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Conway, Moncure Daniellocked

(17 March 1832–15 November 1907)
  • John d’Entremont

Conway, Moncure Daniel (17 March 1832–15 November 1907), reformer, minister, and author, was born in Stafford County, Virginia, the son of Walker Peyton Conway, a planter and judge, and Margaret Eleanor Daniel, a self-taught homeopathic doctor. Born to privilege, Conway was expected to emulate powerful, prominent male relatives. But his desire to please his father was exceeded by the influence of his remarkable mother and other female relatives. Together, these women emphasized sharing over hierarchy, personal fulfillment as well as duty, and encouraged, despite his father’s disapproval, Conway’s love of literature.

Conway graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, in 1849, having founded a college literary magazine, experienced conversion at a Methodist revival, and studied with an antislavery classics professor, John McClintock. Returning to Virginia, he tried studying law but abandoned it after exposure to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work fortified his determination to seek his own path. On his nineteenth birthday he became a circuit-riding Methodist minister in rural Maryland. There he was impressed by the religious and political beliefs of a Quaker community and disillusioned by Methodist dogma. He wrote to Emerson late in 1851, describing himself as a “Natural Radical” trapped in a family of “talented, conservative Virginians.” Emerson responded kindly, encouraging him to be himself. In 1852, after his older brother’s death produced more intense paternal pressure, Conway left both Methodism and Virginia. In February 1853 he entered Harvard Divinity School to train for the Unitarian ministry.

In Massachusetts, Conway nourished cosmopolitan cultural tastes and initiated a lasting friendship with Emerson. He also declared himself an abolitionist. Introduced by Wendell Phillips at a rally on 4 July 1854, he denounced Virginia as a place that enslaved blacks physically and whites intellectually. Receiving his B.D. that summer, he was hired by the Unitarian church in Washington, D.C., by a committee evidently unaware of his growing political radicalism; he was dismissed in October 1856 for antislavery and pro-Republican sermons.

Cincinnati Unitarians immediately hired him for what would be a distinguished six-year engagement. In Cincinnati, Conway found a soulmate in Ellen Dana, daughter of a Unitarian businessman, whom he married in 1858. Their marriage produced three sons and one daughter and seems to have been consistently happy until Ellen’s death in 1897. Increased personal stability coincided with still greater boldness in the pulpit. By 1858 Conway was debunking New Testament miracles and doubting Jesus’s divinity. He lost over one-third of his congregation but recruited many new members attracted to the religious eclecticism and rationalist emphasis of what he now called his “Free Church.”

The Civil War found Conway’s pro-Union sister and mother in Pennsylvania, his pro-Confederate father in Richmond, and his two brothers in the Confederate army. He supported the Union on the condition that President Abraham Lincoln show progress toward a policy of emancipation. His views were expounded in two powerful propagandistic books, The Rejected Stone (1861) and The Golden Hour (1862), prompting Boston abolitionists to make him coeditor of a new antislavery weekly, The Commonwealth. Just before moving to Massachusetts in September 1862, Conway rendezvoused in Washington, D.C., with thirty-three slaves newly escaped from his father, and resettled them in Ohio. This, and subsequently the Emancipation Proclamation, raised his spirits momentarily, but increasingly the war anguished and depressed him. With his family divided, his boyhood haunts the scenes of savage fighting, and nationwide emancipation not fully achieved, Conway determined to leave the country. He did so in April 1863 on the pretext of making a speaking tour in England. Shortly thereafter, he sent for his family. He would live in London for the next twenty-two years.

Conway found a rewarding new life in England, thanks to his 1864 engagement as minister by South Place Chapel, London’s most distinguished free-thought institution. Conway took South Place with him on his intellectual pilgrimage from theism to a kind of pious agnosticism, a stance that combined the reverent tone of the believer with the detachment of the cultural anthropologist. His long South Place ministry (1864–1884) was famous and widely acclaimed in liberal circles; the institution would continue on a more modest scale through the twentieth century as the South Place Ethical Society, meeting after 1929 at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square. During his London years, Conway publicized Eastern religion and advocated a respect for all religions while denouncing the arbitrary dogmas of each. He was also a prolific journalist, writing for English and American magazines and newspapers, working as a war correspondent in France in 1870, and serving as English literary agent for Louisa Alcott, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman.

Despite his long, productive exile, Conway always thought of himself as American and settled, with his family, in New York in 1885. As early as 1875 he had made a family visit to Virginia, a place for which he always retained affection, but both its cultural isolation and its political conservatism, as well as his wife’s inclinations, precluded a move there. For the next seven years he pursued historical scholarship, marked most notably by a highly regarded, still useful biography of Thomas Paine (1892), a transatlantic radical with whom he felt much kinship. After a brief return to South Place between 1893 and 1897, Conway again lived in New York, but immediately on the outbreak of war with Spain, he denounced American militarism and moved to France, which he saw as less belligerent than either Britain or the United States. He divided his last decade between Paris and Greenwich Village, working on his monumental Autobiography, Memories and Experiences (1904), one of the most enduring and important nineteenth-century American memoirs. He died in Paris.

Conway’s very existence challenges simplistic definitions of the antebellum South. He was the privileged son of a powerful slaveowner, and yet he became a thoroughgoing radical immersed in religious rationalism, abolitionism, feminism, the peace movement, and the drive for racial equality. Outside forces alone, like Emerson or the Maryland Quakers, do not explain this career, which was made possible—unwittingly—by values conveyed to him in Virginia, especially by women. His importance lies partly in his status as the most comprehensively radical upper-class white male produced by the antebellum South. It lies also in the consistency of his “pilgrimage,” as he called his life, toward ever-elusive moral, political, spiritual, intellectual, and personal truth. The nineteenth century’s growing emphasis on individualism and personal freedom reached an apotheosis in Conway, for whom resistance to all forms of arbitrary authority was life’s ultimate purpose. “Those who think at all,” he said in his memoirs, “think freely.”

Bibliography

The largest collection of Moncure Conway Papers is in the Butler Library of Columbia University. An important secondary collection is at Dickinson College. In addition to Conway’s Autobiography, his My Pilgrimage to the Wise Men of the East (1906), detailing his 1883–1884 travels in India, is a significant source. After his Paine, Conway’s most serious scholarly works were Demonology and Devil-Lore (1879), Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph (1888), and Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1890). His compilation of excerpts from the sacred book of the world’s religions, The Sacred Anthology (1874), is a pioneering work of its kind. The most analytical biography is John d’Entremont, Southern Emancipator: Moncure Conway, the American Years, 1832–1865 (1987). Mary Elizabeth Burtis, Moncure Conway, 1832–1907 (1952), is largely descriptive. Both Burtis and d’Entremont include Conway bibliographies. For his London career, see S. K. Ratcliffe, The Story of South Place (1955), Warren Sylvester Smith, The London Heretics (1968), and Susan Budd, Varieties of Unbelief (1977). An obituary is in the Times (London), 19 Nov. 1907.