Academic journal article The Historian

"Bowed in the Dust": Guilt and Conscience in the Life of Angelina Grimke Weld

Academic journal article The Historian

"Bowed in the Dust": Guilt and Conscience in the Life of Angelina Grimke Weld

Article excerpt

"[I] HAVE SUFFERED very much from Slavery within the last 3 days & today my soul is bowed in the dust...." (1) Twenty-four-year-old Angelina Grimke (1805-79) wrote these words in her diary shortly before making a decision to leave Charleston, South Carolina, her birthplace. Though she did not know it at the time, Grimke would never return, nor would she ever again see her mother, with whom she had a tumultuous albeit caring relationship. By the time she left Charleston for Philadelphia, Grimke had already demonstrated her independent-minded spirit. Influenced by her older sister and godmother Sarah (1792-1873), she rejected the Episcopalian Church of her roots at a young age and insisted on following her own conscience on matters of faith. She embraced Presbyterianism and later the Society of Friends, a small community in Charleston indeed. Eventually, after her excommunication for marrying outside of the Quaker fold, Grimke, Sarah, and Angelina's husband Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-95) would adopt a non-institutional "religion of humanity."

Despite her own family's slaveholding status, Grimke rejected slavery. Upon reaching the North, Grimke took up the anti-slavery cause, and she and Sarah became two of the best-known and controversial abolitionist lecturers in the country. A determined Grimke spoke at the height of her fame in a Pennsylvania Hall in May 1838, shouting over an angry mob that had gathered to disrupt an anti-slavery convention: "I thank the Lord that there is yet left life enough to feel the truth, even though it rages at it--that conscience is not so completely seared as to be unmoved by the truth of the living God." (2)

Grimke's conscience shaped her life and career. Even as a young child she wrestled with questions about slavery. Her life has been well-documented over the past 50 years by historians who have skillfully explained her journey from a member of a reputable, slave-owning Charleston family to a controversial advocate for immediate abolition. (3) After deciding to leave Charleston in 1829, Angelina became quickly disillusioned with the Orthodox Quaker community with which she and her sister Sarah associated in Philadelphia, began to read abolitionist publications and started to attend meetings of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. She gained national attention when William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79) published her letter supporting abolitionism in The Liberator in 1835 and after her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South was issued a year later. (4) An agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society [AASS], she traveled with Sarah throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, speaking to audiences about the immorality of slavery. Charged with addressing "promiscuous" audiences of both women and men, opponents attacked her as a "Devil-ina," but she continued to rely upon the power of the conscience in her messages.

It was in her capacity as abolitionist lecturer that she met Theodore Dwight Weld, a leader of the famous Lane Seminary rebels and an immediatist abolitionist known at one time as the "most mobbed man in America." (5) Grimke and Weld married in 1838. That same year, she spoke before a committee of the Massachusetts legislature, the first time that a woman testified before an American legislative body, and in May (a few days after her wedding) she delivered her speech at Pennsylvania Hall. While Grimke gave up most of her time in the national limelight after marriage, she and Sarah participated in local campaigns, and the sisters maintained their influence through personal connections with other movement leaders. (6) She died on 26 October 1879, having lived her life on her own terms--terms shaped by spiritually-inspired ideas of right and wrong.

Grimke's conscience-directed life in many ways places her soundly within the nineteenth-century American cultural context and it certainly reflects an important aspect of abolition culture. …

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