Moncure Daniel Conway: a Very Unusual Virginian

Moncure Daniel Conway came from Virginia, where his early years were privileged and orthodox. He was born on 17 March 1832, on a plantation near Falmouth in rural Stafford County, where his father, Walker Peyton Conway, was a local planter and judge. His mother, Margaret Daniel Conway, was the granddaughter of a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. The family were devout Methodists. According to Conway's biographer, John d'Entremont, the atmosphere that would have surrounded the young Moncure would have been "patriarchal values, unquestioned devotion to slavery and white supremacy, and a world view that set politics and power above artistic and intellectual pursuits".

As Moncure Conway wrote years later, "Destiny had lavished on my lot everything but freedom."

The patriarchal values did not, however, apply to his female relatives. Two paternal aunts, his sister and a cousin were opposed to slavery, and so was his mother, who was also critical of Southern patriarchy generally. She encouraged him to read widely, despite his father's disapproval of fiction. She was also a practitioner of homoeopathy, and took Moncure with her on her rounds. John d'Entremont says that "Moncure spent more time with his mother; the central lessons he drew from her and other female relatives were the legitimacy of the self, the importance of reconciliation, the value of intellectual endeavor, and the immorality of arbitrary power."

The young Conway went to Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, then a strict Methodist institution, and after graduating in 1849 followed his father's advice to study law.

In 1850, however, Moncure discovered the writings of "the Sage of Concord", the Unitarian writer, poet and transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. The young Conway decided that law was not for him, and he decided to enter the Methodist ministry.

For 23 months in 1851 and '52, Conway was a travelling minister, riding a Methodist circuit in Maryland, another slave state. Here he met literate, anti-slavery Quakers who added to the heterodox notions he was imbibing from Emerson. In 1852 his older brother died. Moncure Conway felt he could no longer be a Methodist in accordance with his father's wishes. He crossed the Mason-Dixon Line and began training for the Unitarian ministry at Harvard University in Massachusetts. To quote John d'Entremont again, "His mother wished him well; his father, in effect, disowned him."

In Massachusetts Conway met and befriended his "spiritual father" Emerson. He also got to know members of the anti-slavery movement and Theodore Parker, abolitionist, radical Unitarian and the real coiner of the words "A democracy, that is, a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people".

In July 1854, at an anti-slavery rally, Conway publicly committed himself to the abolitionist cause.

Also in 1854, Conway graduated from Harvard and became a Unitarian minister. At his first church, in the city of Washington (D.C.), his sermons against slavery made him adoring friends and bitter enemies.

In 1856 he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Here the congregation did not mind his fulminations against slavery, but they were upset about something else. Conway had come under the influence of German biblical criticism and, if you will pardon a bad Lewis Carroll pun, Methodists believed in Siamese triplets of Cheshire cats, Unitarians believed in only one Cheshire cat, but Conway was reducing the cat to a grin, without teeth, and with the halitosis of infidelity. Or as d'Entremont put it: "He repudiated the divinity of Christ, debunked New Testament miracles, and began to speak of Eastern religions as being as valid and valuable as Christianity". "Your minister," said Conway in 1859, "is not a believer in what the churches call Christianity."

Cincinnati gave Moncure Conway something else: Ellen Dana, whom he married in 1858. She was intelligent, supportive and radical. The marriage was very happy and produced four children, Eustace, Emerson, Dana and Mildred.

Conway left Cincinnati in 1862, and thereafter, according to d'Entremont, no longer called himself a Unitarian. He was sympathetic towards, but did not join, the Free Religious Association set up by radical Unitarians.

In November 1860 Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States with a pledge to stop slavery being introduced into the western territories. The slave states of the deep south had threatened to leave the Union if Lincoln became President: they seceded, starting with South Carolina, followed by Alabama, Mississippi and others, and set up the Confederate States of America. Virginia, a border slave state, debated secession and voted against it.

But in April 1861 a Louisianan Creole brigadier-general named Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard demanded that the Union army give up Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. An ultimatum was not met, and at 4:30 a.m. on 12 April Confederate batteries opened fire on the fort, which surrendered next day after a 34-hour bombardment. It was the almost bloodless start of the bloodiest war in North American history.

Lincoln called for all states still in the Union to provide militia for the war. Virginia took another vote on secession and left the Union. Eventually Richmond, Virginia, became the Confederate capital. Meanwhile Union sympathisers in western Virginia seceded from Virginia and established what became the Union state of West Virginia.

Conway's two brothers joined the Confederate army. His mother and sister, on the other hand, went to live in staunchly Unionist Pennsylvania. The family home became a Union field hospital as it was barely two kilometres from the appalling battle of Fredericksburg.

Conway initially supported the Union and wrote two books in 1861. The following year he became joint editor of a new anti-slavery magazine, The Commonwealth, published in Boston.

In 1862, in the chaos of war, many of Conway's father's slaves left the plantation and reached Washington. Moncure Conway tracked them down and planned to transport them to the free state of Ohio. To do so they had to change trains and stations in Baltimore, in the slave state of Maryland. This was very risky. In April 1861 a Massachusetts regiment, when marching between the stations, had been attacked by a mob of Confederate sympathisers; nine civilians and four soldiers had been killed. Conway's party was beset first by a black mob, who thought he was a fugitive slave catcher, and then by surly white mob. But in the end they reached Ohio and safety.

In 1863 Moncure Conway decided to visit Britain, as an overseas reporter for The Commonwealth. He met lots of interesting people in London, and also wrote letters to pro-Union newspapers about the American Civil War. However, he got into very hot water when he started corresponding with the Confederate envoy in London, James Mason. Conway rashly stated that, if the South were to free its slaves, the abolitionist movement would try to persuade Lincoln to end the war. Conway had no authority to make this bargain, and the suspicious Mason submitted the correspondence to The Times, which sympathised with the Confederacy. A very embarrassed Conway took a holiday in Venice.

Back in England, in May 1863, Conway was invited to speak at South Place Chapel, in Finsbury (London), which, by coincidence, had been founded by an American Universalist in 1793.

Many of its religiously radical members were fed up with their minister, whose sermons were far too orthodox for their taste, but they liked what they heard from Conway. Soon afterwards they forced the minister's resignation, and in February 1864 Conway was given a trial as his replacement. He had found his congregation, and they liked him.

Conway still had to contend with the anguish of the war across the Atlantic. It ended in mid-1865 after killing 750,000 people, plus or minus 100,000. Also, after his family joined him in London, Moncure and Ellen's son Emerson died in August 1864. But otherwise Moncure thrived. In January 1866 his appointment became permanent.

South Place Chapel, which had been in the doldrums in the 1850s, flourished again. By 1873, d'Entremont informs us, minimum Sunday attendance was 400, "growing to an average of seven hundred a few years later". In addition to the chapel services, a South Place Institute was established with guest speakers such as Robert Browning, Thomas Henry Huxley, John Tyndall and Max Mueller. There were concerts, theatricals, a fortnightly discussion group and what d'Entremont termed "glittering monthly soirees".

As he grew in confidence and experience, Conway's own views subtly changed. In 1869 he dropped the use of prayers. In 1872 pews were removed and replaced by ordinary seats. And from 1874 readings were often taken from Conway's The Sacred Anthology: a book of ethnical scriptures, of which I have the fifth edition of 1876.

He also wrote a semi-autobiographical book, The Earthward Pilgrimage, published in 1870. Its first chapter sets the scene as it is entitled, in a parody of John Bunyan's subtitle to The Pilgrim's Progress, "How I left the world to come for that which is".

Conway went back to the United States several times, and his friends there included, of course, Robert Green Ingersoll, whose militant agnosticism was as forthright as any atheist's invective against theology.

In 1882 Conway was invited to lecture in Australia by Robert Jeffray and Henry Turner. And if any of you do not know who Henry Gyles Turner was, please have a wander round our central courtyard at lunchtime.

In 1883, after visiting the United States, Conway crossed the Pacific, stopping in Hawaii, but having only a day in New Zealand, which he regretted. After what he termed "the sublimities of Sydney Harbour at dawn", he arrived in Victoria in time for the Melbourne Cup. He described it in his book My Pilgrimage to the Wise Men of the East, published in 1906.

It is odd that Melbourne, rigidly Presbyterian, should have for its Pan-Australian synod a horse-race. Mel­bourne has, however, made its racing week a social con­gress of the colonies. The betting is universal. Sweep­stakes were arranged in the schools (by the teachers), and Cup Day is a holiday. …

Early in the morning I walked over the course, so to say. Byron Moore, secretary of the Racing Club, guided me, and I saw the artistic arrangements for this great event. The apartments for the governor and his com­pany, the committee rooms, the medical rooms, the ladies' rooms, — all were elaborately elegant. There was fine floral decoration everywhere; cosmetics in the ladies' room, and needles threaded with every colour, ready for use.

In the element of grotesquerie the English Derby has large advantages over the Cup, where respectability was carried to an extreme; there was hardly a side-show, nothing characteristic of the country, no aborigines, no boomerangs. It all impressed me as too much a Presbyterian Vanity Fair; no one could fail to be struck by the multitude of beautiful ladies and fine looking men, but they appeared so serious! It was pleasant to see so many people without any tipsiness, but there might have been some fun.
. . .

Conway also made notes on the variety of religions and philosophies available:

The census of 1881 gave Victoria a population of 862,246 and registered 144 denominational names. . . . The number of those who rejected every form of Christianity was 20,000.

The Unitarians numbered about one thousand. In 1851, when registration of opinions was compulsory, seventeen hundred confessed the Unitarian faith. In that year the Victorian government voted to divide fifty thousand pounds among all the churches in proportion to their members (giving the five talents to him who had five and the two to him who had two), and the subsidy was contin­ued many years. Under that arrangement the Unitarians received a good piece of property. It now had for its minister Mrs. Webster, who began preaching there as Miss Turner. She is a sister of Henry G. Turner of the Commercial Bank of Australia, himself a literary man and editor of the "Melbourne Review." Mrs. Webster is a rationalistic Unitarian, and her discourses are very impressive. I had the pleasure of preaching to her society, which consists of educated and influential fam­ilies.

After Victoria, Conway went to Tasmania at the invitation of Andrew Inglis Clark, later one of the founding fathers of federation. He visited what he termed "the smallest conventicle in Hobart" because its denomination was given as "Campbellite". "Alexander Campbell", explained Conway, "was the only Virginian who ever founded a sect, a little brick chapel in our town, Fredericksburg, being by tradition the first built by Campbellism."

Conway also tells us that "I lectured in various parts of Tasmania, and had the honour of being attacked in the papers by orthodox writers. My lectures were not theological, but my account of London, my sketches of scientific men, and the fact that I was there by invitation of distinguished rationalists gave sufficient ground for this clerical imprudence, which filled my halls wherever I went" (87)

From Tasmania Conway went back to Sydney, where he was the guest of Justice William (later Sir William) Windeyer and gave a lecture in the presence of the premier of New South Wales, Sir Henry Parkes. He also visited Adelaide (South Australia) and Albany (Western Australia) on his way to Ceylon and India. But for reasons of time I will not go into detail.

In mid-1884 Conway left South Place and toured Europe with his family. From mid-1885 he lived mainly in New York city where he devoted himself to writing, producing his best-known book, his "crowning achievement" in John d'Entremont's opinion, the two-volume Life of Thomas Paine, first published in 1892 and later made available as a cheap reprint by the infant Rationalist Press Association. A French edition appeared in 1900.

In late 1892 Conway reluctantly acceded to requests to return to South Place, now named South Place Ethical Society; but in 1897 Ellen became terminally ill and Moncure resigned again. John d'Entremont describes Conway's final discourse, on 27 June, far better than I could:
"His topic was John Cabot's exploration of America. . . But near the end of his talk he broke down and could not continue. ‘At the close there was general weeping,' wrote one observer. . . ‘Strong sober men left hurriedly in great and manifest grief.' There was good reason; a great institution had lost, under the saddest of circumstances, its greatest leader."

The Conways sailed for New York on 1 July. Ellen died on Christmas Day.

In 1898 the United States went to war with Spain. Conway was disgusted and spoke out against the war, which was not the popular thing to do. Theodore Roosevelt sarcastically suggested that Conway join the Spanish. He was also appalled by lynchings and Jim Crow laws in the southern states. Although he kept a flat in Greenwich Village, he spent most of his time in France, particularly Paris.

At the age of 75, while working on a biography of Jean Calvin he died, in Paris, on 15 November 1907. He was cremated at Père Lachaise cemetery and on 1 December there was a memorial meeting at South Place.

In 1910 South Place Ethical Society held the first Conway Memorial Lecture, and the 82nd such lecture was given in June 2014. After the First World War the Society decided to leave Finsbury and move to Red Lion Square in Holborn. The architect Frederick Mansford was commissioned to design the Society's new building, which was completed in 1929. It was named Conway Hall and serves as a meeting place for many organisations as well as being the headquarters of the National Secular Society. More recently, in November 2012, South Place Ethical Society changed its name to Conway Hall Ethical Society.

John d'Entremont says of Conway: "He was that rare teacher and thinker who could combine genuine tolerance with fierce commitment to principle. And whether in the role of teacher, scholar or activist, his own life gave vivid expression to a line from his autobiography which may fairly be taken as his credo: ‘Those who think at all think freely'."

The Civil War Almanac, ed. John S. Bowman; New York: World Almanac Publications (Bison Books), 1983.
Conway, Moncure D., 1906. My Pilgrimage to the Wise Men of the East; Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin.
d'Entremont, John, 1978. Moncure Conway 1832–1907 . . .; London: South Place Ethical Society (58th Conway Memorial Lecture, Dec., 1977).
d'Entremont, John, 1985. "Conway, Moncure Daniel"; Encyclopedia of Unbelief (ed. G. Stein), v. 1: 122 – 126; Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
d'Entremont, John, 1987. Southern Emancipator: Moncure Conway, the American Years, 1832–1865; New York: Oxford University Press.
Ratcliffe, S. K., 1955. The Story of South Place; London: Watts.
Scott, Dorothy, 1980. The Halfway House to Infidelity: a History of the Melbourne Unitarian Church 1853–1973; [Melbourne]: Unitarian Fellowship of Australia, Melbourne Unitarian Church.
Wikipedia entries: P. G. T. Beauregard, Fort Sumter, R. W. Emerson.
N.H.S. 2015.07.24 – 2015.10.04

Address given at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church on 4 October 2015.
Nigel Sinnott is a Life Member, Conway Hall Ethical Society, London