Francis Ellingwood Abbott

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Abbott, Francis Ellingwood (1836 - 1903)

A leader in the dissent from moderate Unitarianism in the mid-nineteenth century, Abbott was an evolutionist. In 1870 he began agitating for organization of an American Secular Union through his Toledo, Ohio, paper entitled The Index. His appeals resulted in the preliminary organization of a few local chapters. He was active in the formation of the Free Religious Association and edited their newsletter. In 1872, he wrote Impeachment of Christianity. Scientific Theism (1885) was based upon idealist and intuitionist philosophy and attempted to replace the old religious radicalism of the Transcendentalists with realism and science. He thought the theory of evolution would throw new light on religion and, in a way, he anticipated process philosophy.

Abbott’s work, considered liberal in his day, is, today, admittedly dated and elementary. Darwin, reading one of Abbott’s 1871 tracts that spoke of “the extinction of faith in the Christian confession” and the development of a humanistic free religion, wrote of Abbott’s views, “I admire them from my inmost heart, and I agree to almost every word.” In 1876 the Liberal Congress assembled in Philadelphia, and he was chosen president. The second congress was held in Syracuse in 1878 at a time when Anthony Comstock, the anti-obscenity extremist, had just had D. M. Bennett arrested. The Liberals of New York started a petition for repeal of the Comstock Law, which the Truth Seeker urged Liberals to sign in order to put a stop to Comstock’s national witch-hunts. Abbott, however, took a stand that the law should be amended, not repealed. As a result, Elizur Wright was elected president and Abbot withdrew.

In "Nine Demands of Liberalism" in The Index (6 April 1872), she wrote,

  • That great and growing evils render it a paramount patriotic duty on the part of American citizens, who comprehend the priceless value of pure Secular government, to take active measures for the immediate and absolute secularization of the state, and we earnestly urge them to organize without delay for this purpose.

W. Creighton Peden has written a biography of Abbott called The Philosopher of Free Religion. In it he describes how Abbot’s “free religion” was a sort of quasi-theism on the fringe of the freethought movement. He was the first President of the American National Liberal League.

(See entry for Free Religious Association.