Delivered at South Place Institute 27 March 1914. Chaired by Edward Clodd and presented by J. M. Robertson M. P.
Born in 1932, in Virginia, Conway was brought up in a strongly Methodist household, though a number of his forebears had been religious sceptics. As a boy, he was very affectionate and sensitive, and not popular with other schoolboys. In his teens, his orientation was less toward religion than humanitarianism and alleviation of suffering. This was shown by his growing involvement in the anti-slavery campaign. When he became a Methodist minister at the age of 19, it was mainly as a means of doing humanist work.
At 21, he abandoned Methodism, but remained a Christian, and became a Unitarian preacher the following year. As the slavery question loomed larger, Conway, who hated war even more than slavery, advocated the peaceful separation of North and South. His anti-slavery position cost him his post as a Unitarian minister, and at age 24, he became minister of the first congregational church in Cincinnati, where his congregation was abolitionist.
He married in 1858, and in 1860 became acquainted with the ideas of Tom Paine, whose biography he would later write. Increasing contact with freethinkers led him to reconsider his theism. Also, the civil war began, during which Conway led his father’s slaves to safety in the North.
Meanwhile, Conway was making contact with the leading American writers and thinkers of the mid-19th Century; and in 1863 he came to England, where he met Carlyle and almost all the chief figures in English intellectual life, inc. Spencer, Tennyson, Huxley, Eliot, Dickens and Mill.
By now, Conway had outgrown Unitarianism, and accepted the offer to become minister at South Place. He was to occupy the ministry from 1863 – 84. His final break away from supernaturalism is recorded in his book The Earthward Pilgrimage (1870). During this period, Conway was part of a huge movement that was undermining traditional religious belief, although his own audience was largely confined to South Place. Also during this period, he wrote many other books, inc. biographies of Carlyle, Emerson and Hawthorne, and also journalism.
By 1884, he had reached an entirely atheistic and Rationalist position, and regarded religion as entirely a matter of right living and human betterment. At the same time, his Rationalism was not naively optimistic: he did not believe that progress was inevitable, and in his last years was saddened by political developments, especially the emergence of imperialistic world powers, inc. England.
The unhappiness which Conway himself had suffered due to the influence of false creeds was something he continually sought to spare others from. Right to the end, he remained keenly interested in people, ideas and problems, and always a beacon of free thought. His example could conceivably be followed by the entire human race.