May 16 2013

Charles Knowlton and the golden age of freethought

If you asked me to list the names of 19th century American atheists, I would have said Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) and stopped. He is clearly the most famous but it turns out that there is another person who preceded him, and that was Dr. Charles Knowlton. I became aware of him because of a new biography titled An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy by Dan Allosso.

Knowlton was born in 1800 to Puritan parents at a time when medicine practiced what is known as ‘heroic’ treatments that believed that health emerged from having the correct balance of the ‘humors’ in the body, and doctors sought to achieve that with bloodletting and the like, often to the serious detriment of the patient. Knowlton as an adolescent had wet dreams which was then thought to be a disease and he was subjected to all manner of harsh heroic medical regimens to cure him of his ‘illness’ that left a lasting negative effect on his health but also drove him to practice more humane forms of medicine later in life.

Curious and scientific in his outlook from the beginning, he became interested in medicine and felt that the proper practice of it required concrete knowledge of human anatomy, not just reading theoretical texts. Cadavers were not used in medical schools at the time so he started robbing graves so that he could dissect them for study and on one occasion this resulted in him ending up in jail.

Despite being very poor and finding it hard to pay his fees and live, he persevered and became a doctor and started applying scientific principles to his profession. He was also a freethinker, married a wife from a family of freethinkers, and wrote a book titled Elements of Modern Materialism that he published in 1829 that outlined his philosophy and which he hoped would establish him as philosopher of the first rank. To his disappointment the book did not have great sales but his second book, a much smaller one titled Fruits of Philosophy (1832) had much greater success. This book gave useful information to ordinary people about contraception, including a spermicidal method that he invented.

Knowlton’s interest in contraception arose from his belief that many of society’s ills at that time were due to the fact that young men deferred marriage until a late age because married couples had so many children, more than they could afford. But as a result of deferring marriage, they indulged either in masturbation, which made them feel guilty as sinners or think they had an illness and undergo the awful heroic treatments, or they visited prostitutes and contracted and spread various diseases. Knowlton felt that many of these individual and social problems would go away if the risk of unwanted pregnancies were reduced, enabling people to marry at a young age. The contraceptive methods he suggested enabled them to do so without resulting in large families. But while ordinary people liked his book and ideas and the book sold quite well, the strait-laced moralists and clergy felt that he was promoting depraved behavior that enabled people to have sex outside of marriage and he was sent to jail again.

What I found particularly interesting in the book is that freethinkers seemed to be quite common at that time, with societies, newsletters, bookstores, lectures, and debates. The second half of the 19th century has been called the Golden Age of Freethought “encouraged by the lectures of the extremely popular agnostic orator Robert G. Ingersoll, the popularization of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the push for woman’s suffrage, and other political, scientific, and social trends that clashed with religious orthodoxy and caused people to question their traditional ideas about the world.”

Of course the word ‘freethinkers’ does not necessarily connote atheism, just freedom from dogma and doctrine. It is actually a very useful word, an umbrella term that should be promoted to encompass that various categories of nonreligious people that exist today. But not all freethinking ideas were tolerated in Knowlton’s time. Outspoken atheists and materialists like him (he was willing to publicly debate religious people about his materialist philosophy) still suffered persecution and the clergy in the towns where he practiced often tried to drive him away by telling their parishioners to avoid him and go to Christian doctors. He was also prosecuted for selling his materialism book.

Knowlton was quite naïve when it came to business dealings and as a result he made some poor decisions and was taken advantage of by others, making it hard for him to obtain any financial stability. But later in life, Knowlton established a successful medical practice and was respected as a conscientious and scientific-minded doctor who cared for his patients and whose careful observations of their symptoms and trying and evaluating various treatments resulted in him making valuable contributions to the medical literature of his day. By the time he died in 1850 at the age of fifty, he was able to leave behind enough money to meet his family’s needs.

I would have liked to have learned more about Knowlton’s wife Tabitha. She seems to have been a loyal supporter, enduring financial hardship in the early days and somehow providing for the family when they were broke when he found it hard to establish a practice, having to move from town to town, or when he was away from home for long periods either trying to sell his books or being put in jail for his views on contraception and atheism. Maybe a future edition could add this information unless, as is possible, there is much less information about the women of that time than the men. The one other suggestion I would have for any subsequent edition is to add an index.

Knowlton’s life and work deserves to be better known and Allosso’s book fills that niche nicely.


  1. 1

    Wow, he was even a feminist! Quoth Wikipedia:

    Knowlton was an officer of several freethinking societies in New England and New York, and founded “The Friends of Mental Liberty” in Greenfield in 1845. In addition to affirming its members’ right of “freely enquiring into the truth of all religions which claim to be a Revelation from some intelligent being superior to man,” the group’s Constitution declared that “Female members of this Society shall enjoy the same rights and privileges as male members.”

  2. 2
    Dan Allosso

    Thanks for the review, Mano. I really hoped I’d find more info on Tabitha. If any comes to light, I’ll definitely include it in a new edition.

    @hjhornbeck, the close connection between early freethought and feminism was one of the things that really struck me as I was researching Knowlton. He wasn’t the only feminist, though. Robert Dale Owen published an announcement of his marriage in which he criticized the “medieval” laws that basically transferred his wife’s property and person to his control. And then, of course, there were women like Frances Wright, Mary Wollstonecraft, Eliza Sharples, Ernestine Rose…

    Full disclosure: I wrote most of the wiki entry.

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