Book reviews / History / Non fiction

Book review: Southern Emancipator


So, I should know a lot about Moncure Conway, but I don’t. I’m rectifying that knowledge gap this year, for multiple reasons (one being PhD reasons).

So I picked up Southern Emancipator: Moncure Conway: The American Years, 1832-1865 from the delightful library at Conway Hall (Conway Hall named after him, of course).

It’s hard to believe that Moncure Conway is a real person, and the book I read isn’t like some strange compilation of many lives (like in some films). He’s like a cat, he’s had about 9 lives, or perhaps even more. He started life as the son of a Virginian upper class slave owner, became a Methodist Preacher, then a unitarian preacher, then a radical unitarian, then an abolitionist (who literally accompanies his father’s escaped slaves through several states to free them), a freethinker…and that’s just to 1865. I still have to read about his life in London and South Place Ethical Society – the organisation that would build Conway Hall in 1929.

He knows everybody. He meets everybody, including writers, activists, politicians and even President Lincoln (twice). He’s the source of cross-atlantic abolitionist consternation with his writing to a Confederate representative in London. He’s delightful and yet sometimes you think he needed a good talking to.

He was young and self-righteous during the lead up to the American Civil War. A southern gentlemen who was also an abolitionist. He saw his abolitionist colleagues become enthusiastic about crushing the South at the time when his childhood home was in the middle of bloody battles. He couldn’t agree with the bloodshed, perhaps in a way his northern colleagues would never understand. He didn’t want the South crushed, he wanted slavery abolished. As the war went on, it seemed to him that the abolitionists became less about equality and liberty for African Americans and more about the North winning.

What I think the book captures really well is how Conway (and probably most people who live long enough to write their own biographies) modify his interpretation of the past. There are several instances (for example the circumstances of him coming to London), where Conway picks a more charitable interpretation of his actions. I imagine we all do this to some extent, but it’s fun having it pointed out in his own words from his diary.

I would like to find out why “To thine own self be true” was written above the stage in Conway Hall. It seems to reflect a lot of what Conway himself believed in for most of his life. Later experiences, especially the deaths of his sons and his wife, tempered that belief a little bit. Perhaps, I am just reading into that a bit too much as well.

Anyway, fabulous book. Now to read about how and why he became the appointed minister at South Place Chapel and how he changed it to become the secular institution it is today.

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