May I say how pleased I am to be invited back to preach in the pulpit which I occupied
for a period of six years from 1836-42. They were indeed good years for me and for the
most part happy years for both minister and congregation. I was trained and educated for
the ministry at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge. During my period of study I
struggled with issues of religious doubt and wondered if I was fit for the ministry. I
confessed my doubts to Dean Henry Ware who encouraged me to persevere and said that the
search for truth was not to be won without effort and struggle. He was right. Only later
did I come to realize that it was a lifelong struggle. After my matriculation from Harvard
I preached my first sermon from the pulpit of William Peabody in Springfield,
I came to South Scituate after having served for a number of years in my first pulpit as minister of the Congregational Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, Conn., and then as General Secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society in Boston. While minister in Brooklyn I opened up the service of communion to anyone who wished to partake whatever their belief or moral standing in the community. I believed that an open table symbolized the open character of Unitarian Christian congregations. While there I also had the privilege of baptizing the first black Unitarian church member in the State of Connecticut, and I became involved in supporting Miss Prudence Crandall who had the courage to open her private girl's school to black as well as white female students. Her action raised a storm of public protest among white racists in the town. I stood firmly by her and spoke out against those who would deny equal education to all regardless of race.
When you called me as your minister in 1836 you were well aware of my work as an abolitionist and temperance leader as well as an advocate of women's rights, universal peace and educational reform. Even so you still asked if I would serve as minister of your congregation. I heartily accepted but made it clear to your church leaders that I would continue to speak and to work on the practical ethics of Christianity as applied to our human social and political relations. My view of ministry was always two-fold--a belief in the pastoral role of the minister to be a compassionate and caring companion to the members of his congregation--and also to be a voice of conscience speaking to the social and ethical challenges of our personal and collective lives as a people and a nation. It was sometimes difficult to be true to both aspects of my calling, but I did my best to fulfill my obligations to each one.
Theologically, I was a liberal Christian. I believed that Jesus was pre-eminent among all the religious teachers of humanity and that his teachings carried moral and spiritual authority, but this did not make them infallible, nor preclude our finding religious truth and inspiration from other sources. I believed that the Bible contained the highest and most sublime moral and religious precepts and views of the character of God and of the nature and destiny of the human race, but I did not believe that everything in it was true, nor of equal value and authority. There were many words in it that never could have come by inspiration from a holy and loving God. Moreover, there are things in it which I am not willing my children should ever read. Indeed, I have often wished that we had an expurgated Bible. I believed that Unitarianism affirmed the essential goodness of both women and men. Anyone who would condemn a soul to eternal perdition, I noted, seemed to have few misgivings about damning a person to the hell of slavery for a lifetime.
Some of you, I know, are aware of my sister's dear child, Louisa May Alcott, who, through her writings, eventually became even more famous than her uncle. She was but a child between the ages of four and ten during my tenure as minister here in South Scituate, and she did visit here a number of times in those days and sat in that very pew over there with my dear wife Lucretia. My wife, by the way, married me when I was minister in Brooklyn, and did so without ever revealing to me her age. Not even after 20 years of marriage would she tell me. Consequently, her tomb stone lacks a date of birth, which makes her timeless in terms of her origins. I can tell you this, however, she was considered by those who knew her to be one of the most refined and truly elegant women you could ever meet. She was a voracious reader, spoke French fluently and later learned Italian. She was a great support to me in my ministry and at times had to remind me that I had a family that needed tending along with my trying to reform the world and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. She was more kind and patient with my shortcomings than I can tell you and she brought much joy to our household. It was a great loss to me when she took ill and died in 1865 after 40 years of marriage.
The ministry has many challenges and satisfactions. Let me tell you about a strange request I once received from a poor woman and her daughter who appeared on my doorstep one day carrying a basket with something wrapped in a towel. They looked very sad indeed. The reason for their sadness was that their cat had been set upon by dogs and killed. The cat's body was in the basket and they brought it to see if I might see to its burial on our family premises. They were afraid the dogs would dig it up if they buried it at home. I did my best to respond appropriately and dug a small grave between two currant bushes, said some prayers and tried to give the animal a proper funeral. The distraught mother and daughter went home with thankful hearts. For sometime afterward the women of my household threatened to put a sign on the front gate: "S.J. May, Undertaker for Cats."
I know that some of you may look back upon my work as a temperance leader with a bit of amusement, especially my gathering of hundreds of children and young people into a marching Cold Water Army. Whether you agree with me or not there is no denying the fact that it was an effective tactic and we did indeed close the last rum shop in town. I was a sincere proponent of what you would call prohibition and which the nation was later to legislate and then to disestablish as a means for controlling the evils of drunkenness. I grant you that it did not work, but I ask you, are you any closer to solving the problems of alcoholism, drug abuse, and broken homes in your society than we were in mine? I do not think so. So I have no regrets about the efforts I made on behalf of temperance. For those who cannot control their consumption of alcoholic beverages it is the only solution available to them. Let it be done voluntarily and with much encouragement and support.
I believe I had the distinction of organizing the first Sunday School in the history of your parish, acting as Superintendent along with William P. Tilden, a young man who I helped to train and educate as a Unitarian minister, a tradition which your current minister, much to my pleasure, has helped to perpetuate. Education reform was a matter dear to my heart and I did eventually decide to leave you (at the urging of Mr. Horace Mann) and become the director of the Lexington Normal School.
I regret to say that I did cause some discomfort among the members of the congregation with my expressed opposition to segregating blacks and slaves in the rear balcony of the church. I declared that God was no respecter of persons, rich or poor, black or white, and advocated the abolition of the segregated pews. This enraged some members and so wishing to avoid a divisive conflict I decided to resign and to accept Mr. Mann's kind offer to direct the Lexington Normal School. Some years later I did accept a call to return to the parish ministry in Syracuse, N.Y. where I remained as Pastor for more than twenty years. Many years later during the summer I returned to South Scituate for a visit and a picnic with a number of parishioners. I was so warmly welcomed and kindly received that I was moved to tears and found myself unable to respond to the expression of affections so generously given.
Permit me to share with you some memories from my childhood which had such a formative influence upon me. As a small child I was very close to my older brother Edward. We played together, ate together, and often slept together in our mother's chambers. When I was but age four, and my brother six, a tragic event occurred which made an indelible impression upon me. We were playing a game of chimney sweep together out in the back yard. Edward rested his foot on the post of an old chair as he climbed down from a fence. Unfortunately it splintered under his weight and he fell upon the post of the chair which pierced his body under his arm and killed him. I did not understand that he was dead and begged my parents to let me lie down with him as we so often did when he was alive. I kissed his cold cheek and implored him to speak to me, but of course he would not. After Edward's burial my kind uncle tried to reassure me that my brother was still living and that his spirit was with God, and Christ, and the angels in heaven.
That very night I had a most vivid dream which confirmed for me that my brother Edward was indeed still alive in heaven. I dreamt that the ceiling of the room opened over where I was lying and a bright glorious light burst in, and from the midst of it came down my lost brother, attended by a troop of little angels. He lay by me as he used to do, his head on my arm, and he told me how happy he was, and how God and Christ and the angels all loved one another. There he lay until morning, when the ceiling above opened again, and the angels came to bear him back to heaven. He kissed me, sent messages of love to father, mother, brother and sisters, and gladly rejoined the celestial company. I, of course, told my parents and siblings of my vision and message. Edward's felt presence stayed with me for days afterwards and brought me much comfort. Though I have forgotten much that occurred in my later childhood I never forgot my brother Edward nor the heavenly vision which vouched-safe for me an unshakable faith in God and the afterlife.
I remember another event from my childhood which cemented for me the bonds of love and compassion between the races and my later abhorrence of the institution of slavery. When I was about seven years old I was going on an errand for my mother. A dog sprang after me, and I ran, often looking backwards as I tried to flee. I fell and struck my temple upon a stone, and lay senseless. On recovering my consciousness, I found myself in the arms of a large black woman. She said very soothingly to me, "Don't be afraid, little boy, I know who you are. I'll carry you to your mamma", which she proceeded to do. When my mother saw my face and bosom smeared with blood she feared that like Edward I had met with a fatal accident. She immediately tended to my wound and once reassured that I was not seriously injured she turned to thank the kind black woman who had brought me home, but my benefactress had disappeared, and we were never able to find out who she was or where she lived. Forever after I felt indebted to her kindness and to the people of her race who had been so mistreated by the awful scourge of slavery and prejudice.
I also have memories about the same age of playing at the feet of the Father of American Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, in the esteemed preacher's study. He became for me, and for so many others, a mentor and exemplar of ministry at its highest and best. I shudder to think that some 20 or so years later I had the audacity to reproach him to his face, in that very same study, for his continuing silence against the evil of slavery, he who had instilled in me a concern for the less fortunate and oppressed of humankind. He had been expressing his distress at the disruptive tactics of the abolitionists, of which I was an ardent follower, and I was unable to contain my frustration at his impatience. I said to him, "Dr. Channing, I am tired of these complaints. It is not our fault that those who might have pleaded for the enslaved so much more wisely and eloquently, both with pen and voice, than we can, have been silent. We are not to blame sire, that you, more perhaps than any other man, might have raised the voice of remonstrance that it should have been heard throughout the length and breadth of the land--we are not to blame, sir, that you have not so spoken."
I couldn't believe I had spoken so harshly to him, but he took it well, and replied in a kindly voice, "Brother May, I acknowledge the justice of your reproof; I have been silent too long." Some time later he did take a strong public stand against slavery, an action which cost him his pulpit and his ministry at the Federal Street Church. I loved him for it even though he did not agree with the platform and program of the abolitionists. Even so I did not always agree with them either, though I felt strongly that their collective voice was sorely needed if the nation was to face up to its moral responsibility to cease and desist in this terrible social evil.
Speaking of my involvement in the abolitionist cause permit me to tell you of my first encounter with the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the great Universalist, William Lloyd Garrison. I had come to Boston from my parish in Brooklyn, Conn. to hear him speak and I was profoundly moved and affected by him, so much so that I resolved to ally my moral energies to the cause which he so eloquently advocated. I wrote in my journal that very night: "This is a providential man; he is a prophet; he will shake our nation to its centre, but he will shake slavery out of it."
I can tell you this, Mr. William Lloyd Garrison formed an epoch in my existence and transformed my life and ministry. Mr. Garrison could sometimes use intemperate language when describing the evils of slavery. This would upset his critics and even make his supporters uncomfortable. When I tried to speak to him about this he began to reply in tones of fiery indignation. I tried to calm him and said to him, "Oh, my friend, do try to moderate your indignation, and keep more cool! Why, you are all on fire!" He stopped, laid his hand upon my shoulder, and said slowly, and with deep emotion, "Brother May, I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt."
Though I was indeed an abolitionist, and proud to identify myself as such, I was nonetheless an advocate of peace and nonviolence and believed wholeheartedly that only peaceful means should be used to bring about the demise of slavery. For many years I believed that opponents of slavery should work within the law and use the tools of moral persuasion and advocacy, but not resort to violence or war. But when the Fugitive Salve Act was signed into law by a Unitarian President, Millard Fillmore, I reached a moral threshold. Not only did I come to believe that such a law should not be obeyed, but moreover, should be resisted.
Thus, I came to participate in the rescue of a captured slave from federal marshals when I was minister in Syracuse. And when the Civil War finally became inevitable I threw my moral energies into the support of the Union cause, because I then realized that slavery could not be ended by any other means. I still believed that the teachings of Jesus and the religion he founded were nonviolent to the core, but that because of our human failings and our national sin, which had compromised the institution of slavery in its founding documents, we had brought this conflict upon ourselves. I earnestly prayed that peace and nonviolence would heretofore become the practice of the nation and the world in the centuries to come. I now realize that your century had even greater wars to endure than did mine. I still pray that the way of peace and nonviolence preached and practiced by the Nazarene will become the predominant practice of peoples and of nations.
Next to my lifelong work to bring an end to the institution of slavery was my passionate belief and advocacy of women's rights and female suffrage. I believe I was the first clergyman of my day to do so. Though I did not live to see women gain the right to vote, I declared in uncompromising terms that until they received the vote and were fairly represented, and had an influence, a voice, and a hand in the enactment and administration of the laws there would be no end to injustice and social disorder. I held that every mind, female as well as male, possessed the ability to attain freedom and independence, and had the right to equal education and just desserts for their labor.
It was my view then and still is that Jesus merged in his person as much of the feminine as he did of the masculine character, and that it was the duty of every man and woman to do the same. Patience, tenderness, delicacy are as needful to complete the character of a man, as firmness, enterprise and moral courage are, to complete the character of a woman. God did not give one law to men and another law to women, but the same law to both, to perfect our character in wholeness.
Like many ministers in your day I was sometimes charged with preaching politics from the pulpit. I remember during the Mexican War, a man from my congregation met me in the street, and said, "some of us do not like what you have said of public affairs. We are very much displeased with you." I answered him firmly, but politely, "It is not the business of the minister to please the people, but to tell them what he thinks they ought to hear, whether it pleases them or not. I must preach to satisfy my conscience, not to gratify your tastes." The gentlemen said it was an entirely new view of the subject, and, you know, he never complained afterwards. On yet another occasion in response to a similar critic I declared: "If inculcating the two great commandments and the Golden Rule be preaching politics, if denouncing every violation of the inalienable rights of the least of our brothers be preaching politics then woe is me and woe is every other man who stands in the pulpit and does not preach politics."
Because of my involvement in what you would call political and social causes I sometimes found it difficult to exchange pulpits with my more conservative colleagues, not because I was afraid their views would corrupt my people, but because they were afraid my views would corrupt their people. I once wrote to my friend, Thomas Beecher, of Elmira, N.Y., telling him that I knew the Beechers were afraid of nothing, but that I was now about to give his courage a pretty severe trial. "I invite you," I said to him, "to exchange with me, who am a Non-Resistant, Woman's Rights, Anti-Capital Punishment, Garrisonian Abolitionist." To which Mr. Beecher replied: "Pooh-pooh! that is nothing. Come and exchange." And so we did. It was always my belief that the people of my parish had the right to hear those with different views than their pastor, even those who were theologically orthodox or pro-slavery, so long as my colleagues granted me the same right to speak my conscience before their congregations.
As I look back upon my life and ministry I realize that I committed my share of mistakes, but in purpose and intent I have wrought for Truth and sought to do what is right for God and humanity. I have worked my way along bit by bit to light and liberty, always trying to see more clearly what it is that God or my conscience has charged me to do. I rest my life and all its accomplishments or failures in the merciful and forgiving arms of the Eternal, and feel that all is and shall be well.