Reverend Samuel Joseph May

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Reverend Samuel Joseph May

Birthdate: (73)
Birthplace: Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
Death: July 1, 1871 (73)
Syracuse, Onondaga, New York, United States
Place of Burial: Syracuse, Onondaga, New York, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Joseph May and Dorothy May
Husband of Lucretia Flagge (Coffin) May
Father of Joseph May; John Edward May; Charlotte Coffin (May) Wilkinson; Joseph May and George Emerson May
Brother of Louisa Caroline Bond; Abigail Abba Alcott; Charles May; Catharine Windship; Eliza May and 2 others

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About Reverend Samuel Joseph May

For a picture of Rev. May's headstone, see the Media section.

Samuel Joseph May (September 12, 1797 – July 1, 1871) a radical American reformer during the nineteenth century, championed multiple reform movements including education, women’s rights, and abolitionism. He was born on September 12, 1797 in an upper class Boston area. May was the son of Colonel Joseph May, a merchant, and Dorothy Sewell, who was descended from or connected to many of the leading families of colonial Massachusetts, including the Quincys and the Hancocks. In 1825, he married Lucretia Flagge Coffin with whom he had five children. Tragically, the oldest died as a toddler, but May saw this event as a sacrifice he had to make for the purity of his own soul.

Education and Early Career

May started attending Harvard University in 1813 and during his junior year he chose to become a minister. In addition, while he was at Harvard and afterwards, he taught school in Concord, Massachusetts. During this time, he met many prominent Unitarians and activists including Noah Worcester, who instilled in May the idea of peaceful opposition. May graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1820 and became a Unitarian minister. Following his graduation, he considered preaching in New York City and Richmond, Virginia prior to accepting a position in Brooklyn, Connecticut as the only Unitarian minister in that state. Here, he came to the forefront of the Unitarian movement and became well-known throughout New England as he attempted to establish Unitarian churches and reform.

Early Reform

May began a biweekly publication, The Liberal Christian, in January 1823; its main goal was to explain the Unitarian Theology. He helped in the formation of Windham County Peace Society in 1826; in 1827, May organized a statewide convention for school reform in Connecticut, and he started a series of lectures in 1828. Meanwhile, he also belonged to the American Colonization Society whose purpose was to send the slaves back to Africa. May’s belief in perfectionism through imitating the life of Jesus Christ strongly influenced his involvement in reform movements. A pacifist, he actively participated in establishing peace societies, speaking out against the death penalty, and advocating nonresistance. He practiced this last belief to the extent of rejecting self-defense. He became a leader in the temperance movement, believing it to be a form of abolitionism since he saw men as slaves to drink. He was perhaps most renowned for his work in education reform as he sought to improve facilities, teachers, and curriculum in public elementary schools. May believed schools should be racially integrated and coeducational, and he advocated the philosophy of Swiss theorist Johann Pestalozzi.

Involvement in Abolitionism

In 1830, May happened to meet and create a strong friendship with William Lloyd Garrison, which pushed him into the abolitionist movement. Although his abolitionist views alienated his family, friends, and other clergymen, he remained true to his beliefs. He helped Garrison found the New England Anti-Slavery Society, the American Anti-Slavery Society, and the New England Non-Resistance Society, in addition to working for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. He served as one of the writers for the constitutions of some of these societies, and as a lecturer and general agent for the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Fighting for racial equality and better schools, May defended Prudence Crandall in the 1830s as residents of Canterbury, Connecticut fought her decision to close the school she ran for white girls and open it solely to young black ladies. This experience caused him to abandon his support for the colonization movement. He fought the Fugitive Slave Law of the 1850s by making announcements during his sermons in Syracuse, New York, of fugitive slaves in the area and took collections on their behalf, as well as aiding escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad. As a prominent abolitionist in the city, May, with the help of many Liberty Party members, including Gerrit Smith, planned and successfully executed the rescue of Jerry McHenry, a man arrested as a fugitive slave, from the police. In addition to fighting for the abolition of slavery, he fought for the equality of free blacks in his congregations by allowing them to sit in the front as opposed to the segregated rear pews. This act resulted in his reproach by white congregation members and also in his quitting some of his parishes. These actions, particularly late in the 1850s and immediately after President Lincoln was elected in 1860, led abolitionism’s opponents to violently attack May as well as burn him in effigy.

Work for Women's Rights

In addition to speaking and writing pamphlets and articles concerning abolitionism, May was a leading advocate in women’s rights as well. Most notably, he wrote The Rights and Condition of Women in 1846 in favor of giving women the right to vote and allowing them equality in all aspects of life. May’s work with the women’s movement prompted him to move towards socialist economic views including redistribution of the nation’s wealth, overhaul of the legal system, and a “soak-the-rich” income tax. He published a variety of other writings including "Education of the Faculties" (Boston, 1846); "Revival of Education" (Syracuse, New York, 1855): and "Recollections of the Anti-Slavery Conflict" (Boston, 1868).

Final Years

May donated over 10,000 of his own titles to the Cornell Library. These articles included pamphlets, leaflets, and other anti-slavery documents. By the time of the Civil War, May had long been torn between his commitment to pacifism and his growing belief that slavery could not be destroyed without violence. He felt that the use of force against the Southern rebellion was necessary. Following the war and success of emancipation, May continued his work for racial, sexual, economic, and educational equality until the end of his life.

Samuel Joseph May died on July 1, 1871 in Syracuse, New York. His collection at the Cornell Library is scarce and considered a "great importance that the literature of the Anti-Slavery preserved and handed down, that the purposes and the spirit, the methods and the aims of the Abolitionists should be clearly known and understood by future generations." In 1885, the Church of the Messiah was renamed in his honor to May Memorial Church.



Biographical summary:

Samuel Joseph May (1797-1871), uncle of writer Louisa May Alcott, was a graduate of Harvard College and Cambridge Divinity School. While he spent most of his adult career as a minister in the Unitarian Church, he also held positions in education and was passionate about social reform. Following Divinity School, May was a minister at a church in Brooklyn, Connecticut for fourteen years. In Brooklyn he met Lucretia Flagge Coffin and the two married in 1825. After leaving Brooklyn, May worked briefly as general agent of the Massachusetts Anti Slavery Society and then as principal of the Normal School for Female Teachers in Lexington, Massachusetts. May then accepted the position of minister at the Unitarian Church in Syracuse, New York and remained there until his death following an illness in 1871.

This memorial pamphlet was compiled to offer several epitaphs commemorating Samuel Joseph May's life and accomplishments. The first is an article published in the Daily Standard two days after his death. It provides a detailed overview of May's life and beliefs, focusing on his ministry in the Unitarian church, work with the Massachusetts Anti Slavery Society, and involvement in education administration. It also highlights May's piousness and support of the anti-slavery movement, temperance movement, and women's suffrage. Two series of resolutions follow the newspaper article describing plans for memorializing Mr. May and preparations for the funeral. The final section is an account of the funeral proceedings and eulogy addresses by various ministers, including William Lloyd Garrison and J. W. Loguen, whose narrative appears on Documenting the American South. The work concludes with the graveside benediction.

Summary by Monique Prince

Full document available online:

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

Samuel J. May Collections and References

Abolitionist, clergy. Son of Joseph & Dorothy Sewell May, he came to Syracuse New York in 1845 as pastor of the (Unitarian) Church of the Messiah. His congregation, now named May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society, is still active in Syracuse. May was a advocate of the abolitionist movement working with William Lloyd Garrison, who preached at his funeral, and with Gerrit Smith with whom he participated in the rescue of Jerry in 1851 as a response to the Fugitive Slave Law. May was also an early advocate of women's rights, working with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. His 1846 sermon on suffrage was later reprinted as "Woman's Rights Pamphlet #1". In January 1861 May and Susan B. Anthony were threatened with violence by an angry crowd that stormed the building where an antislavery rally was to be held in downtown Syracuse. The rally was cancelled, and the mob paraded through the streets with effigies of May and Anthony, finally burning them in the center of town. May helped to establish a public school system in Syracuse and helped to build a meeting house and school on the Onondaga Nation. Letters and items from May can be found in over one hundred different repositories including the Library of Congress, the Rare Book Room, Boston Public Library, the Massachusetts Historical Society and Cornell University Library. (Find A Grave Memorial # 69476287 -

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Reverend Samuel Joseph May's Timeline

September 12, 1797
Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts, United States
June 27, 1827
Age 29
October 29, 1829
Age 32
Brooklyn, Connecticut, United States
April 24, 1833
Age 35
Scituate, Plymouth, Massachusetts, United States
January 21, 1836
Age 38
September 25, 1844
Age 47
Lexington, Massachusetts, United States
July 1, 1871
Age 73
Syracuse, Onondaga, New York, United States
Reverand-Militant activist many social reforms
Unitarian minister & anti-slavery activist