N.Y.) Unitarian Congregational Society (Syracuse.

Samuel Joseph May. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, September 12th, 1797. Died in Syracuse, New York, July 1st, 1871 online

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Online LibraryN.Y.) Unitarian Congregational Society (SyracuseSamuel Joseph May. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, September 12th, 1797. Died in Syracuse, New York, July 1st, 1871 → online text (page 1 of 5)
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Samuel Joseph May.

. CK-S


Born in Boston, Massachusetts,
September 12th, 1797.

Died in Syracuse, New York,
July 1st, 1871.




" And I heard a voice from Heaven ,
saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead
which die in the Lord from henceforth :
yea saith the Spirit, that they may rest
from their labors ; and their works do
follow them,"

Another hand is beckoning us,

Another call is given,
And glows once more with angel steps

The path which reaches Heaven.

Sweet promptings unto kindest deeds

Were in his very look ;
We read his lace, as one who reads

A true and holy book ;

The measure of a blessed hymn
To which our hearts could move ;

The breathing of an inward psalm,
A canticle of love.

Fold him, O Father, in Thine arms,
A nd let him henceforth be

A messenger of love, between
Our human hearts and Thee.

Still let his mild rebuking stand
Between us and the wrong,

And his dear memory serve to make
Our faith in -rooducss strong.


At a meeting of the members of the Unitarian Congre-
gational Society of Syracuse, held after morning service
in the Church of the Messiah, on Sunday, July 9th, 1871,
a committee, consisting of Pev. S. E. Calthrop, Mr. C. D.
B. Mills, Mr. D. P. Phelps, Mr. IT. X. White, Mrs. Mary
E. Bagg, and Mrs. Kebecca J. Burt, was appointed to pre-
pare and publish a memorial pamphlet embracing the fune-
ral obsequies of the former pastor of the Society, — Rev.
Samuel J. May.

In the performance of that duty, the committee have not
thought it advisable to use more of the very abundant
matter in their hands, than is included in the following
pages. They were inclined at first, to add some of the
very many appreciative and glowing tributes to Mr. May's
life and character which his death spontaneously called out,
from both the religious and secular press.

The occasion seemed also to invite a somewhat detailed
account ot his pastorate in Syracuse, so faithfully filled on
the one hand and so lovingly received on the other— ex-
tending from 1815 to 186S— through twenty-three of the
best years of his active, beautiful and saintly life, and which
was officially ended, only to be merged in new relations



with his people, if possible stronger and more tender than

Bat upon reflection it was felt, that a rounded Christian
life like Mr. May's — so beautiful and complete in all its full
proportions, called at once for a faithful and loving biogra-
pher, and that any attempt on the part of the committee to
anticipate in this memorial of his death and burial, any
material part of that biographer's proper work, would
be inappropriate. By whomsoever the story of his life
shall be told, we may rest assured that his pastorate in Sy-
racuse, and the noble work which he here did for his
parish, for the community about him, and for the world at
large, will receive the attention which it deserves.

And }'et the committee have deemed it very proper to go
so far beyond the limitation thus marked out for themselves,
as to incorporate in this memorial, the very full obituary
notice of Mr. Ma} 7 which appeared in the Syracuse Daily
Standard^ on the Monday morning after his death ; a notice
which for its brief comprehensiveness, its thorough appre-
ciation of the work he had done and of his exalted chris-
tian character, and for its loving tenderness of spirit and
expression, seemed to make it the fitting article for the
place we give it.

The committee have also to express their obligations to
the several daily papers of the city, and to the Christian
Register of Boston, for their very full reports of the ser-
vices at the Church and at Oakwood, on the occasion ot the
funeral, of which they have very freely availed them-

The death of Mr. May was quite sudden. Although he
had been ill for several weeks, he felt much better again,


and spoke hopefully of dismissing bis nurse, and of visiting
New England. He saw several friends on Saturday, in-
cluding President White, of Cornell University, who in-
formed him of an offer received by his University of a very
liberal gift, upon the condition that young women should
have the same advantages as young men in that institution.
Mr. May promised to give the college his portrait of Prudence
Crandall, if this should be consummated, and he parted
with Mr. White in the most cheerful and affectionate man-
ner. About ten o'clock in the evening he became very ill.
As his strength ebbed away, he manifested a desire that his
daughter should kiss him, and then, witli a farewell smile
his spirit took its upward flight.

His death occurred at so late an hour on Saturday even-
ing, that but few persons knew of it until announced, as it
was, in several of the churches after morning service next

These announcements were generally accompanied by
spontaneous, heartfelt tributes to his exalted character and
pure, noble life.

The whole community were deeply impressed ; and as
soon as it became generally known, large numbers of per-
sons — people of all conditions in life — called at the house
of his son-in-law, Mr. Alfred Wilkinson, with whom he had
lived, not only to express their respect and sorrow, but that
they might once more look upon that face, which in death
retained the same beautiful expression of love for all his
kind, which made it everywhere and always in life, a wel-
come presence, shedding heavenly benedictions upon all
around him. And so, to the day of his funeral, friends
from far and near, those who knew him well and those who



only knew of him, came there, impelled by a common sor-
row, which had cast its dark shadow over all their homes,
and made deep wounds in all their hearts.

Gen-it Smith came from Peterboro, notwithstanding his
own illness, and also wrote : " Mr. May was the most
Christ-like man that I ever knew. He made Christ his pat-
tern, and how successfully, was proved by his never-failing
gentleness, meekness and sweetness. Heaven is more de-
sirable to me now that my dear May is there."

The city papers of Monday morning, contained long and
glowing tributes to his worth, one of which, from the Daily
Stcmdard, we reproduce.



Not in this community alone, where the kindly face of
our departed friend and teacher was so familiarly known,
and his reputation so tenderly cherished, but also in many
different sections of the land, where he had worked in holy
enterprises, and attached to himself zealous circles of friends,
will the announcement of the death of Samuel J. May be
received with profoundest sorrow. In common with a host
of loving ones, impressed with the sublimity of the char-
acter we would depict, and the worthlessness of words in
its serene presence, we would offer our tribute of respect to
the memory of him who, through goodness, rose to great-
ness, uniting the courage of a Knox and the ardor of a
Howard with the dear simplicity of the Vicar of Wake-
field. The life we would sketch was unusually prolonged
and essentially earnest, crowded with activities and crown-
ed with blessings; and it is, therefore, difficult, in a limited
space, to compass a comprehensive survey of its usefulness,
or even to detail many of the facts which gave it signifi-
cance ; nor does this, indeed, seem necessary in a region
which sensitively vibrated to its touch, and is imbued with
regard tor it^ efficacy and reverence for its spirit. We trust.



however, that we may be enabled, while outlining its
course, to emphasize a portion of its virtues and to extract
therefrom something of the secret of its power.

Samuel Joseph May was born in Boston on the 12th day
of September, 1707. lie was the tenth of twelve children
of Joseph and Dorothy Sewall May, all of whom attained
mature years, and but one of whom, the wife of the think-
er Alcott, and the mother of the author of " Little Women,"
survives. He was of Puritan stock, as moulded by the hardy
influences of early colonial times and as modified by the
searching theological reformation which swept over Massa-
chusetts towards the close of the last century. He was de-
scended, in the fourth generation, from John May, who,
born in England in 1628, came to New England while quite
a lad, settled in Roxbury, near Jamaica Pond, and acquired
an estate which remained in the family so late as 1810.
No circumstances could be more conduaive to a true mental
and moral development, and no happier ties of kindred
could exist than those which waited on the opening years
of Samuel J. May. He was allied to the best blood of his
native state — historic in the grand old Commonwealth.
His mother was the daughter of Samuel Sewall, of Boston,
by his wil'c, Elizabeth Quincy, niece of Josiah Quincy, Jr.,
of glorious memory, and sister of the wife of John Han-
cock. She w r as the lineal descendant of Chief Justice
Sewall, of Salem, one of the first to suspect, and finally to
expose the Witchcraft delusion. She was also the sister of
a later Chief Justice, and the grand-daughter of the Rev.
Joseph Sewall, pastor for many years of the ( >Ll South
Church, a Calvinist divine of justly extended reputation.

Joseph May, the father, designed to study for the minis-
try, but was prevented from so doing by the breaking out

mmmmwi sassamsmemMni


of the Revolutionary war. lie engaged in business pur-
suits, was Colonel of Militia in the famous "Boston Cadets,"
and Secretary, for forty years, of one of the earliest organ-
ized Marine Insurance Companies in the country, and was
highly esteemed for his integrity, exactness and charitable
energies. He lived until 1841, dying at the age of eighty-
one. As related to the religious bias and labors of his son,
the most interesting feature of his career was his connec-
tion, for nearly half a century, with King's Chapel, as one
of its Wardens and most tenacious supporters. King's
Chapel, left without a priest, by the flight of its tory in-
cumbent, invited the Rev. James Freeman to conduct, as a
Reader, its services. At the close of the Revolution, he
was solicited to become its Rector, but upon applying to
the Bishop for ordination, was unable to subscribe to the
Thirty-Nine articles, as well as to certain observances of
the Episcopal establishment, and being tinctured with the
reputed heresies of Priestley, was denied the sacred rite.
His congregation, nevertheless, endorsed his views, and
themselves iustalled him. Thus was instituted the first
Unitarian Church in America, to which Dr. Freeman min-
istered until his death in 1S35, and Col. May gave his con-
sistent aid, and from which Samuel J. received inspiration
and instruction. Of the value of his early religious educa-
tion Mr. May had the liveliest appreciation. He held it as
one ol the chief blessings of his life that he was not devoted
to the tenets of a stern creed and the terrible imaginings it
imposes. He was a Liberal Christian, almost by intuition ;
and hence experienced none of the pangs with which the
conflict between the dogma of vengeance and the gospel
of love tortures so many souls.

Mr. May received his education, preliminary to entering

college, at the Chauncy Hall School, famous for many



years in Boston, and still flourishing. lie entered Harvard
College in the fall of 1813, and graduated in 1817, with

high rank in a class which has since, in many of its mem-
bers, proved itself illustrious. Among its notable names
are those of George Bancroft, Caleb dishing, Samuel A.
Eliot, member of Congress from Massachusetts, and the
father of President Eliot, George B. Emerson, a leading
teacher and student of natural and social science, Samuel
E. Sewall, a distinguished lawyer of Boston and cousin and
chum of Me May, t!i3 Riv. Dr. Stephen II. Tyng, and the
Rev. Dr. Alvaji Woods. The late Dr. Ilolyoke, of this city,
was also a class-mate ; and in this connection we should
not omit to mention one who achieved an ignoble fame —
Robert Schuyler, the great defaulter. It is noteworthy
that, in 1S60, fifty two years after graduation, nearly one-
half of this class of sixty-seven members was alive — a con-
vincing proof of its average moral worth. At the termin-
ation of his academic course, and indeed before, Mr. May
engaged in teaching at Hingham, Concord, Beverly and
Xaliant, pursuing meantime his classical and theological
studies, and becoming aroused to that deep interest in the
cause of popular education which he ever maintained.
Among his pupils at Nahant was the historian Motley,
whom he instructed in the English language, if not in that
of " the Dutch Republic." In the spring of ISIS, he en-
tered the Divinity School at Cambridge, graduating in 1S20,
and he was approbated to preach in December of that year.
The School was then under charge of Dr. Henry Ware,
Sen., who was assisted by Professors Norton, Frisbie and
Willard, all clear-headed, keen-sighted and conscientious
instructors. Of the manner of their teaching Mr. May
gives the following exposition : " These gentlemen marked
out for us a sufficient! v extended theological, as well as eth-


ical and devotional course of reading ; but they perempto-
rily dictated nothing except personal purity and righteous-
ness, the diligent improvement of our advantages, and fidel-
ity to our highest sense af the true and the right. They
enjoined it upon us to examine every subject brought to
our consideration thoroughly and as impartially as we were
able in the various lights thrown upon it by the religious
and theological writers of opposite sects, and to accept such
conclusions as should, after such an examination, seem to
our minds correct — remembering our responsibility to God
alone, for the use we made of our opportunities to learn, and
of the powers He had given us to judge of the true and the

As indicative of the effect of such counsels upon himself
we continue our quotation from the discourse delivered in
the Church of the Messiah, in 1867, upon the occasion of
his reaching his seventieth birthday : " Thus encouraged
I entered upon the inquiry after true religion, fully persua-
ded that it was the ' one thing needful ' for all men ; and
longing to be a minister of it to my fellow beings, so many
of whom seemed to me to be ' living without God in the
world.' I was soon more than ever convinced that Christi-
anity was the true religion ; but that a strange theology had
been foisted into its place in Christendom ; substituted for
it in most of the churches. It seemed to me self-evident,
that Christianity was to be learnt from Jesus Christ ; that
he must be the best teacher of his own religion ; that, if he
be, as most Christians profess to regard him, ' the author
and finisher of our faith,' nothing should be appended to
the Gospel as he left it ; not even on the authority of Paul,
Appollos, or Cephas; certainly not on the authority of St.
Augustine, John Calvin, or the Tope, should anything be



prescribed as essential, which is not perfectly consistent with
the teaching of the Master. It seemed to me then, as it
seems to me now, the highest impertinence, and most egregi-
ous presumption, in any Doctor of Divinity, Assembly of
Divines ( especially those who believe that Jesus was a super-
human being, aye, the very God ), to prescribe a Creed, as
comprising the essential faith, which is nowhere to be found
in the words of the Master."

Thus holding to personal purity of life, and placing him-
self in the attitude of a seeker after truth, under the All-
Father, he commenced the work of the ministry, serving as
supply at Springfield, Mass., Brooklyn, Connecticut, and
New York City, during the succeeding year. In 1821, he
made a journey to Richmond, Va., preaching on his way at
Baltimore, Washington, and other cities. In Washington,
that abhorrence of u the peculiar institution," which soon
became one of the strongest impulses of his life, as displayed
in acts of daring and devotion, was aroused by seeing a
coffle of slaves in the street. Returning to Boston, he be-
came the temporary colleague of Dr. Channing, in the Fed-
eral street pulpit, and in this connection continued several
months. The intercourse with this gifted and fervent apos-
tle of Liberal Christianity had a most energizing and sanctify-
ing influence upon the ministrations of Mr. May, and he
was accustomed to refer to it as of eminent benefit to him in
many respects. Upon his part, Dr. Channing conceived a
warm friendship for his youthful assistant, and maintained
it until his death, delighting always to welcome and to
counsel with him, even at times when their views upon pub-
lic questions were somewhat divergent. While he was in
Boston, he was invited to gather a church at Richmond,
Virginia, and was strongly tempted to an enterprise which


seemed to have many encouraging prospects ; but receiving
a simultaneous call to Brooklyn, Conn., where was located
the only Unitarian Church in that state, he deemed it his
duty to accept the latter invitation. He had previously
been ordained to the ministry by the Association of Boston
el mrches, the ceremony being notable from the high stand-
ing of the clergymen who officiated in it. It took place in
Chauncy Place Church, March 13th, 1822, the Rev. Dr.
Freeman preaching the sermon, the Rev. Dr. Channing giv-
ing the charge, the Rev. Dr. Greenwood extending the
right hand of Fellowship, and the Rev. Henry Ware, Jr.,
making the prayer of Ordination. On the succeeding Sab-
bath he took charge of the church at Brooklyn ; from which
time his settled labors in the ministry may be said to date.

He lived in Brooklyn fourteen years, bringing a feeble
church into a state of efficiency, impressing his personality
upon his neighbors, and being prominently identified with
every good work to which he could put his hand. Besides
fulfilling the ordinal'} 7 duties of his parish, he edited a paper
called The Liberal Christian, was a member ot the School
Committee of the town, and did much to raise the standard
of education in the state, giving lectures on the subject,
and calling the first convention ever held to consider the
question of popular education. He early took ground in
favor of a less austere and more rational use of Sunday,
against exclusiveness in the administration of the Lord's
Supper, and against ritualistic methods in the church, dis-
carding in a short time after his ordination the gown and
bands then universally worn ; but an aged man having
scruples about baptism, and believing on Scripture grounds
that immersion was necessary to the validity of the rite, he
consented to gratify his desire by entering a river with him,



but addressed the meeting on coming out to the effect that
a drop of water was sufficient to baptize a man whose heart
was really consecrated, an ocean otherwise having no poten-
cy. At this time, as always, his characteristic doctrine was
that no form, or service, or profession, makes a man accepta-
ble to God, but only the denying of all ungodliness and living
soberly, righteously and piously in all the relations of life — in
an adherence, so far as possible, to the precept of the Golden

At Brooklyn Mr. May became actively interested also in
the various reforms to which he afterwards gave so much of
his thought and strength, and to which we shall hereafter
allude, as a biography of him without including something
of them would be singularly incomplete. On the first of
June, 1825, he married Lucretia Flagge Coffin, daughter of
Peter Coffin, a merchant of Boston, and had issue by her as
follows: — Joseph, died in infancy; John Edward, now in
business in Boston ; Charlotte Collin, wife of Alfred Wilkin-
son, of this city; Joseph, minister of the Unitarian Church
in Newlmryport, Mass.; and George Emerson, engaged in
mercantile pursuits. The wedded life of Mr. May, was, we
need not say, beautiful in the blended being of kindred
souls — redolent with the perfume of affection, and blossom-
ing in the sweetest charities. Mrs. May, known, honored,
and loved in this community, has but recently passed away.
( rentTe in disposition, retiring in manners, yet highly cultur-
ed, firm in purpose, and thoroughly sympathizing with the
aims of her husband, her kindly influence was felt in every
circle in which she moved, and her supreme confidence in
the righteousness of his labors sensibly nerved him to per-
severe in their behalf.

He resigned from Brooklyn in 1835 to accept the position



of general agent of the Massachusetts Anti Slavery Society,
in which he continued eighteen months, lecturing, writing
and arranging conventions. Late in 1830, he was installed
over the church at South Scituate, Plymouth county, Mass.,
remaining there for six years. lie at once took up his work
in the same active and practical spirit which had before
marked it. Under his administration the prosperity of the
church was greatly enhanced, spiritually and temporally.
Already recognized as a reformer, he continued his labors
for Anti-Slavery, Peace, Temperance, Education and other
worthy objects of his zeal. His house was the rendezvous
for reformers of all kinds. Garrison, Phillips, Foster,
Pillsbury, Abbj Kelly, Lucretia Mott, Douglass, Remond
were all at home in the Scituate parsonage. Pie was the
intimate friend and adviser of Horace Mann ; he organized
societies for reform purposes, held anti-slavery conventions
and temperance meetings, and lectured all through the
eastern part of Massachusetts. Plymouth county he regard-
ed as his parish, and was personally known and esteemed
in all parts of it. At the same time, he was indefatigable
in his ministerial work, an affectionate and devoted pastor;
his memory is still green and fresh in the little town ; and
his visits to it, which have been frequent of late, have al-
ways been in the nature of ovations.

In 1812, the position of principal of the Normal School
fur female teachers at Lexington having became vacant
through the illness of the incumbent, Hon. Horace Mann,
then Secretary of the State Board of Education, urged the
place upon Mr. May, and he accepted it, removing immediate-
ly to Lexington and assuming control of the school ; but,
within two years, the former principal recovering his health,
Mr. May, though honored and useful in, and attached to
the position, resigned in his favor, feeling it to be the right



of liis predecessor to be reinstated. He was then invited
to the charge of the Lexington parish and accepted the
same temporarily. The church stood on sacred ground,
within the region where the first fighting of the Revolution
occurred, on the common where the villagers mustered to
meet the red-coats and where the first volley of battle was
fired. The spirit of conflict was not yet dead within the
town. Theological differences raged within it, and Mr.
May was called to a duty he often had to perform — the
duty of peace-maker. A feud had completely alienated the
sympathies of the two parishes into which the town was di-
vided, growing out of a dispute concerning the proper dis-
tribution of a church fund. Mr. May's was the old parish
and (as is usual in the old towns of New England ) had be-
come Unitarian, the adherents to the evangelical creed
having seceded to form a new church. So bitter was the
hostility of the two organizations that social amenities
were almost disregarded among them. Mr. May, with that
desire for peace which was one of his most prominent char-
acteristics, at once applied himself to the settlement of this
quarrel, and labored so successfully as to procure an equi-
table adjustment of the matters in difference and a reconc lia-
tion of the people. " Blessed are the peace-makers, for they
shall be called the children of God."

While Mr. May lived in Lexington there arose, in Boston,
the famous Theodore Parker, then the leading thinker of
the now so-called Radical theologians. Barker was, as is
well known, though the minister of a Unitarian parish,
completely ostracised by the clergy of Boston and treated
by them in a manner particularly inconsistent with their
peculiar gospel of personal mental freedom. Their conduct

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Online LibraryN.Y.) Unitarian Congregational Society (SyracuseSamuel Joseph May. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, September 12th, 1797. Died in Syracuse, New York, July 1st, 1871 → online text (page 1 of 5)