Joseph May was the son of Samuel Joseph May and Lucretia Flagge Coffin. His paternal grandfather was Colonel Joseph May, for over forty years a warden of King’s Chapel in Boston. His paternal grandmother was Dorothy Sewall (neice of Dorothy Quincy), a descendant of the first and sister of the second Chief Justice, Samuel Sewall. His maternal grandfather was Peter Coffin, a member of King’s Chapel, who was descended from Tristam Coffin, one of the first settlers of Nantucket, driven thither in search of a freer religious atmosphere. Joseph May was born in Boston, January 21, 1836, and spent his childhood and youth in Brooklyn, Connecticut, in Scituate, Massachusetts, and Syracuse, New York, where his eminent father had pastorates in Unitarian churches. In Syracuse, one of his schoolmates and chums was Andrew D. White, later the President of Cornell University. The friendship of these two continued throughout their long years and was full of sympathy and understanding. He entered Harvard College with well-developed intellectual interests, the fruit perhaps of his mother’s influence. Mother and son were particularly congenial, and as she was fond of poetry and the languages, reading her New Testament in French and knowing Italian, she quickened kindred interests in her son. While in college his health failed, a nervous breakdown resulting from too close application to his studies, but he was called the first scholar of his class, sharing this distinction with Solomon Lincoln and John D. Long. He received his A.B. from Harvard in 1857. After several years partly spent in Europe, he entered the Harvard Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1865. Following his graduation he became the pastor of the First Unitarian Congregational Church of Yonkers, New York, where he served for two years, so winning the affection of the parishioners that he kept it throughout their lives. While in Yonkers, he married Miss Harriet C. Johnson, sister of the artist, Eastman Johnson. They had four children. Then followed seven happy and productive years as pastor of the First Religious Society of Newburyport, Massachusetts. In January, 1876, he became the pastor of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, succeeding Dr. William Henry Furness. Dr. Furness had been the minister of the church for fifty years and continued for twenty-one years as pastor emeritus, thus completing seventy-one years in a single church. Dr. Furness often reached for Dr. May, being as he said “ready to respond with an hour or two of notice.” Dr. Furness was theologically conservative while Dr. May was the representative of a more progressive school of thought. Together they furnished an illustration of what it meant to be a free pulpit. Each respected and loved the other, and both were given sympathetic hearings by the congregation.
Dr. May served the Philadelphia church for twenty-five years and upon his retirement became pastor emeritus, but throughout all the years he was the pastor beloved, honored, respected. In 1887 Jefferson College honored him with the degree of LL.D. and in 1914 he received the degree of D.D. from Meadville Theological School. Throughout his life he was a student, pursuing his studies more from sheer interest and delight that for their utilitarian value. He was an ardent classicist, his special copy of Horace having been bound and rebound several times. He knew Greek and was proficient in French, Italian, and Spanish. His published works were few, being limited to a volume on The Miracles and Myths of the New Testament, two volumes of The Life and Letters of Samuel Longfellow, and a considerable number of pamphlet sermons. He was a student of art and history, as well as language.
Although his active ministry came before the general interest in the social gospel, he was convinced, and gave long and persuasive expression of his conviction, that religion has its public as well as its personal application. He was a member of the “Law and Order Society.” He felt keenly the need of Negro education and was a pioneer in the development of substitutes for the saloon. Henry C. Lea, a generous and loyal parishioner, said of Dr. May that his sermons on civic righteousness definitely influenced the elections and were a potent factor in the life of the city. A firm believer in the saying, “Be not overcome of evil but overcome evil with good,” he was a leader in establishing what was then rare, a community home to compete with the saloon, the streets and the public halls. His faith in the enterprise bore fruit, and for many years “The Evening Home and Library Association” exerted a positive influence in the city.
Although always the courteous and tolerant gentleman, he was the outspoken and fearless preacher of free Christianity. His sermons covered a wide range of interests and yet the pastoral spirit in him led him most frequently to sermons of personal life. During his Philadelphia pastorate he inspired and led the congregation in the erection of a new and larger church building in a much better location. He was so successful that the new church at 21st and Chestnut Streets was dedicated free of debt.
Scholarly, dignified, cultivated, he was yet of a tender and bountiful nature. He was loved because he gave so much that inspired love. He lifted men to their higher selves by sheer force of his personality. It was said by one of his parishioners, as was said of Emerson, that leaving him one felt that something beautiful had passed that way. When he died, there had been passed on to hundred of the generation to whom he ministered the larger life and the larger hope which are found only in the things of the spirit.
Soon after his settlement in Philadelphia, his wife died, and sixteen years later he married Miss Elizabeth Bacon Justice. Retiring from the active pastorate in 1901, he spent his remaining years in travel and in quiet living in Philadelphia. He died January 9, 1918.
Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection