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COLLECTION Identifier: HUG 1101

Papers of Francis Ellingwood Abbot, 1841-1904.


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.


  • Creation: 1841-1904.

Conditions on Use and Access

Permission of the University Archives is required for access to the Papers of Francis Ellingwood Abbot. Please consult the reference staff for further details. Additional restrictions may apply.


31 cubic feet (83 document boxes, 15 flat file boxes, 1 record carton, 1 portfolio folder)

The Papers of Francis Ellingwood Abbot document Abbot's ministry, the development of Abbot's philosophy and thought, Abbot's interaction with other social reformers, and Abbot's founding and participation in several nineteenth century political organizations. These papers are comprised of biographical materials, correspondence, writings, sermons, lectures, and research notes. This collection also includes a large volume of family correspondence that illustrates the close relationships between Abbot and his family members, particularly his mother and his wife.


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 Unitarianfaith. 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-obscenityComstock 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. Ellingwood Abbot. Religious Leaders of America, 2nd edition. The Gale Group, 1999. Biography Resource Center. 7 June 2004. Ellingwood Abbot. Contemporary Authors Online, Gale 2004. Biography Resource Center. 7 June 2004., 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.

Series and Subseries in the Collection

  1. Biographical Materials
  2. ___Clippings
  3. ___Correspondence files
  4. Correspondence
  5. ___Alphabetically arranged correspondence
  6. ___Correspondence with notable people
  7. ___Correspondence with Unitarian ministers
  8. ___Family Correspondence
  9. ___Letterbooks
  10. ___Named Correspondence
  11. Organizations and Associations
  12. ___American Trust for the Publication of Liberal Thought
  13. ___Free Religious Association
  14. ___Index Association
  15. ___Liberal Union Club of Boston
  16. ___National Liberal League
  17. ___Radical Club of Toledo
  18. Writings
  19. Sermons
  20. Lectures
  21. Notes
  22. Subject Files

Custodial History

Edward Stanley Abbot and Francis Ellingwood Abbot's daughter, Fanny (Mrs. Ralph G. Wells), weeded and discarded materials they deemed irrelevant before presenting this collection to the Harvard University Archives.

Acquisition Information

The bulk of the materials in the Papers of Francis Ellingwood Abbot were donated to the Harvard University Archives by Abbot's son, Edward Stanley Abbot, in 1940. Additional material was donated as follows:

  1. 1919 Gordy, J.P.,Decartes and his School, from the library of Francis Ellingwood Abbot.
  2. 1951 Letters to his mother, 1848-1882, gift of Mrs. Ralph G. Wells.
  3. 1951 Letters from his mother, 1848-1882, gift of Mrs. Ralph G. Wells.

Related Material

  1. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School. Francis Ellingwood Abbot, Family Papers, 1815-1940.
  2. Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School. The Library holds a microfilm edition of The Index, 1870-1880.
  3. College Journal, 1855-1860, 1894. In this diary, Abbot describes his life as a Harvard undergraduate and discusses his courtship of Katharine Fearing Loring. Classified in the Harvard University Archives shelflist as HUD 859.2.
  4. Search HOLLIS (Harvard's online library system) for works by and about Francis Ellingwood Abbot.
  5. Sullivan, Brian A., ed. If Ever Two Were One: Kept by Francis Ellingwood Abbot, 1855-1903. Regan Books: New York, 2004. A collection of letters and journal entries chronicling the love affair between Francis Ellingwood Abbot and his wife, Katie, from the day they met in 1857, until his suicide in 1903.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2021 September 16.

Processing Note

This material was first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. In 2004, Dominic P. Grandinetti re-processed these papers.

Re-processing included the consolidation of materials cataloged under fifty-seven separate call numbers, re-housing materials in the appropriate containers, establishment of series and subseries hierarchy, and the creation of this finding aid. The archivist placed the documents into acid-free folders, re-housed the materials into archival document boxes, and examined the folder contents to establish the date of the material. Call numbers beyond the base call number were eliminated. Obsolete call numbers appear in their new locationswith their new .

Brittle news clippings in this collection were photocopied onto acid-free paper.

Details about the re-processing and arrangement of each series are noted below.

Abbot, Francis Ellingwood, 1836-1903. Papers of Francis Ellingwood Abbot : an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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