Sarah and Angelina Grimké

Sarah White
Tuesday, November 26th 2019

Sarah Moore Grimké (1792–1873) and Angelina Emily Grimké Weld (1805–1879) were two sisters born into a slaveholding family on a South Carolina plantation. Along with twelve siblings, they were the children of John Faucheraud Grimké, a prominent judge and former mayor of Charleston, and Mary Smith Grimké. They were brought up in the Episcopal Church, descended from Huguenot ancestors on their father’s side. Though Sarah and Angelina were born more than a decade apart, they enjoyed the closest sisterly bond throughout their lives, with twelve-year-old Sarah being made (at her own request) godmother to baby Angelina.

The Grimkés owned a large number of slaves both at home and on their extensive farm properties. The girls were not entirely sheltered from what slavery meant—hoping to instill discipline, their father required his sons and daughters to pick cotton on the plantation sometimes, so they came into contact with the family’s field laborers as well as the household slaves. Perhaps because of this early exposure, both sisters developed a distaste for slavery from a young age. In her diary, Sarah wrote that she took “an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting-maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my long locks.”[1]

In 1819, Sarah accompanied her ailing father to Philadelphia in search of medical treatment, and during her time there, met with the Society of Friends (Quakers), which fanned her personal discomfort with slavery into full abolitionist conviction. She moved to Philadelphia in 1821 to join them, where Angelina followed eight years later.

Though the sisters found themselves more in tune with Northern views, they didn’t fit smoothly into abolitionist circles right away. Angelina published a letter in the abolitionist publication The Liberator to its editor, William Lloyd Garrison, in which she urged him to stand firm against slavery in the face of mob violence. Even their Quaker friends distanced themselves from this radical tone. The letter caught the attention of the organizers of the American Anti-Slavery Society, winning both sisters the chance to participate in a training conference in New York City. Of all the antislavery petitions that were being submitted to Congress at this time, two-thirds of the signatories were women, and it seems that abolitionist leadership was beginning to recognize and utilize the immense activist energies that women like the Grimkés represented.[2] As they emerged more prominently within antislavery circles, the Grimkés faced broader disapproval for their readiness to express their views openly, both in print and in public gatherings. Sarah published An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States on slavery and a collection of Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, which examined the conditions and roles of women in the church and around the world.

In 1836, Angelina wrote a pamphlet titled An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. This document is significant not only because it was written by a woman on such a controversial topic, but because it was addressed to Southern women, with an appeal to their moral authority, their capacity to think for themselves, and their ability to influence society more broadly. Angelina cast herself as a modern-day Esther, saying that she writes out of friendship and concern for her fellow Southern women’s “present and eternal welfare.” Though she alludes to America’s founding documents as basis enough for emancipation, she spends far more time examining and rejecting supposed biblical justifications for slavery. She offers the thesis that Southern slavery is simply not the same thing as slavery as it was known in biblical times, and she proceeds to demonstrate her case with a careful—and devastating—comparison of Old Testament laws governing slavery and those then governing slavery in America. Her reference to the Hebrew insights derived from scholars Horne and Calmet shows that she knew her way around a theological library. Her overall finding is that, in the Bible, slaves were everywhere “guarded from violence, injustice and wrong.”

Among many other points, she demonstrates that (1) American slaves were not enslaved for any of the reasons that Old Testament law deemed legal, but were in fact victims of “manstealing,” which the Bible considers to be punishable by death; (2) that escaped slaves in the Bible were not to be returned unwillingly to their former masters, in contrast to the horrors of the day’s fugitive slave laws; (3) the biblical Jubilee meant that perpetual servitude was not to exist under Old Testament law. Comparing these measures to the hereditary servitude and lack of legal redress faced by Southern slaves, Angelina concludes that American slavery as such didn’t exist in the Bible; that it would, in fact, be slanderous to claim biblical support for that institution.

As well-argued as her case is, however, Angelina’s appeal to Southern women as women is even more interesting. The judge’s daughter notes that her readers might well ask, “why appeal to women on this subject? We do not make the laws which perpetuate slavery…we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do.” She then offers practical suggestions for influence: women should search the Scriptures for themselves; they should pray for the softening of slaveholders’ hearts; they should speak persuasively to acquaintances on the subject; and, if it is not within their power to free slaves themselves, then they should teach slaves “the common branches of an English education” whenever it’s possible to do so (an illegal and subversive act). She encourages them to submit petitions both to state legislatures and to denominational governing bodies.

In the most stirring part of the Appeal, Angelina acknowledges that standing up against slavery in any of these ways makes women vulnerable to persecution—but “have not women stood up in all the dignity and strength of moral courage to be the leaders of the people, and to bear a faithful testimony for the truth whenever the providence of God has called them to do so?” Lest her reader should continue to doubt it, she offers an extensive catalogue of women from biblical and church history, including early Christian martyrs and persecuted Protestants who stood firm for the truth and against unrighteousness for thousands of years. Finally, she asks, “Are there no Shiphrahs, no Puahs among you, who wilt dare in Christian firmness and Christian meekness, to refuse to obey the wicked laws which require woman to enslave, to degrade and to brutalize woman? […] Let the Christian women [of the South] arise, as the Christian women of Great Britain did[3], in the majesty of moral power.”

Around this time both sisters took up regular speaking engagements, first appearing at the Anti-Slavery Convention in New York in 1837. After that, they embarked on a lecture tour in New England, speaking before audiences that increasingly included both men and women, whites and blacks. This public activity prompted antislavery efforts across New England to blossom, especially among women.

As it did for other women of the mid-nineteenth century, antislavery activity helped propel the sisters into efforts supporting women’s rights and suffrage as well, spurred both by negative reactions to their abolitionist work and by the inspiration gained through a newfound network of similarly engaged, energetic women.

The Grimké sisters are celebrated for their pioneering voices against slavery and their activism in the public square, long before women had the right to vote. Perhaps an underappreciated aspect of their work, however, is that they were very much a part of a Reformational heritage of women, such as Argula von Grumbach and Marie Dentière, who searched the scriptures and used the power of language to advocate for those who had less of a voice than themselves. Looking to the future, the sisters made it more acceptable for women to publish theological writing and to speak on pressing public issues. Today, it’s too readily forgotten that some of the earliest impulses toward greater legal rights and opportunities for women were biblical impulses—courageously expressed by Sarah, Angelina, and those they inspired.[4]

Sarah White (MA, St. Louis University) is a writer living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Kevin, and her Basset Hound, Basil.

[1] “The Indomitable Grimké Sisters,” Schlesinger Library Newsletter.

[2] “The Indomitable Grimké Sisters,” Schlesinger Library Newsletter.

[3] Angelina specifically names Elizabeth Heyrick (1769–1831), whose pamphlet prompted William Wilberforce to shift from a gradualist to an immediate approach to ending slavery in the British Empire.

[4] See Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2002), 221.

Photo of Sarah White
Sarah White
Sarah White (M.Div., Yale Divinity School), lives in western Pennsylvania with her family.
Tuesday, November 26th 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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