Moncure Daniel Conway

On this date in 1832, Moncure Daniel Conway was born into a conservative, pro-slavery Virginia family. Becoming a Methodist minister at an early age, Conway soon gravitated toward Unitarianism. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1854 as a Unitarian minister. Conway was much influenced by his "spiritual father," Ralph Waldo Emerson, and abolitionist Theodore Parker. By 1862, Conway, whose liberality had alienated his congregations, dropped Unitarianism. Conway helped about 30 of his father's slaves escape to freedom at the start of the Civil War. After embarking on an abolitionist speaking tour abroad, Conway was offered a position in 1863 at the South Place Chapel in London, an independent and increasingly freethinking congregation. Under Conway's tutelage, the chapel became an open-minded hub of new ideas, showcasing the day's newsmakers and intelligensia.

Conway, who had become an agnostic, is known for his Life of Paine (1892), the first major positive biography about the revolutionary. Conway researched and wrote other biographies, including one on Hawthorne. He also edited a four-volume edition of Paine's works and wrote several other books, such as Demonology and Devil Lore (1879). Conway, who had returned to America when his wife was dying, became an expatriate in Paris following his disgust with the U.S. war against Spain. (Theodore Roosevelt had even invited arch-critic Conway to join the Spanish.) Conway completed his autobiography in 1904. When the South Place Ethical Society built its new facilities in Red Lion Square, London, in 1929, it named the building "Conway Hall." Regular meetings are still held at Conway Hall every Sunday. Its library is adorned with portraits of freethinkers, including many of Conway. D. 1907.

“Sunday was a day of just so much external restraint as public opinion absolutely demanded. I learned at last, as I came to be about seventeen, that my father was an entire freethinker, as much as I am now. It shocked me much, because he never taught me anything, allowed me to pick up religion from any one around me, and then scolded me because I embraced beliefs which he knew must condemn him. I think this neglect to be honest with children is a terrible evil. I have lost years of thought, and wandered wide and done such unwise conceited things, and encountered risks for soul and body, all of which might have been obviated by his frank teaching.”

—Moncure Daniel Conway, Autobiography (1904)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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