Rev. May Has Shown Me the Way
Sermon by The Reverend Richard R. Davis
Used with permission.
Back in February of 1986 I met with our denomination's Fellowship Committee in a conference room in a hotel in Berkeley, CA. The committee's unenviable task is to determine if ministerial students are intellectually, emotionally and personally qualified to become full-fledged Unitarian Universalist ministers. My task that day was to convince them that I was.
This is the day that most ministry students dread and want to put behind them—it is a harrowing ordeal to go before an imposing committee of distinguished ministers and lay members to have them decide your vocational fate. So much hinges on this one meeting that it is difficult not to get a bit overwhelmed by all the pressure.
You begin by preaching a short sermon to the committee, and then you sit down to get grilled on a vast array of topics. Each member of the committee has studied an extensive file on you before the meeting, and one of their primary tasks is to probe for weaknesses or particular areas of concern.
Since I had not attended a Unitarian Universalist theology school the committee was concerned that I might not know enough Unitarian Universalist history and theology, so they were asking me a number of questions to test my knowledge in that area.
Everything seemed to be going well until someone asked me which figure in Unitarian Universalist history I most admired. Normally, you would expect students of our history to respond by naming one of the great, well known figures in one our movement's history, say Theodore Parker or Susan B. Anthony s or Ellery Channing or Margaret Fuller—somebody like that.
Instead, I instinctively and impulsively said that Samuel J. May was the person I most admired in was our movement's history. Everyone had blank expressions on their faces because them most of them had never even heard of Samuel J. May. Everyone that is except the head of the committee at that time, the Rev. Nick Cardell. He seemed a bit stunned by my response.
He squinted and looked directly at me and asked, “Did you say Samuel May, Samuel J. May?”
"Yes," I stammered. Now I became alarmed because the truth of the matter was that I knew very little about Samuel J. May, and it seemed that Nick Cardell knew something terrible about the man that I did not. My only knowledge of the Rev. Samuel May came from a very brief reference in one of the books on our required reading list. Yet I was so deeply inspired by what I read about him there that I said to myself at the time, "That is the kind of minister I would like to be." And thus, I named him as my favorite Unitarian Universalist that day in Berkeley.
Much to my relief, Nick Cardell started smiling appreciatively as he announced to the rest of the committee—“back in the middle of the nineteenth century Samuel May was the congregational minister in Syracuse, New York, where I now serve, and they loved him so much they named the place after him—the May Memorial Unitarian Society. He was a wonderful man.” Nick Cardell seemed very favorably impressed by my wise choice.
Everyone else laughed because they thought it was extraordinarily clever for me to mention an obscure figure that the head of the Fellowship Committee deeply admired. In fact, I was not clever at all—just lucky. In any event, the Fellowship Committee gave me their stamp of approval that day, and I was able to fulfill my dream of entering the ministry.
So I'll always remember that early on in my ministry Samuel J. May gave me a helpful boost. But for several years thereafter I lost contact with him because there are no books about his life or ministry currently in print. Only the more assiduous students of Unitarian history learn about him from obscure sources—he was widely known and admired in his own day, but he has now more or less fallen through the cracks of our historical memory.
Yet fate seems to have ordained that I, at least, should have a significant encounter with the spirit of Rev. Samuel J. May. Recently, I was browsing through the stacks in the library at the Theology School at Claremont when I saw a book entitled Memoir of Samuel J. May (Thomas J. Mumford, Editor; Boston: Roberts Brothers). I thumbed through this fragile, old book, published in 1873—there are probably very few copies left anywhere. It's amazing that I had the good fortune to stumble upon one of them.
Having now read and savored this charming and inspiring book I must say that if I had to face the Fellowship Committee again, and they asked me what figure I most admired in Unitarian Universalist history I would again say without hesitation and even more emphasis, "Samuel J. May." As Unitarian Universalists, most of us are fairly familiar with our Principles and Purposes, and the vision and ideals embodied in that document can serve as a sure guide for us in our religious lives. But I need more than abstract ideals to get me going—I need real life embodiments of those ideals to inspire me to live by them. So great souls like Samuel J. May serve a profound spiritual need for me—he reminds me, by virtue of his example, of who I am called to be and what I am called to do as a Unitarian Universalist minister, for he faithfully embodied the moral and spiritual ideals that I hold dear.
I cannot begin to sum up his life in one sermon, and I feel some frustration that I cannot tell you all that I would like about Samuel May, but I hope you will soon understand some of the reasons why he inspires me so much.
I first learned about Samuel May when I was reading about the ugly sectarian controversy that surrounded Theodore Parker well over a century ago.
Theodore Parker, you may remember, was the prophetic Unitarian minister who we now claim as one of the greatest figures in our history: Yet Parker would see a bit of irony in that since the Unitarians of his day did everything they could to expel him from our movement. They lacked the power to officially expel him, but they did ask him to leave the Unitarian movement because of his outspoken and unorthodox Transcendentalist views. Even for Unitarians he was too far out.
He refused to leave our movement, but he was effectively ostracized by other Unitarians—few would speak to him, and was not invited to speak from other Unitarian pulpits. Parker, being a sensitive man was deeply hurt by this rejection. He bitterly commented on Unitarian clergy: "I once thought noble; that they would be true to an ideal principle of right. find that no body of men was ever more completely sold sense of expediency."
Yet there was one Unitarian minister who was open-minded and courageous enough to befriend Parker and welcome him into his pulpit—Samuel J. May.
May did not fully agree with Parker's theological views either, but he clearly recognized Parker's greatness. As May said, "I respect Theodore Parker because he is a man of intellect and of wonderful acquisitions. I love him because he consecrates so much of his knowledge, his genius, and his eloquence to the cause of suffering, outraged humanity . . . when I see the tremendous blows he strikes at the foundation vices of society, I respect and love him, his opinions on some points notwithstanding.
Yet May also recognized that Theodore Parker was partially to blame for his own fate—he was often sarcastic and condescending toward those who challenged his views. And thus, many people resented Parker and broke off their relations with him. On the other hand, even those who strongly disagreed with Samuel May, who also held unpopular views on controversial issues, found it hard to break off their relations with him due to his kind and loving personality.
One politician who deplored May's abolitionist views frequently denounced him in the bitterest of terms—he did everything he could to become an enemy. But one day he confessed "I have got to give up trying to hate that man. You know I have a sick child, but I went to a meeting to attack the Abolitionists. Soon after the meeting I heard. Mr. May's voice calling my name in the street. Turning round, I found his face full of neighborly tenderness; and all he said was, "I do hope your little boy is better."
As one of the earliest and most outspoken advocates for the total abolition of slavery, May had to endure a great deal of hateful abuse in the north—he was burned in effigy, verbally assaulted, and physically threatened. Yet he refused to regard any person as an enemy; and time and again he was able to overcome senseless hatred with love and compassion. May's profoundly inclusive humanitarian vision affected all his relations with people, wherever he was, whatever he was doing.
At one point in his career he was induced by the great educator Horace Mann to leave the ministry for a while and head a school May did so reluctantly, but under his guidance the school thrived. In a speech to a teacher's convention he shared the secret of his success. "Be mindful," he said "of the neglected, ill-looking, ill-tempered, not wishing them away, but rejoicing to have an opportunity to do for them in school what is not done for them at home. Let this class of children be at once made to feel that they are really cared for; that they are not shunned, but sought after; not despised, but valued; not doubted, but trusted; not despaired of but hoped for: let them be treated thus, and a prolific source of trouble in schools would be dried up. Love the unlovely, and they will put their unloveliness away."
Back in the early nineteenth century when harsh discipline was the rule in schools, this kind of enlightened, compassionate approach was a revelation to his hearers, and for some time after that phrase "love the unlovely" echoed throughout the region. It was one of May's central tenets, whether he was dealing with children or adults.
May had a singular genius for bringing out the best in those around him, for appealing to the better angels in people's natures. He approached each person with the awareness that his manner of dealing with them could positively affect their attitudes and behaviors.
Very early one morning Samuel May was traveling along a road where another man had recently been robbed and murdered. As he rode along he noticed a suspicious character in the road ahead. The man was dirty and unkempt, and he was carrying a big bludgeon in his hand. It seemed as though he were planning to attack May, but before he had the opportunity May called out, "friend, you are going my way: will you not ride with me?"
The man seemed embarrassed and disconcerted by this offer, but he accepted. The two rode along together all day as May made friendly conversation. Toward the end of the day, when they parted, the stranger looked at May very earnestly and with a voice filled with emotion said, "Thank you, sir: probably you never will know the benefit you have conferred upon me today."
When the man made that unusual confession May realized that he had indeed intended to beat and rob him that morning, but once again, May's loving kindness transformed an evil possibility into a good reality.
As a minister Samuel May also understood that he was called upon to inspire others to transform bad relations into life affirming ones. Once May visited a dying man who was wailing loudly not because of physical suffering but because of his spiritual misery. It seems that this old man had always been crotchety, argumentative, and abusive with practically everyone, and now, on his deathbed he was feeling tremendous remorse for his terrible behavior.
May told the man that all his loud groaning neither was pleasing to God or the neighbors, and that there was a better way for him to spend his final days: "instead of wasting your time, and disturbing your family by your groans and outcries, set about forgiving those who have injured you, and ask the pardon of those you have injured." The old man started telling May about all the wrongs that others had done to him, but May finally said "if they are really as bad as you have described them, I should think you would pity them, and pray for their repentance and forgiveness. But it your special duty to think rather of the wrong you may have done to them in your anger; be sorry for that, and sincerely ask their pardon."
The old man agreed, except to say that he was unwilling to forgive one particular man who had abused him a great deal. May said that "above all, he is the one with whom you most need to be reconciled." Finally, the old man realized that this was indeed what he must do. Soon one neighbor after another came in to be reconciled with the old man. As this dying man asked each of them for forgiveness they were all so touched by this sincere gesture that they, in return, asked him for forgiveness as well. And the sweetest reconciliation of all for the old man was with the man who had been his greatest enemy. Tears flowed freely between them as they each granted forgiveness to one another. A day or two later the man died, at peace with everyone, including himself.
Yet May was not the kind of minister who simply occupied himself with personal morality. He was even more engaged in the larger battle to make his society more moral and humane. The battle that most engaged his energies was the fight against slavery. Early in his youth on a journey through Maryland, May saw a line of manacled slaves being led to an auction. He was horrified by the sight and said "I am ashamed of my country and my race." A great deal of his later energies were spent working to eradicate that shame.
What really set his soul on fire was hearing the radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison one evening at a lecture. "That night my soul was baptized in his spirit," wrote May. "The impression which he made upon my soul has never been effaced; indeed, it molded it anew. He gave a new direction to my thoughts, a new purpose to my ministry."
May became an abolitionist in the 1830's when they were a very unpopular minority everywhere. Even the Unitarians distanced themselves from them, for they, too, were afraid to rock the boat and challenge the status quo. This unfortunate state of affairs made it necessary for May to make a very difficult visit to the great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing. May had revered Channing since he was a young boy—revered him more than any living soul, but now he was compelled to confront him, for Channing was not actively participating in the battle to abolish slavery.
May was accustomed to deferring to the older man, but on this visit he launched into a impassioned and eloquent rebuke of Channing's inaction. May was surprised at his own temerity, and after he finished speaking he waited for Channing's reply in "painful expectation." May wrote that "the minutes seemed very long that elapsed before the silence was broken. Then, in a very subdued manner and in the kindliest tones of his voice, Channing said: "Brother May, I acknowledge the justice of your reproof. I have been silent too long." Never shall I forget his words, look, whole appearance, " wrote May. "I then and there saw the beauty, the magnanimity, the humility, of a truly great soul. He was exalted in my esteem more than ever before."
May did more than speak out against slavery. He was very active in the underground railroad, offering hundreds of slaves temporary sanctuary in his home. He visited Canada to see that they had good places to go, and he frequently took up collections in church to support this cause. And fortunately, he lived long enough to see Abraham Lincoln issue the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves.
May firmly believed in the equality of all people and, thus, he was also moved to support women's rights in an age when men rarely did such a thing. He prophetically announced "I am fully persuaded that never will our governments be wisely and happily administered until we have mothers as well as fathers of the State." Indeed.
May naturally gravitated toward any cause that would help alleviate human suffering and oppression. One admirer wrote that "it was said that his father, while traveling on the road, would alight and remove a stone or other obstacles that might jolt or inconvenience other travelers. So Samuel May's whole life was, I think, spent in efforts to remove obstacles in the way to the happiness and peace of others."
And he has, by his example, removed some of the emotional and psychological obstacles that periodically keep me being the minister I am called to be. He reminds me to befriend and support outspoken prophets, even those whom the rest of society repudiates.
He reminds me to counter hate with love.
He reminds me to "love the unlovely," to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
He reminds me to courageously find ways to transform evil potential into life affirming reality.
He reminds me of the healing power of forgiveness.
And he reminds me to enlarge my vision and find effective ways to challenge the great evils and injustices that oppress people and diminish the human spirit.
Albert Schweitzer once wrote: "sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light."
So I owe a great debt of gratitude to Samuel J. May, even though I have only met the memory of him. I must humbly and honestly acknowledge that I will never be as great and good a minister as he was. But I am undoubtedly a better one for having encountered the memory of his life and his ministry.
And my hope this morning is that having heard about him, you will be a better Unitarian Universalist.