The Grimké Sisters: The First American Women Who Labored to Ensure Freedom For All

Ask Americans with an interest in their country’s pre-Civil War history to name a famous abolitionist, you’ll likely hear of William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, John Quincy Adams, John Brown or Abraham Lincoln. We should get to know the women who championed an end to slavery too. There were many, and I have my favorites to tell you about here.

The very first African American woman to deliver anti-slavery lectures in public was free-born Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879). By the social conventions of her day, women weren’t supposed to take on such controversial issues, let alone do so in plain view of an audience. It’s also to her credit that she is believed to be the first American female to speak to public gatherings of both men and women, white and black. Her speeches and writings are as inspiring today as they were 180 years ago.

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) and Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) were both former slaves who became crusading abolitionists. To this day, the former is the most renowned “conductor” of the slave-liberating Underground Railroad, while the latter was the first black woman in America to sue a white man in court and win.

Francis E. W. Harper (1825-1911) was one of the first female African-Americans to be published in the United States, beginning in 1845. In the 1850s her abolitionist essays were heavily promoted by the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), a white woman, helped mightily to educate Americans of the reality of slave life when she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

There were numerous others too, of course, but two whom I find most fascinating were siblings, Sarah and Angelina Grimké. Born in Charleston, South Carolina thirteen years apart (1792 and 1805, respectively) their family background more than qualified them to speak on the subject: Their father owned hundreds of slaves and was an associate justice on the state’s Supreme Court.

Sarah recalled being a horrified at the young age of five when she witnessed a slave beating. The late John Blundell, writing in these very pages), reveals this story about her:

Sarah’s family was devoutly Episcopalian, and she taught Sunday school to younger slave children. When she asked why she couldn’t teach them to read so they could discover the Bible for themselves, her father replied that the 1740 Better Ordering and Governing of Negroes and Slaves Act levied a fine of £100 (about $10,000 today) for educating such people or employing slaves with these skills. Sarah’s reaction was to teach her young black maid, Hetty, to read secretly at night until her mother discovered them; Sarah was severely admonished by her father, and Hetty was very lucky to escape a severe whipping. Sarah later wrote: “I 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 locks. The light was put out, the key hole screened, and flat on our stomachs before the fire, with the spelling-book under our eyes, we defied the law of South Carolina.”

A voracious reader of high intellect, Sarah left South Carolina for Philadelphia where she was joined a few years later by the younger Angelina. There in the City of Brotherly Love, their abolitionist views were at first reinforced by the Quakers with whom they interacted but in time, the activism of the sisters proved too radical even for the Quakers.

Sarah and Angelina began speaking, writing, and educating about the evils of slavery but drew criticism for operating beyond, in the words of local pastors, “women’s proper sphere.” That only convinced them to advocate for the equal rights of women too. In short order, their fame spread far and wide. They are regarded as the first nationally known, white, female crusaders in America for both abolition and women’s rights.

People thronged to hear speeches by these learned, passionate sisters who came from a wealthy, slave-owning planter family. From October 1836 to the fall of the following year, according to Blundell, they lectured to 40,000 men and women at 80 meetings in 67 New England towns. In February 1838, Angelina became the first woman in US history to address a committee of a legislature when she testified in Boston. Nearly 3,000 Bostonians came to hear both sisters when they spoke in the city’s Odeon Theater.

The Grimké sisters challenged a misconception that was widespread in their time and that persists today, namely, that God is either silent on slavery or in support of it. They wrote missives directly to fellow Christians in the hope they would understand the Biblical case against human bondage. Sarah’s Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States and Angelina’s Appeal to Christian Women of the South are canon in abolitionist literature.

Quoting from Exodus 21, Sarah reminded pastors that “he that steals a man and sells him shall surely be put to death.” She asked rhetorically, “If this law were carried into effect now, what must be the inevitable doom of all those who now hold man as property?” Holding men and women in thrall, to her, was an unholy power trip that could only produce even more evil:

The system of slavery is necessarily cruel. The lust of dominion inevitably produces hardness of heart, because the state of mind which craves unlimited power, such as slavery confers, involves a desire to use that power.

Angelina targeted the Christian women of the South with the Biblical case against slavery that was as airtight as any put forth in the day. She condemned human bondage as “contrary to the example and precepts of our holy and merciful Redeemer, and of his apostles.” She marshalled her deep knowledge of Scripture to undermine one error after another. Though God granted to man “supreme dominion” over the plants and animals of the Earth, she declared,

man is never vested with this dominion over his fellow man; he was never told that any of the human species were put under his feet; it was only all things, and man, who was created in the image of his Maker, never can properly be termed a thing. 

It is sometimes alleged that the Old Testament patriarchs of the faith, such as Abraham, were slaveholders. Angelina pointed out that the relationship between those men and their servants was nothing like the chattel slavery of the South:

Look at Abraham, though so great a man, going to the herd himself and fetching a calf from thence and serving it up with his own hands, for the entertainment of his guests. Look at Sarah, that princess as her name signifies, baking cakes upon the hearth. If the servants they had were like Southern slaves, would they have performed such comparatively menial offices for themselves?…Besides, such was the footing upon which Abraham was with his servants, that he trusted them with arms. Are slaveholders willing to put swords and pistols into the hands of their slaves?

Under the Mosaic Law that governed the lives of the ancient Israelites, those so-called slaves were really servants under contract, with the ability to do what no antebellum slave could ever do, namely, walk away. The sacred law of Moses as it pertained to servants, wrote Angelina, “was designed to protect them as men and women, to secure to them their rights as human beings, to guard them from oppression and defend them from violence of every kind.” Moreover,

[T]he door of Freedom was opened wide to every servant who had any cause whatever for complaint; if he was unhappy with his master, all he had to do was to leave him, and no man had a right to deliver him back to him again, and not only so, but the absconded servant was to choose where lie should live, and no Jew was permitted to oppress him. He left his master just as our Northern servants leave us; we have no power to compel them to remain with us, and no man has any right to oppress them.

Angelina provided readers with a list of 14 ways in which Southern slavery of the 1830s was utterly unlike the servanthood of ancient Israel. The first was the fact that Southern slavery was “hereditary and perpetual, to the last moment of the slave’s earthly existence, and to all his descendants to the latest posterity.” I urge readers to view the remainder of the list in Angelina’s essay.

Christian theology holds that the coming of Jesus Christ marked a new “dispensation” for the world, so what did Jesus himself have to say about slavery? Angelina notes that it was Jesus who postulated what we have come to know as the “Golden Rule”):

“Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Let every slaveholder apply these queries to his own heart; Am I willing to be a slave—Am I willing to see my wife the slave of another—Am I willing to see my mother a slave, or my father, my sister or my brother? If not, then in holding others as slaves, I am doing what I would not wish to be done to me or any relative I have; and thus have I broken this golden rule which was given me to walk by.

Like her sister Sarah, Angelina Grimké believed that a morally right ideal was worth fighting for. She urged people of principle to join the abolitionist cause and to muster the courage to break the laws that kept slavery in place. When the Egyptian pharaoh ordered the killing of Hebrew children, the brave women Shiphrah and Puah refused to comply and were blessed for their defiance. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship a man-made golden image. When Darius issued his ban on prayer, Daniel prayed anyway and was dispatched to the lion’s den. “If prophets and apostles, martyrs, and reformers had not been willing to suffer for the truth’s sake, where would the world have been now?” she asked. Angelina argued that Christians should look to such heroes as models in the fight against slavery:

I know that this doctrine of obeying God, rather than man, will be considered as dangerous, and heretical by many, but I am not afraid openly to avow it, because it is the doctrine of the Bible; but I would not be understood to advocate resistance to any law however oppressive, if, in obeying it, I was not obliged to commit sin. If for instance, there was a law, which imposed imprisonment or a fine upon me if I manumitted a slave, I would on no account resist that law, I would set the slave free, and then go to prison or pay the fine. If a law commands me to sin I will break it; if it calls me to suffer, I will let it take its course unresistingly. The doctrine of blind obedience and unqualified submission to any human power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is the doctrine of despotism, and ought to have no place among republicans and Christians.

The Grimké sisters hoped that a moral and spiritual awakening would end slavery without a dreadful war but war came nonetheless. They never wavered in their decades-long defense of the liberation of the enslaved.

Sarah died in 1873 at the age of 81. Six years later, Angelina passed away at 74. We remember them today as two sisters of boundless passion for one of the most noble principles in life—that all peaceful men and women should live free.

For More Information, See:

Lift Up Thy Voice: The Sarah and Angelina Grimké Family’s Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders by Mark Perry

Appeal to Christian Women of the South by Angelina Emily Grimké

An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States by Sarah M. Grimké

Abolitionists Sisters by John Blundell

Angelina Grimké, Abolitionist (video)

The Story of the Grimké Sisters (video)

The Grimké Sisters: The First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Woman’s Rights by Catherine H. Birney

American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses by the American Anti-Slavery Society

The Heroines of British Abolition by Lawrence W. Reed

The History of Slavery You Probably Weren’t Taught in School by Lawrence W. Reed

The Golden Rule is as Golden as Ever by Lawrence W. Reed

The post The Grimké Sisters: The First American Women Who Labored to Ensure Freedom For All was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and is republished here with permission. Please support their efforts.

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