Weld, Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879)
By Douglas Morgan
Douglas Morgan is a graduate of Union College (B.A., theology, 1978) in Lincoln, Nebraska and the University of Chicago (Ph.D., history of Christianity, 1992). He has served on the faculties of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland and Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. His publications include Adventism and the American Republic (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and Lewis C. Sheafe: Apostle to Black America (Review and Herald, 2010). He is the ESDA assistant editor for North America.
First Published: November 4, 2022
Angelina Grimké Weld, pioneering American abolitionist and advocate of gender equality, became a fervent believer in the Second Advent message during the 1840s.
Angelina Emily Grimké was born February 20, 1805, in Charleston, South Carolina, to John Faucheraud Grimké (1752-1819) and Mary Smith Grimké (1764-1839). She was their 14th (and last!) child. Angelina’s father, Judge John Grimké, was a plantation owner, slaveholder, lawyer, politician, and Revolutionary War veteran who fought alongside Gen. George Washington.1
Outgoing, strong-willed and independent-minded, Angelina refused confirmation in the family’s Episcopal church, not wanting to profess an inner conviction that she had not in fact experienced. She instead joined the Third Presbyterian Church in 1826, where she found a heart-transforming faith. She also sensed among the Presbyterians an openness to unity across denominational lines—important to her because of a deep dislike of narrow sectarianism.2
Within two years, though, Angelina, had become disillusioned with the Presbyterians, finding a spirit of denominational exclusivity, after all, along with a prevalence of ostentatious displays of wealth. Attracted to the simplicity and gentleness of the Society of Friends, she became a Quaker in 1828, as had her older sister, Sarah (1792-1893), in 1821. Likewise independent-minded and conscientious, Sarah had moved to Philadelphia in an intentional break with the slave-holding South.3
As part of her spiritual journey, Angelina became something of an irritant to her family and friends by continually raising uncomfortable questions about treatment of the enslaved and the slave system itself. Finally, with arguments in the family over slavery becoming a near-daily occurrence, she moved to Philadelphia in 1829, joining her sister Sarah.4
A Stand on Holy Ground
Angelina’s activist spirit eventually put her in tension with the orthodox Quakers of Philadelphia, who renounced personal and social evils but discouraged involvement in the “worldly” civic realm. She became intensely interested in the agitation for immediate abolition of slavery that came into American public consciousness in a new way during the early 1830s through periodicals such as the Liberator and the Emancipator and the activities of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AAS) organized in 1833.
In 1835, moved by an account of mob violence in Boston against the British abolitionist George Thompson, Angelina wrote an impassioned letter to William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator:
The ground upon which you stand is holy ground: never—never surrender it. If you surrender it, the hope of the slave is extinguished. If persecution is the means which God has ordained for the accomplishment of this great end, EMANCIPATION; then . . . I feel as if I could say, LET IT COME; for it is my deep, solemn deliberate conviction, that this is a cause worth dying for . . . .5
Angelina had not intended the letter for publication and her fellow Quakers, who disapproved of Garrison’s noisy agitation, asked her to withdraw it. She also acknowledged that having “the name of Grimké associated with that of the despised Garrison seemed like bringing disgrace upon my family, not alone myself.”6 Yet she resisted these pressures and in so doing cast her lot with the radical cause, and after a time, Sarah joined her. It was a commitment that required not only moral but physical courage against the threat of mob violence.
In 1836, Angelina wrote An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, urging them to speak out against the evils of slavery and send petitions to legislatures urging its abolition. When the AAS flooded Charleston post offices with copies, postmasters publicly burned the pamphlets. The city’s mayor informed Mary Grimké that her daughter would be arrested if she returned to the city, and friends warned Angelina that she would face “violence at the hands of the mob.”7
Dedication to their cause would also require the Grimké sisters to defy traditional gender roles. The sisters were the only two women among “the seventy” given an intensive training course by the charismatic organizer Theodore Dwight Weld in 1836, before being sent out to spread the abolitionist gospel.8 As they embarked on a tour of New England in 1837, it became evident that the sisters, Angelina especially, were eloquent speakers. According to Wendell Phillips, the renowned abolitionist orator, Angelina Grimké “swept the cords of the human heart with a power that has never been surpassed and rarely equalled.”9
While conventional norms allowed for women to speak to small groups of other women, the sisters spoke to large public gatherings. Initially, their audiences were largely female, but as their reputation spread, men were also drawn to their lectures. They spoke to an audience of 1,500 men and women at Lowell, Massachusetts, in June 1837, demonstrating their success in breaking the strictures “against women speaking in public and against women speaking to mixed audiences.”10
To the most powerful ecclesiastical body in the state of Massachusetts, the Grimké sisters posed a danger to traditional authority that had to be stopped. In July 1837 the Congregationalist clergy comprising the General Association of Massachusetts issued a “Pastoral Letter” to be read from every pulpit in the state, declaring that when a woman “assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer . . . her character becomes unnatural.”11
In response to criticism from this and other quarters, Angelina Grimké made a biblical case for woman’s equality:
I recognize no rights but human rights—I know nothing of men’s rights and women’s rights; for in Christ Jesus, there is neither male nor female; and it is my solemn conviction, that, until this important principle of equality is recognized and carried out into practice, that vain will be the efforts of the church to do anything effectual for the permanent reformation of the world. . . .12
Regarding ministers of the gospel as successors of the Hebrew prophets rather than the priests, Grimké reasoned: “As there were prophetesses as well as prophets, so their ought to be now female as well as male ministers.”13
“We abolition women are turning the world upside down,” Angelina declared in a speech before the Legislative Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature in February 1838.14
Marriage to Theodore Dwight Weld
In early 1838 Theodore Dwight Weld and Angelina Grimké openly expressed a love for each other that they had suppressed in the interests of the abolitionist cause. Theodore proposed marriage despite warnings that a feminist like Angelina would be “an obtrusive noisy clamorer” in the “domestic circle” and that it would be “impossible for a man of high and pure feeling ever to marry her . . . nature recoiled at it.”15 They married in Philadelphia on May 14, 1838.16
Though Angelina and Theodore remained dedicated to the great causes they had espoused, the marriage would mark an end to their brief but spectacular careers as public orators. Angelina now saw it as her mission to prove that her radical ideas did not make her unfit for domestic life. The Welds, along with Sarah Grimké, who never married, moved to rural New Jersey where they lived simply and eventually established a school.17 Angelina bore three children during their first six years of marriage: Charles Stuart Faucheraud Weld (1839-1901), Theodore Grimké Weld (1841-1917), and Sarah Grimké Weld (1844-1899).18
Theodore, who had literally lost his voice and was unable to speak much above a whisper, turned to research and writing, collecting Southern newspaper notices about runaway slaves along with other first-hand documents and, assisted by Angelina and Sarah, compiled them into a devastating exposé of the cruelties of American slavery. Slavery As It Is (1839) sold more than 100,000 copies during its first year and became a powerful instrument in the antislavery cause.19
Second Adventism and a Mighty Revolution
During the early 1840s, Theodore was in Washington, D.C., for extended periods, conducting research to support John Quincy Adams’ efforts to challenge slavery in Congress, while Angelina was at home caring for their two boys. Her letters to him in 1842 reflected a growing conviction about the Millerite view of the Second Advent and its probable occurrence in 1843. She declared herself “entirely prepared to give up the old idea of a Millennium and to embrace the opinion that the destruction of the world will precede it.”20 Theodore cautioned her about becoming too absorbed in the study of prophecy, observing that
the study of prophecy has cast great witchery over minds of a certain cast. It powerfully stimulates curiosity, love of the marvelous, the element of superstition . . . the desire for novelty, etc. . . . I do not contend that prophecy is never to be studied, but that God is first to be studied, and so studied and communed with as to have the soul taken into captivity, moulded, filled with him; its principles, its taste, its habits, its intensities so incorporated with the mind of Christ . . . as to secure that subjection and allegiance and vital union with him which ushers into fullness of God.21
Angelina countered that Bible prophecy must be taken seriously. Can we be innocent in ignoring that which “God has taken so much pains” to reveal, she asked?22
Her sister Sarah and her closest friend, Jane Smith, were also alarmed about Angelina’s adoption of a view many regarded as implausible, if not completely ludicrous. Yet, Angelina was as bold in speaking her mind about the Second Advent as she had been with her other controversial convictions. During a visit to Philadelphia in 1842, she attended a gathering at which
some allusion was made to Miller views—evidently showing that he was regarded as a wild and ignorant fanatic. I felt that it was duty calmly to state my solemn conviction that he had a mass of evidence, from the Bible and History to sustain him in his theory that no other writer on prophecy ever had. They seemed utterly amazed I should think so and asked if it was possible I believed him. I told them I did—that the more I examined the subject the more fully I was persuaded he was right.23
As with many other Second Advent believers, Angelina Grimke’s convictions had gained strength from the apparent accuracy of Millerite lecturer Josiah Litch’s anticipation, on the basis of Revelation 9, that the Ottoman Turks would lose power in August 1840.24
However, she seemed to waver on the question of whether the “cleansing of the sanctuary” (Dan. 8:14) prophesied to take place in the 1840s would be fulfilled by a literal or spiritual advent of Christ. In March 1843 she described herself as “utterly at a loss whether to understand the prophecies literally or spiritually.” Either way, she was certain that they pointed to something that she believed imminent even before she adopted Miller’s teachings: “a great and mighty revolution” whereby “the prevailing form of godliness in church organisation will be superseded by the power of religion and the simplicity of the teaching of Jesus and his apostles.”25
For Angelina the Advent message ultimately was more than a matter of “visions and dates.” While Theodore worried about the spiritual pitfalls of obsession with apocalyptic prophecy, Angelina testified to the positive impact that belief in the near Advent had on her spiritual condition. Even if the dates were wrong, she reasoned, “the contemplation of the doctrine itself and those connected with it, must produce a good influence on the heart.” To Theodore she pled, “Dearest, all I want you to do is to study the Bible” in reference to “these glorious truths. Shall one be taken and the other left destroyed with the world of wicked? O my Theodore, let us pray to be made pure and holy as he is.”26
The disappointment of October 22, 1844, confirmed for Angelina the spiritual interpretation she had previously considered. Christ’s second coming was to be “in the hearts of the people” rather than a bodily descent, she wrote to Sarah in January 1845. Like the founders of Seventh-day Adventism, Angelina remained convinced of the validity of William Miller’s calculation regarding the fulfillment of the 2300-day prophecy. Her understanding of the event signified by the “cleansing of the sanctuary” differed from theirs yet also bore striking similarities. Angelina believed that the prophecy marked the conclusion of “the great prophetic periods,” bringing humanity into an “epoch of judgment.” This time of judgment must proceed prior to the Second Advent, though its duration was not revealed. “The coming out from the nominal Church” during this epoch was the separation of the wheat from the tares that Jesus foretold to take place at the end of the age. She also connected this judgment with the “sitting of the Ancient of Days” for the great judgment depicted in Daniel 7: “Truth must sit in judgment upon all human organization – Political, Ecclesiastical, and Social before she can triumph over all error.”27
Though Angelina never returned to the frenetic, full-time activism of the late 1830s, she remained passionate about radical reform in allegiance to Christ’s Kingdom. She alternated domestic responsibilities with teaching at the school she established with her husband and sister, and with occasional speaking and writing for reform causes. In one of their last public actions, the Grimké sisters, as officers of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association in 1870, led women on a march to a polling place in Hyde Park, near Boston, where, as a protest against their disenfranchisement, they placed their ballots in a symbolic ballot box. In the years that followed, Angelina was paralyzed by strokes.28 She died in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, on October 26, 1879, at age 74.29
Catherine H. Birney, the first biographer of Angelina Grimké Weld and her sister, Sarah, called them “the first American woman advocates of abolition and woman’s rights.” The claim is not precisely true—African American writer and lay preacher Maria W. Stewart, for instance, preceded them by four or five years.30 Yet, a decade before reformers of greater fame, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, did so at Seneca Falls in 1848, the Grimké sisters confronted antebellum America with the imperative of equal rights for women. They challenged entrenched authority with courage born of intense devotion to Christ and radical conviction derived from immersion in the Bible.
For Angelina Grimké Weld, the Second Advent message represented an extension of these commitments. The movement did not lead her to a spiritual home in any human organization, but it gave her a hope beyond the grim reality of corrupt, judgment-bound institutions of human rulership. She wrote:
I fully believe in the downfall of every Earthly throne and the overthrow of every political government—the annihilation of every Ecclesiastical Establishment and the dissolution of every sect and party under the sun . . . but I am calm, hopeful, happy, for I see arising out of their ruins the Everlasting kingdom of God.31
Abzug, Robert H. Theodore Dwight Weld and the Dilemma of Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
“Angelina Emily Grimké.” FamilySearch. Accessed October 31, 2022, https://www.familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/landscape/LCXN-CD5.
Birney, Catherine H. The Grimké Sisters—Sarah and Angelina Grimké: The First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Woman’s Rights. Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1885.
Dayton, Donald W. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1976.
Graybill, Ronald D. “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection.” In The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler, 139-152. Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Grimké, Angelina E. Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836.
Grimké, Angelina E. Letters to Catherine E. Beecher, in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism. Boston: Knapp, 1838.
Lerner, Gerda. The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Perry, Mark. Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimké Family’s Journey From Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders. New York: Viking Penguin, 2001.
Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
Speicher, Anna M. The Religious World of Antislavery Women: Spirituality in the Lives of Five Abolitionist Lecturers. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
“Angelina Emily Grimké,” FamilySearch, accessed October 31, 2022, https://www.familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/landscape/LCXN-CD5; Mark Perry, Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimké Family’s Journey From Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders (New York: Viking Penguin, 2001), xx, 13-17.↩
Anna M. Speicher, The Religious World of Antislavery Women: Spirituality in the Lives of Five Abolitionist Lecturers (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 21-22.↩
Speicher, The Religious World of Antislavery Women, 24-25.↩
Letter from A.E. Grimké to “Respected Friend,” published under “Christian Heroism,” Liberator, September 19, 1835, 19.↩
Gerda Lerner, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 95.↩
Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000), 16-19.↩
Robert H. Abzug, Theodore Dwight Weld and the Dilemma of Reform (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 150-152.↩
Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 23, 29.↩
Ibid., 23, 29.↩
“Pastoral Letter: The General Association of Massachusetts to Churches under Their Care,” July 1837, in Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 119-121.↩
From Angelina E. Grimké, Letters to Catherine E. Beecher, in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism (Boston: Knapp, 1838), reprinted in Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 143-144.↩
Angelina E. Grimké to Theodore Dwight Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier, August 20, 1837, in Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 133.↩
Lerner, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina, 7-9.↩
Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1976), 32-33.↩
Catherine H. Birney, The Grimké Sisters—Sarah and Angelina Grimké: The First American Women Advocates of Abolition and Woman’s Rights (Boston: Lee and Shephard, 1885(, 231-234.↩
Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 43.↩
“Angelina Emily Grimké,” FamilySearch.↩
Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, 31.↩
Angelina Grimké Weld to Theodore Weld, January 3, 1842, quoted in Speicher, The Religious World of Antislavery Women, 133.↩
Quoted in Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, 33.↩
Angelina Grimké Weld to Theodore Dwight Weld, January 30, 1843, quoted in Ronald D. Graybill, “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” in The Disappointed: Millerism and Millenarianism in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Ronald L. Numbers and Jonathan M. Butler (Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987), 145.↩
Angelina Grimké Weld to Theodore Weld and Sarah Grimké, May 1, 1842, quoted in Speicher, The Religious World of Antislavery Women, 134.↩
Graybill, “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” 145; Jonathan Gomide, “Litch, Josiah (1809–1886),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, September 22, 2020, accessed November 1, 2022, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=59OZ.↩
Angelina Grimké Weld to Theodore Dwight Weld, March 15, 1843, quoted in Graybill, “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” 147.↩
Angelina Grimké Weld to Theodore Dwight Weld, [n.d.], 1843, quoted in Graybill, “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” 146.↩
Angelina Grimké Weld to Sarah Grimké, January 1845, quoted in Graybill, “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” 148; see also Speicher, The Religious World of Antislavery Women, 135-136.↩
Speicher, The Religious World of Antislavery Women, 126-129, 139-140.↩
“Angelina Emily Grimké,” FamilySearch.↩
Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 79-83.↩
Angelina Grimké Weld to Sarah Grimké, January 1845, quoted in Graybill, “The Abolitionist-Millerite Connection,” 147,↩