeland’s views threatened the entire social fabric, prosecuting attorney Samuel D. Parker in the first trial before the supreme court concluded before the jury that he had done his duty: “If open, gross, palpable and indecent blasphemy, and all the consequences of the Fanny Wright system—atheism, community of property, unlimited lasciviousness, adultery, and the thousand evils of infidelity, receive no check, the reproach will not fall on me. If marriages are dissolved, prostitution made easy and safe, moral and religious restraints removed, property invaded, and the foundation of society broken up, and property made common, and universal mischief and misery ensue, the fault will not lie on me.”[3]

Although Kneeland was the last person charged in Massachusetts with blasphemy, the law against blasphemy remains a part of the General Laws of Massachusetts to this day. It no longer includes the pillory, whipping, and the gallows as possible punishments but can carry a prison sentence of up to one year and a fine of up to $300.[4]

Kneeland was also the last person jailed for blasphemy in the United States, but atheist Charles Lee Smith (1887-1964) was convicted of blasphemy in Arkansas in 1928; his conviction was eventually dismissed on appeal. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1868, allowed courts to apply the protections of the Bill of Rights to the actions of state governments, and since 1925, the U.S. Supreme Court has applied the Bill of Rights to all states.

Abner Kneeland (1774-1844) was born in Massachusetts. Initially a Baptist, he converted to Universalism by 1803 and became an ordained minister in 1805. He served Universalist societies in several towns and cities, but his views often caused division. He edited a Universalist magazine in Philadelphia from 1821 to 1823 and a newspaper in New York City in 1828. He was married four times and had twelve children. As he became more skeptical of revealed religion, Kneeland became a freethinker and pantheist. He founded the Boston Investigator in 1832 as a newspaper dedicated to free thought and published some statements that officials in Massachusetts considered blasphemous. Under the colonial charter of Massachusetts, blasphemy was still a crime, though rarely charged. Among the cardinal Christian doctrines that Kneeland rejected were the divinity of Christ and the eternality of the soul. He also spoke out in favor of birth control, divorce, and interracial marriages. Kneeland was brought to trial several times, the last time in 1838, when he was convicted and imprisoned for sixty days. After his release, Kneeland moved to Iowa and started the utopian community of Salubria in the southeastern corner of the state in 1839. Salubria failed shortly after Kneeland’s death.


Generally very good with some toning and intermittent light foxing; lacking rear green wrap.

Cohen 13341. McCoy K150.

[1] Acts and Laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Boston: Benjamin Edes and Sons, 1782), 27-28.

[2] Commonwealth v. Kneeland, 20 Pick. (Mass.) (1838) 213.

[3] “The Trial of Abner Kneeland for Blasphemy, Boston, Massachusetts, 1835,” John D. Lawson, ed., American State Trials, 17 vols. (St. Louis: Thomas Law Book Company, 1914-1936), 13:532-33.

[4] Commonwealth of Massachusetts, General Laws, Chapter 272, Section 36: Blasphemy.

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