Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations. If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can--every little bit helps: Donate
Samuel Joseph May was a descendant of John May, an early member of the Roxbury parish under Rev. John Eliot. His father was Colonel Joseph May, for over forty years a warden of King’s Chapel, Boston. Colonel May was an intimate friend of Rev. James Freeman, with whom he cooperated in making the changes in its liturgy, which, being adopted in 1785, separated the Chapel from the Episcopal Church. In 1787 he assisted in ordaining Mr. Freeman as minister of the society on its own authority. He married Dorothy, daughter of Samuel Sewall, a descendant of the first and sister of the second chief justice of that name. She was also a grand-niece of Josiah Quincy, of Revolutionary memory, and a niece of Dorothy Quincy, wife of John Hancock.
Samuel Joseph May was born September 12, 1797. In childhood he was physically delicate, and highly sensitive and conscientious. Near his home lived Rev. Dr. Channing, under whose influence he came from his earliest days. Nearby lived, also, the parents of Stephen H. Tyng, who rose to eminence in the Episcopal Church. The boys were comrades in childhood, school-fellows, and became members together of the distinguished class of 1817 at Harvard, to which belonged George Bancroft, Caleb Cushing, George B. Emerson, Samuel A. Eliot, and other eminent men. May accuses himself of some want of diligence in study; yet he took a highly respectable rank, graduating thirteenth in a class of sixty-eight, and gaining a Bowdoin prize during his Freshman year, then a unique achievement. He was extremely popular, from his cordial spirit, his charming manners, and his gift of song. But for purity and rectitude he won as high regard. A classmate wrote that his “admiration of his character had steadily grown, till, when he was gone, it seemed near perfection.”
In Junior year, May accepted the ministry as his vocation, and on graduation began his studies in the hardly organized Divinity School. The young men studied much as they pleased, but received deep impressions from Ware, Norton, and other professors. The liberal principle in thinking was emphatically urged upon them. To examine thoroughly, reading on all sides, and to decide impartially and independently, was the canon taught. Mr. May says in his autobiography:
Thus encouraged, I began the inquiry for true religion, firmly persuaded that it was the one thing needful for all. I was soon more than ever convinced that Christianity was the true religion, but that a strange theology had been foisted into its place in Christendom. It seemed to me self-evident that Jesus must be the best teacher of his own religion, that it is egregious presumption in any body of men to prescribe, as containing the essential faith, any creed nowhere to be found in the words of the Master.
In December, 1820, May was “approbated” for the ministry at a meeting at the house of Dr. Channing. Soon after, Dr. Channing being unable to fulfill an engagement in New York, he was chosen to take his place, and preached there several Sundays. He afterwards preached in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Richmond, witnessing, on this tour, the institution of slavery with an abhorrence in which was the germ of his devoted labors, later, for its abolition. Returning to Boston, besides other engagements, he was for six months colleague to Dr. Channing, renewing his inspiring intimacy with that great man. Against the advice of older friends he accepted a call to Brooklyn, Connecticut, then an isolated village in the midst of a stern and aggressive Calvinism. He was ordained at Chauncy Place Church, March 14, 1822, Dr. Freeman preaching the sermon and President Kirkland giving the charge, and on the 17th began his pastoral labors, his formal installation occurring later. Though young, genial, and peace-loving, he was perfectly bold and determined, and met the adverse conditions with composure and energy. Besides his regular duties he conducted for a considerable period a weekly journal, The Liberal Christian, later The Christian Monitor, for the exposition of liberal views. He entered at once into the life of the whole region, and became an influence throughout the county and State. As a laborious member of the local school committee, he was led to a deep interest in the general cause of education. He lectured in different parts of the State, and called the first popular convention ever gathered to consider the subject. This was followed by others, and became annual in Windham County. He early advocated a more liberal use of Sunday and of the sacraments of the Church, and opposed capital punishment. In 1828 he publicly avowed the principle of total abstinence, which he earnestly upheld ever after. Having to erect a house, he was advised that the frame could not be raised unless he dispensed liquors. “Then it shall lie upon the ground,” he declared. He offered abundant non-intoxicating refreshments, and won an entire victory. In the principle of Peace he had become interested while in college, under the influence of Rev. Noah Worcester. He earnestly advocated it, and his first published address after his settlement was on this topic. But especially his sympathies went out in behalf of the Southern slaves. By his own observations, by an address of Webster’s, and by the writings of Lundy and others, he had been deeply moved, when, in 1830, several addresses of Garrison fully awoke his conscience. He pledged to Garrison his cooperation, and continued his zealous coworker until emancipation came. When Prudence Crandall, a young woman of a neighboring town, opened a school for colored girls and was cruelly persecuted, Mr. May stood forth, almost alone, as her champion, and sustained her until she was wholly intimidated. He was a member in 1833 of the convention which at Philadelphia founded the American Anti-slavery society. In 1835 he resigned his pulpit, removing to Boston to act as the general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-slavery Society, in which service he continued eighteen months, being five times mobbed, once in company with John G. Whittier. The story of his brave and effective appeal to the conscience of Dr. Channing is told in the Memoir of the latter.
In 1836 Mr. May resumed professional life as pastor of the church in South Scituate, where he labored for six years. His pastoral devotion, as in Brooklyn, endeared him to his people in an extraordinary degree, and throughout Plymouth County he made his influence felt in behalf of education, peace, emancipation, and temperance. Every rum seller in South Scituate capitulated before the moral weapons of his “Cold Water Army.” A public “Execution of King Alcohol” was held, and many barrels of rum were broached and spilled upon the ground, Mr. May wielding the axe. The germ of his interest in the rights of women was implanted by the visit of two Southern ladies, desiring to speak upon slavery. Reflection convinced his just mind of their title to bear their testimony, and he gave them full assistance. He paid great attention to the local schools, and was in constant consultation with Horace Mann over his plans for the development of the school system of the State. In 1842, at Mr. Mann’s urgent appeal, he resigned his pulpit, and became principal of the Normal School for women at Lexington. He maintained this in a high state of efficiency, and improved its methods and its personnel. But, his predecessor recovering his health, Mr. May insisted upon withdrawing in his favor. He received an invitation to become principal of a leading public school in Boston, but declined it because he disapproved, on moral grounds, of the distribution of the Franklin medals. For nearly two years he supplied the pulpit of the old church in Lexington. At this time the controversy over the theological position of Theodore Parker arising, Mr. May strongly condemned the treatment which he received from brother ministers. While, equally with them, dissenting from Mr. Parker’s views, he vigorously upheld his right to freedom of thought and utterance, and offered him an exchange. From this act there arose an intimate and permanent friendship. A characteristic incident of the informal Lexington pastorate was Mr. May’s successful effort to reconcile the several religious societies which had long been bitterly divided over the question of an ancient church fund.
Early in 1845 Mr. May received a call to the pulpit in Syracuse, New York, and entered on his labors there in April. He was now forty-seven years of age, in the full possession of unusual physical and mental vigor, ripe in experience, of a perfect moral courage, and his heart glowing with religious fervor and all the philanthropic instincts. Deeply interested in all public questions, he always remained distinctively the parish minister, and as preacher and pastor he raised his society to the highest condition of prosperity and to a marked influence. The community was intensely Calvinistic, and, as an exponent of liberal Christianity, he was at once challenged to its vindication—a call which he energetically met, preaching many controversial sermons. A moderate supernaturalist, the worth of every doctrine to him was chiefly its moral quality; and for the principal points in Calvin’s system he entertained an unmeasured abhorrence. In 1854 he met in public debate on the doctrine of the Trinity a prominent Wesleyan divine. The discussion was continued for eleven successive evenings before crowded assemblies, terminating in kindness. The addresses were published. Of Mr. May’s preaching by far the greater part related to the religious life and the formation of the Christian character. The true nature and claims of the Bible were luminously presented, and he made Scripture characters the subjects of many popular discourses. But the life and spirit of Jesus were his favorite theme. Whatever was Jesus’ nature, his highest service to men was as an illustration of the possibilities of humanity and an example for conduct. The Christian ideal was cogently applied to all the particular relations of life. His delineation of true fathers and mothers, wives and husbands, his views of the use and abuse of property, of the conditions of respectability and the tests of a noble manhood, of the sanctity of the functions of the lawyer, physician, merchant, journalist, sank deeply into men’s hearts. His sketch of a “Charge at the Installation of an Editor” was a unique specimen of eloquence. The emancipation of the slaves, the abolition of war, temperance, the purification of politics, were ceaselessly urged as phases of religious duty. As early as 1846 he preached a powerful sermon on the rights and condition of women, which was widely circulated in this country and Great Britain. But, while intensely in earnest, a radical idealist in morals, his nature singularly defended him from acerbity of expression, and he retained in full the devotion of his parishioners, whose sympathies were molded into great unanimity with his own. His influence constantly extended through a community which speedily recognized his elevation of character and the warmth of his sympathy for his fellow-men. He became, it may be said without exaggeration, the leading citizen. To all local interests he was, from the first, deeply devoted. He promoted the formation of a lyceum, which brought to the town as lecturers men like Emerson, Parker, and Curtis. His untiring service on the School Committee, of which he was long chairman, was commemorated by giving his name to one of the schools. The abolition of corporal punishment was due to his efforts. He called public attention to the sufferings of the drivers on the canal, and secured remedial legislation. He labored to improve the condition of the Onondaga Indians, raising money for a school-house and obtaining from the State a twenty years’ grant of money for the support of a teacher. The whole tribe knew him, and often resorted to him for advice and help. He united in plans for a public hospital, ultimately placed under the direction of Catholic Sisters, with whom he cooperated in mutual cordiality. A good priest, being challenged as to his prospects for heaven, said, “Oh, there’ll be a back door for Mr. May!” At a Catholic fair an exciting voting contest for a fine cane was decided in his favor, the Sisters warmly electioneering for him. For several years he habitually united, each Sunday afternoon, in a public meeting for the discussion of religious questions. All sects of Christians and varieties of religious sceptics participated, with often intense feeling, but in a harmony singularly maintained. Of Mr. May’s incessant private charities it is here impossible to speak. His home was simply the headquarters of all the unfortunate and oppressed, the miserable in body or mind.
In the anti-slavery cause his labors were untiring. He preached and lectured at home and in many other places, and organized conventions to which came Garrison, Phillips, Burleigh, Douglass, and the other leaders. Among these speakers, as Emerson said, “eloquence was dirt cheap,” and Syracuse became a center of pronounced anti-slavery sentiment. Mr. May fearlessly denounced the fugitive slave law as a politicians’ statute, unconstitutional, and nullifying the law of God. He repudiated its obligation, yet avowed that he would submit to its penalties. When a fugitive, “Jerry,” was arrested and in danger of being remanded to slavery, a body of citizens broke open his cell and set him at liberty. The actors were well known, and sustained by an almost unanimous public sentiment. “Why look for other men?” Gerrit Smith wrote. “Samuel J. May and I did it!” The prosecutions amounted to nothing. Subsequently Mr. May personally aided over a thousand fugitives to reach Canada. Many were farmers from the southern counties of New York and from Pennsylvania. He made one or two journeys to Canada to inspect their settlements and to promote their welfare. In 1859 he went to Europe for rest, travelling extensively for a year. In England he preached often, and lectured upon the then agitated condition of affairs in the United States.
The advent of the Civil War was a profound trial for him. As a consistent non-resistant, he could not advise participation in it, but said to some who sought his counsel, “In the presence of a call to action you must obey your own consciences.” He saw in the war the dire penalty of national guilt and of the political subserviency of the North. But he warmly desired the success of the Union cause, and, while disapproving many acts of the administration, sustained it by his vote. He took an active part in plans for the relief of the soldiers and their families, visiting the seat of war to distribute supplies and co-operating with the Sanitary Commission. For the freedmen he became deeply engaged, forming an association on their behalf, speaking, writing, raising funds, and corresponding with their teachers.
On reaching the age of seventy Mr. May resigned his pulpit, delivering on September 15, 1867, a farewell discourse, which was published as “A Brief Account of my Ministry.” He received a liberal annuity from his parishioners, and was very happy in their early choice of Rev. S. R. Calthrop as his successor. He continued to preach often in various places as a missionary of the American Unitarian Association. He wrote his “Recollections of the Anti-slavery Conflict,” and published his vigorous “Complaint against the Presbyterians and Some of their Doctrines.” This was his last printed sermon, and showed that the fire of his moral emotion burned unabated. Great numbers of his discourses had been currently reported in the papers and in pamphlets, but his busy life had forbidden extended literary labors of a permanent character. His health continued good until 1871, when he had a serious illness, and died peacefully on July 1st.
In person Mr. May was above middle height, of a handsome countenance, of dignified but easy bearing and most engaging manners. He did not possess wit, and was glad of this, from its tendency to satire; but he had an ever-ready humor, was perennially cheerful, and never seemed wearied or depressed. His life of multifarious activities furnished a rich store of anecdotes, which he told with great effect. His genial and social spirit, his sunny smile and cordial laugh, attracted all classes and young and old. Children flocked about him. In his successive ministries, by the constancy of his pastoral attentions, he won a devotion seldom paralleled. Forty-three years after he left South Scituate, William P. Tilden wrote, “The aroma of his memory still lingers here for twenty miles around.” He made every human being feel that he recognized his equal manhood, and over criminals, inebriates, and the insane exerted a very singular power. In his home life he was most simple, always serene and happy, wholly unconscious of self, a husband and father of unsurpassed fidelity and tenderness. He was literally incapable of impatience, irritability, or harsh speech.
Mr. May married, in 1825, Lucretia Flagge, daughter of Peter Coffin, a member of King’s Chapel, who survived until 1865. He had four sons, one of whom died in infancy, and a daughter.
As a preacher, Mr. May, while not possessing high oratorical gifts, was, writes a parishioner,
…always perspicuous and impressive, and often rose, especially on themes of practical duty, to heights of true inspiration and commanding power. I have heard from him sermons which, in point of quality, I have never known surpassed.
His manner of delivery was peculiarly dignified and forcible, with moderate but effective gestures, and aided by a voice of rare power and sweetness, of which Theodore Parker said that “it was made to pronounce the Beatitudes.” His reading of the hymns and Scriptures was especially beautiful. He carefully wrote out his sermons, detesting slovenliness of thought or expression. “His benediction was emphatically a blessing, such fervor of spirit going out with the invocation. It was worth a journey to hear this alone, to say nothing of the sermon.”
Mr. May’s obsequies were like a solemn festival of the whole community. In a private service George B. Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, A. Bronson Alcott, Rev. Thomas J. Mumford, and others united. Gerrit Smith said: “He was the most Christ-like man I ever knew. He made Jesus his pattern in all things.” The church could not contain the throngs who sought to attend the funeral exercises. Twenty orthodox ministers, besides the Jewish rabbi, were present, with laymen of all classes and creeds, Catholics and Protestants. An Indian chief stood beside the bier, and many colored people were in the assembly. At the grave, among others, President Andrew D. White spoke, saying:
Here lies all that was mortal of the best man, the most truly Christian man, I have ever known—the purest, the sweetest, the fullest of faith, hope, and charity, the most like the Master. His life was a radiant witness to the Beatitudes.
In 1885 a new church was erected by the Unitarian Society, and dedicated as the “May Memorial Church.” On his birthday, in 1886, a handsome mural tablet, presented by relatives of Mr. May, was unveiled in the church, and about the same time his bust in marble was set up in the public high school. In 1887, twenty-six years after his death, the one hundredth anniversary of his birth was celebrated.
The epitaph upon his monument closes with these fitting words:
“TRUSTING WHOLLY IN THE IDEAL RIGHT, HE LABORED FROM
YOUTH TO AGE TO BRING IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD. WHEN
DEATH WAS NEAR, HE SAID, ‘I MAY HAVE HEREAFTER
A CLEARER VISION, I CANNOT HAVE A SURER
— By Joseph May
Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection