Abbot, Francis Ellingwood

Francis Ellingwood Abbot
Francis Ellingwood Abbot

Francis Ellingwood Abbot (November 6, 1836-October 23, 1903), a founder of the Free Religious Association and first editor of the radical journal, the Index, developed an evolutionary philosophy of science. He yearned to free humankind from pre-scientific religions, believing that people could escape the trap of agnosticism by adopting his vision of free religion.

Francis, the third of six children of Unitarians Fanny Ellingwood Larcom and schoolmaster Joseph Hale Abbot, was born in Boston and educated in the classics at Boston Latin School. He graduated from the Harvard ranked number one in the class of 1859 and then married Katharine Fearing Loring. After studying for a year at the Harvard Divinity School, he completed his theological studies at Meadville Theological School, 1860-63. Here he experienced an intellectual revolution caused, in part, by his encounter with Darwin’s theory of evolution. His theology began to evolve toward a new liberalism, based upon the scientific method.

In 1864 Abbot was ordained as minister of the Unitarian Church in Dover, New Hampshire. Within a year he began preaching on “Free Thinking,” by which he meant that liberal Christians, employing complete intellectual freedom, should not be required to base their religion on the authority of Christ.

Two articles in the North American Review in 1864, “The Philosophy of Space and Time” and “The Conditioned and the Unconditioned,” and another in The Christian Examiner in 1865, “Theism and Christianity,” established Abbot as the first American philosopher to endorse Darwin’s theory of evolution. To him, natural law and evolutionary adaptation were the foundations of “the unity of the universe, the mutual harmony of all facts and truths.”

Abbot believed that philosophy and theology would each have to adapt to science. He thought that the community of nature, embracing both God and humans, could most fruitfully be explored using the scientific method. However, this required considering the purview of science as including the spiritual as well as the physical side of reality. For he believed that the human beings have a worshiping nature. He hoped that an extended definition of science, incorporating religion and theology, would eliminate what had become the traditional conflict between science and religion.

Although Abbot did not attend the organizational meeting of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches of 1865, he was distressed by the Constitutional preamble which committed Unitarians to be “disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ” because he felt it denied free inquiry. The following year he, with William. James Potter and others, attempted to have the preamble removed. Their failure led Abbot to resign from the Unitarian ministry and, in 1867, to join with Potter in organizing and writing the constitution for the Free Religious Association (FRA). The purpose of this new organization was “to promote the interest of pure religion, to encourage the scientific study of theology, and to increase fellowship in the spirit, (while leaving) each individual responsible for his own opinions alone and affect in no degree his relations to other Associations.”

Abbot resigned his Dover Unitarian pulpit in 1868. Although retained for a while by a radical faction which split off from the church and was organized as an “Independent” society, by a ruling of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, he and his supporters, as non-Christians, were forbidden to use the church building.

In 1869 Abbot became the minister of the Unitarian Society of Toledo, Ohio. He made it a condition of his employment that the Society withdraw from the National Conference and change its name from Unitarian to Independent. As his sermons were really philosophical essays and his pastoral style was negligent, the congregation dwindled in size and, in 1872, stopped paying his salary. This settlement confirmed his unsuitability as a parish minister. While in Toledo, in 1870, he founded the Index, a weekly magazine with a radical religious and social philosophy. From its inception the Index functioned as the voice of the FRA.

After attending an 1872 convention advocating the Christianization of the United States Constitution, he became more than ever convinced that America was in bondage to Christianity, a religious philosophy which he believed could not provide a satisfactory foundation for the scientific world. In 1873 Abbot moved the Index to Boston, where he used it to call for the organization of Liberals Leagues all across America. These Leagues met in Philadelphia in 1876 and formed the National Liberal League. Abbot was elected its permanent president. In 1877, with more than fifteen hundred in attendance, the Congress of the League nominated Robert Ingersoll for President of the United States and Abbot for Vice President. He withdrew from the League the following year in protest over its congress’s vote to campaign to repeal the Comstock laws.

Abbot’s social philosophy shared in the nineteenth century ideal of the unity and fellowship of all humankind. His faith in the possibility of this fellowship was based on his faith in the unity of the Universe. He believed that an eternal harmony exists in nature. The challenge was to reorganize civilization so this harmony—based on the principles of freedom, truth, and equal rights for all people—would be reflected in society and in individuals. Accordingly, the welfare of society is secured by the welfare of each of its members. He thought it the duty of each person to make society more moral, just as it is the duty of society to develop each individual through adequate moral education. If this reciprocal duty is not fulfilled, he believed, natural law is violated and, consequently, the social organism is penalized. For a person’s organic moral nature requires him or her to seek a balance between life for self and life for others. Thus, in order to enhance the development of individuals, Abbot felt that it was necessary to reorganize society on the basis of love, righteousness, and truth. Free Religion aimed to work for such a reorganized society by deepening “human effort to realize this ideal, both in the individual and in society, through the attainment of larger truth than the world has yet known, grander virtue than men have ever practiced, wiser and purer and freer social conditions than have ever yet existed.”

Abbot argued that most of the evils that afflict society are preventable and unnecessary. He blamed Christianity for its postponement of “the very hope of universal reform to another world.” He felt that Free Religion, having rejected superstition, dogmatism, and ecclesiasticism, offered a better method for social reform because its adherents realized that intelligent human effort, cooperating with nature and evolution and having faith in people, could bring about necessary reform in this world. Considering the power of the universal laws of nature and frailty of human efforts, he was nevertheless not optimistic about the future.

Abbot considered universal education the primary way to permanently elevate the condition of humanity. He claimed that for education to function as an effective method of reform, Free Religion must attack Christianity. For “notwithstanding its partial good influence in some respects, [Christianity remains] the most formidable and stubborn obstacle of social reform.” He rejected individualism and the authority of private judgment in thought and action and contended that the scientific method should serve as the supreme authority in moral issues. Our judgments, he thought, ought to be guided by the authority of universal reason or the “Consensus of the Competent.” The competent would be those who proved themselves to be such, to the satisfaction of humankind, by their combined intelligence and virtue. This consensus represents an evolving enlightened public opinion. In addition, the all-conquering scientific method would continue to provide direction to the Consensus of the Competent, helping in the growth of their understanding.

Abbot contended that some moral progress was perceptible, as shown, for example, in the United States Constitution’s establishment of equal rights and the separation of Church and State. He explained: “It is not science alone that advances; it is not merely human intellect, but Man himself, that improves—Man with his feet in the mire and his head in the skies—Man, armed with a strength of brain that tames the wild forces of material Nature, and crowned with a conscience that makes him one with the Open Secret of the Universe.” He considered the moral advance of humankind to be incomplete, however. There remained, he believed, a profound need in the Republic for more education in order to increase virtue. He thought it not enough for a person to improve his or her social and political surroundings. Each person, encouraged and aided by the educational process, might benefit by an increasing self-understanding as a self-governing being consecrated to higher and nobler aims useful to humanity. In his opinion Free Religion provided the social philosophy which best supported the continued moral progress of humanity.

In 1880 Abbot retired as editor of The Index (Potter replaced him) to study philosophy at Harvard University. It was his ambition to write a thesis would give philosophy a new direction for the next one hundred years. He was succesful, at least, in academe. Shortly before he graduated in 1881, William James came to his house to tell him he had taken the “degree by storm.” Having a Ph.D. did not, however, open up any splendid teaching opportunities. As a consequence, he and his family continued to struggle economically. He taught at a boy’s school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1881-92.

In 1885 Abbot wrote Scientific Theism. The book, which was also translated into German, was reviewed widely and considered a significant contribution to American philosophy. Charles Peirce, in the Nation, called it a “scholarly piece of work, doing honor to American thought.”

In Scientific Theism, Abbot described what he called Relationalism, or Scientific Realism, a philosophy that he believed to be novel. He based Relationism on the following principles: 1. Relations are absolutely inseparable from their terms. 2. The relations of things are absolutely inseparable from the things themselves. 3. The relations of things must exist where the things themselves are, whether objectively in the cosmos or subjectively in the mind. 4. If things exist objectively, their relations must exist objectively; if their relations are merely subjective, the things themselves must be merely subjective. 5. There is no logical alternative between affirming the objectivity of relations in and with that of things, and denying the objectivity of things in and with that of relations.

Abbot spelled out the implications for religion of scientific realism. He portrayed nature as being born “in the eternally creative unity of Being and Thought.” This meant that the universe, and all being, can be made intelligible by the tools provided by the scientific method. Consequently, he thought that whatever was currently unknown is knowable per se. He explained: “It is the great merit of new Scientific Realism to treat things and relations as two totally distinct orders of objective reality, indissolubly united and mutually dependent, yet for all that utterly unlike in themselves.”

Abbot’s Scientific Theism required teleology, a study of the end towards which all things tend: “Teleology is the very essence of purely spiritual personality; it presupposes thought, feeling, and will; it is the decisive battleground between the personal and impersonal conceptions of the universe.” He thought that it is through understanding purpose in nature that human beings are able to recognize the purely spiritual personality that is God. The universe can be described, according to Abbot, as nature’s process of self-evolution in time and space, or as the creative life of God.

In 1890 Abbot’s The Way Out of Agnosticism, Or the Philosophy of Free Religion was published. By this time had also finished the outline of a projected two-volume work, The Syllogistic Philosophy, Or Prolegomena to Science. In 1893 his wife Katie and his friend William Potter died. Although the National Unitarian Conference adopted a new constitution, relegating the 1865 preamble to the status of a historical statement, his grief over these deaths and the rejection he still felt strongly made it impossible for him to return to Unitarianism. In 1903, upon completing The Syllogistic Philosophy, Abbot took a large dose of sleeping pills and died upon his wife’s grave.


The Francis Ellingwood Abbot Papers, including, diaries, lecture notes, correspondence, writings, photographs, and family papers are in the Harvard Archives and in the archives at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to his books Abbot wrote a great many articles in the Index and a few in other publications, including the Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Free Religious Association and the Christian Examiner. His essays are gathered in W. Creighton Peden and Everett J. Tarbox, The Collected Essays of Francis Ellingwood Abbot, 4 volumes (1996). This also contains a bibliography of his articles. W. Creighton Peden, The Philosopher of Free Religion (1992) is a biography and a study of Abbot’s thought. See also William J. Potter, The Free Religious Association: Its Twenty Five Years And Their Meaning (1892).

Article by Creighton Peden
Posted May 14, 2009