Moncure Daniel Conway was born on March 17, 1832, in Stafford County, the son of county magistrate Walker Peyton Conway, whose relatives included the families of former United States presidents James Madison and George Washington. His mother, Margaret Stone Daniel, was the granddaughter of Thomas Stone, Maryland signatory of the Declaration of Independence. An uncle, Judge Eustace Conway, served as an important states' rights advocate in the Virginia General Assembly. His great uncle, Peter Vivian Daniel, was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States (1842–1860) who sided with the majority in both the 1847 decision that affirmed the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and in the Dred Scott decision (1857), which ruled, in part, that African Americans could never become U.S. citizens.
In 1849, Conway earned an AB degree from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, after which he studied law in Warrenton, Virginia. In 1850, he wrote Free Schools in Virginia: A Plea of Education, Virtue and Thrift, vs. Ignorance, Vice and Poverty, which blamed the state's economic problems on its poor educational system. He distributed the self-financed pamphlet among prominent state politicians, but they ignored its recommendations. In 1851, he entered the Methodist ministry as a circuit-riding preacher in Maryland.
Beginning about 1852, however, Conway began to move toward Unitarianism and abolition. In large part he was influenced by the women in his family, who encouraged him to be true to himself. This was in stark contrast to his "icy" father and his uncle Eustace Conway, who, according to d'Entremont, "threatened to have him drummed out of town." His transition away from the "peculiar" dogmas of southern culture also coincided with his discovery of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with whom he opened a correspondence in 1851, and the pacifist teachings of the Quakers. His new politics led him in 1853 to what was then the national hotbed of reform, eastern Massachusetts, including Boston, Concord, and Cambridge. There he cultivated an important relationship with Emerson and, in 1854, earned a BD from Harvard Divinity School.
In 1855 Conway was ordained a minister of the prestigious First Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., a congregation that included at least one Supreme Court justice. There he delivered sermons so fervently antislavery that he was dismissed in 1856. Later the same year he became minister of the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio, and in 1858 wed Ellen Davis Dana. Their happy marriage would produce three sons and a daughter.
Conway gradually abandoned Unitarianism for free thought. When he told his congregation in 1859 that he no longer believed in miracles or Christ's divinity, a third of its members promptly left. Conway's new "Free Church" survived, however, burnishing his reputation as a noteworthy young intellectual. He traveled the North lecturing on free thinking and abolition and in 1860 founded the Dial, a short-lived literary and journalistic monthly that reflected Conway's own brand of apostasy and whose title paid homage to the defunct Transcendentalist organ of the 1830s and 1840s. He also cultivated friendships with literati and reformers, including the writer Henry David Thoreau, the abolitionist Wendell Philips, the radical Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, Massachusetts's antislavery senator Charles Sumner, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, and Julia Ward Howe, future author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
The Conway Colony and the Civil War
In 1861, Conway wrote The Rejected Stone; or, Insurrection vs. Resurrection in America, an ardent if anonymous plea for emancipation (the book identified its author only as "a Native Virginian"). Published in three editions, the book was popular enough that copies were distributed to Union soldiers at the beginning of the Civil War. The following year Conway delivered the seventh in the Smithsonian Abolition Lecture series aimed at pressuring the administration of U.S. president Abraham Lincoln to adopt the emancipation of slaves as the war's objective. Conway's lecture even helped win him, along with moderate Unitarian minister William Henry Channing, a meeting with Lincoln, who invited Conway to challenge him publicly on the point. "Don't spare me," Conway recalled Lincoln as having told him. In The Golden Hour (1862), another book-length plea for emancipation, Conway did not. Often addressing Lincoln directly, he argued that abolition would cripple the Confederate war effort and hasten peace.
In the years to come, Conway continued fighting for his cause. Late in July 1862, he led thirty-one of his father's slaves, all of whom had escaped to Washington, D.C., on a sometimes-dangerous train ride to Yellow Springs, Ohio. The last leg of the trip while still in slave territory began late in the evening, he recalled in his 1904 autobiography, and at first, the men, women, and children in his group neither slept nor talked.
"At last, when the name of a certain [train] station was called out," he wrote, I observed that every eye danced, every tongue was loosened, and, after some singing, they all dropped off to sleep. It was not until the next day that I learned that the station which had wrought such a transformation was the dividing line between the slave and the free states. How they knew it I cannot divine; it was a small place, but there the shadow of slavery ended.
Conway's father effectively disowned him for his actions, but the rest of his family, like the nation, was split. While his two younger brothers fought for the South, his mother and sister were less sympathetic with the Confederacy and spent most of the war in Easton, Pennsylvania, where Conway's brother-in-law taught at Lafayette College. Conway himself moved from Cincinnati to Concord, Massachusetts, in September 1862, and was hired as co-editor of the new antislavery weekly, Commonwealth. (The other editor was Franklin Sanborn, a New Hampshire–born journalist and reformer who had been a member of the "Secret Six," a committee that helped to fund John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.)
After the War
Conway left London permanently in 1897 and moved to New York, where his wife died of cancer on Christmas Day of that year. This event, coupled with what he accurately saw as American imperialist intentions in the Spanish-American War (1898), provoked a final move to Paris. He labored on a never-completed biography of the theologian John Calvin, wrote two volumes of autobiography (1904), and completed a memoir of his 1883–1884 trip to India (1906). Conway died of a stroke during the night of November 14–15, 1907.
- Free Schools in Virginia: A Plea for Education, Virtue and Thrift, vs. Ignorance, Vice and Poverty (1850)
- A Discourse on the Life and Character of the Hon. William Cranch, LL.D., Late Chief Justice of the District of Columbia (1855)
- The Old and the New: A Sermon Containing the History of the First Unitarian Church in Washington City (1855)
- Pharisaism and Fasting (1855)
- The True and the False in Prevalent Theories of Divine Dispensations (1855)
- The One Path; or, The Duties of North and South (1856)
- Spiritual Liberty (1856)
- Virtue vs. Defeat (1856)
- The Theater: A Discourse Delivered in the Unitarian Church (1857)
- Tracts for Today (1858)
- East and West: An Inaugural Discourse Delivered in the First Congregational Church, Cincinnati, O. (1859)
- The Natural History of the Devil (1859)
- Thomas Paine: A Celebration (1860)
- The Rejected Stone; or, Insurrection vs. Resurrection in America, by a Native of Virginia (1861)
- The Golden Hour (1862)
- Testimonies Concerning Slavery (1864)
- The Earthward Pilgrimage (1874)
- Mazzini: A Discourse Given at South Place Chapel, Finsbury (1872)
- The Parting of the Ways: A Study on the Lives of Sterling and Maurice (1872)
- Republican Superstitions as Illustrated in the Political History of America (1872)
- In Memoriam: A Memorial Discourse in Honor of John Stuart Mill (1873)
- Consequences (1875)
- The First Love Again: A Discourse Delivered in the Church of the Redeemer, Cincinnati, Ohio, November 28, 1875, on the Occasion of the Reunion of the Two Societies, Which Had Divided Fifteen Years Previously, Chiefly on the Issue of Supernaturalism (1875)
- Intellectual Suicide (1875)
- Revivalism (1875)
- Human Sacrifices in England (1876)
- Christianity (1876)
- Our Cause and Its Claims upon Us: A Discourse Given at the Athenaeum, Camden Road, June 11th, 1876 (1876)
- The Religion of Children: A Discourse, with Readings and Meditation (1877)
- Alcestis in England: A Discourse Given at South Place Chapel (1877)
- Idols and Ideals, with an Essay on Christianity (1877)
- Unbelief: Its Nature, Cause, and Cure (1877)
- Entering Society: A Discourse by Moncure D. Conway, M.A., Delivered at South Place Chapel (1877)
- Atheism: A Spectre (1878)
- Liberty and Morality: A Discourse Given at South Place Chapel, Finsbury (1878)
- The Peril of War: A Discourse Delivered at South Place Chapel, March 31st, 1878 (1878)
- Demonology and Devil-Lore (two volumes, 1879)
- The Criminal's Ascension: A Discourse Given March 2nd, 1879 (1879)
- A Last Word, Spoken at the Athenaeum on the Closing of Our Services There, June 27th, 1880 (1880)
- A Necklace of Stories (1880)
- What is the Religion of Humanity?: A Discourse at South Place Chapel, May 16th, 1880 (1880)
- The Rising Generation: A Discourse before the South Place Society, June 27th, 1880 (1880)
- Laureate Despair: A Discourse Given at South Place Chapel, December 11th, 1881 (1881)
- Thomas Carlyle (1881)
- The Wandering Jew (1881)
- Travels in South Kensington, with Notes on Decorative Art and Architecture in England (1882)
- Emerson at Home and Abroad (1883)
- Lessons for the Day (two volumes, 1882, 1883).
- Emerson and His Views of Nature: An Address before the Royal Institution of Great Britain (1883)
- Farewell Discourses (1884)
- Pine and Palm (two volumes, 1887)
- Unitarianism and Its Grandchildren (1887)
- Omitted Chapters of History Disclosed in the Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph (1888)
- George Washington and Mount Vernon (1889)
- George Washington's Rules of Civility, Traced to Their Sources and Restored (1890)
- Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1890)
- Prisons of Air (1891)
- Barons of the Potomack and Rappahannock (1892)
- The Life of Thomas Paine (two volumes, 1892)
- Centenary History of the South Place Society (1894)
- Solomon and Solomonic Literature (1899)
- Thomas Paine et la Revolution dans les Deux Mondes (1900)
- Autobiography, Memories and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway, with Two Portraits (two volumes, 1904)
- My Pilgrimage to the Wise Men of the East (1906)
- Lessons for the Day (1907)
- Moncure D. Conway: Addresses and Reprints, 1850–1907 (1909)
March 17, 1832 - Moncure Conway is born in Stafford County.
1849 - Moncure Conway earns a BA degree from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, after which he studies law in Warrenton, Virginia.
1850 - Moncure Conway writes Free Schools in Virginia: A Plea of Education, Virtue and Thrift, vs. Ignorance, Vice and Poverty, which blames Virginia's economic problems on its poor educational system.
1851 - Moncure Conway enters the Methodist ministry as a circuit-riding preacher in Maryland. That same year he starts corresponding with Ralph Waldo Emerson.
1852 - Moncure Conway begins to move toward Unitarianism and abolition, transitioning away from the dogmas of southern culture.
February 14, 1853 - Moncure Conway moves to eastern Massachusetts, and never lives in Virginia again.
1854 - Moncure Conway earns a BD from Harvard Divinity School.
May 24, 1854 - Anthony Burns, a runaway slave from Stafford County, is arrested in Boston under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850).
July 4, 1854 - At the Framingham rally where the fiery abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison famously burns a copy of the U.S. Constitution, Moncure Conway emerges for the first time as an open ally of abolitionism and declares that "in Virginia, they not only had slaves, but every man with a conscience, or even the first throbbings of a conscience, is a slave."
1855 - Moncure Conway is ordained a minister of the prestigious First Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. He is dismissed in 1856 after delivering fervently antislavery sermons.
June 1, 1858 - Moncure Conway marries Ellen Davis Dana at the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio, where Conway became minister in 1856.
1859 - Moncure Conway gradually abandons Unitarianism for free thought, telling his congregation at the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio, that he no longer believes in miracles or Christ's divinity. A third of its members promptly leave, but Conway's new "Free Church" survives.
1860 - Moncure Conway founds the Dial, a short-lived literary and journalistic monthly that reflects his liberal views.
1861 - Moncure Conway writes The Rejected Stone; or, Insurrection vs. Resurrection in America, an ardent if anonymous plea for emancipation (the book identifies its author only as "a Native Virginian").
1862 - In The Golden Hour, another book-length plea for emancipation, Moncure Conway argues that abolition will cripple the Confederate war effort and hasten peace.
July 1862 - Moncure Conway guides thirty-one of his father's slaves, all of whom had escaped to Washington, D.C., on a sometimes-dangerous train ride to Yellow Springs, Ohio. The freed people settle along the Little Miami River, and later found the First Anti-Slavery Baptist Church, now First Baptist, in Yellow Springs.
September 1862 - Moncure Conway moves from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Concord, Massachusetts, where he is hired as co-editor of the antislavery weekly, Commonwealth.
April 1863 - Moncure Conway leaves the United States for a speaking tour in Great Britain. While in London, he attempts to bargain with the Confederate envoy to Britain, James Murray Mason, offering to support disunion if Confederates agree to free their slaves. Both Confederates and abolitionists rebuke Conway's blunder.
August 1863 - Moncure Conway's family moves to London, England, where Conway has exiled himself after he was drafted into the Union army but avoided service by paying a fee.
1864 - Moncure Conway becomes the minister of London's South Place Chapel, one of the oldest free thought organizations in Britain, where he serves from 1864 until 1885, and again from 1893 until 1897.
1893 - Moncure Conway returns to London for a second sojourn.
1897 - Moncure Conway leaves London permanently and moves to New York.
1898 - Moncure Conway moves to Paris, France.
November 14–15, 1907 - Moncure Conway dies of a stroke during the night in his Paris apartment.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Schools, N. L. Moncure Conway (1832–1907). (2014, July 24). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Conway_Moncure_Daniel_1832-1907.
- MLA Citation:
Schools, Norman L. "Moncure Conway (1832–1907)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 24 Jul. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: July 24, 2014