Moncure D. Conway

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Moncure Daniel Conway

Moncure Daniel Conway (March 17, 1832 in Falmouth, Stafford County, Virginia – November 5, 1907 in Paris) was an American abolitionist, Methodist, Unitarian and Freethinker (admirer of Thomas Paine) minister, biographer, historian, and writer, who lived most of his life abroad.

Early life and education[edit]

Conway was born to an old Virginia family.[1] His father Walter Peyton Conway was a wealthy slave-holding gentleman farmer, county judge and state representative, whose home, known as the Conway House (Falmouth, Virginia) still stands at 305 King Street (a.k.a. River Road) along the Rappahannock River. Conway's mother Margaret Daniel Conway was a homemaker and homeopathic physician. Both parents were Methodists, his father having left the Episcopal church, his mother the Presbyterian. Moncure's later opposition to slavery allegedly came from his mother and from his boyhood experiences. His father and three brothers remained staunchly pro-slavery. As a youth he briefly took a pro-slavery position under the influence of a cousin, the Richmond editor John Moncure Daniel.

After attending the Fredericksburg Classical and Mathematical Academy (alma mater of George Washington and other famous Virginians), Conway graduated from Methodist-affiliated Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1849 after founding the college's first student publication, falling under the influence of Professor John McClintock, and embracing the Methodist Church. After studying law for a year, he became a circuit-riding Methodist minister in his native state. In 1852 after falling away from Methodist, he entered the Harvard University school of divinity, graduating in 1854. Here he met Ralph Waldo Emerson and fell under the influence of Transcendentalism, becoming an outspoken abolitionist. After graduating from Harvard, Conway accepted a call to the First Unitarian Church of Washington, D.C., where his liberal views soon forced him to seek a new church.

Later life[edit]

On Conway's return to Virginia, his abolitionist stance and his rumored connection with an attempt to rescue the fugitive slave Anthony Burns in Boston, Massachusetts aroused the bitter hostility of his old neighbors and friends, causing him to leave the state. From late 1855 to 1861 he was a Unitarian minister in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he also edited a short-lived liberal periodical called The Dial. After the Civil War broke out, Conway located in Washington, D.C. several dozen of his father's slaves who had fled from Virginia, and escorted them through slave state Maryland to safety in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he believed the slaves would be safe due to the town's accepting culture.

While in Cincinnati, Conway married Ellen Davis Dana, daughter of Charles Dana[disambiguation needed]. Ellen was a member of the Unitarian faith, a feminist, and an abolitionist. The couple had four children. Despite the previous tension with his family over slavery issues, Conway nevertheless brought his bride to meet them, during which his wife broke a Southern social constraint by hugging and kissing a young slave girl in front of family members; after this, it would take 17 years before Conway reconciled with his family.

Subsequently Conway became editor of the Commonwealth in Boston, and published The Rejected Stone (1861) and The Golden Hour (1862), powerful pleas for emancipation. In 1862 after spending more and more time away from his church advancing the abolitionist cause, growing dissatisfied with the theological, liturgical, and social conservatism of mainstream Unitarianism, he left the Unitarian ministry, after which he maintained an uneasy and uncertain relationship with Unitarianism in America and subsequently in England until he and Ellen made a clean break.

In April 1863[2] Conway was sent by fellow American abolitionists to London to convince the United Kingdom that the American Civil War was primarily a war of abolition and not support the Confederacy. Under English influence, Conway eventually contacted James Murray Mason, the British representative of the Confederate States of America "on behalf of the leading antislavery men of America," offering withdrawal of support for prosecution of the war in exchange for emancipation of the slaves, which Mason publicly rejected, embarrassing his sponsors, who quickly and angrily withdrew support. Rather than go back to America, where he no longer felt welcome as a suspected traitor, he went briefly to Venice in Italy, reuniting with his wife and children before moving back to London, where in 1864 he became minister of the South Place Chapel and leader of the then named South Place Religious Society in Finsbury, London. He also abandoned theism that year [citation needed] after one of his sons died. His thinking continued to move from Emersonian transcendentalism toward a more humanistic Freethought. The South Place congregation and Conway soon left fellowship with the Unitarian Church.[citation needed] For a year from November 1865 Cleveland Hall was leased for Sunday evenings so Conway could "address the working classes." However, the audience consisted of well-dressed lower-middle-class people.[3] Conway remained the leader of South Place until 1886, when Stanton Coit took his place. Under Coit's leadership South Place was renamed to the South Place Ethical Society. However Coit's tenure ended in 1892 in a losing power struggle, and Conway resumed leadership until his death.

Conway was part of radicals Peter and Clementia Taylor's salon at Aubrey House in Campden Hill, West London, and a member of Clementia's "Pen and Pencil Club" at which the work of young writers and artists was read and exhibited.[4] Conway moved to Notting Hill to be near the Taylors at Aubrey House.[4]

In 1868 Conway was one of four speakers at the first open public meeting in support of women's suffrage in Great Britain. Conway's many literary and intellectual friends included Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin

In the 1870s and 1880s Conway returned on and off to the United States. In 1875 he reconciled with his family. In 1897 Conway and his terminally-ill wife Ellen returned from London to New York City to fulfill her wish of dying on American soil; she died on Christmas Day. As the Spanish American War approached, Conway became disaffected with his countrymen, moving to France to devote much of the rest of his life to the peace movement and writing.

Conway died alone in his Paris apartment on November 5, 1907. Conway Hall in Holborn, London is named in his honor.

Photo taken c. 1884 of Moncure D. Conway holding a baby.


See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Conway, Moncure Daniel (2012-06-07). Autobiography: Memories and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway. Cambridge University Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-108-05061-6. Retrieved 2013-08-27. 
  4. ^ a b Moncure Daniel Conway (June 2001). Autobiography Memories and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway. Volume 2. pp. 14–. ISBN 978-1-4021-6692-1. Retrieved 1 December 2012. 


  •  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Conway, Moncure Daniel". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  • Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography - Article by Charles A. Howe
  • Burtis, Mary Elizabeth. Moncure Conway, 1832-1907. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1952.
  • d'Entremont, John. Southern Emancipator: Moncure Conway: The American Years, 1832-1865. Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Easton, Loyd D. Hegel's First American Followers: The Ohio Hegelians: J.D. Stallo, Peter Kaufmann, Moncure Conway, August Willich. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1966.
  • Good, James A., ed. Moncure Daniel Conway: Autobiography and Miscellaneous Writings. 3 volumes. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, 2003.
  • Good, James A., ed. The Ohio Hegelians. 3 volumes. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, 2004.
  • Walker, Peter. Moral Choices: Memory, Desire, and Imagination in Nineteenth-Century American Abolition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

External links[edit]