|To Exercise a Larger Liberty|
Rev. Samuel Joseph May preached his first sermon in Syracuse during the summer of 1843 when the new church was being built. He was taking his wife Lucretia on a vacation trip to Niagara Falls, financed in part by preaching along the way. An abolitionist rally had been held at the Unitarian chapel a few days before and John Storer had complained, "Abbey Kelly, Collins and the whole band of Reformers and liberators are among us. They have turned our Chapel into a council Chamber and hall of angry contention." Always the peacemaker, May preached on a religious topic while Storer took the opportunity to give a sermon in Seneca Falls.
Samuel Joseph May was born in Boston on 12 September 1797, the tenth of twelve children. His father was Joseph May, one of the original Unitarians at King's Chapel in Boston. His mother was descended from Chief Justice Sewell who had participated in, and then later exposed, the witchcraft delusion in Massachusetts more than a century before. Sam went to preparatory school in Boston and graduated from Harvard in 1817. He taught school while a student at the Divinity School in Cambridge, where he graduated in 1820. He embraced the pure Christianity of the Unitarians, considering it presumptuous to prescribe a creed not found in the words of Jesus himself. On 13 March 1822 he was ordained in King's Chapel, Boston. For a brief time he assisted the well-known Unitarian leader Rev. William Ellery Channing who arranged for May to visit and speak in churches in New York and other cities. His first ministry was the Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, Connecticut where he stayed for 14 years. He worked for a year and a half as General Agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and then served the Unitarian church at South Scituate, Massachusetts for six years. For two years before moving to Syracuse, he was principal of the Female Normal School in Lexington, Massachusetts.
When Sam May came back to Syracuse as a candidate for the pulpit opened by the death of John Storer, he made sure that the congregation understood his commitments to peace, temperance, and especially abolition. He had left two previous ministries after conflicts with parishioners who objected to holding abolition meetings and who wanted Negroes to sit in separate pews. During the past two years in his position as head of a teacher's training school he had been criticized for being a model of radical activism among his students. He wrote about his candidating in Syracuse, "I intended they should clearly understand whom they were calling, if they called me."
After accepting the congregation's unanimous invitation to be minister of the Church of the Messiah in late 1844, Sam May lingered in Massachusetts to help resolve a property dispute between two factions of a divided church in Lexington, and to give Lucretia time to recover from a premature delivery. The May family moved to Syracuse in April 1845. While Lucretia unpacked and settled the family, Sam found much work to do in this fast-growing community.
The raw canal town troubled the New England preacher who wrote that he was used to "country towns where there was scarcely any poverty." He was "sorely tried by the abject poverty" he saw and frequently found himself "drawn beyond his means to give relief." During his first year in Syracuse he helped open a county home for orphaned children that was backed by a group including Lydia Wallace and other members of the Unitarian Society. May and other ministers worked together for state legislation to provide education and housing for canal boys. The boys were rowdy, ignorant canal workers, usually homeless or runaway youths who were shamefully exploited and often in trouble with the law. May also helped start a school for children at the Onondaga Indian Reservation. A planning group met at the Congregational Church in February 1846 and by November of the same year a school building with seats and desks for 70 pupils was dedicated at the Reservation. May and others acted within the cultural bias of their time by setting a curriculum that taught farming and housekeeping skills and emphasized steady work habits. More than a century passed before educators considered including the language and traditions of the Onondaga Nation in the school curriculum.
With some of his church members and other philanthropic friends, May started the first hospital in Syracuse. After it failed they supported Father James O'Hara of St. Mary's Catholic Church, who founded St. Joseph's Hospital. It was staffed by nuns, who were viewed with suspicion by the narrow Protestant segments of Syracuse society. For his strong objections to that form of prejudice, May became very popular in the Catholic community.
Sam May's lifelong concern was to prevent unnecessary misery. Like his father, a Boston philanthropist about whom he said, "He never seemed to feel displeased when asked to relieve the necessities of his fellow beings . . ." Sam May could always be relied on for constructive direction and concrete help. Lucretia complained about the constant parade of petitioners that appeared at their door daily, except when the newspaper announced that the Reverend May was out of the city. He may have felt inadequate to fill the financial needs of the poor, but Sam May never doubted the practical uses of loving concern for them. He often exhorted church members to respect the humblest persons, for all people are entitled to courtesy as well as justice.
May held community discussion meetings at City Hall. One of his parishioners, Harriet Smith Mills (mother of suffragist Harriet May Mills), described the openness of these Sunday afternoon meetings that were attended by ministers and people from all different churches. She wrote, ". . . it seemed to me the ideal way of seeking truth . . . as no one has the whole truth, and from none is it fully hidden." She sensed a real communion at the meetings, a fellowship and fraternity beyond the sectarian bonds that divide people. May had a less formal style than many ministers. He wore a suit, not a robe in the pulpit. He invited to the communion table all who wished to commemorate the life and teachings of Jesus as a divinely inspired model. The Christianity that May preached and professed stressed freedom of thought. When he addressed the Divinity School graduates at Harvard College in 1847, May defined his concept of the ministry. "Do all you can to make them think," he said, not only for affirming individual free will, but also for developing citizens capable of self-government. For Sam May, the core of Unitarian theology lay in the human mind and heart, ". . . it can do a man no good to assert to that as a truth, which he does not perceive to be true; it can do his heart no good to obey a precept, which he does not from his heart believe to be right." May advised the graduates to be open to learning even from the poor and illiterate, who, he assured them, would put to shame their privileged education.
Pacifism and nonviolence were natural outgrowths of May's religion. He preached against capital punishment, and the whole Syracuse community felt the strength of his convictions for the first time in 1846 when he actively opposed the Mexican War. Newspapers were reporting the courageous exploits of young men at the front, and the President's call for more recruits resulted in a rally being held in Syracuse on June 4. Shortly afterward a petition of protest appeared several times in the pages of the Syracuse Star with a lengthening list of signers led by the name Samuel J. May. More than 100 petitioners called for "all who would stay the tide of war . . . to make their opinions known and their influence felt." Earlier that year May had laid the groundwork carefully among his congregation with a series of sermons that stimulated thought and discussion about working for peace. In his previous ministries he had organized peace societies both in the community and in his own Sunday school. Several people from the Syracuse community organized a peace meeting on 18 June in the Empire Hall. Peace-minded folk who attended the meeting were driven out by a crowd of "Warites." The meeting reconvened in the Congregational Church, where they managed to hear speeches and pass peace resolutions in spite of harassment from a crowd outside that hauled up a six-pound cannon and fired it. The newspaper and the Warites called the peace faction Tories and traitors. May replied in the newspaper, "Much rather would I be called a Tory than a soldier—a butcher of men. Much rather would I be called a traitor to my country than a traitor to Mankind . . . War is the greatest of human crimes for it includes all others."
May's activism undoubtedly alienated some of his flock, but his loving attitude toward all people regardless of their opinions made his church popular. His congregation soon outgrew its building. In the autumn of 1850 they rebuilt one end of the church to make it 20 feet longer, allowing the addition of 28 more pews. They also added a spire on top of the bell tower, which was the cause of a remarkable catastrophe little more than one year later. Early Sunday morning 29 February 1852 the church was destroyed "by a hurricane which struck the spire; threw it directly upon the ridge pole, crushed down the whole roof, burst out the side and end walls, and in one movement demolished the entire building excepting the front and the foundation. "When the Unitarians arrived for Sunday services they found their church was a pile of rubble. Near the east end of the building the roof of the Northrup family home was crushed by the falling bricks, trapping two women in the ruins. The church had collapsed about three o'clock in the morning while the women were sleeping, fortunately for them, in a sturdy four-poster bed. When the brick and timbers were cleared away, there were the two ladies, unhurt, with the fallen ceiling suspended over them by the bedposts.
The stunned Unitarians gathering around the fallen building were mocked by some more orthodox observers who "exulted over the penalty" that the Almighty had exacted from the "unbelievers." The congregation arranged to hold emergency services in City Hall, and after pledging to reimburse the owner of the damaged house, Sam May reassured his congregation with "a very feeling sermon" based on the gospel according to Luke, xiii, 4, 5: "Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye, repent, ye shall all likewise perish."
For weeks the town was "rife with opinions on the matter of the punishment . . ." But Mr. Northrup, a Methodist, took a moderate view saying, "If the storm was God's punishment for unbelief, why was the steeple allowed to fall on our house? We are orthodox. Don't make out God to be meaner than man. If your house falls down, don't change your religion but change your carpenter." The Unitarian church trustees requested permission to hold services in the First Presbyterian Church each Sabbath at 5 o'clock until their own building was rebuilt. The Presbyterian minister and trustees, who often worked with the Unitarians on charitable, civic, and business affairs, agreed, but a majority of the Presbyterian church members voted against allowing Unitarian services on their property. The Methodist Episcopal congregation also denied the request. The Mayor and the Common Council of Syracuse were not so fearful of heaven's wrath and allowed the Unitarian society to hold services in City Hall until the Church of the Messiah was rebuilt.
Once again, H. N. White was designated by the trustees to oversee construction of the church building. Most of the $10,000 cost of re-building came from a public auction of pews, although $2,000 was contributed by friends in New York and New England, and $750 by members of other Syracuse churches. Pews were appraised from $50 in the last row up to $300 in the middle of the center section and $200 in the front. White was voted a pew in gratitude for his work. Diagrams showing the location of pews and names of their owners are in the old record book of the congregation.
The building was rededicated on 14 April 1853. One local newspaper reported that the service emphasized God's work: "Remember those in bonds . . . those in adversity . . . (and) to prevent men from putting the bottle in their neighbor's mouth making him drunken also." Another paper printed Mr. May's entire dedication sermon that "summoned ourselves and others to exercise a larger liberty . . . to make religious doctrine and religious duty the subjects of their own personal investigation."
The anti-Unitarian sentiment in Syracuse was kept up by visiting evangelists like the famous Rev. Charles G. Finney. May once encouraged members of his church to go to hear one of the hellfire and damnation preachers, and then responded to the revival message before a packed congregation in the Church of the Messiah the next Sunday. His audience applauded long and loud when he said that the eternally unforgiving God described by the evangelist was not a father but a fiend. In February and March 1854 May was challenged to a religious debate by the Wesleyan Methodist minister, Rev. Luther Lee, with whom he often cooperated on abolition and temperance work. May accepted, and treated the citizens of Syracuse to his own version of a revival—a series of eleven public debates that stimulated them to think about their beliefs. Between sessions, the orthodox ministers in town gathered to help their colleague prepare arguments defending the doctrine of the Trinity. Besides his own theological training, May could draw support for his arguments from members of his congregation, and from Lucretia's suggestions, as she was well read in theology. May called creeds "digests of unintelligibilities." At the end of the debates, May praised abolition reformers. He said their devotion to the cause of crushed humanity was the cause of Christ, not dogmas devised by men in the fourth or fifth centuries. Even if such dogmas were true, he said, they "would not comfort the afflicted, nor clothe the naked, nor break the yoke of the enslaved."
May was a founding member of the American Antislavery Society. He frequently arranged for the group to meet in Syracuse. He gave speeches at many antislavery meetings and was often chairman or a member of the committee to draft resolutions. At national Unitarian meetings he castigated the national policy of compromise between free and slave states as a betrayal of common humanity for the sake of political expediency. His criticism prompted William Ellery Channing, the most prominent Unitarian advocate of reform, to write and speak out against slavery. May worked closely with the minister of the Syracuse AME Zion Church, the Reverend Jermain Loguen, himself an escaped slave, to raise money for fugitive slaves and for the legal defense of those who were recaptured. Both men's homes were "stations" for the illegal shelter of slaves escaping on the underground railroad.
In October 1851 May played a leading role in the famous Jerry Rescue in which a large number of men, including some leading citizens, stormed the jail and freed a former slave named Jerry who had been arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act. An escape attempt earlier in the day had failed and Jerry had been injured. May visited him in jail and promised him that he would be freed. The successful rescue was planned in the office of Dr. Hiram Hoyt, one of the founders of the Unitarian society. The rescuers organized their operation carefully so that no one was killed or seriously injured in the struggle, although the jail building suffered a lot of damage. Other Syracusans considered the rescue an outrage against law and order. They held a protest meeting and 677 citizens signed a petition denouncing the "Jerry Riot." But there were strong antislavery sympathizers like former Mayor Alfred H. Hovey who had chaired a meeting of protest against the Fugitive Slave Act when it was passed in 1850. Several of the principal rescuers (rioters) were arrested and Unitarians George Barnes, Oliver T. Burt, Dr. Lyman Clary, and Captain Hiram Putnam put up most of their bail, while Charles B. Sedgwick provided legal counsel. None of the antislavery people who participated in Jerry's rescue were sent to jail. For years afterward, whenever Sam May faced a controversy, he would remark with a twinkle that he was getting ready for another Jerry Rescue.
Illness kept May out of the fray during part of 1858 and most of 1859. He rested in Boston and then toured Europe for his health, while Rev. Joseph Angier supplied the Syracuse pulpit. May returned late in 1859 to resume both his ministry and his abolition work. In December he and Rev. Strieby of Plymouth Congregational Church held a memorial ceremony at City Hall to honor John Brown, recently hanged at Harper's Ferry.
At an antislavery convention in Syracuse in 1860, a mob of proslavery protesters drove the delegates out of the meeting hall, marched through the city and burned effigies of Sam May and Susan B. Anthony in the center of the downtown business section. Many prominent citizens, including 20 Unitarians, had petitioned for cancellation of the convention, but after that incident, Church of the Messiah members rallied to support their minister. A congregational meeting immediately passed resolutions condemning the shocking disrespect for freedom of speech shown by the proslavery forces.
Sam May viewed the destruction and bloodshed of the Civil War as a judgment on both the North and the South for participating in the sin of slavery. Young men from his church enlisted in the army and many other members of the society volunteered to aid the war effort. The women sewed, knitted, and prepared bandages, the men worked with the Sanitary Commission to organize shipments of supplies for the wounded. May traveled to Washington as Onondaga County's representative for the Commission. After the slaves were freed, May raised money for schools for freedmen in the South and encouraged dedicated women to teach in this pioneering field.
When he spoke of the rights of citizens, May also included the rights of women. Before he met antislavery activists Lucretia Mott and the Grimke sisters in the early 1830s May had never questioned the common assumption that women were not to engage in public affairs. Troubled at first by women speaking in public places, he had listened with an open mind and soon adopted their cause as his own. He invited women such as the Quaker leader Lucretia Mott and Congregationalist Rev. Antoinette Brown to speak from his pulpit in Syracuse, and he urged other ministers to do the same. One of his first sermons after coming to Syracuse was "The Rights and Condition of Women" in which he called for women's full political participation and equal rights in every way. He arranged for publication of 2,000 copies of the sermon for the use of women suffragists and it became Women's Rights Tract #1, the first of many educational pamphlets calling for civil rights for women.
Some Syracusans were shocked and outraged when May stood on the platform with women who were wearing the controversial bloomer costume. He was reluctant to discuss women's clothing but was eventually persuaded to come out against tight corsets and other disabling fashions when the conservative clergy and press ridiculed the reformers. Soon afterward a group of village ladies called on him to complain about this public discussion of women's dress, announcing that they had a message for him from the Lord. May received them cordially and remarked he did not doubt they had a message, but he did doubt its authorship.
After the Civil War, Sam May helped organize the Onondaga County Suffrage Association and held a series of meetings at City Hall. He invited Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone to speak, promising "two or three able, gentlemanly opponents who are sincere in thinking our doctrines erroneous — and who will give them an opportunity fully to vindicate those doctrines in every particular." When the first National Conference of Unitarian Churches was held in 1865, May stirred controversy by suggesting that Universalists should also be invited, and that churches should send both men and women as delegates. At the second national conference in 1866 two women from Rochester attended as substitute delegates and the conference voted "that our churches shall be left to their own wishes and discretion with reference to the sex of the delegates chosen to represent them in this conference." The Church of the Messiah was host for the 1866 meeting. Fourteen carriages of church members met delegates as they arrived at the train station, and members entertained the visitors at a large reception at the end of the conference.
Early in his ministry May had seen the devastating effects of alcohol abuse on individuals and their families, which led him to enlist in the temperance movement. He taught temperance songs in his Sunday schools, urged the school children to "sign the pledge" promising never to use alcohol, and supported community temperance rallies wherever he lived. During his Syracuse ministry he often spoke at temperance meetings and fought for enforcement of local liquor laws. Temperance speakers appeared regularly at the Church of the Messiah. With other members of the Society, including James L. Bagg and C. DeB. Mills, May worked with the New York State Temperance Association and helped form two local organizations, the Syracuse Temperance Society and the Syracuse Temperance Union.
All of May's deepest convictions seemed to coalesce in his educational work, and this may have been his most important and lasting contribution to Syracuse. In 1848 he worded the resolutions at a public meeting that established the school system of the newly incorporated City of Syracuse. He became a popular speaker at education conventions, well known for his support of public education and integration of black students in the schools. In 1865 he was elected to the Syracuse Board of Education and served as its president from 1866 to 1869. The city badly needed a new high school, but the Common Council was not interested, so May led a campaign to raise part of the money and persuade the city to build the school. He recruited Andrew D. White, a prominent educator who later became first president of Cornell, to collect funds. He enlisted public enthusiasm at a meeting in the fall of 1866 and in December the citizens voted $75,000 for the new high school, which was built at West Genesee and Wallace Streets two years later. So that every child could have a desk and a chair at school, May directed the primary schools to hold half-day sessions to relieve over-crowding until additions and new buildings were ready for classes. May inspected the schools, interviewed and hired teachers, increased their salaries, shaped curriculum, and advocated teaching methods consistent with his philosophy of freedom and respect for the individual. In 1869 the Board of Education voted to try out a tougher suspension policy to enforce discipline in the schools instead of using the customary corporal punishment. During the trial year, May counseled teachers on how to assert personal authority, appeal to children's sense of right and wrong, and invite parental cooperation. The innovation worked. At the end of the trial year official reports noted a decrease in behavior problems among pupils, and the teachers voted overwhelmingly against reinstating corporal punishment.
After May's term on the Board was over, a new elementary school on Seneca Street between Otisco and Tully was named the May School. Football was a new sport, and Sam May sent away to Boston for a present, a new football for the boys at May School. Despite his age and being somewhat lame, May personally taught the schoolboys how to play the game of football.
In 1868 May resigned his pulpit because of ill health and the society called Rev. Samuel Calthrop to be their minister. Lucretia May had died in 1865 and Sam went to live at the home of his daughter, Charlotte May Wilkinson. He continued to work as a missionary, preaching in nearby towns and villages and traveling as far as Albany and Toronto. He wrote, "There is no use in moping down the decline of life. I never was more busy, nor more merry than I have been since I declared myself superannuated."
In the summer of 1871 his friend Andrew White, president of Cornell University, called on him to announce the fulfillment of one of May's long-held dreams. Women students were to be admitted to Cornell. To celebrate this good news, May presented to White a large portrait of Prudence Crandall, a Quaker schoolteacher whom May had known back in Connecticut in 1833 when she was persecuted for teaching black and white girls together in the same school. The painting still hangs in Cornell's Olin Library.
During the night following White's visit Sam May died, ending 26 years of loving service to a community that had known him as pastor, teacher, and friend. They all came to his funeral, people from rich homes and humble ones, from his own religious society and many others, colleagues in his struggle for human and civil rights, individuals he had helped and befriended. Black people in Syracuse wore black armbands as they had at the death of Abraham Lincoln. The congregation of Temple Society of Concord attended as a body. The eulogies stressed his warmth and humanity. Unitarians spoke tenderly of their loved religious teacher and his generous self-sacrifices, "a brother to all mankind." They made a marble tablet with the following inscription:
In memory of Samuel Joseph May, born in Boston September 12, 1797, died in Syracuse July 1, 1871. The beloved minister of this church during twenty- four years, his life diffused the radiance of piety and charity throughout this community. A loyal follower of Jesus, he loved God supremely and his fellow-men as himself. He helped the erring and sorrowful and uplifted the downtrodden. In the struggle against slavery he was among the earliest, most fearless and most constant. A fervent, devout preacher, an assiduous, loving pastor, an untiring apostle of education, temperance and peace, a steadfast defender of spiritual liberty. Trusting wholly in the ideal right he labored from youth to age to bring in the kingdom of God. When death was near he said: "I may have hereafter a clearer vision, I can hardly have a surer faith."
The tablet was installed below a large stained glass window when the James Street church was dedicated in 1885 and was not removed until the building was sold in 1963. At this writing its location is unknown. Matilda Joslyn Gage, a radical feminist of the day, wrote after May's death, "A curious ignoring of his position on (women's rights) took place at the time of his funeral services, not one eulogist at church or grave even remotely alluding to his full and well-known sympathy with the woman suffrage movement; nor was a woman asked to speak upon that occasion."
The Unitarian Society purchased a marble bust of May made by a young artist from Syracuse, Isabella Graham Gifford. The bust was considered an excellent likeness and was displayed in the Central library until it was given to the Onondaga Historical Association. The bust of May displayed in the Unitarian church for so many years is a second one carved by Isabella Gifford to be shown at the Philadelphia Centennial exhibition in 1876. The chip on the nose was acquired before Isabella Gifford's sisters presented the bust to the church in 1905. This second bust now stands in the Memorial Room of the present church, a constant reminder of the pastor who gave his name as well as his loving leadership to the Unitarian Society of Syracuse.