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A Family Divided
The Grimké sisters forsook their heritage to fight for abolition. Then, many years later, their brother’s terrible sin came back to haunt them.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
SIDEBAR: THE GREAT CRUSADE: 1830-63
Even before 1829, when Angelina went to Philadelphia to join Sarah in her meeting, she had become a Quaker in her own mind. She had sought out and been accepted by the only two Quakers in Charleston—two old men who met for silent worship every Sunday “in a dingy little meetinghouse on the outskirts of the city.” She had adopted the gray garb and the plain speech of the Quakers, because she felt that to do so in Charleston would indicate a protest against slavery. But the going had been hard and the results disappointing. She expected to find in the city of William Penn a richer spiritual companionship and a higher level of ethical behavior, especially on the question of slavery. “What was her amazement to find that the Religious Society of Friends, whose moral courage in rebuke of slavery had put to shame all other churches—that they had installed the ‘Negro pew’ as a permanent fixture in their house of worship!
(These and many other passages quoted here referring to Angelina’s history are taken from a sketch written by her husband after her death, and privately published by George E. Ellis of Boston, under the title In Memory. The passages quoting Wendell Phillips and Elizur Wright are taken from the same source.)
Sarah had silently endured this painful contradiction between the Friends’ “witness” and their practice for the several years she had lived among them. But Angelina encouraged her to rebel. “Whenever, in city or country, they entered a church having a Negro seat (then they all had), they found their way to it,” Weld later wrote of the sisters, “and shared with the occupants the spurning thus meted out to them.”
What distressed Angelina even more was the ban on all discussion of the subject with the meeting. Slavery had become so controversial that it threatened the unity of the group, which most Friends felt had to be preserved at any cost. But she did her best to abide by the ban and other accepted rules of conduct while she undertook a course of study and meditation designed to prepare her for a “ministry” (in the Quaker sense of that term). She was advised to turn her mind inward and to seek the “peace that passeth understanding.”
But the times were not propitious for such peace. In 1829, in the same month that Angelina came to Philadelphia, William Lloyd Garrison published the first issue of the Liberator, with its bold declaration that “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice … I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—1 will not retreat a single inch— AND I WILL BE HEARD .”
Angelina may have been one of his first subscribers. At any rate, she was a regular reader by 1835, when, as Wendell Phillips said, “our cities roared with riot, when William Lloyd Garrison was dragged through the streets… and the hatred toward the abolitionists was so bitter and merciless that the friends of Lovejoy [an Illinois antislavery publicist killed by a mob] left his grave long unmarked.”
Angelina read of Garrison’s ordeal, and she read his own “Appeal”—not for mercy, but for the freedom to go on agitating. She was so moved that she sat down and wrote him a letter. It was a strong statement of support, castigating his critics, including
those high in church and state [who] secretly approve and rejoice over the violent measures [of mobs]. … the ground you stand on is holy ground. … If you surrender it, the hope of the slave is extinguished and the chains of his servitude will be strengthened one-hundred-fold. But let no man take your crown, success is as certain as the rising of tomorrow’s sun …
If persecution will abolish slavery, it will also purify the church, and who that stands between the porch and the altar, weeping over the sins of the people, would not be willing to suffer, if such immense good will be accomplished?
She waited several days and prayed for divine guidance before she “felt easy” to send the letter. Once it was committed to the post office, however, she “felt anxiety removed, and as though I had nothing more to do with it.”
Garrison printed the whole of it, without comment except to note that the writer was “the daughter of a prominent South Carolina family, a sister of the late Thomas S. Grimké [a well-known reformer in other fields than abolition and leader of the fight against nullification and secession in his state in 1830], and a member of the Philadelphia Society of Friends.”