Moncure Daniel Conway

(17 March 1832 – 15 November 1907)

Moncure Daniel Conway (1832 – 1907)

Moncure Daniel Conway

Moncure Daniel Conway was an American abolitionist, Unitarian clergyman, and author.

Growing up

Conway’s father was a wealthy farmer, a slaveholder, and county judge in Virginia. Both parents were Methodists, but formerly Episcopal and Presbyterian. Moncure’s opposition to slavery came from his mother and from his boyhood experiences. His father and three brothers remained staunchly pro-slavery.

He graduated from Dickinson College in 1849, and Harvard 1854, serving for a while as a Methodist minister, and later as a Unitarian. From 1852, thanks largely to the influence of the ‘transcendentalism’ of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a life-long friend, his ideas underwent a radical change, and continued to evolve towards greater freethought throughout his life.

Abolitionist

After the Civil War broke out, Conway located several dozen of his father’s slaves in Washington, DC, who had fled from Virginia, and escorted them through Maryland – still a slave state – to safety in Ohio. While in Cincinnati, Conway married Ellen Davis Dana, a Unitarian, a feminist and an abolitionist. They had four children.

He became editor of The Commonwealth in Boston, and wrote powerful pleas for emancipation. In 1863, Conway was asked by American abolitionists to go to London to convince the UK that the American Civil War was a war of abolition. Under English influence, Conway eventually contacted the Confederate States of America “on behalf of the leading antislavery men of America” offering the preservation of the Confederacy after the war’s end in exchange for emancipation of the slaves. His support by his sponsors was quickly and angrily withdrawn. He went to Venice for a while.

Minster in London

Upon return to London, he became the minister of the South Place Chapel, Finsbury, London, which had been built in 1824 for a group of religious nonconformists known as Philadelphians or Universalists.

The congregation, and Conway, soon left fellowship with the Unitarian Church. During this time, Conway wrote frequently for the London press. In 1864, he abandoned theism after one of his sons died. In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women’s suffrage in Great Britain. Conway led the Society from 1864-1885 and 1892-1897.

South Place Ethical Society

In the 1870s and 1880s, he returned on and off to the United States. It was at this time that he wrote biographies of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1890) and of Thomas Paine (1892). During his absence the South Place Religious Society came under the leadership of Stanton Coit, another American in London, and in 1888 its name was changed to South Place Ethical Society, reflecting its change of philosophical viewpoint.

In 1897, Conway and his wife returned to New York as Ellen, terminally ill, wished to die in her home country. As the Spanish American War approached, Conway became disaffected. He moved to France to devote
much of the rest of his life to the peace movement and writing. Conway died alone in his Paris apartment.

In 1926 the South Place Ethical Society, although retaining their old name, moved to newly built premises in a corner of Red Lion Square, Holborn, named The Conway Hall in his honour.

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