Friday, May 16, 2014


The last person convicted of blasphemy in the United States, in 1834, was Abner Kneeland, a minister who lived in Massachusetts and who was shifting his views as he read more about religion and corresponded with other ministers of different faiths.  He argued that there was no evidence for miracles, no evidence for the Trinity, no evidence  for the existence of souls, and no evidence for any specific god.  He did not consider himself an atheist, but described himself as a pantheist.  He did so because he felt the entire universe or what is called Nature could be considered as God.  In his correspondence with other ministers he wrote lengthy arguments to defend his views and they wrote equally lengthy replies. The letters are friendly, unlike those of John Calvin and Michael Servetus, where Calvin was so outraged over Servetus’s arguments against the Trinity that he ordered him arrested if he ever set foot in Geneva.  Servetus unfortunately did come to Geneva to plea his position personally with Calvin and instead Calvin turned him over to civil authorities where he was burned at the stake for heresy.  Kneeland had two trials and was convicted in the second trial and served 60 days in jail and paid a fine.  He then moved to Iowa to live out the rest of his life as a farmer.
In his speech to the jurors at his second trial, Kneeland argued that one of the charges, obscenity, was spurious because he used satire to reject the conception of Jesus by the Holy Ghost.  He argued that the Holy Ghost is not a material being and his name implies he was a spirit and immaterial.  As such, he claimed, he lacked the male genitalia to impregnate Mary. Neither the prosecutor nor the ministers who brought charges against Kneeland were amused.  When the jury found him guilty, the judge denounced Kneeland as a cantankerous person who deserved punishment for libeling religion.  Ministers were divided.   Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, early Unitarians, were his supporters.  But other Protestant ministers, including some Unitarians and Universalists (otherwise thought to be  liberal) condemned Kneeland.
You can read Kneeland’s correspondence and his speech to the jury on line if you go to the Digital Library of America and select “bookshelf” and then enter “Abner Kneeland” and then select “Speech of Abner Kneeland delivered to the City of Boston in his own defense for blasphemy, November term 1834. 

Fortunately blasphemy is rarely used as a criminal charge in municipal, state, or national law.  It would likely be found unconstitutional.  Blasphemy is usually considered an insulting way of describing God or the religion of other people.  Blasphemy was usually selective and invective descriptions of non-Christian religions were quite common when I was growing up.  “Bible belt” Protestants often equated Roman Catholics with Satan.   “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” was even a campaign slogan against Democrats in the 1896 Presidential election because Democrats drew a large portion of Irish voters on the East Coast. 

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