Samuel J. May: The Peaceful Warrior
Sermon by The Reverend Richard R. Davis
Used with permission.
In 1852 the Unitarian minister Samuel J. May received a letter from Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, asking him to recount how intimately he had been acquainted with blacks during his life. Apparently Stowe wanted to better understand why May was working with such passion and commitment to bring about the abolition of slavery. Among the many impressions that came to May's mind were two from his early childhood.
Remembering a racially integrated school he attended in early childhood in Boston in the beginning years of the 19th century he noted: "I well remember that I sat upon the same bench, and recited in the same class, with a boy whose skin was as dark as a starless night, but whose spirit was as bright and joyous as a cloudless noon-day. He was certainly more witty, if not more wise, than any of my school-fellows, and therefore was the favorite among us all."
May also remembered an incident from this same period of his life. While going on an errand for his mother a dog started chasing him. The young boy fell, struck his head and was knocked unconscious. Upon regaining consciousness he found himself in the arms of a large black woman who said "Don't be afraid, little boy. I know who you are. I'll carry you to your mamma." When May's mother saw the bloodied lad she panicked and attended exclusively to him. After washing off all the blood, she saw that May simply had a nasty gash and would be OK. When she turned to thank the black woman, she was gone. The May family was never able to find out who this woman was.
Family heritage also shaped May's character as well. May often recounted that one of his direct ancestors, Samuel Sewell, had been a judge at the Salem witch trials in the 17th century who had played a role in condemning innocent people to death. After realizing his tremendous error May's ancestor observed a day of repentance every year for the rest of his long life. Every year in his church he handed up a written confession of his error for the minister to read aloud to congregation while he stood and faced them, and then he asked for them all to join him in a prayer for forgiveness.
Affirming the humanity of blacks and atoning for great social injustice was a profound passion for May. As one scholar notes: "Family history, religious training, temperament and implacable psychological forces wove together a texture of personality that produced one of the most important reformers in the nineteenth century."
Samuel Joseph May was raised in Boston, Massachusetts and had no direct experience of that peculiar institution, slavery, until he was a young man. He and his sister Louisa were traveling in a carriage from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. Out of the window he and his sister saw some shackled, barefoot black men being led down the dusty road. At first May wondered what crime all these black men had committed, but then he was thunderstruck by the realization that it was his American society that was committing a crime. These men were slaves. May then blurted out for all in the carriage to hear: "I am ashamed of my country and of my race."
But in the earliest days of his ministry in the early 1820s, after May graduated from Harvard, he was not an abolitionist. Hardly anyone was, for that matter. This reform movement was just in its infancy on American soil. As a new, young minister May headed off to the wilderness to become the first official Unitarian minister in the state of Connecticut. The orthodox clergy there despised the dangerous, liberal Unitarian faith and considered it a sure pathway to hell. Thus, the welcome for the new minister was quite hostile. But May was optimistic. Rational Unitarian beliefs represented cutting edge theology. At this time even retired President Thomas Jefferson was predicting that it was destined to be the dominant faith on American soil by the end of the century. In a word, this liberal faith taught the virtue of improving your mind through study, your heart through love, and the world through actively working to make it better.
In these early years encounters with significant figures were to shape May's life and ministry in ways he could not have foreseen. While studying for the ministry he was deeply impressed by an encounter with the Unitarian peace advocate Noah Worcester. In 1825 an English Quaker published a seminal book on religious pacifism that confirmed May as a pacifist. The central tenet of this book was firm opposition to the idea that "it is lawful to do evil that good may come"—in other words, violence should never be used as a means to a good end. By nature a loving and compassionate person, May passionately embraced this sublime thought. Just as he believed that Jesus had done.
Yet it was his encounter with the young abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison that May later called the "grand epoch of my life." May was in Boston and went to hear the young firebrand abolitionist speak. All the churches in Boston closed their doors to the radical, disreputable, riff raff abolitionists, so they turned to a renegade atheist by the name of Abner Kneeland to provide them a place to meet.
May was immediately taken by Garrison's flaming attacks upon slavery. Garrison characterized it as the greatest of all sins, a vile offense against God and humanity, and he sounded a call that resonated in the core of May's personality. To May, Garrison appeared as a Christ like figure—he was young, courageous, outspoken; he had forsaken the prospect of a lucrative career, and he was despised and rejected by the rich and the powerful people of society. Of this first encounter May wrote: "that night my soul was baptized in his spirit. 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 sought to share his new convictions at the first opportunity. This happened to be at a Unitarian Church in Boston a week later where he was a guest speaker. In his sermon May passionately attacked the institution of slavery and racism as well. "It is our own prejudice against the color of these poor people that makes us consent to the tremendous wrongs they are suffering," he said. He concluded by saying that all Unitarians were under the moral obligation to end their indifference and join in the battle against this great evil. The congregation was not at all accustomed to being morally implicated in this social problem south of the Mason Dixon line—they were aghast and the host minister was furious. He told May that he would never be welcome in his pulpit again.
To be sure the northern Unitarians were on record as being opposed to slavery, but they had proposed no program to end it. They were resigned to letting the issue resolve itself without their interference, but when slavery was ended they wanted all blacks to return to Africa. Also, somewhere in the corners of their minds, these well-to-do Unitarians knew that their own Yankee wealth was in many cases indirectly dependent upon the exploitations of slave labor in the South.
After this service several prominent members of the congregation, accompanied by some important businessmen, tracked down Samuel May's father to tell them what kind of rubbish his son was preaching. May's father was shocked to discover how radical his son had become, and he pleaded with him to tone it down, lest he destroy his career in the ministry.
May's reputation in Boston was already destroyed—one older, distinguished Unitarian gentleman told May that he had "lost caste among the Unitarians." May was told that respectable Bostonians would never accept black people as their equals, and all the Unitarian pulpits in Boston, except those in Ralph Waldo Emerson's and William Ellery Channing's churches were closed to May.
His own congregation back in Connecticut was less than thrilled with their minister's new zeal on the issue of slavery and racism. In those days many white congregations had some special pews for black members in the rear of the sanctuary. One black family in May's church outgrew its pew in the rear of the church, and he invited them to come and sit in the front. A parishioner confronted May saying "How came that n------- [the “n” word] family to come down into that front pew? They are n-------s [the “n” word], and n-------s [the “n” word] should be kept to their place."
The usually kind and gentle Reverend May told the man that if he caused this black family any embarrassment or discomfort that he would receive uncharacteristic Unitarian wrath directly from the pulpit, as severe "as I may be able to frame in words," said May.
While May was ministering in Connecticut he became embroiled in a controversy that was to have profound implications for the abolition movement. In nearby Canterbury, Connecticut, a woman from a Quaker background from Rhode Island by the name of Prudence Crandall was hired to head the female academy. To the townspeople's shock and dismay Ms. Crandall violated a rigid racial taboo by admitting a young black woman into the school.
When this was met with a howl of protest, Crandall, who had recently become enthralled by abolitionist sentiment, informed the town that she was going to turn the institution into a school for black girls. Townspeople were now apoplectic with rage, and the threat of violence hung heavy in the air. A common racial fear in the north at the time was that freed blacks from the south were going to flood into and defile their communities by their presence. Now it appeared that Canterbury's worst racial nightmare was about to come true—twenty black girls were on their way.
Crandall contacted May, who lived in nearby Brooklyn, Connecticut, and asked for support. He became intimately involved in the controversy, and he and Crandall were threatened by the townspeople. When twenty black girls arrived the town responded by closing all stores and services to the teacher and her students. The girls were abused on the streets, the school was defaced, and dung was poured down their well. Prudence Crandall's father had to carry drinking water to the beleaguered students.
Finally this incident compelled the Connecticut General Assembly to pass a "Black Act" that prohibited blacks from immigrating into the state. During their deliberations an expert phrenologist displayed several skulls before the legislators to show that blacks were not actually a part of the human species. Prudence Crandall was immediately arrested for breaking the black law. May advised her not to post bail, but to spend time in jail to draw national attention to the injustice. This strategy worked, and many in the north were outraged that a woman had been imprisoned for the crime of educating black girls.
Crandall was able to continue the school for a short period of time, but finally the townspeople's campaign of harassment and threats of violence won out. May was called upon to tell the black girls that the school must close. "The words almost blistered my lips," he wrote, "and my bosom glowed with indignation."
Nevertheless, this incident galvanized the abolitionist's cause and thrust May in the national spotlight, putting him to the forefront of the movement. In the meantime May's own congregation grew increasingly intolerant of his abolitionism—holding back his pay they issued an ultimatum: end antislavery agitation or leave. There was no way that May was going to abandon his all consuming passion to eradicate the greatest evil on North American soil. He ended his fourteen year ministry in Connecticut.
May continued agitating for the abolitionist cause. One day while he was on a lecture tour in Rhode Island a woman came up to him after his speech and said that "I suspect that you do not apprehend how much your description of the helpless dependence of the slaves applies equally well to the condition of the whole female sex." May perceived the truth of her comment, and he also worked tirelessly advocating for the rights of women and condemning the exploitation of working women by industrialists in the northeast. May became an out and out feminist—the very first American clergyperson to take such a stand. This was a cause of tension among the abolitionists, most of whom believed that a woman's place was the home.
May's activism required both moral and physical courage because abolitionists were often assaulted by unruly mobs. Once when May was speaking in a church a large stone flew through a window and struck a woman, who fell down shrieking. The crowd panicked and began to rush away, but May called them back and had them leave in an orderly, fashion, row by row. Witnesses said that he saved many lives by his calm action.
This mindless violence only served to fortify May's resolve, and it also enhanced his sympathy for the suffering of all slaves. Confronting the violence put May's pacifist ideals to a severe test. May said that his nonresistance required for a person to "have entire possession of himself, his appetites, and his passions must be in complete subjection to his moral sense."
But May's total commitment to pacifism soon created a moral dilemma for him when he entered into his next and final ministry in Syracuse, New York, where he stayed for over twenty years until his retirement. It began when the infamous Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850. This law allowed slave catchers to come into the north, apprehend escaped slaves and take them back down into the southern hell of slavery. The law forced thousands of blacks to flee America in the largest expatriate movement in American history. May was sickened and outraged by the suffering caused by this evil law. He grieved to hear about one black family who took passage on the Erie canal. The boat's crew took perverse delight in falsely warning them that slave catchers were waiting for them. The father panicked, ran down the tow path, and slit his throat and the rest of the family jumped into the canal and drowned.
May did what he could to see that many blacks escaped—he personally provided refuge in his home to literally hundreds of black fugitives on the underground railroad to freedom. He also toured extensively in Canada and distributed funds for the black expatriates there.
Yet his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law challenged his commitment to absolute pacifism. This came to a head for May when the slave catchers and Federal Marshals entered Syracuse and apprehended a black man named Jerry McHenry, who worked in a cabinet shop owned by a member of May's congregation.
As a pacifist May was opposed to the use of all force, yet he could not allow the authorities to take McHenry back into slavery. Mere moral persuasion was not going to do the trick. At a court hearing May made some kind of signal whereupon other abolitionists grabbed McHenry and took him away. He was soon recaptured, but the abolitionists stormed the prison and freed McHenry again. May realized that although he had not physically harmed anyone himself, he was implicated in the use of physical force to achieve a moral goal. This deeply troubled him, and he could never resolve this issue in his heart.
As the country edged closer to the fatal precipice of civil war, May recognized that more powerful historical forces than pacifist abolitionists were directing the course of human events. When the war began he saw it as a tragic necessity. Although May was opposed to war, he saw this one as a divine chastisement for America's acceptance of slavery.
In 1862 May toured Union hospitals in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington D.C. There he saw the horrors of the war firsthand. Maggot filled corpses were stacked like firewood beside groaning soldiers, desperate cries filled the air as the doctors performed their ghastly mutilations to save lives. Recounting this scene at city hall in Syracuse, May was overcome with grief and had to be led away.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about May was that through all the tumult and the strife, all the bitterness and passion of conflict and the unspeakable horrors of war, he retained a certain sweet innocence. Colleagues praised this quality and said that somehow, May had never become "world spoiled." Lydia Marie Child, the famous writer and abolitionist, believed that everything delighted him: "just like a child he is. God Bless him." Someone else wrote "His spirit is as gentle as a dove, yet hath an angel's energy and scope."
His congregation in Syracuse loved him dearly, too. They told him he could preach for them as long as he should ever desire, and some even said that it would be enough if Samuel May simply sat silently in front of them as a visible reminder of their highest ideals.
May died in 1871. In loving remembrance of this great soul the blacks of Syracuse, New York, put on mourning badges, and they flew their flags at half mast, just as they had earlier done for Abraham Lincoln.
His church in Syracuse is now called the May Memorial Society. A recent book on his life calls May one of the most important figures in American reform. Yet strangely, inexplicably, among Unitarian Universalists he is almost completely forgotten. Most students for our ministry are taught nothing about him, and most Unitarian Universalists have never heard of him.
One of my personal missions in life is to see that he is not forgotten. I've spoken about May to over a dozen UU congregations from Los Angeles to Seattle. It's not only that Samuel J. May needs to be remembered. Our greater need is to remember him so this great, compassionate soul, who dedicated himself to the alleviation of human suffering and injustice can inspire us to do likewise.
Albert Schweitzer has written: "At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." So, as I have said before and will say again, "Thanks to you Samuel J. May. You do light the flame within me every time I think of you."