SAMUEL JOSEPH MAY.
AMERICAN UNITARIAN ASSOCIATION.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1873, by
ROBERTS BROTHERS, (*
In the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.
UNIVERSITY PRESS : JOHN WILSON & SON,
LIFE OF SAMUEL JOSEPH MAY
To the memory of his father, JOSEPH MAY, the faithful guide of his childhood ;
to JOHN THORNTON KIRKLAND, HENRY WARE, NOAH WORCESTER,
and WILLIAM ELLERY CHANNING, the guides of his
youth and early manhood;
To all those, living or departed, who aided in or sympathized with his devoted
labors in the cause of liberty, peace, temperance, education, and
the advancement of the Gospel of JESUS CHRIST.
IN July, 1871, Mr. May s family asked GEORGE
B. EMEKSON, SAMUEL MAY, and THOMAS J.
MUMFOBD to attend to the preparation of a suit
able Memoir; and this committee intrusted the
editing of the work to its youngest member.
A considerable portion of the volume consists
of a partial autobiography. To this is added some
extracts from a diary. The succeeding chapters
have been furnished by members of the committee,
assisted by many kind friends, including Messrs.
C. D. B. Mills, Joseph A. Allen, William Lloyd
Garrison, A. Bronson Alcott, W. P. Tilden, G. W.
Hosmer, Edgar Buckingham, T. W. Higginson,
and Joseph May.
The story of Mr. May s antislavery career is
now presented in a condensed form, because it
was given to the public some years ago in his
" Recollections of the Antislavery Conflict."
The chief purpose of the compilers of this book
has been to impart such a truthful impression of
its subject s character as shall make young men
see the beauty and feel the power of a noble
I. CHILDHOOD 1
II. CHILDHOOD CONCLUDED 13
III. SCHOOL DAYS 22
IV. COLLEGE LIFE 29
V. PREPARATION FOR THE MINISTRY 42
VI. HORSEBACK JOURNEY TO WHITE MOUNTAINS . 50
VII. BEGINS TO PREACH, AND TAKES A SOUTHERN
VIII. BROOKLYN, CONN 76
IX. BROOKLYN, CONN., CONCLUDED 105
X. FROM THE DIARY 129
XI. ANTISLAVERY 138
XII. SOUTH SCITUATE, 1836-1842 163
XIII. PRINCIPAL OF THE STATE NORMAL SCHOOL AT
XIV. MINISTRY AT SYRACUSE 183
XV. 1859, EUROPE 196
XVI. ANTISLAVERY 217
XVII. SANITARY COMMISSION, AND SOLDIERS AND
FREEDMEN S RELIEF 226
XVIII. CHARACTERISTICS 231
XIX. PERSONAL TRAITS AND HOME LIFE 260
XX. CLOSING YEARS 281
XXI. DEATH AND BURIAL 291
LIFE OF SAMUEL J. MAY,
ANCESTORS. DEATH OF HIS BROTHER EDWARD. HEAVENLY
VISIONS. A COLORED PLAYMATE. A KIND COLORED
I WAS born in Boston, Massachusetts, on the twelfth
day of September, 1797.
My father was Joseph widely known as Col.
Joseph May, who was the son of Samuel May of Bos
ton, by his second wife Abigail Williams of Koxbury. 1
1 Joseph May was born in Boston, 1760, and died there, 1841, at
the age of eighty-one. In his youth, the family were members of the
Hollis Street Church and Society; but, owing to dissatisfaction
with the ministry of Dr. Mather Byles, or, more likely, with his
political attitude, they ceased attendance therefor a season, and
joined themselves to the Old South congregation, where Joseph,
who to his latest day was a good singer and especially fond of
sacred music, sang in the choir at the early age of twelve years.
When the Old South people were driven from their house of
worship by the British troops stationed in Boston, they met,
for about five years, at King s Chapel, the use of which was
granted to them. On their return to their own house in 1783, Mr.
May, then in his twenty-third year, preferred to remain at the
Chapel, of which church he continued an active and devoted mein-
2 LIFE OF SAMUEL J. MAY.
My mother was Dorothy Sewall, daughter of Samuel
Sewall of Boston, by his wife Elizabeth Quincy, niece
ber and officer (one of the wardens) during his life. In 1785 he
was one of the twenty who voted to make those alterations in the
Liturgy which separated King s Chapel from the Trinitarian
communion and from the Episcopal Church; and in 1787 he was
one of the small but resolved congregation who ordained Dr. James
Freeman by their own authority to be their minister, a relation
which continued upwards of forty years with uninterrupted respect
and benefit.* His later pastor, Dr. Greenwood, and his life-long
associate and friend, William Minot, Esq., have both spoken in
published notices of his character and worth. " He considered it,"
they say, "most unworthy of a rational and moral being to seek
after riches as the chief good. . . . His integrity has never been
questioned. Important trusts were confided to him, and held until
advancing age warned him to resign them. . . . He might be traced
through every quarter of the city by the footprints of his benefac
tions. . . . His piety was practical, his religion was life-religion.
His belief in the sure mercies of God and promises of the Saviour
was as firm and deeply rooted as the mountains. His faith in a
future and better life was as sight. It was not his lot to influence
the destinies of whole communities ; but, in the duties of a peace
maker, in reforming guilt, in relieving suffering, in protecting the
orphan, and in raising weakness from despondency, he was actively
engaged during his whole life. ... He proved that wealth and
fashion are not essential to the highest respectability ; and hia
friends will agree that they have rarely known his superior in vir
tue or wisdom." He was of a continually cheerful spirit, and of
unusual social gifts ; an easy and witty talker, with a fine sense
of humor and a fund of personal anecdotes and illustrative stories,
which he told with spirit, and always to the delight of listeners.
He was a great reader, but not a miscellaneous one; having for
his favorite authors the best English historians, such poets as Pope
and Addison, and the theologians of most advanced thought,
On his mother s side, S. J. May was related to the Sewalls and
* Sermon on the Death of Joseph May, Esq. By F. W. P. Greenwood,
D.D. Boston, 1841.
of Josiah Quincy of Revolutionary memory, and
sister of Dorothy, the wife of John Hancock, for whom
my mother was named.
Quincys, families whose private worth and public eminence are
well known, not in New England only, but far beyond its bounds.
His great-grandfather was Rev. Dr. Joseph Sewall, of the Old
South Church (born 1688, died 1769). His direct ancestor (the
father of Rev. Dr. Sewall) was Chief Justice Samuel Sewall (born
in England, 1652, died, Boston, 1730). He it was, who, having in
middle life participated (as a junior judge) in the trial and condem
nation to death, at Salem, of many persons accused of witchcraft,
afterwards strove in so many ways to atone for that early wrong.
" He observed annually, in private, a day of humiliation and
prayer, during the remainder of his life, to keep fresh in his mind
a sense of repentance and sorrow for the part he bore in those
trials. On the day of the generalfast, he rose in the place where
he was accustomed to worship, the Old South, in Boston, and,
in the presence of the great assembly, handed up to the pulpit a
written confession, acknowledging the error into which he had
been led, praying for the forgiveness of God and his people, and
concluding with a request to all the congregation to unite with him
in devout supplication, that it might not bring down the displeas
ure of the Most High upon his country, his family, or himself. He
remained standing during the public reading of the paper. This
was an act of true manliness and dignity of soul." * Whittier has
commemorated in verse the " sad and touching tale "
" Of the fast which the good man life-long kept
With a haunting sorrow that never slept,"
a. id of his deep and yearning desire, for his country as well as
" That the sin of his ignorance, sorely rued.
Might be washed away in the mingled flood
Of his human sorrow and Christ s dear blood! "
Those who knew Samuel Joseph May will recognize, in these
brief portraits of his ancestry, traits which had strong resemblances
in him, and will see, as the common phrase is, that he came honestly
* Uphain s History of Witchcraft, vol. ii. p. 442.
4 LIFE OF SAMUEL J. MAY.
My name was to have been James Freeman, after
the late Dr. Freeman, minister of King s Chapel, Bos
ton, my fathers pastor and very intimate friend. But,
although my parents had lost two sons named Samuel
Joseph, the second dying the week after my birth, yet
the name was so comprehensive of the family names
both on my father s and my mother s side, that they
concluded to confer it upon me. Samuel was the name
of my father s only brother, and of his father. It was
also the name of my mother s oldest brother, the late
Chief Justice of Massachusetts, Hon. Samuel Sewall ;
of their father, and of their great-grandfather, who was
the Chief Justice in the time of the Salem witchcraft,
and was among the first to suspect, and afterwards to
expose, the delusion. Joseph was the name of my
father, and of his mother s father, and her favorite
brother. It was also the name of my mother s second
brother, the late Joseph Sewall of Boston ; and of their
venerated grandfather, Dr. Joseph Sewall of the Old
South Church, in whose family my mother lived a
number of years.
Thus denominated, I started upon the journey of
life, in a very frail body, which so continued until my
twelfth or fourteenth year. I was a very puny boy.
The joys and sorrows of my childhood were, I suppose,
very similar to those of other boys. But there was one
by his genial and cheerful nature ; by his freedom from c( nceal-
ment and pretence ; by Ids promptness to avow his convictions ,
by his courage to stand for the right; and by his sympathy with
all forms and cases of human suffering and wrong. S. M.
great grief that probably made the deepest religious
impression that my soul ever received.
I had a brother, Edward, two years older than
myself. He was a fair-haired boy, with blue eyes,
bright, playful, affectionate, and particularly fond of
me. We slept together, we ate together; and he
taught me all the sports I was old enough to take part
in. He had recently commenced going to school, and
I every day awaited his return, in the assurance that
he would bring me something to gratify or do some
thing to amuse me. One day, when he was six years
and eight months old, he came home at early noon,
full of glee, and summoned me to the yard to partake
of his sport. He climbed the fence against the barn,
pretending to sweep chimney ; and, when the imagi
nary work was done, he attempted to get down by
resting his weight upon the slender post of a chair,
the top of which was broken off. The post gave way,
and its splintered point penetrated his body, several
inches, under his arm. Screams from the servants,
who were near by, brought our fond mother to the
spot. She, not knowing what had happened, supposed
he had fainted or been stunned by a blow, and ordered
a warm bath. But on raising his arm to remove his
clothes, blood gushed out and revealed the deadly
wound. She fainted on the floor by his side. The
servants ran for some physician; neighbors came in
offering assistance ; all was confusion and dismay. My
father and the doctor arrived as soon as possible. But
the dear, beautiful boy was dead. The agony of my
6 LIFE OF SAMUEL J. MAY.
parents, the crying of my elder brother and sisters,
assured me that something dreadful had happened ; and
there my beloved Edward was, eyes shut, body cold,
giving no replies to the tender things that were said to
him, taking no notice of all that was being done to
him or about him. I gave myself up to a passion of
grief, knowing not what it was, but that some
strange, awful change had come over him. Then they
put grave-clothes upon him, and laid him upon the
mattress in the best chamber, and straightened out his
limbs, and folded his beautiful hands upon his breast,
and covered him only with the clean, cold, white sheet.
I saw it all, for they could not keep me away, and
when father and mother and the kind assisting friends
had darkened the room, and were about to withdraw,
I besought them to let me lie down with Edward. My
importunity was so earnest, so passionate, that my
parents were almost afraid, and quite too tender, to
withstand it. When left alone with him, or rather it,
I well remember how I kissed his cold cheek and lips,
pulled open his eyelids, begged him to speak to me,
and cried myself to sleep because he would not.
At tea-time I was carried to the table; but the
Weeping of all about me, added to my own dismay,
destroyed my appetite. I ate but little, and only
asked that I might be permitted to go back to the
chamber and lie by the side of Edward. My request
was granted ; and there I lay, until my grief was for
gotten again in sleep, when I must have been removed,
for I found myself next morning in the bed where 1
had usually slept with my brother, in my mother s
chamber. But I hurried back to the corpse of Edward ;
and kept with it almost all the time until I was taken
from it forever. I saw my father put the body into
the coffin, in order, as he told me, that it might be laid
away in the ground, and then we should see Edward
no more. But he and my mother, and my brother
and sisters, continually assured me that Edward was
still living, that he had become an angel, and had
gone to heaven, to dwell with the good and the happy
in the presence of God and Christ.
Two days after the death, the house was filled with
weeping relatives and friends, with whom Edward had
been a particular favorite. Our good minister read the
burial service. I could not understand it ; but it was
solemn, impressive, and I listened with awe.
Then we went slowly, in solemn procession, to the
burial-ground: all was new, strange, awful, to me.
But when the carriages stopped at the gate, and I saw
them taking the coffin off towards the tomb, I insisted
upon seeing what they were going to do with Edward.
So my uncle, Samuel May, took me in his arms,
descended with me into the family vault, and showed
me where the sextons had put away my brother. Then
he pointed out the little coffins in which were the
remains of several of my brothers and sisters, whc had
lived and died before I was born, and the coffin in
which my grandfather was buried eight years be
fore. My kind uncle opened one of the coffins and
let me see how decayed the body had become, told
8 LIFE OF SAMUEL J. MAY.
me that Edward s body was going to decay in like
manner, and at last become like the dust of the earth.
But he again most tenderly assured me that Edward
was still living, that his spirit was not in the coffin, that
it was clothed with another more beautiful, glorious
body, and that he had gone to live in heaven with God
and Christ and the angels. Then he lifted once more
the lid of Edward s coffin, and let me kiss again and
for the last time his cheek, his lips, his forehead. I
went home in a sort of maze, crying, and asking ques
tions which the wisdom of man could not answer.
My only brother, Charles, then a lad fourteen or
fifteen years of age, tenderly took me up to his cham
ber, lay down with me on his bed, and tried to comfort
me and himself by telling me all that he imagined to
be true about heaven and God and angels, and assur
ing me again, as others had done, that Edward had
gone to live in that blessed place, in that happy and
glorious company. Of course I believed all that such
dear, good friends told me.
When night came, I was put to bed in the room
where I had so often lain and slept with Edward.
Sleep soon came to relieve my young spirit wearied
with grief and strange excitement. And I dreamt
dreamt of Edward. All that had been told me was
proved true by what I saw and felt. The ceiling of
the room opened, over where I was lying: a bright,
glorious light burst in, and from the midst of it came
down my lost brother, attended by a troop of little
angels. They left him. He lay by me as he used to
do, his head on my arm or my head on his. He told
me how happy he was, what a beautiful place heaven
was, how kind God and Christ were to him, and how
all the angels loved one another. There he lay until
morning, when the ceiling above opened again, and
the troop of angels came to bear him back to heaven.
He kissed me, sent messages of love to father and
mother, brother and sisters, and gladly rejoined the
So soon as I awoke and was dressed, I hurried down
to tell the family what I had seen, and to give them
the kisses and messages that dear Edward had sent
them. All day long I thought and talked of what I
had seen ; often, as I have since been told, expressed
impatience to have night come; and when it came,
went eagerly to bed, in the confident expectation that
the heavenly vision would be granted me again. And
it was. The next night, and for several nights after
wards, I enjoyed the felt presence of my brother,
and morning after morning came down with the same
or slightly varied messages of love. Until by degrees
my grief abated, the loss of my brother was in some
measure supplied by other playmates, new things
attracted my attention and occupied my thoughts.
But I have never forgotten my Edward, and the events
of his death and burial ; and the scenes that I wit
nessed, and the heavenly vision that I had, are vivid
in my memory, although most of my life for several
years afterwards is very indistinct.
I have been thus particular in narrating this part of
10 LIFE OF SAMUEL J. MAY.
my life, because I believe it had the greatest influence
in awakening and fixing in my soul the full faith I
have in the continuance of life after death. Indeed, it
sometimes seems to me that I do not believe more
fully in the life that now is than in the life that is to
come, and, moreover, that the future existence com
mences immediately after the close of the present.
In the fall of 1852, I received a letter from Mrs.
H. B. Stowe, requesting me to inform her how much
and how intimately I had been acquainted with negroes ;
what incidents in my life had probably prepared me to
embrace the cause of the colored people so early and
so earnestly as I had done. Of course, her request
impelled me to look back, with an eager, searching eye,
through the whole of my life, especially the early part
of it, when biases in one direction or another were
most easily taken. I was surprised at the many things
which no doubt have had some influence in predisposing
me to perceive and abhor the great injustice and cruelty
of our country towards those whose only peculiar
fault is that they are " guilty of a skin not colored like
our own." Two of these things I will record here.
It has been a benefit to me, through life, that when
a little boy, from five to seven years of age, I attended
a Ma am school, kept by a good old lady, Mrs. Wall-
cut, in company with boys and girls of various con
dition of life, some from the richest and others from
the poorer families in the neighborhood. 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 of us all. He was as
good as the best in reading, spelling, repeating the
Catechism, and in counting, which was the extent of
our literary exercises; and in all our plays few were
About the same time, when six or seven years of
age, I was going on an errand for my mother. A dog
sprang after me, I ran, often looking backward as I
was going forward. I fell, struck my temple upon a
stone, and lay senseless. On recovering my conscious
ness, I found myself in the arms of a large black
woman. As soon as I opened my eyes, she said very
soothingly, " Don t be afraid, little boy. I know who
you are. I ll carry you to your mamma." On reach
ing home, my face, bosom, and hand smeared with
the blood which had flowed freely from the wound,
the sight of me filled the family with alarm. My
mother was agonized with the fear that, like Edward,
I had met with some fatal accident. In her concern
for me, she forgot every thing else. She stripped off
my bloody clothes, washed my face and my hands,
examined carefully the gash upon my temple, and
found the injury to be not so serious as she feared.
Then she thought of the kind woman who had picked
me up, and looked around gratefully to thank and to
offer her some reward. But my benefactress had dis-
12 LIFE OF SAMUEL J. MAY.
appeared. She remained long enough to be satisfied
that I had not sustained much harm, and then quietly
withdrew, not lingering to be thanked, or to receive
any compensation, as very many poor white women
would have done. Nor did she ever come to the house
to " get her pay." Nor could we find out where she
lived, or who she was, though my mother made much
inquiry, wishing to make some return for the good
deed she had done.
VISIT AT MARBLEHEAD. A SEVERE MASTER. THE JEWS.
FIRST SIN. Loss OF EDEN. REV. DR. CHANNING. A
LESSON OF TRUE BENEVOLENCE.
after my recovery from this disaster, I was
sent to Marblehead to stay several months in the
family of my uncle, Chief Justice Sewall. My uncle,
aunt, and the children were each and all devoutly relig
ious persons. Three of his five sons Samuel, Edmund,
Charles Chauncy became ministers of the Gospel.
One of the other two, Joseph, who died while in col
lege, meant to be a minister ; and Henry D., who
was a merchant, first in Montreal, afterwards in New
York, partner of Arthur Tappan, ought to have been
a minister. I never knew children so early and so
deeply imbued with the spirit of piety. I well remem
ber their morning and their evening prayers, their
shrinking horror of every profane or obscene word, and
their practical, active charity. I gratefully record my
indebtedness to them and their pious parents.
My uncle thought it best for me to attend school
with his boys. So I went to the Marblehead Academy,
then kept by Master - . He was a severe man,
believed in the rod, promptly, and not sparingly, applied.
14 LIFE OF SAMUEL J. MAY.
That was the doctrine of the day. But to his treat
ment of me I ascribe my early conversion to the meth
ods of moral suasion.
I was a little boy, able to learn it was then sup
posed only to read and spell. Twice each half-day,
I was exercised, live or ten minutes, in reading and
spelling lessons. All the rest of the three hours I
was required, with other little boys, to sit upright upon
a hard bench, doing nothing but thinking how irksome
it was, and wishing that I had something to do. At
length, one day, I set myself to work. I got a thread
four or five feet long, tied it to a pin which I bent into
a hook ; I tore up a paper into small pieces, which I
rolled into forms that it pleased me to regard as fishes.
These I scattered upon the floor ; and then, throwing
down my hook, attempted to catch them and draw
them in. I had not captured more than two or three,
when I received several smart boxes upon my ears, and
heard from the voice of my master the sharp reproof, -
" You naughty boy, I ll teach you to behave better in
school time ! " He taught me what he little intended to
do. He taught me to regard and fear him as a harsh,
cruel man. I felt (though I do not suppose I clothed
the feeling in these words) that he ought to have given
me something to do, or else let me occupy myself as
best I could.
Marblehead was then a queerer place than it is now.
The people were almost wholly engaged in the fish
eries, and in other kinds of navigation. A very large
CHILDHOOD CONCLUDED. 15
proportion of the men were sailors or sea-captains or
mates, often absent from home on long voyages ; so that
the women were left to take care of the children, and
manage their own affairs. They consequently became
very self-sustaining and independent; and the feminine
graces were not much cultivated. Then, being igno
rant and used to frequent excitements caused by tales of
hardship and fearful catastrophes, they were supersti
tious. There were fortune-tellers, and several weird
women amongst them. Several houses in the town