Abbot, Francis Ellingwood, 1836-1903

Alternative names
Birth 1836-11-06
Death 1903-10-23

Biographical notes:

American philosophical writer.

From the guide to the Francis Ellingwood Abbot letters, 1870-1885, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

F. E. Abbot received his A.B. from Harvard in 1859.

From the description of College themes and forensics, 1856-1857. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 77072877

Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836-1903), was a Unitarian minister and a radical religious philosopher. Abbot founded the Free Religious Association (1867), was editor of the weekly publication The Index (1870-1880), and organizer and President of the National Liberal League. He earned an A.B. at Harvard University in 1855 and a Ph.D and A.M. in 1881. Abbot taught philosophy briefly at Harvard University in 1887.

From the description of Papers of Francis Ellingwood Abbot, 1841-1904. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 77071587

Born in Boston, Mass. Attended Harvard (A.B., 1859; Divinity School, 1859-1860; Ph.D., 1881); graduated Meadville Theological School (1863). Headmaster, girls' school, Meadville, Pa. (1860-1863). Minister, Dover, N.H. (1864-1869). Cofounder, Free Religious Association, 1867. Minister, First Independent Society, Toledo, Ohio (1869-1873). Editor, Index (1870-1880). Headmaster, boys' school, New York (1880-1881); boys' school, Cambridge, Mass. (1881-1892).

From the description of Papers of Francis Ellingwood Abbot, 1815-1940 (inclusive). (Harvard University, Divinity School Library). WorldCat record id: 182047348

Francis Ellingwood Abbot received his A.B. from Harvard in 1859.

From the description of Latin prose exercises : senior year, under Prof. W. W. Goodwin, 1858-1859. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 236231850

From the description of Mathematics papers, 1855. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 77072865

Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836-1903) was a Unitarian minister and a radical religious philosopher. Abbot founded the Free Religious Association (1867), was editor of the weekly publication The Index (1870-1880), and organized and was President of the National Liberal League (1876).

Francis Ellingwood Abbot was born on November 6, 1836 in Boston, Massachusetts to Joseph Hale Abbot and Fanny Ellingwood (Larcom) Abbot. His father was a schoolmaster and amateur scientist. He had five siblings: Henry, Edwin, William, Edward, and Emily. The Abbot family stressed intellectual energy and vigor. From his father, Abbot inherited a respect for moral purity, while his mother taught him the virtues of religion. Abbot's personality was notably zealous as evidenced in his passionate love for his wife and in his avid attachment to his philosophical views.

Abbot attended the Boston Latin School from 1851 to 1854. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard College in 1859, ranking number one in his class. During his college days, Abbot became a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Harvard Chapel. More importantly, he fell in love with Katharine "Katie" Fearing Loring, and married her in secret in 1859. Although Abbot entered the Harvard Divinity School in November 1859, he did not stay long because Katie, with her parents, had moved to Minnesota. To be nearer to Katie, Abbot shifted his divinity studies to the Meadville Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1863. It was at Meadville that Abbot, confronting the theory of evolution proposed by Charles Darwin, began to question his Unitarian faith. As a result of studying Darwin, Abbot decided to dedicate himself to a lifelong goal of anchoring religious faith to science and philosophy, rather than to revelation. With the publication of two articles in the North American Review (1864), Abbot established his reputation as a leading supporter Darwinism. Furthermore, he presented his own personal philosophical vision called Free Religion and rejected the notion of any religious authority, including that of Jesus Christ.

As the minister of the First Unitarian Society of Christians in Dover, New Hampshire, Abbot promoted his Free Religion philosophy. In 1866, he became an important figure in the debate at the Unitarian National Conference meeting at Syracuse, New York. There, Abbot challenged the idea that Unitarians should identify with Christianity. In addition, Abbot opposed a pledge of allegiance to "The Lord Jesus Christ" by Unitarians and declared his rejection of the authority of Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Abbot's radical views were rejected by the Conference. Increasingly alienated from mainstream Unitarian thought, Abbot helped organize the Free Religious Association in 1867 to provide a platform for the scientific study of religion, free from all creeds and ecclesiastical authority.

Abbot's radical religious views ruptured his relationship with his Dover congregation, and in 1868 he resigned his position. He then served as minister to a small break away group, the Independent Religious Society, from April to October 1868. When his association with this group ended, Abbot accepted a position as minister of the Unitarian Society of Toledo, Ohio, which, at his insistence, severed its connection with Unitarianism. However, this society was not successful and Abbot left in it 1873, signifying the end of Abbot's active participation in the Unitarian ministry.

In 1870, Abbot became the editor of The Index, a weekly publication dedicated to the advancement of Free Religion and secularism. Writing for The Index, Abbot campaigned for a purer and more genuine religion and became a national figure criticizing evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Later in the 1870s, Abbot helped organize resistance to a proposed United States constitutional amendment that would declare the United States a Christian nation; he organized the movement by forming "liberal leagues." These leagues organized themselves into the National Liberal League and elected Abbot as their national President. Abbot's hostility to organized Christianity increased and he became committed to abolishing the political power of American Christianity and replacing it with the total secularization of society.

Prickly in nature and intolerant of other viewpoints, Abbot eventually broke with the National Liberal League over the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. By 1880, Abbot became exhausted championing liberal causes and Free Religion. Consequently, he resigned his leadership roles with The Index, the National Liberal League, and the Free Religious Association to devote more time to the formal study of philosophy. In 1881 he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University.

Unable to secure a teaching position because of his reputation for religious radicalism, Abbot earned a livelihood running a classical school for young men, the Home School for Boys in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1885, he published his first book, Scientific Theism, a critique of German idealistic philosophy. This work won wide attention in Europe and appeared in a German translation.

In 1887, Abbot finally secured a short-term teaching position at Harvard University as a replacement for Professor Josiah Royce in the Philosophy Department. However, this position later led to a public controversy when Abbot published his lectures as The Way Out of Agnosticism; Or, the Philosophy of Free Religion. Royce dismissed Abbot's philosophical positions as nonsense and charged Abbot with having limited scholastic abilities. Abbot sought public redress for Royce's comments by appealing to the Harvard Board of Overseers but was unsuccessful.

In 1892, Abbot received a legacy that allowed him to dedicate himself full-time to the study of philosophy. Unfortunately, tragedy struck the following year when Abbot's wife, Katie, died. Abbot, a devoted husband and father, was devastated by this sudden loss. He spent the last ten years of his life writing of Katie and composing a synthesis of his philosophical thought. His final work, The Syllogistic Philosophy, or Prolegomena to Science, was finished on September 29, 1903. Shortly after, on October 23, 1903, Abbot ended his own life at the grave site of his wife.

References used for this biography were:

Ahlstrom, Sydney and Robert Bruce Mullin. The Scientific Theist: A Life of Francis Ellingwood Abbot. Macon, Georgia:Mercer University Press,1987. Christie, Francis Albert.Francis Ellingwood Abbot.Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936. Biography Resource Center. 7 June 2004. Francis Ellingwood Abbot. Religious Leaders of America, 2nd edition. The Gale Group, 1999. Biography Resource Center. 7 June 2004. Francis Ellingwood Abbot. Contemporary Authors Online, Gale 2004. Biography Resource Center. 7 June 2004. Mullen, Robert Bruce. Abbot, Francis Ellingwood;; American National Biography Online February 2000. Access Date: Monday February 23 11:19:53 EST 2004. Peden. W. Creighton.The Philosopher of Free Religion: Francis Ellingwood Abbot, 1836-1903.New York:Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1992.

From the guide to the Papers of Francis Ellingwood Abbot, 1841-1904., (Harvard University Archives)

Francis Ellingwood Abbot (1836-1903), son of Joseph Hale Abbot and Fanny Ellingwood Larcom, married Katharine F. Loring in 1859 and graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor of arts degree that same year. He attended Harvard Divinity School from 1859-1860, but did not graduate. He was awarded a degree in theology from Meadville Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania in 1863, and was ordained a Unitarian minister in Dover, New Hampshire in 1864. At the Unitarian conference in Syracuse in 1866 Abbot led a minority group who challenged the wording of the Unitarian constitution and preamble, claiming that it needed to be more liberal. The outcome of this dispute was the founding of the Free Religious Association in 1867.

The objectives of the Free Religious Association were to promote liberty of religious thought, increase humanitarian action and respect for reason, and to encourage a scientific study of theology. The organization attracted members from various Protestant denominations, especially from the Unitarians, as well as some non-Christian religions such as Judaism. Alongside Abbot, the original founders of this Association were William J. Potter, John Weiss, Dr. Cyrus A. Bartol, Edward C. Towne, and Octavius B. Frothingham. Abbot was editor of the Index, the publication of the Free Religious Association from 1870-1880. Abbot was also awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1881.

From the guide to the Abbot, Francis Ellingwood. Papers, 1815-1940., (Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School)


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  • Theology--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Liberalism (Religion)
  • Religion in the public schools
  • Philosophy--United States
  • Unitarianism
  • Religion and science
  • Rationalism
  • Religion and politics
  • Philosophy--Study and teaching (Higher)
  • Free thought


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  • United States (as recorded)
  • Massachusetts--Cambridge (as recorded)