May, Samuel Joseph

Samuel Joseph May
Samuel Joseph May

Samuel Joseph May (September 12, 1797-July 1, 1871), a Unitarian minister, was one of the greatest social and educational reformers of the nineteenth century. He advocated and organized on behalf of freedom and civil rights for blacks, emancipation and voting rights for women, and just rights for workers. Because he was many decades ahead of mainstream acceptance of the policies he fought for, he was often at odds with his ministerial colleagues, church members, and the public at large.

Born into upper-class Boston society, Samuel was the son of Colonel Joseph May, a merchant, and Dorothy Sewall, who was descended from or connected to many of the leading families of colonial Massachusetts, including the Quincys and the Hancocks. Frail as a child, Samuel was devoted to his older brother Edward, who was killed by accident while they played on a fence. This was both a “great grief” and a formative religious experience, instilling great seriousness of purpose and inspiring belief in human immortality.

The May family attended King’s Chapel, a liberal church that had once been Anglican. Joseph May had voted for the removal of Trinitarian references from its liturgy in 1785. Assistant churchwarden, 1794-1826, Col. May was among the prominent laymen who supported the creation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825 and was by 1819 a member of the Massachusetts Peace Society. William Ellery Channing, minister at the Federal Street Church, spokesman of the liberal wing of the established church, and another member of the Peace Society, lived not far from the Mays. From the age of seven, Samuel began to visit the Channings, and was allowed to go unescorted into the minister’s study.

At a local grammar school, Samuel studied with children of diverse backgrounds. He credited this with helping to liberate him from racial, creedal and class-based prejudice. In addition, his father’s friendship with the philanthropist Moses Hays led him to feel at ease in the company of Jews. Harsh discipline meted out at a later school, Marblehead Academy, inspired his “early conversion to the methods of moral suasion.”

May attended Harvard, 1813-17. While there and shortly afterwards, he taught school in Concord, Massachusetts and in Beverly, Massachusetts. In his junior year May decided to become a minister. After studying with Henry Colman, minister in Hingham, Massachusetts, 1817-18, he entered the Divinity School at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At the Divinity School May began to question the authority of the Bible and to doubt its story of the conception of Christ. Distressed, he sought help from the “Father of the Divinity School,” Dr. Henry Ware, Sr., who assured him that doubt was essential to serious study. Ware comforted May that “if what you believe, at any time, leads you to reverence God and keep his commandments, to love your fellow-beings and delight to do them good, it cannot be a dangerous error.”

In December 1820 May obtained “approbation” as a minister by the Boston Association of Ministers. Early in the following year, May supplied the pulpit at Brooklyn, Connecticut. Although the Brooklyn church invited him to settle, he declined, being advised that it was a poor career move to accept a call to a small church isolated from other liberal churches .

During the following year May substituted for Channing, supplying for a month the pulpit of First Unitarian Church in New York City, and served as Channing’s assistant in Boston for four months. May would prize his relationship with Channing as “one of the greatest advantages” he enjoyed in life. In between these assignments he made a trip to Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond, with his sister Louisa. Seeing black laborers in irons in the fields while he rode in the stagecoach to Washington moved him so deeply that it “awakened thoughts and feelings that a few years afterwards took shape and gave direction to the whole cause of my life.”

In early 1822 a delegation from the Brooklyn church urged May to reconsider their invitation. Despite his family’s advice and all practical considerations, he decided to accept what seemed to be a divine call to mount a Unitarian mission. “I could not but feel,” he later wrote, “that theirs was indeed a loud call to me, in the providence of God, to undertake the work of an evangelist in the most ‘Orthodox’ state in New England.” Before he left for Connecticut, May was ordained by the Boston Association in Chauncy Place Church.

The Brooklyn congregation, the only Congregational body in Connecticut to embrace liberal theology, had recently been diminished in size by the withdrawal of orthodox church members. On May’s arrival, the Trinitarian Congregationalists were meeting in another building and the Unitarian society controlled the old Meeting House. Feelings remained harsh, and pulpit exchanges were out of the question. However, May negotiated thorny issues such as the fate of the Communion silver and opened the Meeting House for the Trinitarians’ use when they installed a minister.

Contrary to New England tradition, May believed the rite of communion should be available to all congregants as “a means of spiritual improvement.” He found most in the Brooklyn congregation, however, unable to accept his open invitation. He also risked professional censure by administering immersion baptism to those who believed their infant ceremonies invalid. He began biweekly publication of The Liberal Christian in January 1823 to explain Unitarian theology. His own faith was based less upon doctrine than duty. “Regarding Jesus of Nazareth as the best teacher of Christianity,” he later wrote, “I determined to make his words and his character the standard of my faith and practice.”

With his ministry established, May married Lucretia Flagge Coffin in 1825. They enjoyed a tender, conventional marriage and had four children who lived to adulthood, including Unitarian minister Joseph May. Lucretia grew to admire Samuel’s reform activity and managed a household filled with visitors. He wrote in 1829 that Lucretia possessed “a mind of singular purity, the utmost tenderness of conscience, and disinterestedness of purpose.”

In 1826 May guided the formation of the Windham County Peace Society. He had been a pacifist since 1819 when he had met Noah Worcester, whom he considered “the most holy man I ever knew.” Owing to his nonviolent principles, May declined an invitation to be chaplain to a Connecticut regiment. Soon after, he refused to officiate at a Brooklyn hanging as an agent of the state. Moreover, he criticized the Founding Fathers of the United States for having resorted to a war which established the United States on a foundation of violence. He later supported the New England Non-Resistance Society (founded 1838), but refused to sign its anti-government Declaration of Sentiments.

In this period May came to regard excessive consumption of alcohol as the foundation of numerous social ills: accidents, the abuse of children and spouses, and financial ruin. Finding strong evidence that the excesses in his own community matched national statistics, he organized a temperance society, but also set a personal example by renouncing the glass of wine or cider he sometimes enjoyed, and banning alcohol from his home. In 1829 the Mays built a new house, the first in the region to be raised without offering the laborers alcoholic refreshment.

Appalled by the condition of schools in Connecticut, May organized the first statewide convention for school reform there in 1827, and began a series of lectures on education reform in 1828. He was impressed by the educational innovations made by the young Bronson Alcott in Cheshire, Connecticut, and invited him to Brooklyn for an extended conversation. May’s sister Abigail was living there at the time and was also taken with Alcott; they would marry in 1830. Absorbed by educational and utopian experiments, Alcott did not provide well for his family. May would continue to be responsible for the welfare of his sister Abigail in adult life. Alcott admiringly dubbed May “the Lord’s chore boy” for his unrelenting pursuit of human welfare.

During the 1820s May’s opposition to slavery was lukewarm. He belonged to the American Colonization Society, which called for blacks to be repatriated to Africa. When in 1830 he heard William Lloyd Garrison speak in Boston, he experienced a profound transformation, and from then on called for the immediate emancipation of slaves. He paid a heavy price for this stand. He was isolated from his Boston Unitarian colleagues, and was no longer invited to preach in their churches. Joseph May, who regarded slavery as a necessary evil that would fall away in time, worried that his son had become fanatical and incendiary. Samuel was undaunted, however, and launched himself headlong into abolitionism. He worked with Garrison for two difficult years to form the New England Anti-Slavery Society (NEASS) and helped revise Garrison’s Declaration of Sentiments for the NEASS. May’s freedom from racial prejudice was rare in his time, even among abolitionists. “It is our own prejudice against the color of these poor people that makes us consent to the tremendous wrongs they are suffering,” he preached.

His principles led May in 1833 to support the cause of Prudence Crandall, a Quaker educator in nearby Canterbury, Connecticut, who had recently opened her small school to young black women. Crandall was arrested for violating the newly-passed “Black Law,” prohibiting schools from educating out-of-state blacks, and asserting town control. As her legal battle began, May made his parish the center of her legal strategy. With money from New York abolitionist Arthur Tappan, May funded Crandall’s defense and started an abolitionist newspaper, The Unionist. Crandall was ultimately acquitted on a technicality, but, in response to violence and threats, was forced to close her school in 1834. “I felt ashamed of Canterbury,” May later wrote, “ashamed of Connecticut, ashamed of my country, ashamed of my color.”

Antislavery and civil rights assumed a commanding position in May’s life. From 1834, he assisted in the underground railroad. By opening up space in the first row of gallery seats to the daughters of a black family, he introduced racially integrated seating to the Brooklyn church, although not without friction. He traveled widely as an antislavery speaker, finally, in the view of the congregation, failing to meet his pastoral obligations. In 1835 he took a leave from Brooklyn to become a full-time agent for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. May’s fourteen months as an anti-slavery agent were marked by threats of violence and dangerous encounters. On October 21, 1835, the same day that Garrison was dragged through Boston by anti-abolitionist rioters, May was mobbed as he attempted to speak in Montpelier, Vermont.

This early commitment to immediate abolition was rare among Unitarian clergy. It tested even May’s friendship with Channing, who had a sense of how much slavery was interwoven in the economy and society of the United States, through his earlier life in Virginia and the slave-trading port of Newport, Rhode Island. May’s influence may have been substantial in preparing Channing’s moderate but significant shift in views.

May later recorded that Unitarians had contributed more people to the cause of antislavery than “any other denomination in proportion to our numbers, if not more without that comparison.” He nevertheless considered that “the Unitarians as a body dealt with the question of slavery in any but an impartial, courageous, and Christian way.” “We had a right to expect from Unitarians a steadfast and unqualified protest against so unjust, tyrannical, and cruel a system as that of American slavery,” he wrote. “They, of all other sects, ought to have spoken boldly. But they did not.”

In 1836 May returned to Brooklyn to find his small congregation further diminished by westward migration. Later that year he accepted a call to the pulpit of First Parish in South Scituate (later Norwell), Massachusetts. His temperance appeal won broad support there and he was known in town for merry parades of children pledged to abstinence, the “Cold Water Brigade.” While there, in 1838 he worked with Garrison to establish the New England Anti-Resistance Society. Though he later wrote that six of his “happiest years” were in South Scituate, he was disappointed in his efforts to integrate the seating of black and poor congregants. This led to his early departure from this pastorate.

May had earned a national reputation through his efforts to improve schools at state and local levels, and had helped Horace Mann establish the “normal school” system for the education of teachers. When he left South Scituate in 1842, he accepted Mann’s invitation to serve as president of the Normal School at Lexington, Massachusetts. In this post he implemented concepts of Johann Pestalozzi, pioneer of informal, non-verbal, and nurturing educational methods. He also continued abolitionist activities, and in his first year invited a young black woman to join in preparation for teaching. This led to a clash with his board. Disappointed in Mann’s failure to support abolition and dissatisfied with his administrative burdens, May resigned in 1844. He then served temporarily as the Unitarian minister in Lexington.

In 1845 May began his longest ministry, at the Church of the Messiah in Syracuse, New York. There, he came to understand the plight of women as similar to that of blacks. In his seminal address, the Rights and Condition of Women, 1846, he asked why “half of the people have a right to govern the whole.” He became a familiar figure in the women’s rights movement, speaking at conventions and accepting committee roles, working closely with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. “Humanity is dual, and yet when perfected it is one,” said May at the 1850 Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts. “A perfect character in either man or woman is a compound of the virtues of each.”

May helped to establish a public school system in Syracuse. He also exchanged visits regularly with the nearby Onondaga Indians, raised funds to help build a meeting house and school on the reservation, and arranged government funding for a teacher.

After the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, May’s abolitionist activity increased. He personally transported escaped slaves along the underground railroad. To confirm that living conditions were satisfactory for those sent north he toured settlements in Canada. In 1851 he proposed a motion opposing the Fugitive Slave Law at the annual meeting of the American Unitarian Association. The day after this was voted down, he convinced a conference of Unitarian ministers to pass the same resolution.

In 1851 May took part in the “Jerry Rescue,” planning the escape from Syracuse police of runaway slave William “Jerry” McHenry. His abolitionist and non-resistance principles in conflict, May insisted that if anyone should be hurt, it must be McHenry’s protectors, not the police. That distinction proved difficult in practice and one official was injured. Although May was understood to be a ringleader, the district attorney declined to bring a case against him. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to ask what kind of speeches his nonresistant friend had written that could inspire men to “break heads.”

Having witnessed the conditions of needlewomen in Syracuse, in 1854 May assisted in the formation of an early union, the Sewing Female Protection Society. The following year, he delivered a controversial and revolutionary Berry Street Lecture to the Boston Unitarian ministers advocating overhaul of the legal system, redistribution of wealth, and socialist government. He called for the “rights of humanity” to be respected more than “the rights of property.”

During the 1850s May’s health deteriorated under the strain of the conflict between his vision of social justice and belief in nonviolent resistance. Well-to-do supporters in Boston paid for May to take an extended trip in Europe, 1858-59. This vacation afforded him relaxed travel and opportunities to view the Vatican during Holy Week and to speak from English pulpits.

On the eve of the Civil War the atmosphere in Syracuse became ever more incendiary. In January 1861, when a major antislavery rally was to be held, May and Susan B. Anthony were threatened with violence by an angry crowd that stormed the building. The rally was cancelled, and the mob paraded through the streets of Syracuse with effigies of May and Anthony, finally burning them in the center of town.

As war approached, May reluctantly recognized that human rights could no longer be pursued without violent means. He ended by supporting the war, urging the government to prosecute it quickly, and pressing Lincoln to free the slaves. During the war, May did charitable work on behalf of soldiers and prisoners. After the war he campaigned for the rights of workers and championed welfare for the poor, rights for women, and the redistribution of wealth through a graduated income tax. Into his last years he maintained his support of black and female suffrage.

In 1865 May asked the National Conference of Unitarian Churches to consider union with the Universalists. In 1869 he proposed that the National Conference seat Universalist and female delegates. Although at this time he professed himself a supernaturalist Christian, he asked the Convention to seat non-Christians, as he felt that if any “do obtain that purity and righteousness without the aid of Jesus Christ, they will be accepted by him and by God.”

His wife Lucretia’s death in 1865 left May feeling lost. He officially retired in 1867, though he continued preaching into 1868. Following a stroke, he died in the home of his daughter Charlotte in Syracuse. At his funeral service, Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell, called him “the noblest man and the best Christian that I have ever known . . . the modern incarnation of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Amid the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the Syracuse congregation renewed its commitment to human brotherhood by adopting “May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society” as its corporate name.

Substantial collections of May letters are in the Rare Book Room, Boston Public Library; the Massachusetts Historical Society; and the Samuel Joseph May Anti-Slavery Collection at the Cornell University Library. Other important materials are in the Houghton Library, Harvard University; the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. May items can be found in over 100 different repositories. The Brooklyn church records are at the Connecticut State Library, Hartford. As of 1991, church records for May’s tenure at South Scituate (Norwell) and Syracuse were in the respective churches. The Library of Congress holds documents relating to May’s women’s rights activity after 1860 in the Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and National American Women’s Suffrage Association Papers. Among May’s published writings are Jesus the Best Teacher of his Religion, a Discourse (1847), which is representative of May’s understanding of Jesus and the basis of Christianity; The Revival of Education (1855); Memorial of the Quarter-Centennial Celebration of the Establishment of Normal Schools in America (1866); A Brief Account of his Ministry (1867), which provides a succinct record of his ministerial service and what he thought important in it; and Some Account of Our Antislavery Conflict (1869). A Memoir of Samuel Joseph May (1873) was published by May’s lifelong friend George B. Emerson, his cousin Samuel May, and his protegĂ© Thomas B. Mumford, at the request of the May family. It includes a memoir that continued only to 1829 in the Brooklyn years, but also diary extracts, and chapters added by the editors.

The modern biography of May is Donald Yacovone, Samuel Joseph May and the Dilemmas of the Liberal Persuasion (1991). There are biographical entries on May by Fulmer Mood in Dictionary of American Biography (1933) and by Donald Yacovone in American National Biography (1999). There is an obituary volume In Memoriam. Samuel Joseph May (1871). Newspaper obituaries include New York Times (July 3, 1871) and New York Tribune (July 4, 1871). May is also featured in History of Woman Suffrage, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (1881-82); Jack Mendelsohn, Channing: The Reluctant Radical (1971); Lewis Perry, Radical Abolitionism: Anarchy and the Government of God in Antislavery Thought (1973); Douglas C. Stange, Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831-1860 (1977); Lawrence J. Friedman, Gregarious Saints: Self and Community in American Abolitionism, 1830-1870 (1982); and Julie Roy Jeffrey, The Great Silent Army of Abolitionism: Ordinary Women in the Antislavery Movement (1998).

Article by Dennis Landis
Posted May 30, 2003