“When I Speak of This System”: Southern Heritage and the Grimké Sisters

Sarah Moore Grimké and Angelina Emily GrimkéSarah Moore Grimké and Angelina Emily Grimké. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Although the Confederate Battle Flag has been removed from its flagpole on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia, a debate is now taking place across the South and the country about the presence of symbols that commemorate the Confederacy, slave owners, and the institution of slavery itself. The debate is wide ranging and far reaching, from individual southern communities to the campus of Yale University to the halls of Congress. It has met with no small amount of public resistance, even as it has spurred an impressive nation-wide history lesson on the white supremacist roots of Confederate symbols. But the question remains: how should Confederate history be remembered? Should it be whitewashed, or used as a moral lesson? How can the South reconcile its oppressive past with a progressive future? A template for remembering the southern past may exist in the persons of Angelina and Sarah Grimké, two southern women who stood against the system of slavery despite their natural place within it.

The Grimké sisters were born thirteen years apart – Sarah in 1792 and Angelina in 1805 – into a wealthy and influential South Carolina planter family in Charleston. As women in a deeply patriarchal society, Sarah and Angelina grew up under expectations that they would demurely accept the world around them and their place in it, but each independently rejected those expectations. Sarah remembered her childhood as idyllic but for one thing: “[s]lavery was a millstone about my neck, and marred my comfort from the time I can remember myself.” Deeply religious, she illicitly provided biblical lessons to her father’s and her brother’s slaves. Still, as a woman in the nineteenth-century South, speaking out publicly against the institution of slavery was a practical impossibility. By the early 1820s, she had moved to Philadelphia and become a Quaker, eager to explore issues of social justice through a religious lens.

Angelina experienced a similar path. Whereas Sarah had often sought to work quietly against the system at home, Angelina was more outspoken, refusing to acknowledge the strict codes of conduct that defined life for both women and slaves in the South. She, too, became a Quaker, but came to view the Carolina Quaker community as too timid. Inclined toward a more fiery opposition to injustice, Angelina followed her sister to Philadelphia.

In Philadelphia, the Grimkés became part of a growing abolitionist movement. Before the late 1820s and early 1830s, very few white Americans – northern or southern – publicly opposed slavery on moral grounds. Still, a growing spirit of reform, spurred on in part by Second Great Awakening ministers who preached the importance of personal religious experience and social consciousness, helped to foster a small abolitionist community in several northern cities, most notably Boston and Philadelphia. Their activity was countered by a growing religious movement in the South, which used the Bible to argue in favor of slavery; indeed, southern white ministers were among the strongest philosophical defenders of slavery, which was cast as a great civilizing power. It was to this theological divide that Sarah directed her “Epistle to the Southern Clergy” in 1836.

“To my dear native land, to the beloved relatives who are still breathing her tainted air, to the ministers of Christ, from some of whom I have received the emblems of a Saviour’s love,” she began. Then she launched into an attempt to dismantle religious justifications for slavery. Making use of historical and theological analysis, she attacked the idea that American slavery was akin to that practiced by the Hebrews, quoting Exodus 21:16: “he that stealeth a man and selleth him…shall surely be put to death.” Point by point, she tore down what she saw as a perversion of biblical teachings to support the peculiar institution, and exposed the method by which southern politicians used these justifications to extend slavery itself. She laid these perversions at the feet of the southern clergy directly: “[t]his is the sin which the Church is fostering in her bosom – This is the leprosy over which she is casting the mantle of charity, to hide, if possible, the ‘putrefying sores’…can ye any longer with your eyes fixed upon the Cross of Christ, plant your foot on his injured representative, and sanction and sanctify this heart-breaking, this soul destroying system?”

The Grimkés’ appeal to southern morality did not stop at the church. Though, in the nineteenth century, men were generally believed to be the moral actors within society, the concept of “Republican motherhood” gave rise to an image of American women as the moral actors within the home itself. Reflecting this idea, the Grimkés saw Southern women as a prime target for agitation on slavery, which was after all a domestic institution even as it grew in national importance.

In the same year that her sister wrote her “Epistle to the Southern Clergy,” Angelina Grimké wrote a landmark pamphlet. “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” argued that slavery meant the destruction of slave families. Angelina called on southern women “to abolish the institution of slavery; no longer to subject woman to the scourge and the chain, to mental darkness and moral degradation; no longer to tear husbands from their wives, and children from their parents…” Slavery was not simply inhuman to those who toiled under it, she argued, but also a sin for those who imposed it. Angelina argued that southern women should work upon their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons to give up slavery, lest it threaten their mortal souls: “[p]ray too for the master that his heart may be softened’” before he himself was judged and eternally damned.

Like many other abolitionist texts of the era, the Grimké sisters’ writings were fiercely opposed in the South. While many of their writings reached southerners, many others were burned or intercepted in the mails by citizens of a South that was increasingly attempting to close itself off from the world. Angelina and Sarah never returned to their southern home. They continued to write and teach from the North about the evils of slavery and the need for a moral revolution in the South. As it happened, such a moral revolution never took place; slavery was cleansed, but through fire, and not as thoroughly or as deeply as the Grimkés hoped. In part, this was because that revolution was imposed from the outside, rather than through their preferred tactics of homegrown moral persuasion.

Now we stand at another moment of resolution: a historical tipping point where what had once been sacrosanct across the South – the myth and legacy of the Lost Cause and the notion of an honorable Confederacy – has begun to crumble. Some opponents have, again, seen this change as the will of “outsiders;” one South Carolina state representative even likened the push to remove symbols of the Confederacy to “cultural genocide.” Yet there has been another, growing, hopeful trend in this debate: white southerners – many with deep roots in the segregationist South – have taken a moral stand against the ugly history that the Confederacy and its flag represent. These people, whether they are aware of it or not, are following in the footsteps of the Grimké sisters: they are attacking the edifice from the inside, speaking truth to their own power in an effort to create a more just South. Perhaps this is where we can start rebuilding southern – and American – heritage: not by pretending its ugliest aspects don’t exist, but by becoming comfortable with our discomfort and by trying to right it, as the Grimkés did.

About the Author

Andrew Lipsett

Andrew Lipsett teaches United States History at Billerica Memorial High School in Billerica, MA. His interests include race, identity, and membership, and he blogs about history, memory, and memorialization at Graves of Note.

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  1. Thanks, Mr. Lipsett, for a wonderful reminder that America’s great historical figures are not restricted to a gender or particular section of the country. Like you, I teach a US History course to high school students. As teacher, I find your article to be superb in that it chips away at the general impression of young people that the fight against slavery, and by extension racial inequality, was an effort borne on the backs of ‘White’ males. Your article offers an excellent example of the vital efforts of women, and by extension ‘non-Whites’, in that struggle. I would like to pose a question for further debate here and any other locale where like-minded citizens congregate: Can the argument against a benign Confederate heritage be consistently and thoroughly supported on religious (Biblical) grounds?

    I raise this question because our history is loaded with sermons ‘for’ and ‘against’ the enslavement of humans. While Sarah and Angelina challenged the institution wonderfully by citing chapter and verse (Exodus 21:16, for example), preachers have countered by describing the prophet Abraham’s life as a slaveowner. This is truly the situation Pres. Lincoln alluded to in his Second Inaugural Address. In that iconic speech, the president lamented that in this scenario only war could reveal God’s Will, which is ‘righteous’ and ‘true’. 150 years later, are we not still trying to ‘divine’ the divine truth? (Word-play intended).

    In class I will encourage my students to explore this question further, however, as teacher, I’ll center my content on the US Constitution. The topic of Slavery is dominant within the midsection of our curriculum. Perfectly situated to pose the question to students: “…Can any nation, so concieved and so dedicated, long endure…”? Reference to the divine is prominent in the Declaration of Independence (and to ‘piety’ in the US Constitution). Urging my students to bridge religion and political theory as it relates to the institution of slavery should make for some interesting debate/ discussion.

  2. Hi Mr. V – certainly an interesting question, and far from one that I’m able to answer for you, though I’d submit that Sarah Grimké herself laid out just such a case. I wonder if the premise of the question misses the point: that is, it’s irrelevant whether a Biblical case can be made that supports either side consistently and thoroughly, but it’s highly relevant that both sides attempted to use Biblical justifications. I’d hope that religious ‘proof’ or no, the question of slavery’s morality is sort of closed. But for students to understand the different ways in which groups used the same cultural touchstones – freedom, liberty, piety – to argue for vastly different things is a crucial step to understanding both the immediate issues of the Civil War and more general issues of history and historiography. In other words, why try to find that biblical proof? Instead, help your students see why each side sought it for themselves, and how they did so.

    Thanks for the great comment!

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