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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
In the end, Sarah capitulated and offered to go with her. Angelina wrote to the Anti-Slavery Society in New York, accepting their invitation but declining the small salary they had offered: she and her sister would travel at their own expense.
It was at this turning point in her life that Angelina met Theodore Weld. For over a year the Lion of the West, as Garrison called him, had been engaged in a one-man crusade to win the whole territory west of the Hudson and north of the Ohio for abolitionism. But he had overstrained and finally ruined his voice. When the Grimké sisters arrived in New York City in November, 1836, Weld was presiding over an “agents’ convention,” training a corps of young agitators who were to be sent into the field to take up where he had had to leave off. By special permission, Angelina and Sarah were admitted to these training sessions.
Weld also did some private coaching of the sisters in advance of the first meeting at which they were to speak, a gathering of female abolitionists. In Angelina he discovered a natural talent that needed no training; instead, he helped her with advice about the logical buttressing of the truths she felt so intuitively. For Sarah he could not do much: her delivery was slow, halting, monotonous in tone. But she was a clear thinker, and did not the Book of Ecclesiastes say, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labor”?
As the day of their first meeting drew closer, opposition to it grew sharper. No public announcement of the sisters’ participation had been made, but rumor ran, and interest was so high it was decided to hold the meeting not in a private home but in the vestry of a Baptist church. Angry anonymous letters were dropped in the mailbox of the house where the sisters were lodging. More than one staunch male abolitionist called to advise them to default and spare the already embattled cause the ridicule to which they were exposing it. On the morning of the meeting itself, leaflets were distributed calling on the respectable community to turn out “and teach a lesson to [these] notoriety-seeking females.”
The sisters went to Weld for counsel.
“Slavery is on trial,” he told them. “The people of the North are the court. You are summoned as witnesses to sustain the prosecution.” And although he was fighting certain tender feelings for Angelina which he considered downright wicked in a man in his position—and would have been glad to insulate himself by putting as much distance between them as possible—he escorted her to the very door of the vestry room.
He did not, of course, attend the meeting. The presence of men, even ordained ministers, in any place where women spoke in anything but a conversational tone made an audience “promiscuous” and would have created more scandal. The all-female audience—some 300 crowded into a church vestry that accommodated 100 comfortably—were greeted by the church’s minister, who prayed for the success of their enterprise and then beat a quick retreat.
Maria Chapman (a leader in the women’s section of the abolition movement from its beginnings) introduced Angelina to the gathering. Angelina rose—and turned deathly pale. What Sarah had foreseen and dreaded was coming to pass: she was paralyzed with stage fright, unable to utter a word. She had not written out her text, and the few notes she had jotted were of no help because her eyes were swimming. All she could gasp out—too faintly to be heard beyond the first row—were some dimly remembered snatches of Scripture: “If I hold my peace, the stone would cry out of the wall, and the beam of the timber would answer it.” Then she bowed her head and prayed.
Within moments she was answered by a sudden surge of strength. Words flooded into her mind. It was the first of a series of apparent miracles that occurred at intervals during the fifteen months that followed. The gift of tongues descended upon her. Wendell Phillips later described the scene:
It was not only the testimony of one most competent to speak, but it was the profound religious experience of one who had broken out of the charmed circle. … It was when you saw she was opening some secret record of her own experience that painful silence and breathless interest told the deep effect … her words were making on minds that afterwards never rested in their work.
When Angelina had finished speaking, Sarah rose and added her testimony, in corroboration. She spoke poorly, but so earnestly that she was not without effectiveness. Before that first meeting was adjourned, a second was announced. It overflowed the vestry room and had to be moved into the church itself. There was a new chorus of outrage, in and out of the pulpit, but the witness of two southern women, once slave-owners themselves, made an impact that could not be shouted down. The sluggish liberal conscience was stirring at last.