Sarah Moor Grimke (1792-1873) and Angelina Emily Grimke (1805-1879), abolitionists and woman’s rights pioneers, were born in Charleston, South Carolina. Sarah was the 6th of 14 children, Angelina the last.
Their father, John Faucheraud Grimke, whose French Huguenot ancestors had come to America after the revolution of the Edict of Nantes, was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, and had studied law in England. After serving as a lieutenant colonel in the American Revolution, he rose in the South Carolina judiciary to a position equivalent to chief justice. Their mother, Mary (Smith) Grimke, of Irish and Puritan ancestry, also came from a family prominent in Carolina politics. Among their brothers were Thomas Smith Grimke, lawyer, state senator, and advocate of peace, temperance and educational reforms until his early death in 1834. Brother Frederick Grimke became a judge of the Ohio supreme court.
The Grimke sisters were educated by private tutors in the subjects then considered proper for young ladies; but Sarah protested at being denied Greek, Latin, philosophy, and law, and eagerly learned what she could of these subjects from her father and brothers. Outwardly conforming to the gay social life of antebellum Charleston, Sarah, deeply religious by temperament, was inwardly rebellious. When in 1819 she accompanied her ailing father on a health-seeking trip to Philadelphia and New Jersey (in the midst of which he died), she was much impressed by the simplicity, sincerity and piety of the Quakers whom she met.
The Quaker abhorrence of slavery struck a responsive note with Sarah. Although reared in an affluent home and accustomed to the services of numerous slaves, she had early become sensitive to the injustices of the slave system. As a young teacher in a Negro Sunday school, she had rebelled against the law which prohibited teaching slaves to read, and only threats of punishment had ended the reading lessons she had surreptitiously given to her own maid.
After prolonged turmoil of mind, Sarah left the family’s Episcopal faith, became a member of the Society of Friends, and in 1821, at age 28, moved to Philadelphia.
Angelina Grimke, less introverted and more self-assured, modified her religious ideas more easily, turning first to Presbyterianism and then following Sarah into the Quaker fold. Angelina, however, was agitated even more deeply than her sister over the issue of slavery. “That system must be radically wrong which can only be supported by transgressing the laws of God,” she wrote in May 1829, in a diary already filled with remorse over the punishments meted out to family slaves.
Her mother refused to discuss the subject. Alienated from her family and repelled by the violent nature of her surroundings, Angelina in the autumn of 1829, left Charleston and joined her older sister in Philadelphia. Family ties, though strained, were not broken, but the sisters never returned to live in the South. Having made good their personal escape from the slave system, they devoted themselves for a time to charitable work and religious preoccupations. Sarah hoped to be accepted into the Friends ministry, but her stiff and halting delivery when she spoke in meeting made a bad impression. The Quaker merchant Israel Morris, a widower, twice proposed marriage, but although Sarah was much attracted to him she refused his offers. Angelina abandoned her thoughts of training at Catherine Beecher's Hartford school to become a teacher, when her suitor, Edward Bettle, son of a leading Quaker elder, disapproved, but Bettle died of cholera in 1832.
Of the two sisters, Angelina was the first to become convinced, that her vocation lay in the antislavery cause. After reading abolitionist newspapers and hearing such lecturers and England’s George Thompson, she joined the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, recording in her diary (May 12, 1835): “I am confident not many years will roll by before the horrible traffic in human beings will be destroyed…My earnest prayers have been poured out that the Lord would be pleased to permit me to be instrumental of good to these degraded. Oppressed , and suffering fellow-creatures.”
When William Lloyd Garrison in September 1835, unexpectedly printed in the Liberator a letter she had written to him expressing sympathy with his cause, the Grimke name was publicly and irrevocably identified with abolition. That same year, Angelina wrote An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, published in 1836 by the American Anti-Slavery Society. This abolitionist pamphlet, bearing the name of a leading Southern family, aroused intense public interest. Of the copies that reached the South, many were destroyed by southern postmasters, and the author was warned not to attempt a return to Charleston. Soon after completing her pamphlet, Angelina accepted an appointment from the American Anti-Slavery Society to hold meetings for small groups of interested women in the New York City area.
Sarah Grimke’s conversion to abolitionism proceeded somewhat more slowly. She was, however, like her sister, disturbed by discrimination against Negroes in the Friends meeting, and she felt increasing frustrated in the orthodox Quaker environment. In August 1836, upon attempting to speak in a meeting, she was publicly silenced and rebuked by “Pope Jonathan” Evans, leader of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Considering her Quaker ties severed, she moved to New York and cast her lot with Angelina in the antislavery movement. That November both sisters attended an indoctrination course for abolitionist workers conducted by the noted antislavery orator Theodore Dwight Weld. Inspired by this experience, Sarah wrote herEpistles to the Clergy of the Southern States (American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836) a refutation of the argument that slavery in Biblical times justified the modern institution.
Angelina’s audiences, meanwhile, had outgrown private parlors, and a few ministers had opened their churches to her-provided only women attended. The novelty of a sheltered Southern lady lecturing against slavery drew men as well as women, however, and during a New England tour in 1837, she created a sensation by publicly addressing “mixed” audiences containing both men and women. She wrote a second pamphlet, Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States (1837), and early in 1838, she testified bore a committee of the Massachusetts legislature on the subject of antislavery petitions, the first woman accorded that privilege. Though she was plan and rather masculine in appearance, Angelina’s considerable height, piercing eyes, and powerful voice made an effective platform combination. The more retiring and conventionally feminine Sarah, neither so fluent nor so bold, accompanied her younger sister and spoke occasionally.
These appearances before mixed audiences catapulted the Grimke sisters into the center of a woman’s rights controversy-one of the earliest in American history. The issue was joined in July 1837 when the Congregational ministerial association of Massachusetts issued a “Pastoral Letter” strongly objecting to their unwomanly behavior. “We are,” wrote Angelina, “placed very unexpectedly in a very trying situation, in the forefront of an entirely new contest-a contest for the rights of woman as a moral, intelligent and responsible being.” To abolitionist friends like John Greenleaf Whittier and Theodore Weld, who pleaded with them not to endanger the antislavery crusade by raising an extraneous issue, they replied: “We cannot push Abolitionism forward…until we take up the stumbling block out of the road.”
Encouraged by Garrison, Henry C. Wright, and other New England radicals, the sisters confronted the challenge forthrightly. Angelina Grimke, in a series of Liberator letters, published in 1838, as a pamphlet, not only defended her right to speak out anywhere on the abolition issue, but declared that women should have a voice in the formation of all the laws by which they were governed. Sarah, too, contributed a vigorous pamphlet, Letters of the Equality of the Sexes, and the Condition of Woman (1838). The now famous sisters concluded their New England tour in the spring of 1838 with a lecture series in Boston’s Odeon Hall which drew audiences numbered in the thousands.
By this time Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimke, strongly attracted to each other since their first meeting, had avowed their affection. They were married on May 14, 1838, at the home of Angelina’s sister Anna in Philadelphia, in a simple ceremony attended by many prominent abolitionists. Since Weld was a Presbyterian, both Angelina and Sarah, as a participant, were formally dismissed from the Society of Friends. Two days later, Angelina Weld delivered an impassioned hour-long address to a Philadelphia antislavery convention, while an angry mob, which later burned the hall to the ground, raged outside. This appearance marked the end of her meteoric lecture career. Settling in Fort Lee. N.J., the Welds and Sarah Grimke (who made her home with the for the rest of her life) circulated antislavery petitions. They also complied, largely from reports in Southern newspapers, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839), a telling antislavery document upon which Harriet Beecher Stowe drew heavily in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
But in 1840, moving to a farm near Belleville, N.J., the erstwhile antislavery trio largely retired from the fray. Theodore Weld, his voice failing, deplored the increasing political course of the movement; his wife and sister-in-law were occupied with housekeeping duties. Angelina was often ill and Sarah took much of the care of the Welds’ 3 children-Charles Stuart, born in 1839, Theodore Grimke (1841), and Sarah Grimke (1844) - though this caused some friction between the two sisters. Garrison and his New England friends, who had regretted Angelina’s marriage to the more moderate Weld, felt that a powerful abolitionist voice had been silenced.
In 1848, in dire financial straits, the Welds and Sarah Grimke began taking in pupils, and by 1851 they were running a boarding school of twenty. Three years later they moved to Perth Amboy, N.J., where they opened a school in connection with the Raritan Bay Union, a communal settlement newly established by Marcus Spring, a New York merchant and philanthropist. The settlement expired after two years, by the school, Eagleswood, continued with some success until 1862. The sisters were actively interested in most of the intellectual currents and fads of their time, including diet and dress form. Henry David Thoreau, visiting Eagleswood in 1856, wrote: “There sat Mrs. Weld and her sister, two elderly gray-haired ladies, the former in extreme Bloomer costume, which was what you might call remarkable….”
In religion they became progressively less orthodox; the Millerite agitation engaged Angelina’s interest in the mid-1840’s, and spiritualists experiments were not unusual. In 1863, after a brief attempt by Theodore Weld to resume lecturing, the 3 moved to Massachusetts, settling first in West Newton and then, in 1864, in the community of Hyde Park, south of Boston. All three taught in Dio Lewis’ progressive school for young ladies in Lexington, until its destruction by fire in 1867. In addition, Sarah did some newspaper writing and translating. Though no longer active feminists, the two sisters did, in 1870, join a group of Hyde Park women in a symbolic effort to cast ballots in a local election.
The Grimkes’ belief in equality was put to the test in 1868, by their discovery that two mulatto students at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania who bore the family name were actually their nephews, sons of their brother Henry by a slave. The youngsters were promptly acknowledged and welcomed in the Weld home. With the aid and encouragement of their aunts, Archibald Henry and Francis James Grimke graduated respectively from Harvard Law School and Princeton Theological Seminary, achieved recognition in their professions, and became prominent spokesmen for equality, Archibald as leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Sarah Moore Grimke died in 1873, at age 81, her death attributed officially to laryngitis. Shortly thereafter, Angelina Grimke Weld suffered a paralytic stroke which partially incapacitated her until her own death six years later, at 74. Both sisters died in Hyde Park and were buried in Boston’s Mount Hope Cemetery. Theodore Weld survived his wife by 15 years.
This posting based on information from Notable American Women edited by Edward T James, Janet Wilson James, Paul S Boyer, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1971