Abner Kneeland (1774-1884) was a former Universalist minister, turned atheist, who started the Boston Investigator newspaper in 1830. Its motto was “Truth, perseverance, union, justice- the means; happiness- the end. Hear all sides- then decide”. There were several atheistic societies in Boston at this time, including the “First Society of Free Thinkers” and the “Boston Infidel Society.” Kneeland was prosecuted for blasphemy in Massachusetts in 1838, and served sixty days in prison.
The Boston Infidel Society is listed in some 1800s Boston directories, right in between The Boston Free Dispensary for Diseases of the Skin and Eye and The Boston Lying In Hospital. Its members were prominent men of New England. When the first abolitionists came to Boston, and the churches wouldn’t allow them in as lecturers, the Infidel Society gave William Lloyd Garrison permission to use their Julian Hall three times. Eventually, the Boston public accepted this group, but the Infidels still seemed to be considered as a fringe set of liberals.
It was in the Boston Investigator that I found many references to my 4x great grandfather, Romanus Emerson. His wife, my great grandmother Jemima (Burnham) Emerson, was a lifelong member of the South Baptist Church of Boston. Romanus was a well respected citizen of South Boston, mentioned many times in the history of Boston, and even had a street named after him. Remember that his own cousin, Ralph Waldo Emerson of Concord, had his own doubts as a Unitarian clergyman and later in life he turned from his faith into a transcendentalist. Strangely, the most interesting stories I found about Romanus Emerson were printed in the Boston Investigator: a candid obituary, the news story reporting on his funeral in Boston, and some letters to the editor by his fellow “Infidels”. It seems that Jemima and the rest of the Emerson clan, of whom many were prominent clergymen, didn’t follow Romanus’s last wishes for a non religious funeral.
From The Boston Investigator, 20 October 1852, Issue 25, Col. A
“Romanus Emerson, His Funeral Address:
We noticed briefly in our last the death of ROMANUS EMERSON, Esq., one of those rare men who possess the esteem and confidence of all who know them, and who go down to their graves amid great sadness and regret. Mr. Emerson was one of a class of men of which happily the ranks of the Liberalists are not unfruitful. He was a self made man- commencing life a mechanic, without wealth or other adventitious aid, but by the exercise of the sterling virtues of industry, integrity and honesty, he arrived at comparative opulence; but, unlike many, he did not reserve the accumulations of his industry for a display of posthumous liberality in the endowment of a college or church.
A worker in the ranks of the “toiling millions,” he saw the evils entailed upon them by a false social organization and a lack of knowledge, and devoted his talents, time and means to the removal of those evils, to the dissemination of correct information, to the elevation of the standard of intelligence, to the advocacy of just and liberal sentiments and opinions on all subjects, and to reducing to practice the schemes devised for the promotion of the best interests of his fellow men. For the advancement of these high objects his purse was open, his best exertions over freely given. There was no exclusiveness in him. The welfare of the whole human family was embraced in his practical philanthropy.
We hold him up to the public eye, not for the mere purpose of speaking his eulogy, but as a bright example – at once an incitement to emulation and as encouragement to perseverance; for ROMANUS EMERSON was a friend and benefactor of his race, an inflexible Republican, an undismayed Free Enquirer, a devout worshipper at the crystal shrine of TRUTH, and HONEST MAN.
The ceremonies at his funeral were performed at the Hawes Place Church, by the Rev. Mr. Capen, in the presence of a large audience; and not withstanding the impropriety of religious ceremonies on the occasion, as MR. EMERSON had expressly forbidden them, yet we must give Mr. Capen the credit of paying a high tribute to Mr. E’s character as a man and a citizen. He had been a neighbor for thirty years, and in all the domestic and social relations of his life he was irreproachable- strictly honest in his dealings, exemplary in all his habits, and of that remarkable mildness and equanimity of temper that was never ruffled even under the most exciting circumstances. To all these elevated and ennobling traits of character, which alone make a man excellent and worthy of our admiration, Mr. Capen bore honorable testimony, and it gives us no little pleasure to mention this unexpected manifestation of clerical liberality and kind feeling. Nor ought we to except here, his good intentions when, speaking of Mr. EMERSON’s unbelief of religion, he thought him mistaken, while he admitted his sincerity; though in the very character which he gave of the deceased, the preacher demonstrated the erroneousness of his own conclusion and the truthfulness and beauty of the immortal lines of Pope:-
“For modes of faith, let graceless zealots fight-
His can’t be wrong, whose LIFE is in the right.”
After the ceremonies in the church were concluded, a long procession followed the remains of MR. EMERSON to their last resting place; and we believe we only speak the general opinion when we declare, that very seldom if ever has the grave closed over a better man.”
For Part 1 click here
Continued Wednesday with Part 3 where he was buried in a Christian cemetery
and Part 4 the Funeral Address written by Romanus Emerson himself!
Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo
Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo