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.
While Conway was at Harvard, a runaway slave named Anthony Burns, also from Stafford County, Virginia, was arrested in Boston under the provisions of the controversial Fugitive Slave Act (1850). After failing to free him through legal channels, abolitionists stormed the jail. A deputy sheriff was killed in the melee and the subsequent trials made national headlines. At the 1854 Fourth of July rally where the fiery abolitionist editor William Lloyd Garrison famously burned a copy of the U.S. Constitution, Conway emerged for the first time as an open ally of the abolitionists. He gave a speech declaring 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.”
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 of Virginia”). 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.
The freed people settled along the Little Miami River, and Conway checked in on them periodically over the years. Dunmore and Eliza Gwinn, who had been house slaves for the Conway family and who had run a cake-and-candy store in Georgetown, helped to found the First Anti-Slavery Baptist Church, now First Baptist, in Yellow Springs.
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.)
In 1863, while on a speaking tour in England, Conway’s antislavery passion—not to mention his frustration with Lincoln’s sometimes overly cautious approach to emancipation—caused him to run afoul of his own government when he attempted to bargain with the Confederate envoy to Britain, James Murray Mason. Conway, who claimed falsely to speak for the abolition movement, offered to support disunion if Confederates agreed to free their slaves. It was a proposal that did not come with the approval of the Lincoln administration, or anyone else for that matter. Confederates took pleasure in Conway’s misstep, while abolitionists back home, most of whom had become thoroughgoing wartime nationalists, howled in protest. Conway, fearful of having his passport revoked, meekly apologized to U.S. secretary of state William H. Seward. In the meantime, Conway was drafted into the Union army—likely the work of a political enemy—but paid a fee to avoid service.
After the War
Banished first from Virginia and then from America, Conway lived as an expatriate for much of the rest of his life. He became the minister of London’s South Place Chapel, one of the oldest free thought organizations in Britain, where he served from 1864 until 1885, and again from 1893 until 1897. (The group’s Conway Hall, built in Red Lion Square in 1929, is named for him.) He also continued to write, publishing frequently on philosophy and religion, working as a war correspondent during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), engaging in literary criticism, and writing articles for British and American magazines. While living in Brooklyn and New York from 1885 until 1893, he authored biographies of Edmund Randolph (1888), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1890), and, in two volumes, Thomas Paine (1892). He was the London literary agent for Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the American agent for Robert Browning.
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)