The Remarkable Mr. May


An address given by Dr. Catherine L. Covert at May Memorial
Sunday, February 13, 1972

Used with permission of her estate executrix, Carolyn Stepanek Holmes.


When I knew I was going to speak here this morning, I looked around for some kind of anniversary to celebrate in this church, and the only think that I could come up with was that almost to the day, one hundred and twenty years ago, in Syracuse a Unitarian steeple fell on the church and smashed the building. That didn’t seem like a very good thing to celebrate, despite the fact that it was supposed to have fallen also on the house of two Trinitarians next door and smashed that, too, so I thought that we’d probably get away from that whole idea.


Actually, what I’d like to do more than to stand here and look back, you know, which is what historians are supposed to do, is to sort of feel that you and I and Sam are all here together. Now, knowing him as well as I do, and I do feel I know him very well after having sort of lived in this presence for the last decade or so, I am quite sure that if he could be with us today—in fact, he may well be—he would be quite delighted. He was just human enough to enjoy having people tell him he had done a good job, and I think he would be quite pleased with the idea that we were standing around and talking about him this morning.


He would have, I am sure, approved of the readings—Amos was one of his favorites. I don’t know what his reaction would have been to the syntax of the poetry, but if we can imagine him with us, I’d like to go on sort of a venture with that in mind.


You can see from the way that he looked that he would have been, now, most contemporary. I mean that his hair kind of straggled down over the back of his collar, and he had a funny little beard that grew at various times in different places exotically around his chin, and usually the pictures of him show him in a frock coat and kind of indeterminate pair of pants, and if you’d put him down with some of the kids that are dressed from the Salvation Army today, I think he would have looked very with it, indeed. And, as you get into his life, you’d see that was precisely what he was, a very “with it” kind of individual.


People have accused me of going into history as a flight from the present. Now, they don’t know anything about history, because, particularly, when someone consorts with Samuel Joseph May, one worries about drugs, one things about permissive sex, one thinks about the rights of women, one thinks about urban sprawl, one thinks about civil rights, one just doesn’t realize one isn’t living in 1972. And it’s very interesting to go with a man like that and to spend some time in his company.


If we pretend that he is here now, maybe we can also pretend—just for a little while—that we’re back in Syracuse in 1845, when he came. If you looked at him at that point, you would find, as my title says, “a remarkable man!” One of my favorite descriptions of him comes from the biographer, actually of his brother-in-law, Olcott, and this is the description: “A mind gloriously seething with heresies, radicalisms, disgust, plots for reforms, and plans for good works: eager, aggressive, extraverted. He is dedicating his life to the prompt and brisk assassination of numerous abuses. One could almost see that he would go into the kill with a perfectly good-humored smile on his face, oddly mixed with a look of studious abstraction.” Now, there was a beautiful picture of Dr. May!


He baffled people. He had these funny mixtures in his personality. He was, as one person said, a zealot without a zealot’s bitterness. He was a gorgeous individual in terms of being loving and kindly and absolutely firm about what he thought was right or wrong. In fact, any biographer of Dr. May has a terrible time because the man was so full of what we would call charisma that everybody succumbed to him after a while. Even the people who disapproved highly of all his wild ideas would eventually end up loving him. And trying to write a biography of an apparently perfect individual is an absolutely disgusting kind of a thing. You just can’t find any faults in the man.


Now, if you were going to imagine the perfect source for finding out about Samuel J. May from people who didn’t spend all their time telling you how wonderful he was, you would imagine this. You would imagine that in Syracuse somebody had gotten the money together, hopefully Presbyterians, to run a newspaper in 1845. A Presbyterian newspaper in Syracuse in 1845 would be the only place that you would find anybody who would take on Samuel J. May, and having imagined this, you will imagine my delight one day in the Syracuse public library burrowing around in the depths of the newspaper room, finding just that; two bound volumes of a thing called The Religious Recorder, published by Presbyterians in Syracuse in 1845, and this is the only way you are going to balance your picture of Samuel J. May.


So, this morning, if I quote liberally from The Religious Recorder, it’s not because I wish to introduce Presbyterianism into this sacred desk, as Samuel J. May would have called it, but because it is the only way you are going to get a balanced picture of the man.


He came to this village, imagine for yourself this village—it was about 9,000 people, it was still a village; it wasn’t a city, had a big canal, or course, going down the middle; that’s where everybody went and was the heart of the whole village; not very many streets paved; all of the sidewalks were planked. I mean, if you had a sidewalk it was planked. There was, of course, a railroad running down through the middle of it. You had young elm trees, beautiful young elm trees, just having been planted not long ago; and then everywhere you had bustle and crowds. Syracuse was quite sure it was going to be the capital of the state very shortly. Albany was obviously out of it. Syracuse was in the middle of the intersection of the major travel routes. We were promising, and we were radical and wild in nature, very interestingly.


You see, we were fully Yankees, upcountry Yankees. Now, these were people who were sensitive to all kinds of reforms, all kinds of exciting, interesting new kinds of ideas, and they had come over and settled here, so you had a great place for reform. You had people who were sensitive to concerns of this kind, who were rich enough not to take off a little time and start worrying about their immortal souls, if they happened to be that kind; or about the conduct or their brethren, if they happened to be that kind. So, a lot of people were doing a lot of worrying about a lot of things besides making money.


It was just a perfect place for Sam May to come, and he found it that when he stayed here the rest of his life. He was fairly famous when he came. He had been the principal of the very first normal school, training young women to go into the, then, revolutionary field of childhood education. He was well-known, and the men who called him from there knew what they were doing. They wanted somebody who was good in education and they got Sam. They called him over from New England, where he had been, and where he had lived a proper kind of Brahmin existence. He had been born to a Brahmin family (blue blooded, first family) in Boston. He had gone to the right college, which you can certainly fill in for yourself. He had gone to the Harvard Divinity School. He had been a pastor of several small New England congregations; he had been prominent in the abolitionist movement. He was just exactly the kind of minister for a small Unitarian congregation, and they got quite a plum when they got him.


When he got here, however, he discovered that this was not an ideal community. Some things you find out about him are fun—he and Mrs. May and the four kids came over on the train in 1845. You can imagine what moving a household like that would have been like. Did he stay home and help with the unpacking? No! he went to a meeting on education reform the next day, leaving Mrs. May to unpack. I get the feeling that Mrs. May spent a lot of time that way while Sam was out to meetings, taking care of the four children and unpacking! He was always not there. He was out doing something laudable with somebody else’s children a great deal of the time. The Religious Recorder did not tell me that; I just figured that out by myself, having had some experience in unpacking myself while my husband is off on some other noble things.


Let’s look at the major issues that he was confronted with. Now, sometimes we have to change the words, as Cummings did this morning, but certainly the drug issue is one of the things that concerned him the most. The drug that bothered people in those days was alcohol, of course, and they saw in it the kind of abuses that some people see in drug uses today. And you can tell very interesting things sometimes from statistics. Let me give you this set of statistics about Onondaga County. In 1845 there were 31 private schools, 88 churches, 147 taverns, so you can kind of tell the extent of drug use in our small community at that time, and people were worried about it. There were still very, very many poor in Syracuse. It bothered Dr. May when he came here and saw so many poor people. He said he hadn’t been accustomed to seeing poor people in New England. And, the poor, of course, took to the alcohol that made their lives at least partly bearable. And, as you read back through the papers you find that Patrick Mooney, Irishman, fell in the canal, was drowned, on his way home from the tavern—this kind of thing.


This kind of thing bothered people, very much the way reports of abuse and drugs bother people now. They were concerned. They tried to legislate this evil out of existence, as we have done with the marijuana laws. In 1845 Syracuse had just approved the Excise Bill which, hopefully, was going to stop the sale of this particularly dreadful drug, and the tavern owners just didn’t pay any attention. They just went right ahead and sold liquor anyway, and people, like Patrick Mooney continued to fall in the canal.


So you can see that May’s interest through organizations and privately, through education, was very much the same as our concern. He didn’t have very much more success in his lifetime than we have been having lately. Law was apparently no way to handle this problem. Education, they said, was the way to handle this problem. We will educate our young in the abuse of alcohol, and that was still not the solution. Sam May’s life was full of unsolved problems, and as I stand up today and try to tell you about things he accomplished, it’s a little difficult because his whole life was spent with the unsolved. It is kind of comforting to know that somebody like Samuel May never did manage, really, to pull off anything except maybe the Civil War, but he was always worrying about things that were still ahead of him and that is kind of the spirit I would like to bring him to today.


He was concerned with sexual permissiveness, very interestingly. The thing that they were really worried about in those days, as far as sexual permissiveness was concerned, was dancing. This bothered him dreadfully. It is easy for us to laugh when we look back and think how concerned they were with that, and yet it was as much sexual permissiveness to them as the indeterminate mixes of the sexes in dormitory rooms are to some parents today. They were very worried about social dancing, and a prominent clergyman had preached a sermon on the evils of dancing, and Dr. May went right to his pulpit and preached a sermon on the Christian uses of entertainment. He was for a certain amount of sexual permissiveness, you see. To me it is kind of interesting that this was exactly the same sort of undertaking that we are worried about today. The Religious Recorder, naturally, as soon as Dr. May had given this sermon, printed a number of letters from irate subscribers, and one of them talked about the Rev. S. J. May “who sought last week to give us in The Star a sermon professedly on dancing. The sermon, now being public property, the author cannot claim it peculiarly his own. It was religious firebrand. May made an unnecessary and out-of-the-way fling at a portion of the religious community who differed from him in religious beliefs. His views should be confined to his own pulpit where an audience is willing to be defiled by it. To spew it out over the community is unjustifiable, disreputable, and outrageous.”


What Sam had done, was what he did quite frequently, be a very clever publicist. He quite frequently took his sermon down and gave it to the papers and they printed it, which upset the Presbyterians dreadfully. You can see, in this way, what kind of thing was upsetting the particular people at the time. Sam was apparently defending dancing, he was even defending the valse (note: In the 19th Century, the waltz was often referred to as a valse), which was pretty far out at that time. Sam was apparently defending dancing, he was even defending the valse, which was pretty far out at that time. There is another gorgeous thing in The Religious Recorder about a woman standing up, partially clothed, with a partner who was allowed to put his arm around her waist and to be about to dance, which was apparently a very disgusting kind of thing for the Presbyterians to contemplate. This was the way they regarded dancing, so you can see that Sam was taking a stand on behalf of social dancing, which was really a very revolutionary kind of thing to do.


May also on occasions attended meetings of the Female Moral Reform Society. I haven’t found any accounts that he was particularly active in that Society, but it is interesting to ascertain which half of the populace in the 19th Century he thought was in need of reform.


A more serious kind of undertaking, in light of our views, is the concern that Sam had about war. Now, in 1846, as you well know, our country was engaged in a foreign war, an invasion of an underdeveloped nation, an extension of American imperialism. We were sending our boys to be slaughtered for a purpose which many people did not approve of and, Sam, as many other people, took out ads in the local papers protesting the Mexican War, and organized meetings opposing the Mexican war, and, indeed, was denounced by the major papers in the community as a traitor and a man of treason because he would refuse to support U.S. arms in such an adventure.


The Religious Recorder was, for once, on his side. The Recorder also was opposed to the war. A great many upstate people of religious affiliation were extremely opposed to it but they were a whole block of people. Most of the people who ran the village felt this was a justifiable, patriotic undertaking, and that we should punish the Mexicans for their supposed invasion of our territory. And you find in this village, too, very strong conflicting groups over the issue of the Mexican War. Sam finally organized a peace meeting, an out-and-out protest, which so enraged the pro-war people that they came into the meeting—they broke it up—when you broke up a meeting in those days you did it seriously. You came in with brick bats, with stones, rocks, with rotten eggs, rotten vegetables, and you broke up the meeting, and that is exactly what pro-war people did to Sam’s meeting.


So, Sam, being a man of non-violent principles, called off the meeting and they met someplace else and passed their anti-war resolution. It was, according to the best evidence that I can find, the first anti-war meeting that was held anywhere in the country. And Sam organized it. He was a progenitor of anti-war protest in 1846, and we feel with him in this regard. He condemned the war from the pulpit in 1846, and some of his critics accused him of introducing politics into the sacred desk. Sam dismissed this complaint. “In denouncing every violation of my brothers’ rights in politics,” he said, “then woe to every minister who stands before his people and does not preach politics,” said Sam, at his most graphic.


He was worried about the increase in problems of urbanization. It is funny to think of a village of 8,000 worrying about urbanization. The things that were happening in Syracuse in those days are the kinds of things that are happening today. The canal was bringing in people daily that were confusing, unsettling, and different. There were waves of foreign immigrants that were coming up that canal. There were Irish, which were some help, because they could build railroads and dig ditches. Otherwise they were not considered to be particularly valuable citizens in the very waspy community. There were Germans, who had weird customs like decorating Christmas trees and celebrating Christmas, which in a Puritan community was a very papish kind of thing to do. And there were waves and waves and waves of whatever they were of Roman Catholics which were extremely unsettling to the people of the village.


You have to realize that this village was dominated by the Calvinists. The first Presbyterian Church stood astride of this village, Presbyterian principles ruled the village, all the leading people, almost, were Presbyterian. It was a stifling place in many ways for the ancestors and the progenitors of the people in this congregation. You probably know that Unitarians in 1838, 1839, and 1845 when Sam came, didn’t have any social life, except with other Unitarians. The Calvinists simply refused to associate with them, and so the lovely Unitarian social evenings began, which turned out to be such a crown for this particular church.


When Sam got here no other clergyman would call on him. He would call on other clergymen. Other clergymen loved him—oh yes, they loved him—but it wasn’t appropriate to call on a Unitarian, you see. It simply was not done. So, you had a village full of schisms and you had a village that was strongly split on sectarian principles, and it was a village in which all the Calvinists were at each other’s throats, too, comfortingly enough.

The Presbyterians had split over slavery and Congregational Church was formed. The Wesleyans had split over slavery. The only thing that the Calvinists could agree on was being opposed to Catholicism and Unitarianism. So, interestingly enough, the Unitarians and the Catholics formed an interesting and close bond with each other, as I should think they would, being beyond the pale, and one of Father O’Hare’s parishioners—Father O’Hare was the Catholic clergyman here in the middle part of the century and he and Dr. May got to be quite friendly with each other. One of Father O’Hare’s parishioners complained of this. He said, “What’s going to happen when Dr. May tries to get into heaven?” And Father O’Hare said, “There’ll be a back door for Dr. May.”


But that was not really the flavor of fear of Catholics which was in this community. They were scared to death of the Catholics. They were papish, in the first place, but even worse, they were poor. They were bringing in all kinds of social problems we couldn’t solve. Good old wasps had always managed their own problems in their own homes. If you had somebody who was sick you took care of him in your spare bedroom. You did not have anybody who broke the law, heaven help you. You certainly did not have a delinquent son, and you certainly did not have a daughter who got herself into and kind of “trouble.”


Well, the poor were coming in and they were having these problems, and there was no way for this community manage them. Can you imagine a community with no institutions for this kind of thing? This is the way we were in 1845. The problems were coming in, and where were we? St. Joseph’s Hospital was finally organized in 1869 to institutionalize the care of the sick. Imagine waiting that long? They finally got around to inviting the Christian Brothers to set up a reformatory for delinquent boys. That was 1871. Finally, some few Catholics banded together and managed to have a home that would house young women who had no other home. But you see, it was a new and frightening kind of thing.


And Sam was there in the middle of all these problems trying to solve them. He helped set up a house of refuge for the canal boys, helped with the hospital, he helped with the reformatory. He saw people as people. He did not see them as poor; he didn’t see them as Catholic; he didn’t see them as Black; he saw them as other individuals. And, to me, it was the most remarkable thing about the man that he could do this. He would look straight in someone’s eyes, and he would see him as another person. He would not see all these other things which apparently bothered our up-tight, wasp friends in the City of Syracuse so much. And you have the feeling that if you looked into his eyes, he’d see you as a person, too. He might even approve of a woman in his pulpit, although I am not sure about that.


His major work was, of course, in abolition. You all know about the things he has done—I’m still talking about him in the present tense—had done in abolition and civil rights. You may not be aware of the fact that he got so concerned about the Onondaga Indians, who were at this point a very sad remnant of a once proud tribe and they were living south of the village, and nobody would pay any attention to them. They would drag through the village at night drunk, and that would be about all anyone would see of the Onondagas.


Sam had a glorious ability to think and talk in the terms that people understood. He’d go out and he’d help them. He finance the well for the village. He got five year’s appropriation for their school from the state legislature. He sort of acted like an unpaid Indian Agent. The nicest thing that I ever heard about him was that one time he went off to talk to the Indians on the dedication of their new school, and he said to them, “the coming of a school to the Onondaga Nation is like the coming of spring, and the nation will put out leaves that will blossom into the summer of full knowledge and full education,” speaking in what I think he thought was Indian terminology that could be understood. And this only comes in sharper contrast to what the next man said who was, I think, and Episcopalian clergyman. He got up and said, “I think it is a great idea to have a school, because now the Onondagas would not be dirty and disreputable like they had been, but they would be more like Oneidas down the way.” You can imagine how successful that was in comparison to Dr. May’s very moving ability to put himself in somebody else’s place.


He also was very interested in the sub-culture’s rejection of establishment values, if you want to use a little modern jargon. He was great on commune movement. You know, we had a very lively jumping commune at the edge of Skaneateles Lake. Apparently, from all I could find out from The Religious Recorder, they believed in free love. The Recorder tiptoed around this, but you get the feeling that marriage was not one of the sacraments of the Skaneateles community. Guess who was on the Board of the community? Dr. May. In fact, he had joined the Board in 1843 before he ever got here. Though that commune, which was devoted to the principles of free love, to the principles of no government, to sharing, and to treating other individuals as individuals, which sounds like quite a lovely experiment, unfortunately foundered in 1846. However, not before Dr. May had decided that this was indeed an interesting way to promote the kinds of virtues in which he was most interested.


And, so we can see that as an anti-establishment man he took every possible opportunity to express himself. Well, you could go on forever: Women’s rights, brutality in prisons—he was very concerned with this—if there was a cause, May was there speaking, writing, and talking, buttonholing people and writing letters to the newspapers, and developing new kinds of audio-visual devices for the schools. He was in every possible way promoting the idea that he was the next man’s brother. He was just as concerned about his brothers as he was about himself.


His solution was what ours usually is—education; he felt that war, poverty, intemperance, and everything else would disappear, if we were only educated properly. The major continuing concern of his life was to bring up the young in ways that it would enable them to be happier and their brothers to be happier than the previous generation had been. In 1848, you will be interested to know, he wrote the statement of principles on which the Syracuse School System was founded. It was the first school system in the state which was integrated, and it was one of the earliest school systems in the state, thanks to Dr. May, in which corporal punishment, that terrible infliction of cruelty on children, with whips and all kinds of things, was abolished. We had an extremely liberal school system here because Sam had set out to make it that way.


So, we see him as kind of a culture bearer from the east, the glorious Brahmin coming here to an upstate, almost frontier, village ready to receive him with an ardent active little group of people who were eager to help him forward his ideas, and we see this beautiful interaction at a time when action, when ferment, when declaring one’s principles was a very important thing. You see out of this interaction the kind of church that is here today.

It is very interesting to me to stand here to see this beautiful building and those of you who are here, and to see what has happened as a result of labors after these many years. When he first came, he warned the Unitarians about the kind of person he was. He preached sermons on some of his most agitating subjects and they called him anyway, and he wrote in handwriting which is preserved, fortunately, in the minutes of your church, and which is still there. You can go and look at it, written in 1845: “I turn my eyes toward your little Society as one of the service of which I believe I could spend my life still more agreeably to myself, to more purpose, in the cause of rational, liberal Christianity of suffering humanity.”