Heretic in Syracuse
Samuel Joseph May: 1845–1871
by Dr. Catherine L. Covert, circa 1970
Used with permission of her estate executrix, Carolyn Stepanek Holmes.
The Syracuse City Hall was packed to suffocation that February night in 1854. It had been impossible to get a seat long before the meeting began, and now attention was riveted to the platform where ranged two of the city's most outspoken divines.
On the one hand was the Reverend Samuel J. May, the city's sole Unitarian pastor. May had come to this upstate New York community by way of the Harvard Divinity School. He had studied under Dr. Henry Ware, Harvard's first Unitarian divinity professor; served as assistant to Dr. William Ellery Channing, dean of American Unitarianism, and held several New England pastorates.
Opposing this polished Bostonian was the Reverend Luther Lee, rough-hewn Wesleyan who had learned his letters from an alphabet carved on a shingle in the woods. He had acquired his theology riding one of Methodism's bleaker circuits in the dreary stretches of Northern New York.
Is God one or three? Announcement that this question would be debated by the oddly matched pair had the town agog in that doctrinally conscious age. The most learned and pious of the city crowded the hall for prospects of the debate had already stirred a fine controversy in the press.
Mr. May had long “fulminated against orthodoxy with an arrogant confidence and sought to provoke discussion,” the Central New Yorker thundered when Lee first challenged May to debate the doctrine of the trinity. "Will he take up the glove? We shall see.”
This comment, the Syracuse Daily Standard thought, was palpably unfair. After all, “Mr. May is the weaker party, theologically considered, in the proportion of three to one, and we protest against a powerful fellow like the Central New Yorker taking the part of his antagonist.” But then, the Standard tended to take a rather blithe view of the whole affair.
Not so the protagonists. Through eleven long evenings, two speeches apiece an evening. thirty minutes a speech, they charged and counter-charged, quoted and cross-quoted, disputing translation and arguing punctuation of the holy scriptures. Lee contended that the Godhead was in substance three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Of course Father, Son, and Holy Spirit did exist, countered May, taking a typical Unitarian position. But they were one only in purpose, not in actuality. Christ was not God. He was man. But he was a perfect man because he was led by the spirit of God, and if men would receive him as instructor, guide, and pattern, he would give them power to become the sons of God, as well.
After twenty-two hours of such argument, neither man had won. At least there was no formal decision, though May appealed to each listener to decide for himself where the truth lay. May's friends thought victory was his, but Lee was sure he had triumphed. The discussion, he said, resulted satisfactorily to all Trinitarians.
It is probable that a majority of his hearers agreed with him. Unitarianism was heresy to all but a handful in Syracuse, and most of the audience had been Trinitarians from birth. Lee was backed not only by the solid body of the orthodox, but by their principal pastors, who thoughtfully stopped by his house every day during the debates to inquire about his health and help bolster his arguments.
“My brother Lee says he stands as much alone as I do,” said May the second night of the debate. “Now I want to know of him if he is in all respects treated by the clergy of this city and the church, as I am treated?. . . . I do stand-alone here. I expected to when I came here years ago. If I had not made up my mind to before, I should not have come.”
“"I am such a heretic,” he avowed the third night, “that in opposition to all the churches in Christendom, if all agreed with my brother Lee on this point, I should say, the plain declarations of Jesus himself outweigh all your texts and arguments.”"
But he was a cheerful heretic, completely in his element as he charged joyously against the bastions of orthodoxy, pausing only to assure his friends that “far from needing any special sympathy, I am very happy, in my present relations.” The twinkle his friends looked for must have gleamed as he gave an occasional light twist to the heavy arguments. Lee had tried to prove, May said, that Jesus Christ possessed all the titles and attributes of the Father himself, so that “if the Father should cease to be, he would not be missed.”
This genial turn of mind stood May in good stead during an embattled lifetime. For his views were heretical in other fields than theology, and they embroiled him in frequent controversy. He spoke for common education in an age when the rich sent their sons to private schools and the poor went untaught. He denounced corporal punishment when a strap hung in every schoolhouse. He was an abolitionist when slavery interests ran the country. a temperance man when hard liquor graced the common sideboard. a friend of woman's rights when women were household accessories.
Heresy in both religion and reform sprang from the same deep convictions within him, and it was hard for him to speak of one for very long without touching on the other. As his final summation on the last night of the Trinity debates, May declared that such "dear children of God," as William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Horace Mann, and Lucy Stone, "are devoting themselves to the cause of crushed humanity, and that is the cause of Christ . . . not the sustaining of a system of dogmas devised by men in the 4th or 5th centuries which, if true, would not comfort the afflicted, nor-clothe the naked. nor break the yoke of the enslaved."
Such disagreement with the prevailing theological and social thought of the day might have been expected from one of the dissenting Mays of Boston. Samuel Joseph's grandfather, dissatisfied with the ministry of the Rev. Mather Byles, marched indignantly out of Boston's Hollis Street Church. His father was one of twenty resolute Bostonians who voted liturgical changes separating King's Chapel from the Episcopal Church in l785, making it Unitarian in philosophy a generation before any other New England congregation.
Born of this stock in l797, young May was educated in private schools and was graduated from Harvard University in 18l7. . . The next year he enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School. Here he received an early lesson of his own in the value of the independent mind. In great trepidation he confided his rising doubts about the miraculous conception of Jesus to Dr. Henry Ware.
“My young friend,” Ware said, “I am glad to find you have arrived at a doubt. I perceive that you have begun to think . . . . that you have entered on the study of Theology in good earnest.”
Doubts were bound to arise. Dr. Ware told him, and he was bound to believe whatever at any time seemed to him true. If he were in earnest, the very venerable theologian reassured him, God would not permit him to remain long in error. Ware's response was not surprising. These years marked the formative period of Unitarian thought in this country, and much of the old theology was being questioned by such Unitarian philosophers. After that, May recalled, he was never afraid to pursue any inquiry after truth, "however it might seem to endanger long-cherished opinions."
May's independence of thought was obvious in the choice of his first pastorate. Against the warnings of family and friends, the 25-year-old pastor accepted a call in 1822 to a struggling Unitarian society in Brooklyn, Connecticut. It was the only Unitarian congregation in what May decided was the most orthodox state in New England. As his parents had predicted, he did indeed, "encounter alone the opposition of the orthodoxy of the whole Commonwealth." He seemed to thrive on it, however, discovering by experience, "how little else a man needs to support and comfort him, if he has the consciousness of loving the true and obeying the right."
Here his enthusiastic tilts with religious and social custom set a pattern he was to follow the rest of his life. In Brooklyn he advanced the cause of Unitarianism through a small paper he published to explain this unfamiliar doctrine. Here he first decided to serve no drink but cold water at his table. Here he preached his first temperance sermon and organized one of the country's first county peace societies. As the clerical member of the county schools committee, he began in Brooklyn a lifelong battle to improve common education.
And it was in the ninth year of his Brooklyn pastorate that he was first fired by the suggestion of immediate abolition of slavery. Inspired by William Lloyd Garrison's initial plea for immediate emancipation in 1830, May helped frame the declaration of principle at the organization of the American Antislavery Society in 1833. And he suffered all the obloquies heaped on the despised band of abolitionists at a time when the fashionable solutions to the slavery problem were colonization or gradual emancipation. A general agent for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society in 1835 and 1836, May was repeatedly mobbed in Vermont and passed coolly through another mob at Haverhill, Mass., to the admiration of his host, John Greenleaf Whittier.
Even the comparative peace of a six-year pastorate beginning in1836 at South Scituate, Massachusetts, was marked by mutterings from some parishioners. They did wish the minister would preach the gospel and not dabble in worldly matters. May's subsequent two-year tenure as principal of Horace Mann's new-fangled normal school at Lexington, Massachusetts, was punctuated by Mann's fault-finding with May's antislavery activities. These denunciations seemed to discourage May only briefly. "He did his best under fire," a Scituate parishioner recalled, "either from without or from within—either the fire of proslavery opposition or the fire of indignation at some great wrong.
For such a man, upstate New York was a fine place. A land of transplanted Yankees, the area had been settled by emigrants from the New England Hills, a country deeply affected by the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. Assiduous cultivation from New England mother churches further heightened the religious sensitivity of the area, and sectarian warfare raged between revivals. The Shaker colonies sowed germs of communism, premillenialism, perfectionism, and spiritualism that later flowered into mature movements. By the 1830s the entire area was seething with religious ferment. In such environment reforms of all kinds flourished and religion became the, "driving propellant for social movements important to the whole country," according to W. R. Cross of the University of West Virginia.
Syracuse was tardy in sharing these heady concerns. The country around it had been well settled before this village exploded into existence with the building of the Erie Canal in the early 1820s. By 1845, however, it had mushroomed to a community of eight thousand souls, and was making up in intensity what it lacked in experience.
When May arrived that year as pastor of the seven-year-old Unitarian Society, he found the orthodox factions warring enthusiastically on each other. The slavery question had split the Congregational Society from the First Presbyterian Church, and now the Congregationalists were seriously divided among themselves. The Wesleyan group had seceded from the Methodist Episcopal Church on the same issue in 1843, and though there was no open warfare between the two Methodist ministers, relations were hardly fraternal. Altogether the orthodox seemed united only in their opposition to Catholicism and Unitarianism.
The experience of May's predecessor was hardly encouraging. A courtly and polished scholar, the Rev. J. B. Storer had been, "socially ostracized by the Orthodox bigots of the place to such an extent that his life and ministry might almost be considered a martyrdom," one of his parishioners, testified. Many of the orthodox pastors refused to be introduced to him; the Congregational minister would not call him "Reverend," avowing he was neither clergyman nor Christian, and a Baptist revivalist denounced the Unitarian devils nightly for weeks, apologizing to Satan for slander. Nonetheless, the little society grew in numbers and influence, and by the time Mr. Storer died in 1844 a Unitarian weekly could claim that no one possessed more influence in the neighborhood than this "blessed martyr" and that, "no section of the country is more open to the preached word."
Not wholly anticipating the antagonism he would encounter, the 48-year-old May set out to preach that word, indulging in lively denunciations of what he found objectionable in the popular creeds. Orthodox religion he once characterized for his people as not the pure Christianity taught by Jesus but a compound of Judaism and Platonism, mixed in with, "some other heathen and oriental philosophies."
"We believe that Jesus Christ, and not Paul nor Cephas, nor Augustine nor Calvin, nor Edwards nor Wesley, but Jesus Christ is the best teacher of Christianity," he said, dismissing the authors of orthodoxy in one sentence and proceeding to dispose of the Pope, the bishops of England, and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.
Furthermore, he told his people, the Unitarians had been led to, more consistent, more worthy, more delightful views of God, and more encouraging views of man than those held up by the evangelical churches, whose scheme of salvation was, "a theological system of man's device, which in the dark ages was foisted into the place of Christianity . . . ."
This kind of smug summation was not calculated to calm the orthodox, whose counter-attack was usually immediate and vigorous. This pleased May immensely. It was precisely what he hoped for.
"That is what I want to do," he often said, "to get the people to think. If they think, they will come to the truth."
A characteristic attack on May came during the Trinity debates in 1854. May complained that the Rev. William Bliss Ashley, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, had "held me up, from his pulpit, to the dread of all his people, and then published the discourse containing strange misrepresentations of my principles and doctrines."
Mr. Ashley's views on Unitarianism became even more public in June of that same year. A general clamor arose at his refusal to permit the body of one Archy Kasson, a supposed Unitarian, inside the Episcopalian Church while Kasson's funeral services were being held. Ashley also omitted the traditional burial service at the grave. Denounced in a series of editorials, Ashley found it necessary to publish a letter explaining his conduct. He had been told, he said, that Kasson had attached himself to a body the church regarded as heretical, "cutting himself off from the body of Christ, excommunicating himself." The rector had not learned until too late that despite a brief flirtation with Unitarianism while in Buffalo, Kasson had been attended on his deathbed by an Episcopalian clergyman.
Even more unsettling was the discovery that the Archy Kasson whose casket was relegated to St. Paul's porch was the same Archy Kasson who had helped found St. Paul's thirty years before.
May was evidently dreaded by the majority of such orthodox Christians around him, recalled Andrew D. White, first president of Cornell University. May was one of White's dearest friends, and the two men spent much time together discussing early problems of White's University. Once White asked Dr. May why he didn't call on a new clergyman who had appeared in Syracuse.
"I would gladly do so," said May, "but do you suppose he would return my call?"
"Of course he would," White replied, "he is a gentleman."
"No doubt he is," said May, "and so are the other clergymen; yet I have called on them as they have come, and only two or three of them all have ever entered my house since."
This sort of thing was not prompted by malice. Orthodox pastors sincerely felt that no matter how fine a man May might be, his heretical views put him outside all communion with the accepted church.
Such a point of view was exemplified in the Rev. James Erwin, a Methodist pastor in Syracuse during 1845 and 1846 who regarded May as a, "man of large abilities, a ripe scholar, a real philanthropist, devoted to the interests of humanity, abounding in every good work." May often attended Methodist services on Sunday afternoon, Erwin recalled, and, "the dear man never knew how humbled and embarrassed I felt when preaching in the presence of one so much superior to myself in every respect." Nonetheless, Mr. Erwin accepted it as a matter of course that he could never invite May to take part in the service, "on account of his heterodox views of the divinity of the Savior and the atonement. He bore this with meekness," commented Erwin admiringly, "and never made an allusion to it."
May could launch a flank attack, however. Once when all the ministers had been invited to the home of the Presbyterian clergyman for a social evening, the occasion was concluded with a word of prayer. Rising from his knees, the alert May seized the opportunity to invite Erwin to an exchange of pulpits. Erwin declined. Why would he exchange with other ministers but not with him, May queried. "Because," Erwin informed him, "Ye have taken away my Lord, and I know not where ye have laid him." May must have grown tired of this stock rebuff to Unitarians. He heard it again when Luther Lee brushed it off and used it during the Trinity debates in 1854.
Two years before, May's small congregation had been given striking evidence of the length to which such orthodoxy could lead. After a new addition to the church had been finished in 1852, a strong wind toppled the church spire. It fell and crushed the building to ruin.
Without a meeting place until a new church could be built, the members of the little society at first worshipped in the City Hall. At length, however, they asked whether they might hold Sabbath vesper services in the First Presbyterian Church of Salina. Though the villages of Syracuse and Salina had been incorporated into the city of Syracuse in 1848, the church still retained its original name. The trustees agreed to the proposal, with the cautious proviso that they could reconsider if they found they had made an error. Apparently members of the church discerned the error in short order, and on the following Sunday morning the trustees were requested by the congregation to rescind permission for any such use of the church or chapel.
The Unitarians then asked to use the Methodist Church of Salina. Their persistence was rewarded by permission granted July 28 to use the Methodist meeting house. This Christian charity was short-lived. In a communication more notable for orthodoxy of spirit than of spelling, a gentleman signing himself "H. T. Perkins, Cleark," informed the Unitarians that, "we cannot conscientiously grant the further use of our Church to the members of the Unitarian Society except for the ensuing Sabbath."
Not all orthodox individuals were so unfeeling in this moment of Unitarian need. When the Society members dedicated their new Church of the Messiah in 1853, they could acknowledge $600 in contributions toward their building fund from sundry members of the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and other orthodox Congregational churches of Syracuse.
May often urged his people to attend orthodox services, and particularly in his later years exchanged pulpits with orthodox ministers. He instructed one of them to preach to the Unitarian congregation, "not what you think Unitarians wish to hear, but what you think they need to hear." He took advantage of the reciprocal opportunity and not only preached vigorous Unitarian doctrine to the orthodox, but distributed appropriate tracts at the close of the services.
He greatly enjoyed the friendship of many orthodox clergymen such as the Presbyterian ministers he met in186l at sessions of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Syracuse. But he commented wryly in his diary that though the introductory sermon was an, "honest, emphatic discourse," confession the shortcomings of the sect, nonetheless the speaker still seemed to feel that the Presbyterians were the salt that was to save the world from corruption.
The elderly May reiterated his favorite theme in his final publication, "Complaint Against the Presbyterians." Here he asserted that this sect was responsible for upholding the doctrines of election, foreordination, and infant damnation, "some of the most shocking, horrible doctrines ever expounded."
Neither did clerical feeling against May's Unitarian philosophy abate over the years. After he died the Sons of Temperance, for whom he had labored mightily, haggled until sundown about the resolutions they were writing in his memory. A Methodist clergyman, it seems, had objected to using the term, "Christian," to describe Mr. May.
As he became one of the city's most beloved citizens, May occasioned kindly concern not only from orthodox clergymen but from their parishioners who thought it sad that such a fine man was destined for perdition. An anonymous correspondent signing himself, "Christian Friend," declared it was a pity one, "so benevolent, so kind as yourself, should fail in the most material point of salvation." Admonishing May to believe in the divinity of Christ, the writer said he had now done his duty, and, "if you now perish, remember you have been warned in love to your soul. . . ." May accepted this sort of thing good-naturedly, much as he took the visit of two Methodist ladies who appeared at his door one day, announcing they had come to bring him a message from the Lord and to pray for his conversion. May received them in kindly fashion and listened to all they had to say, both in argument and prayer, "for they were earnest and sincere."
This unusual ability to separate the way he felt about people themselves from the way he felt about their beliefs was one of May's rare qualities. It may have accounted in part for the calm and cheerful manner he maintained in the midst of battle, the resiliency with which he met continued attack. He felt no personal animosity toward those he disagreed with; he hoped for none in return.
It was a characteristic already evident in his Brooklyn pastorate where he found that though the orthodox would not listen to his theological ideas, they could become his firm friends and cooperate with him in many of his favorite reforms. And he learned there, he said later, that an "orthodox man can be a man for . . . . that and . . . . that."
Thus at the end of the heated debates on the Trinity, May was able to tell Lee that though he thought his opinions unscriptural, irrational, and inconsistent, he cherished him as a man and a Christian because he knew Lee abounded in love and good works. It was typical of these two Christian warriors that they spent off evenings during the debates laboring together to organize a Union Anti-slavery Society for the city of Syracuse.
This happy faculty usually managed to disarm May's most ardent critics. Even Dr. John Watson Adams, frosty pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, melted slightly over the years though he had denounced May unreservedly when the Unitarian pastor first arrived. The two formed a friendship, said the writer of May's obituary, which was, "sincere if not very demonstrative." On his deathbed the stout Calvinist sent for the persistent heretic and the two had a final talk. This was an event May was accustomed to refer to with, "truly Christian pride."
May's discrimination between people and their ideas was demonstrated even more forcibly in his relations with the Roman Catholics whose beliefs he considered irreconcilable with Christianity as taught by Jesus. He became good friends, however, with the scholarly pastor of St. Mary's Church, the Rev. James A. O'Hara, Th.D. Father O'Hara had seen considerable service himself in fighting off attacks from the dominant clergy of the area. His friendship with May was doubtless strengthened by their common position outside the orthodox Protestant pale. This made for concessions on both sides. When a young priest inquired, "What will happen to Doctor May when he dies?" Father O'Hara confidently asserted, "A way will be found for Doctor May!"
Seriously concerned about the city's lack of a hospital in the Sixties, May proposed that a Catholic nursing order be invited to undertake the project. But anti-Catholic sentiment was strong in Syracuse, and May's proposal was soundly defeated. Nonetheless Catholic sisters arrived three years later to set up a hospital in 1869, and they received assistance from May as soon as he was assured that St. Joseph's Hospital would admit patients on a non-sectarian basis. May, worked with Father O'Hara for the success of a bazaar benefiting the new hospital, an entertainment featuring presentation of a gold-headed ebony cane to the most popular clergyman in the city. May got his small flock to vote for Father O'Hara. The father urged a reciprocal course on his fellow Catholics. Since they so thoroughly outnumbered the Unitarians, May won the cane.
May's conflicting qualities fascinated his friends. Andrew D. White called him a kindly heretic. One of his closest friends, the Rev. C. DeB. Mills, marveled at his combined sweetness and firmness, mildness and courage, winsome ways and stern faithfulness, a blend Mills thought rare in one person. A parishioner declared that though May was a Zealot, he had none of the zealot's bitterness; a reformer, he was without the reformer's caustic tongue; a theologian, without the theologian's regard for sect.
Harriet Martineau, English authoress who assisted the American abolitionists in her 1834 visit to this country, found one key to the understanding of this many-faceted character. "I believe Mr. May had the honor of being the first Unitarian pastor who sided with the right," she wrote. "Whether he has sacrificed to his intrepidity one Christian grace, whether he has lost one charm of his piety, gentleness and charity amidst the trials of insult which he has had to undergo, I dare appeal to his worst enemy. Instead of this, his devotion to a most difficult duty has called forth in him a force of character, a strength of reason, of which is best friends, were before unaware."
All this force of character must have been needed to face the rare occasions when members of May's own congregation were the ones who opposed him. Before he accepted the call to Syracuse, May visited the village and conscientiously gave several of his most inflammatory sermons and addresses. His views on slavery, education, and total abstinence were thoroughly aired. It was with a full knowledge of his progressive ideas that the society called him unanimously as their pastor.
It was a remarkable little group who, without a single woman's vote, issued an invitation to this ardent champion of woman's rights. Of the fifty-six male members of the society in 1845, fully half were known as outstanding men in the community. And a number of them were radical enough to work with their pastor for the reforms he loved. Over the years he was given exceptional freedom to write, organize, petition, and travel at his own discretion. Nonetheless, in periods of national crisis some of the more conservative among the congregation grew restive about the activities of their outspoken pastor.
When he condemned from the pulpit in 1846 what he considered an unjustified war with Mexico, there were those who accused him of introducing politics into the Sacred Desk. This complaint he dismissed without qualm. If denouncing every violation of his brothers' rights was politics, he said, then woe to every minister who stands before his people and does not preach politics!
He could not toss off so easily the only serious complaint ever made against him by members of his beloved society. On January 15, 1861, they met to discuss what the usually voluble society minutes described cryptically as, "temporal and spiritual affairs." This discussion, May's diary reveals, was prompted by complaints from many parishioners who told him that night he preached too much on slavery. The views they had heard about without protest over the years seemed rashly inflammatory as the country edged into war. "It seems as though a cloud were settling down upon ," May wrote that night in sharp contrast to his usual casual entry. "God help me to maintain the right."
But if he felt the sting of rebuke inside the church family, he was not long in discovering how the society would support him against attack from the outside. Violent opposition had greeted conventions May helped organize in a dozen upstate towns for the American Antislavery Society. The Democrats, May thought, were showing their zeal in the southern cause by breaking up that winter's meetings. He urged Susan B. Anthony and Boriah Green to postpone the convention scheduled for Syracuse on January 29, 1861, but they were adamant. So he braced himself for the trial. Everywhere in Syracuse he heard the ominous rumor that the convention was to be broken up. He was further disconcerted the day before the meetings when the chief of police called on him, bearing a petition signed by the mayor and some twenty leading citizens including such prominent Unitarians as Hiram Putnam, O. T. Burt, D. P. Phelps, and Dr. Lyman Clary. The petitioners avowed they were opposed to slavery, but they maintained that a convention would be needlessly inflammatory at that tense moment. May tried again to postpone the meeting. but Miss Anthony and her fellow agitators were not to be deterred. He did not admit his qualms publicly, but composed a letter to the mayor justifying their decision.
Just as he had feared, the convention was broken up by the anti-abolitionist rioters. May tried to speak, but was drowned out by cries of, "Put him out! We want no Abolitionists here!" Triumphant mobs ranged the city, carrying effigies of May and Miss Anthony placarded with the inscription, "SQUELCHED." At Hanover Square in downtown Syracuse the effigies were burned amid hoots and hisses.
This turn of events dismayed even the copperhead Courier which wished uneasily that the effigies had been omitted. May's congregation was outraged. They leaped to his support. Not two weeks after their critical meeting of January 15, the congregation went into special session and appointed a committee to, "take note of the insult offered our pastor." On February 10 the papers carried a society resolution denouncing the, "vile and beastly conduct," of the mob in offering such "brutal insults and indignities" to their pastor. They denounced the proceedings and they served notice they would prevent any recurrence of such disgraceful action. Included in the committee preparing the resolution were Hiram Putnam, O. T. Burt, D. P. Phelps, and Dr. Lyman Clary. They could warn him against a foolish course, but they would back him if he insisted on pursuing it. Shortly thereafter the Civil War began and no more was heard from the conservative Unitarians who had protested May's antislavery preaching at the mid-January meeting.
Actually May's congregations heard better sermons when he was aflame with his favorite reforms than when he stuck strictly to the old-fashioned themes of the pulpit. On these he was not especially interesting, admitted a former parishioner. Sometimes, indeed, he was dull. But in full flight on a subject dear to his reformer's soul, he could approach in the pulpit the eloquence he usually achieved only with his pen.
Theology had never been May's forte, in spite of his enthusiasm in argument when the Unitarian position went under attack. His theological philosophy had been formed when he was quite young, and in these early years he was more liberal than most of his fellow Unitarians especially in matters of religious practice. He was an early leader in modifying the strict observance of the Sabbath; he took the radical step of opening the communion table to all who wished to partake regardless of their church membership, and he discarded his pulpit gown and bands because he feared they might make religion seem something else than the ordinary, everyday concern. Under his leadership his Brooklyn church put aside the customary creed, substituting a covenant which included only the "simple, great doctrines of Christ . . . .which all Christians of every denomination acknowledge . . . ."
As the years went by, however, his theology changed little. He came to be counted with the conservative wing of Unitarianism, while the transcendentalist preachers were venturing into the alarming reaches of German thought.
The conservatives had consistently held that the miracles of Jesus afforded the major evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity. Six years before the end of his life, May still held to his belief that Jesus raised the dead and arose himself from the tomb. However, May characteristically contended that the principles of righteous living Jesus taught were more important than any supernatural qualities he may have displayed. Someday, he said, men could become as holy as Jesus and perform miracles themselves.
He was far from venturing out on the transcendentalist limb with Theodore Parker, the radical Boston preacher, and some of his other friends, however. In the 1830s these men had begun to argue that a man finds his best evidence for religion in what he feels within himself rather than in what can be proved from outside. God, these leaders held, reveals his own truths directly to each soul.
In his long and delightful correspondence with, "Dear Sam Joe," Parker labored to convince May of the truth of his theological opinions, but May remained obdurate. He avowed his respect and love for Parker, "that great heresiarch," during the Trinity debates, but Lee made a tactical mistake when he tried to identify May's theology with Parker's. May said he was proud to be one of four Unitarian ministers who still dared exchange pulpits with Parker in 1854, but he made it very clear that he differed drastically with Parker when it came to theology.
As a practical man, "whose mind like his body was thick-set and solid," May could hardly regard the flights of the God—intoxicated with enthusiasm. On one occasion he was confronted by a young transcendentalist who announced that he was God.
"What," he asked May, "do you think of that?"
"I think," said May, "you are a false God."
Even though he spoke firmly on such occasions, May held that a good minister should never tell his congregation what to believe. "Many there may be ready to lean on your word," he warned the young divinity students at Harvard. "Refuse the responsibility of allowing them to rest there. Insist that they go to Christ for themselves."
He may not always have been able to live up to this lofty principle expressed in 1847. Lee accused him of being one of the most dictatorial pastors in town when it came to telling people what they should believe about the Trinity. But it was one of his often-mentioned goals.
In his pastoral relationships the warm and kindly May found his best opportunity to serve his people. An accomplished story teller and a delightful guest, he was welcomed eagerly to the social evenings that had been Unitarian tradition since the early days when Unitarians were ostracized from all social circles but their own. A sympathetic comforter in time of trouble, he was equally welcomed in homes where grief had come.
Though he tried resolutely to spend every morning in his study, he could never refuse a caller. A succession of parishioners, townsmen, and itinerants appeared daily at the big house on James Street. To the needy he was altogether too kind for the size of his purse. His diary records a number of times he borrowed from local banks so he could help people in financial distress. He accepted these constant demands with outward grace, but he occasionally rebelled privately. "I am drawn into my old manner of life, doing chores for Indians and everybody else . . . ." he protested once. Another morning a half-deranged German called, followed by a poor Englishman who also wanted money. "If I had the wealth of an Astor," May demurred, "I should hardly be able to supply the demands made."
The way his people thought of him first is reflected in the resolutions they passed when he resigned, remembering that he shared their joys and sorrows as though they were his own. Later, writing formally in the church minutes, they also mentioned service to church, society, and community, but that was a second thought. Uppermost in their minds was gratitude for his, "faithful admonitions, his wise counsels, his unselfish labors, his unbounded sympathies . . . ."
May was not so sure he had done all he could for them. Time was always too short for the multitude of undertakings he had constantly in hand. His conscience plagued him because he felt he was neglecting his people for his projects. Religion and reform became two masters, each making insatiable demands on his time.
"I frankly confess I am not satisfied with my services to you," he told his people when he resigned in 1867 after twenty-two years of service. "For, though I still believe that a Minister of the Gospel ought to be quite as earnest as I have been in the advocacy of the equal rights of men and women, without regard to complexion; and ought to do as much, and more than I have done, in the cause of Peace, of Temperance, and Popular Education; yet there are other things, more immediately promotive of the improvement and prosperity of a Church, which no minister should leave undone, so much as I have."
If he had not paid so much attention to reform, he told them, he could have devoted more time to them and their families. It was almost the same apology he made when he had been with them only five years. In 1850, however, it was the necessity of exposing the, "absurdity of revealed religion," that distracted him from the, "weightier matters of faith and practice."
May was not alone in reproaching himself for excessive attention to reform. "This ministry has been a failure," asserted a correspondent of an evangelical church paper in commenting on May's retirement sermon. To be sure there was May's work for peace. temperance, anti slavery, education, and woman’s right, "and in all these causes he has wrought right nobly; but the Christian searches in agonizing anxiety to find in all these labors what he has done for Christ. He finds nothing . . . ."
Had May given his talents to building up a church, answered a New York Unitarian paper, "he might have had a cathedral to worship in and have numbered communicants by the thousands . . . . But he has simply gone about doing good . . . . and preaching the glorious Gospel of liberty and love."
May shared his dilemma with many Unitarian clergymen who spent more time furthering reforms than spreading their faith. This choice not only hampered their own church work, but slowed the growth of Unitarianism as a denomination in the midst of the Nineteenth century. Nonetheless the belief of Unitarians in man's innate goodness and his ultimate perfectibility together with their desire to make religion practical continued to propel a number of the clergy into the current reform movements.
The denomination itself was slow to take an official position on reform, much to the irritation of enthusiasts like May who expected an antislavery stand from a denomination emphasizing the brotherhood of man. The "discreditable proslavery conduct" of the denomination, May charged, had corrupted and morally paralyzed the Unitarian organization. At the 1851 meeting of the American Unitarian Association he optimistically introduced a resolution denouncing the Fugitive Slave Law. The Association refused even to receive it. In the resolution May censured by name not only Unitarian President Millard Fillmore who signed the offending legislation, but other prominent Unitarians including Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, and Jared Sparks who supported it.
It was action that could be expected from the brash abolitionist who had the temerity to call on the venerable John Quincy Adams to ask him why he opposed abolition in the District of Columbia, and had severely reprimanded William Ellery Channing for his failure to speak out against slavery.
Such a forthright individual had no difficulty in stirring up the volatile Syracusans.
"I smile to think how successful you are in getting up mobs," wrote Wendell Phillips after May had thoroughly aroused the pro-war faction in Syracuse by his outspoken stand against the Mexican War. "You act in Connecticut—lo, Judson's mobs! You come to Boston—the mobs of 1835! You go into exile at Syracuse—lo, war mobs! Is it not clear that summer-calm as you seem, it is but seeming and underneath lies the veritable mob compeller, S. J. M.?"
A longtime member of the American Peace Society, May had become embroiled in a running controversy over the war with a local editor who had labeled him Tory and traitor. "I am not intimidated by being called Tory or traitor," May replied. "Much would I rather be called a Tory than a soldier—a butcher of men."
When a call was issued for a meeting of the friends of peace and humanity, May's name led the list of pacifists signing the call. The friends of peace and humanity unfortunately found themselves embroiled in a scene of force and violence the night of their meeting. The war advocates forced them from their first meeting place and laid noisy siege to the second.
Nonetheless the group went on record as favoring withdrawal of troops to American soil. This stand was taken, according to Dr. W. F. Galpin of Syracuse University, in no other city in America after war had started, not even in Boston, headquarters of the American Peace Society. The action was largely the work of Samuel May. Without him, Galpin says, there would have been no Anti-War meeting and no resolutions. May was sorry, however, for having taken part in such an episode.
He was far more proud of his part in the first successful rescue of a fugitive slave from federal authorities after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. May had long been active in helping slaves escape to Canada, and he was on the committee for the first of a series of meetings called in Syracuse to denounce and resist the act. A vigilance committee was formed on October 4, 1850. At May’s suggestion an association was added to bear mutually any expenses that might be incurred in resisting the law. A rendezvous was agreed on for the conspirators and an alarm bell chosen as a signal of a slave in trouble.
On October 1, 1851, the alarm clanged calling vigilantes to rescue one Jerry McHenry, a resident of Syracuse for several years. McHenry had been arrested that day as an escaped slave and thrown into irons. May reached the police station where Jerry was held and was asked by the chief of police to try to quiet the terror-crazed mulatto. Taking advantage of this moment with McHenry, May told him of the plot to rescue him, and then hurried over to a leading doctor's office where twenty or thirty men were laying detailed plans. At eight that evening the doors and windows of the police station were bashed in by the rescuers, the police overwhelmed, Jerry driven off in a buggy behind a fast horse, and eventually smuggled into Canada.
The case thrust Syracuse into the national spotlight and provoked a storm of protest from the nation's press. Few papers were found to defend these disturbers of the peace. Eighteen men including May were indicted for aiding in the escape of an alleged fugitive. But though May, Gerrit Smith, and Charles A Wheaton hopefully published notices in the local papers stating that they had assisted in the rescue and were ready for trial, the United States District Attorney never saw fit to bring their cases to a test."
"We exulted not a little in the triumph of our exploit," recalled May, who took special pride in a published letter calling him the person most responsible for the rescue.
For a number of years he organized anniversary celebrations of the great Jerry Rescue, undeterred by continuing attacks on him and his associates in the adventure. The 1853 celebration was described in one Democratic paper as a gathering of, "Abolitionists, Woolleys, Bloomers, temperance Reformers, Cripples, Prostitutes, Millerites, and every other species of four-legged animals extant." The Rev. S. J: May was, "supported on either side by two large fat nigger wenches," continued the Bastinado's purported news account, "each carrying a banner with the inscription ‘amalgamation.’"
May did have difficulty in explaining how a sincere pacifist could in good conscience participate in a violent affair like the rescue. The extent of his difficulty may be gauged by the fact that he was still explaining this seeming inconsistency in his resignation sermon of 1867. He had believed, he said, that all good men should resist the execution of the Fugitive Slave law in the way they individually believed to be right. He himself would not use any kind of weapon, but he would hold down and overpower a man who was attempting to enforce that infamous law, being careful not to harm a hair of his head. Nevertheless, he did solemnly enjoin on those who felt it right, to fight for their own freedom or that of a black brother.
As far reaching in their effects if not as dramatic were the efforts of May in the interests of universal education, He differed from a number of his fellow reformers who rarely continued their devotion to improved education for a very long period. Formal education was much too slow a process for them compared with excitement of lecturing and publishing.
But fresh from his battles for education in New England, May set about similar agitation shortly after his arrival in Syracuse. In 1848 the school system of the new city was set up as a result of resolutions written by May and adopted at a public meeting. This system May believed as late as 1860 to be the only one in the state where negro and white children were admitted on equal terms to all departments.
May's lifelong interest in education was climaxed by a five-year term beginning in 1865 as president of the Syracuse Board of Education. He was generally held responsible for the abolition of corporal punishment in the Syracuse schools in 1867, much in advance of that reform in other upstate cities.
Passage of this significant regulation must have brought peculiar satisfaction to May. He could still feel the sting of the ferrule brought down on his palm in 1813 for the sin of knocking a school book on the floor. Fifty years later he was still denouncing the use of the rod as unmanly and atrocious.
He waded through the usual opposition to his newfangled notions when this new regulation went into effect. School Superintendent Edward Smith had misgivings. Some of the teachers were so discouraged they felt like giving up their schools. But in 1868 May had the satisfaction of an admission from Smith that suspensions for misconduct had been greatly reduced as a result of the kindlier policy. The schools of Syracuse, Smith conceded, were disciplined better than they had ever been before. In fact from now on, success in maintaining order without the use of corporal punishment would be regarded as the best evidence of qualification for teaching!
May took his duties as Board President seriously, making frequent inspection trips to the schools, and conferring with teachers, parents, and students. His aim was to make the course of study a practical one so as to fit students for business life. The Samuel J. May School rose on Seneca Street in 1867 as a monument to his endeavors. In only one thing had May failed, Smith recalled. That was in the establishment of a reform school for refractory children. May thought there was a great need for this kind of school, Smith said, and would have been happy to work for such a project.
Like many other earnest reformers, May often suggested to co-workers in one field that they adopt one of the other reforms he was currently promoting. This could result in some remarkable combinations of objectives such as those described in the call issued by May and others to a county convention in 1861. They summoned those favoring, "The Unconditional Emancipation of all the Slaves by the General Government and the Unconditional Suppression of All Rum Selling," to nominate an independent county ticket on these issues.
The most convenient reform to urge on friends in other fields was that of equal rights for women. In almost any meeting the indefatigable May could be counted on to suggest that women be allowed to speak and vote. Reared a proper Bostonian, May had felt his sense of propriety outraged in 1837 when Sara and Angelina Grimke of South Carolina were invited by the Massachusetts Antislavery Society to address women's meetings. But at the close of a speech in Providence in which he had sketched the Plight of enslaved beings in the south, May was approached by a "most estimable and intelligent lady." She pointed out that millions of his fellow beings in the north were in a condition little better than slavery. Struck by this logic, May subsequently became one or the most outspoken advocates of equal right. He liked to say he was the first minister to preach in behalf of women's political rights, and he thought that if the American people wanted a really great president they would elect Lucretia Mott.
May drew the customary strident comments when he provided not only the opening prayer but advice and guidance for the members or the National Women's Rights Convention in 1852. Lucy Stone had written him in advance to be sure he would publicize this Syracuse meeting properly, and his services continued well after the convention was over. One of the few men appearing among the Bloomers and Quakers on the convention floor, May was elected convention secretary and chairman of the publications committee. He was willing to work at their cause until it became popular, he told the ladies. Then he would go at something else.
The cause remained far from popular, and May obligingly took it with him to most of the other meetings he attended. One of these was the 1860 meeting of the New York State Teachers Association in Syracuse. May punctuated the sessions with such lengthy speeches in behalf of woman's interests that one Mr. Ross of Ovid acidly remarked the association had "turned into a woman's rights debating society." May's attempt to combine worthy objectives was squelched for the time being by Rev. I. O. Fillmore of Syracuse who objected to the association, "going away from here as the propaganda of any peculiarity foreign to its legitimate object."
May's enthusiasm for the peculiarity was unquenched. In the midst of urging that ministers of every liberal hue be invited to the 1865 convention to organize the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, he suddenly inquired why women had not been asked. God made man dual, he said and it was not "wise or safe to be singular in our attention to any of the great concerns of life." The emancipation of woman must be accomplished before the human race could become what the Creator intended.
In his general desire to improve humanity, May had a hand in almost every worthy project in Syracuse. He also was prominent in support of the major reforms espoused anywhere in the east. As his accomplishments become known and his ideas more acceptable, even the members of the opposition press were forced to modify their shrill opinions. In 1861 when the editor of the Courier called May an, "abolition fanatic of the deepest dye, without Christianity sufficient to bless a ten cent piece," he was rebuked in a subsequent edition by his own publisher. That gentlemen lumbered into print to assure his public there had been no intention of insult or discourtesy to the Rev. Mr. May.
In the final years of May's life, he was nationally recognized for his services to religion and reform. Some of the country's leading papers were outspoken in their praise of his life's work. On his twentieth anniversary in Syracuse, the Boston Evening Transcript congratulated him on the accomplishment of abolition. This great act of justice and humanity, said the Transcript, meant the, "removal of an iniquitous institution for whose overthrow he was a most zealous laborer when the laborers were few and despised by many."
On May's death in 1871 the New York Daily Tribune commented at length on the "simple story of his noble aims and persistent endeavors." May had been too conscientious to embrace any political party, said the Tribune, “yet that great organization which saved the Union and gave freedom to the slaves is proud to acknowledge his noble and self-sacrificing assistance."
"He was outside the pale of the orthodox church communion, yet all denominations today are eager to express their veneration for his fervent piety, and there is a general feeling that it is creditable to Christianity that this man was a Christian . . . . "
Such a man might well have moved on to prominence in New York City, or even Boston itself. May came from a respected old Boston family. He was a protégé of Henry Ware and William Ellery Channing. His close friends were William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, Gerrit Smith, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony. His was an influential voice in shaping major reform movements of his day.
And yet he stayed in Syracuse in what his eastern friends called exile. Occasionally May implied he agreed with their opinion of his chosen field. In some ways, he felt, Syracuse did fall short of the glory of New England. Take the matter of poverty. He was sorely tried by the abject wretchedness of many in Syracuse he felt called on to help, he told his trustees. He had come from New England towns where there was hardly any poverty. And then there was the question of opinion on the sacraments. New Yorkers, he felt, never held the Lord's Supper in so high esteem as they did in New England. He enjoyed pointing out that the reforms of the age were almost all born around Boston. And his highest compliment to anything in Syracuse was a favorable comparison with its New England counterpart.
"Jealous as I am of the reputation of New England, and especially of my dear native state," he told one audience, "I am ready to testify that I do not know of any town or city in Massachusetts where the schools are, on the whole, better than they are in Syracuse."
In spite of these occasional comparisons, May came to Syracuse and stayed for the rest of his life. He told his trustees that he had never been happier. What held him in upstate New York when his talent, his family, and his friends might have helped him to the New England heights?
He had his own explanation, at least the one he thought fitting to give in his resignation sermon. Providence, he said. A minister ought not to choose his parish out of any consideration for financial or professional rewards. He should go where Providence seemed to direct.
He seemed to follow his own admonition in this respect. He decided at the age of 31 that Providence had settled him in Brooklyn for life, and he went off down to the village cemetery to pick his burial plot. Once in Syracuse, he occasionally asked his trustees for a larger salary, but he never threatened them with another move. His successor, on the other hand, secured a handsome raise after mentioning an offer from the Unitarians in Detroit.
The New York Tribune thought May had turned down the contest for material gains his "rare abilities" deserved, in behalf of a life of self-sacrifice which was, "the fulfillment of his highest needs."
There is good evidence, however, that it required no special sacrifice, materially or spiritually, to stay in Syracuse. By its very nature the city offered precisely the rewards most attractive to a man like May. It may well have proved so satisfying that even prospects of a prominent New England parish paled in comparison.
First—probably least important to May—was the ample salary the Syracuse Unitarians paid their pastor. They would occasionally be tardy with the quarterly installments but in recompense they could give him an extra hundred dollars out of an unexpected surplus. After turning down the Syracuse society's first offer of $800, May came in 1845 at an annual salary of $1,000. This recompense was raised in 1854 to $1,200, more than twice the salary paid Luther Lee. In 1865 he was given $l,500 plus a house and in 1866 he was raised to $1,800. The society settled a life annuity on him when he retired, a gesture unusual enough to merit comment from the county historian in 1878.
More important to an upstanding radical like May were the spiritual satisfactions to be found in Syracuse. Here he was afforded not only the support and stimulus he needed, but the opposition on which he thrived.
A tolerant congregation afforded him free range for his numerous projects, a privilege not always enjoyed by the average clergyman. Some of his parishioners gave not only tacit consent to his activities, but moral and financial support as well. And over the years he enjoyed similar cooperation from selected Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists.
During the forties, fifties and sixties, Syracuse was a city to stimulate any reformer. It well deserved the title, "City of 'Isms," bestowed on it by the conservatives. Reformers refused platforms in other cities could usually find convention room in Syracuse. Pacifists, teetotalers, perfectionists, suffragettes, and other meliorists found an unrestricted podium in the Syracuse City Hall. Abolitionists found in Syracuse a particular haven. Gerrit Smith knew of no city where there was a better antislavery feeling. Daniel Webster selected Syracuse in which to issue a particular warning to would-be resisters of the Fugitive Slave Law. And the subsequent Jerry Rescue, carried out enthusiastically four months after Webster's warning, gave Syracuse a name throughout the country. Meetings, petitions, processions, organizations, conventions, riots, all made mid-century Syracuse an exciting place to be.
Root of all these deplorable 'isms, trumpeted one conservative Syracuse editor, was a licentious religious liberalism. Renegades from the evangelical forms of the Christian faith, said he, were to be found in Syracuse in abundance.
Renegade May found in such excoriations the opposition that delighted his soul. No city of satisfied citizens could have held him for long. May was stirred to his best reform efforts by the warites of 1846, the pro-slavery Patriots of 1851, the effigy-burners of 1861, the editors who made fun of suffragettes and the hard-drinking canallers who could get whiskey in Syracuse for three cents a glass. Without such adversaries, May would have found life a pallid affair. Syracuse supplied them in quantity.
May must have had some foreknowledge of the satisfaction he was to find in the upstate city when he wrote the Unitarian trustees in 1845. The post they offered him appeared a, "very desirable one to a man who has any spirit of enterprise in the cause of truth, humanity, and religion." "I turn my eyes toward your little Society as one in the service of which I believe I could spend my life still more agreeable to myself—and to more purpose in the cause of rational, liberal Christianity and of suffering humanity.
Christianity and humanity were well served by May's decision to spend the rest of his life in Syracuse. Here the reformer had found his fertile field, the heretic his battleground.