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Moncure Conway

Moncure Conway Moncure Daniel Conway (March 17, 1832-November 15, 1907) was a clergyman, abolitionist, scholar, and author, best known for his outspoken opposition to slavery in the decade prior to and during the Civil War, his freethinking ministry to South Place Chapel in London, and his biography of Thomas Paine. A Virginian from an upper class family, his views on race, politics, and theology isolated him for many years from his family, his native state, and his country. The last forty-five years of his life were spent largely in England and France.

The second child of Walker Peyton and Margaret (Daniel) Conway, Moncure was born on March 17, 1832 in Falmouth, Stafford County, Virginia. His father was a wealthy gentleman farmer, a slaveholder, and county judge; his mother a homemaker and homeopathic physician. Both were Methodists, his father having left the Episcopal church, his mother the Presbyterian. Moncure's opposition to slavery came from his mother and from his boyhood experiences. His father and three brothers remained staunchly pro-slavery.

In 1847, at the age of fifteen, Conway left home to enter Dickinson College, a Methodist college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, earning an M.A. degree two years later. While there he discovered the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and developed an interest in Transcendentalism. He wrote Emerson that he was "a Natural Radical—to whose soul Radicalism is as air to a bird,—and having his lot and earthly converse amongst talented conservative Virginians."

Following a year as a Methodist circuit rider, Conway entered Harvard Divinity School, graduating with a B.D. in 1854. During his time at Harvard he and Emerson, his "spiritual father," became friends. He also met Henry Thoreau and Bronson Alcott. Influenced by Theodore Parker, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips, Conway became an abolitionist.

After graduation Conway accepted a call to the First Unitarian Church of Washington, where he was ordained in February 1855. At first, avoiding the slavery issue, his ministry went well. Then, in January 1856, he began preaching that slavery was a moral, not a political or economic issue. In October the congregation voted his dismissal. Almost at once Conway was invited to preach trial sermons at the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati. The congregation approved of his views and soon called him as its minister.

While in Cincinnati Conway married Ellen Davis Dana, a lifelong Unitarian, feminist and abolitionist. The couple had four children—Eustace, Emerson (who died young), Dana and Mildred. Their strong marriage, which lasted until Ellen's death 38 years later, got off to a shaky start. Conway, who had been condemned for his racial and religious views upon leaving for Harvard and later had experienced a hostile reception at Falmouth, nevertheless brought his bride there to meet his family. The visit ended disastrously when Ellen broke a Southern taboo—she hugged and kissed a young slave girl. It was seventeen years before Conway became reconciled with his family. His mother, however, stood by him; when the Civil War broke out she went north to Easton, Pennsylvania to live with her married daughter Mildred.

During his Cincinnati ministry Conway became increasingly dissatisfied with the theological, liturgical, and social conservatism of mainstream Unitarianism. In reaction he became more and more combative. Not long after arriving in Cincinnati, at the 1857 meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC), he pushed through an antislavery resolution despite strong opposition from the delegation from the large Unitarian church in St. Louis, led by William Greenleaf Eliot. As a result both the St. Louis church, the largest in the conference, and Eliot, one of the conference's founders, were lost to the WUC. Then in 1859, reacting to Conway's increasing rejection of the relevance of the Bible and Jesus, half of his Cincinnati congregation left to form a new Unitarian church. Soon after, at a meeting of the Harvard Divinity School Alumni, Conway introduced a resolution in support of the maverick Theodore Parker who was seriously ill abroad. The resolution failed, being regarded by many as a move to embarass the mainstream Unitarians led by Henry Whitney Bellows. In 1862, after spending more and more time away from his church advancing the abolitionist cause, Conway left its ministry. After that he had an uneasy and uncertain relationship with Unitarianism, in America and subsequently in England, until he made a clean break.

That same year, accompanied by William Henry Channing, his successor in the Washington pulpit, Conway visited the White House in an attempt to persuade President Abraham Lincoln that immediate, unqualified emancipation offered the best chance of ending the war. His proposal was quickly dismissed. Later that year he led his father's slaves, who in the confusion of war had fled to Washington, in a daring escape to freedom in Ohio.

In 1863 Conway sailed to London on a mission to "persuade the English that the North is right" and that the Civil War was an "abolition war." He had been chosen for this task by the abolitionist leadership because of his power as a speaker and a writer. When, however, under English influence, he sent an offer to the Confederacy "on behalf of the leading antislavery men of America," offering the preservation of the Confederacy after the war's end in exchange for emancipation of the slaves, this support was quickly and angrily withdrawn. Rather than go back to America, where he no longer felt welcome, he went briefly to Venice, where he was reunited with his wife and children.

After returning to London, Conway was invited to speak at South Place Chapel, a dissenting church founded as Universalist by the American Elhanan Winchester in 1793. (The congregation survives today as South Place Ethical Society, meeting in Conway Hall, a center of intellectual, political and cultural life, completed in 1929.) Speaking there, Conway discovered that "the preacher had revived in me," and the congregation, open to his social and religious views, invited him to become its regular minister. He accepted, thus beginning a felicitous relationship that was to last for many years. Although the pay was meager he supported himself by journalism, book sales, and literary agency (for example, he represented Mark Twain's interests in Britain).

In London as in America Conway made friends among the literary and intellectual elite, including Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin. Lyell sometimes attended the South Place Chapel. "[Darwin] expressed satisfaction that I had been able to derive from evolution the hopeful religion set forth in my discourse," Conway recorded in his account of his visit to Darwin's house, "but I remember that he did not express agreement with it."

At first when Conway arrived South Place Chapel was nominally a Unitarian church. For a few years he attended meetings of London Unitarian ministers. Conway and the South Place Chapel soon moved outside Unitarian fellowship and shed the remains of traditional non-conformist Christian worship. Conway lectured, rather than preached. "I looked on all the camps as equally struggling with error," he wrote, "and could weigh without bias on the value of each for human happiness."

As he moved from Methodist circuit rider, to Unitarian minister, to minister of South Place Chapel, Conway's religious views evolved significantly. While never abandoning Transcendentalism, he moved from an Emersonian to a more activist position, not unlike that of Theodore Parker, then to humanistic "free thought." He abandoned theism after his son Emerson died in 1864. In his 1876 essay "Christianity" he portrayed Christ as an anti-ecclesiastical teacher of natural religion. He thought that even liberal Christianity was wrong. "The Unitarians of England and America have done their utmost to make Christianity consistent with truth and freedom, but they have shown that it is impossible." With Christianity a dead end, he thought religion needed a fresh start. "Eyes turned from phantom gods have caught glimpses of a divine life in the evolution of nature, and the mystical movement at the heart of man." In time, recognizing the reality of evil, he concluded that Emerson's philosophy was overly optimistic. "[The world of] 'that which is,' he wrote in My Pilgrimage to the Wise Men of the East, 1906, "is a mirage of the 'Celestial city' thrown by Transcendentalism on the horizon of the world." "There pervades," he continued, "the fatal fallacy that evil is good in the making."

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women's suffrage in Britain. The meeting was held at the Stamford Street Unitarian Chapel. In 1878 he and the mathematician William Kingdon Clifford (1845-1879) gathered a Congress of Liberal Thinkers, comprised of scientists and representatives from various religious sects, at the South Place Chapel for, among other things, the "scientific study of religious phenomena" and "the emancipation of mankind from the spirit of superstition." Unable to develop common ground or mutual trust, the new group did not survive the death of co-founder Clifford.

In 1875 Conway had revisited America, becoming reconciled with his family and preaching from his old pulpit in Cincinnati. He also preached in Parker's former pulpit, the 28th Congregational Society, where he was offered a settlement. He turned down that opportunity, wishing to remain in London. However, in 1885 he retired from his South Place ministry and returned to America with his wife to live in New York near their children. Five years later the couple went back to to England, and in 1893, after his successor had departed, Conway's relationship with South Place Chapel was renewed for four additional years.

In 1897 Conway traveled to New York City with his terminally ill wife who wished to die in America. Not long after her death on Christmas Day, feeling out step with his countrymen who were marching to war with Spain, he went to France, where he devoted much of the rest of his life to the peace movement and writing.

During his years in England and France Conway established himself as an important scholar and author. In 1892, to his surprise, he was awarded an L.H.D. by Dickinson College and served a term on the college's board of trustees. A building was constructed on campus in his name through the financial support of Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Andrew Carnegie.

Conway was a prolific writer. Notable among his books was The Earthward Pilgrimage, 1870, in which he portrayed himself as journeying from the "Celestial City of Christian ideals" back to the "city of that which is" because the latter "has cared rather for man, whom it can benefit, than for God, whom it cannot." His Emerson at Home and Abroad, 1882, is a biography which compares his own views with those of Emerson and measures the distance he then felt from Emersonian optimism. His book most read by later generations is The Life of Thomas Paine, 1892, which he also translated into French. In addition, he had earlier revived and edited the Transcendentalist periodical The Dial, 1860-61, and had been co-editor and a correspondent of the antislavery weekly, The Commonwealth, 1862-63.

Conway died alone in his Paris apartment on November 15, 1907. A memorial service was held in December at his son Eustace's home in New York City, attended by one hundred and fifty family members and admirers, including Andrew Carnegie and Robert Collier.

There are Moncure Conway papers in the Butler Library at Columbia University, in the archives at Dickinson College, and in the archives of South Place Chapel in London. Among his writings are Tracts for Today (1858), a collection of sermons and essays; East and West: An Inaugural Discourse (1859); The Rejected Stone: or Insurrection vs, Resurrection in America (1861); Benjamin Banneker, the Negro Astronomer (1864), a tract for the Ladies' London Emancipation Society; Testimonies Concerning Slavery (1864); The Sacred Anthology: A Book of Ethical Scriptures (1874); Idols and Ideals with an Essay on Christianity (1877); Demonology and Devil-Lore (1879); Thomas Carlyle (1881); Lessons for the Day (1882), a series of sermons; Pine and Palm (1887), a novel; Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1890); Prisons of Air (1891), a novel; Solomon and Solomonic Literature (1899); and many published sermons, addresses, and articles. His articles were published in many magazines, including the Atlantic Monthly. He also wrote a two-volume memoir, Autobiography: Memories and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway (1904, republished 1969).

The principal biographies are Mary Elizabeth Burtis, Moncure Conway: 1832-1907 (1952) and John d'Entremont, Southern Emancipator, Moncure Conway: The American Years, 1832-1865 (1987). On Conway's dismissal from the Washington pulpit see David B. Cheesebrough, Clergy Dissent in the Old South, 1830-1865 (1996). Peter F. Walker, Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolition (1978) discusses Conway's visit to England, 1863-64. Warren Sylvester Smith, The London Heretics, 1870-1914 (1967) discusses Conway's pastorate at South Place Chapel and his other activities in England. See also Lloyd D. Easton, "German Philosophy in Nineteenth Century Cincinnati—Stallo, Conway, Nast and Willich" in Bulletin, Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio (January 1962); Laurence C. Staples, Washington Unitarianism (1970); Susan Budd, Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society, 1850-1960 (1977); and Helen Lutton Cohen, "Moncure Daniel Conway: Nineteenth-Century Pilgrim," unpublished term paper, Harvard Divinity School (1978).

Article by Charles A. Howe - posted April 14, 2003 - revised August 31, 2004


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