Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality: The Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build

Image: Front page of Meditations by Maria W. Stewart. Library of Congress.
What are the potential criticisms of Stewart's argument, and does she have a sufficient response to any of them?
In what ways does Stewart's argument align with or depart from Rebecca Gratz's argument? Why might disadvantaged groups in America rely on education as a path to social improvement?

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Born in freedom in Hartford, Connecticut, Maria Stewart (1803–1879) was among the first African American women to speak publicly on behalf of abolition. While she was outspoken in her commitment to the cause of African American liberty, she did not shy away from shining a light on the problems she saw within the black community, exhorting her brothers and sisters to focus on proving themselves worthy of participation in the republic by the quality of their personal characters. Attain that, Stewart argued, and there would be no grounds upon which white Americans could reasonably deny black cries for inclusion in the nation’s promise of human dignity and freedom.

This speech given to an audience of free blacks in Boston was published by William Lloyd Garrison in The Liberator. Public reception of the pamphlet was not what Stewart had hoped it would be: her attempt to speak as a female prophet, rebuking both black and white Americans resulted not in reformation, but in scorn and rejection from both groups. Dejected, she all-but abandoned her speaking and writing career; instead, she concentrated on doing what she could practically to improve the lot of African Americans in the United States, serving first as a schoolteacher and later as the head matron of the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Just before she died in 1879, Stewart agreed to have a selection of her writings reprinted, dedicating them “to the Church Militant in Washington, D.C.” The message of this sermon, on the failure of American Christians both black and white to live up to the fullness of the Gospel (and, moreover, the Declaration of Independence) was just as timely in the Reconstruction Era as it had been fifty years earlier.

—Sarah A. Morgan Smith

Source: Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (Washington, D. C., 1879). We have modernized spelling and capitalization.


This is the land of freedom. The press is at liberty. Every man has a right to express his opinion. Many think, because your skins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior race of beings; but God does not consider you as such. He hath formed and fashioned you in His own glorious image, and hath bestowed upon you reason and strong powers of intellect. He hath made you to have dominion over the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the fishes of the sea. He has crowned you with glory and honor; has made you but a little lower than the angels;[1] and, according to the Constitution of these United States, he has made all men free and equal. Then why should one worm say to another, “Keep you down there, while I sit up yonder; for I am better than you.” It is not the color of the skin that makes the man, but it is the principle formed within the soul.

Many will suffer for pleading the cause of oppressed Africa, and I shall glory in being one of her martyrs; for I am firmly persuaded that the God in whom I trust is able to protect me from the rage and malice of mine enemies, and from them that will rise up against me; and if there is no other way for me to escape, He is able to take me to himself, as He did the most noble, fearless, and undaunted David Walker.[2]

Never Will Virtue, Knowledge, and True Politeness Begin to Flow till the Pure Principles of Religion and Morality Are Put Into Force

My Respected Friends: I feel almost unable to address you; almost incompetent to perform the task; and at times I have felt ready to exclaim, O that my head were waters and mine eyes a fountain of tears,[3] that I might weep day and night for the transgressions of the daughters of my people. Truly, my heart’s desire and prayer is that Ethiopia[4] might stretch forth her hands unto God. But we have a great work to do. Never; no, never will the chains of slavery and ignorance burst till we become united as one and cultivate among ourselves the pure principles of piety, morality, and virtue. I am sensible of my ignorance; but such knowledge as God has given me I impart to you. I am sensible of former prejudices; but it is high time for prejudices and animosities to cease from among us. I am sensible of exposing myself to calumny and reproach; but shall I, for fear of feeble man who shall die, hold my peace? Shall I, for fear of scoffs and frowns, refrain my tongue? Ah, no! I speak as one that must give an account at the awful bar of God; I speak as a dying mortal, to dying mortals. O you daughters of Africa, awake! awake! arise! no longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties. O you daughters of Africa! what have you done to immortalize your names beyond the grave? What examples have you set before the rising generation? What foundation have you laid for generations yet un-born? Where are our union and love? And where is our sympathy, that weeps at another’s woe and hides the faults we see? . . . Alas! O, God, forgive me if I speak amiss. The minds of our tender babes are tainted as soon as they are born; they go astray, as it were, from the womb. Where is the maiden who will blush at vulgarity? And where is the youth who has written upon his manly brow a thirst for knowledge; whose ambitious mind soars above trifles and longs for the time to come when he shall redress the wrongs of his father and plead the cause of his brethren? Did the daughters of our land possess a delicacy of manners, combined with gentleness and dignity? Did their pure minds hold vice in abhorrence and contempt; did they frown when their ears were polluted with its vile accents, would not their influence become powerful? Would not our brethren fall in love with their virtues? Their souls would become fired with a holy zeal for freedom’s cause. They would become ambitious to distinguish themselves; they would become proud to display their talents. Able advocates would arise in our defense. Knowledge would begin to flow, and the chains of slavery and ignorance would melt like wax before the flames. . . .

When I consider how little improvement has been made the last eight years; the apparent cold and indifferent state of the children of God; how few have been hopefully brought to the knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus; that our young men and maidens are fainting and drooping, as it were, by the way side for the want of knowledge; when I see how few care to distinguish themselves either in religious or moral improvement, and when I see the greater part of our community following the vain bubbles of life with so much eagerness, which will only prove to them like the serpent’s sting upon the bed of death, I really think we are in as wretched and miserable a state as was the house of Israel in the days of Jeremiah. . . .


O, Lord God, the watchmen of Zion have cried peace, peace, when there was no peace; they have been, as it were, blind leaders of the blind. Wherefore have you so long withheld from us the divine influences of thy Holy Spirit? Wherefore have you hardened our hearts and blinded our eyes? It is because we have honored you with our lips, when our hearts were far from you. We have polluted your Sabbaths, and even our most holy things have been solemn mockery to you. We have regarded iniquity in our hearts, therefore you will not hear. Return again unto us, O, Lord God, we beseech you, and pardon this, the iniquity of thy servants. Cause your face to shine upon us,[5] and we shall be saved. O visit us with your salvation. Raise up sons and daughters unto Abraham, and grant that there might come a mighty shaking of dry bones among us, and a great ingathering of souls. Quicken your professing children. Grant that the young man may be constrained to believe that there is a reality in religion, and a beauty in the fear of the Lord. Have mercy on the benighted sons and daughters of Africa. Grant that we may soon become so distinguished for our moral and religious improvements, that the nations of the earth may take knowledge of us; and grant that our cries may come up before your throne like holy incense. Grant that every daughter of Africa may consecrate her sons to you from the birth. And do you, Lord, bestow upon them wise and understanding hearts. Clothe us with humility of soul, and give us a becoming dignity of manners; may we imitate the character of the meek and lowly Jesus; and do you grant that Ethiopia may soon stretch forth her hands unto you. And now, Lord, be pleased to grant that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed; that the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ may be built up; that all nations, and kindreds, and tongues, and people might be brought to the knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus, and we at last meet around thy throne, and join in celebrating thy praises.

I have been taking a survey of the American people in my own mind, and I see them thriving in arts, and sciences, and in polite literature. Their highest aim is to excel in political, moral, and religious improvement. They early consecrate their children to God, and their youth indeed are blushing in artless innocence; they wipe the tears from the orphan’s eyes, and they cause the widow’s heart to sing for joy; and their poorest ones, who have the least wish to excel, they promote. And those that have but one talent, they encourage. But how very few are there among them that bestow one thought upon the benighted sons and daughters of Africa, who have enriched the soils of America with their tears and blood; few to promote their cause, none to encourage their talents. Under these circumstances, do not let our hearts be any longer discouraged; it is no use to murmur nor to repine, but let us promote ourselves and improve our own talents. . . .

Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.[6] Why is it, my friends, that our minds have been blinded by ignorance to the present moment? ’Tis on account of sin. Why is it that our church is involved in so much difficulty? It is on account of sin. Why is it that God has cut down, upon our right hand and upon our left the most learned and intelligent of our men? Oh, shall I say it is on account of sin! . . . The arm of the Lord is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither is his ear heavy, that he cannot hear; but it is your iniquities that have separated you from me, says the Lord.[7] Return, O you backsliding children, and I will return unto you, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.[8]

Oh, you mothers, what a responsibility rests on you! You have souls committed to your charge, and God will require a strict account of you. It is you that must create in the minds of your little girls and boys a thirst for knowledge, the love of virtue, the abhorrence of vice, and the cultivation of a pure heart. The seeds thus sown will grow with their growing years; and the love of virtue thus early formed in the soul will protect their inexperienced feet from many dangers. O, do not say, you cannot make anything of your children; but say, with the help and assistance of God, we will try. . . .

Perhaps you will say, that you cannot send them to high schools and academies. You can have them taught in the first rudiments of useful knowledge, and then you can have private teachers, who will instruct them in the higher branches: and their intelligence will become greater than ours, and their children will attain to higher advantages, and their children still higher; and then, though we are dead, our works shall live; though we are moldering, our names shall not be forgotten.

Finally, my heart’s desire and prayer to God is, that there might come a thorough reformation among us. Our minds have too long groveled in ignorance and sin. Come, let us incline our ears to wisdom, and apply our hearts to understanding;[9] promote her, and she shall exalt you; she shall bring you to honor when you do embrace her.[10] . . .

I am of a strong opinion, that the day on which we unite, heart and soul, and turn our attention to knowledge and improvement, that day the hissing and reproach among the nations of the earth against us will cease. And even those who now point at us with the finger of scorn, will aid and befriend us. It is of no use for us to sit with our hands folded, hanging our heads like bulrushes, lamenting our wretched condition; but let us make a mighty effort, and arise; and if no one will promote or respect us, let us promote and respect ourselves.

. . . Shall it any longer be said of the daughters of Africa, they have no ambition, they have no force? By no means. Let every female heart become united and let us raise a fund ourselves; and at the end of one year and a half, we might be able to lay the corner-stone for the building of a high school, that the higher branches of knowledge might be enjoyed by us; and God would raise us up, and enough to aid us in our laudable designs. Let each one strive to excel in good housewifery, knowing that prudence and economy are the road to wealth. Let us not say, we know this, or, we know that, and practice nothing; but let us practice what we do know.

How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles? Until union, knowledge, and love begin to flow among us. . . . We have never had an opportunity of displaying our talents; therefore the world thinks we know nothing. And we have been possessed of by far too mean and cowardly a disposition, though I highly disapprove of an insolent or impertinent one. Do you ask the disposition I would have you possess? Possess the spirit of independence. The Americans do, and why should not you? Possess the spirit of men, bold and enterprising, fearless and undaunted. Sue for your rights and privileges. Know the reason that you cannot attain them. Weary them with your importunities. You can but die, if you make the attempt; and we shall certainly die if you do not. The Americans have practiced nothing but headwork these 200 years, and we have done their drudgery. And is it not high time for us to imitate their examples, and practice headwork too, and keep what we have got, and get what we can? We need never to think that anybody is going to feel interested for us, if we do not feel interested for ourselves. That day we, as a people, hearken unto the voice of the Lord our God, and walk in his ways and ordinances, and become distinguished for our ease, elegance, and grace, combined with other virtues—that day the Lord will raise us up, and enough to aid and befriend us, and we shall begin to flourish.

. . . Oh, America, America, foul and indelible is your stain! Dark and dismal is the cloud that hangs over you for your cruel wrongs and injuries to the fallen sons of Africa. The blood of her murdered ones cries to heaven for vengeance against you. You art almost become drunken with the blood of her slain; you have enriched thyself through her toils and labors; and now you refuse to make even a small return. And you have caused the daughters of Africa to commit whoredoms and fornications; but upon you be their curse. . . .

. . . We will not come out against you with swords and staves, as against a thief; but we will tell you that our souls are fired with the same love of liberty and independence with which your souls are fired. We will tell you that too much of your blood flows in our veins, and too much of your color in our skins, for us not to possess your spirits. We will tell you that it is our gold that clothes you in fine linen and purple, and causes you to fare sumptuously every day; and it is the blood of our fathers and the tears of our brethren that have enriched your soils. And we claim our rights. We will tell you that we are not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that can do no more; but we will tell you whom we do fear. We fear Him who is able, after he has killed, to destroy both soul and body in hell forever. Then, my brethren, sheath your swords, and calm your angry passions. Stand still, and know that the Lord he is God. Vengeance is his, and he will repay.[11] It is a long lane that has no turn. America has risen to her meridian. When you begin to thrive, she will begin to fall. God has raised you up a Walker and a Garrison.[12] Though Walker sleeps, yet he lives, and his name shall be held in everlasting remembrance. . . . [I]t is God alone that has inspired my heart to feel for Afric[a]’s woes. Then fret not yourself because of evil doers. Fret not yourself because of the men who bring wicked devices to pass, for they shall be cut down as the grass, and wither as the green herb. Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shall you dwell in the land, and verily you shall be fed. Encourage the noble-hearted Garrison. Prove to the world that you are neither orangutans, nor a species of mere animals, but that you possess the same powers of intellect as those of the proud-boasting American.

I am sensible, my brethren and friends, that many of you have been deprived of advantages, kept in utter ignorance, and that your minds are now darkened; and if any of you have attempted to aspire after high and noble enterprises, you have met with so much opposition that your souls have become discouraged. For this very cause a few of us have ventured to expose our lives in your behalf, to plead your cause against the great; and it will be of no use, unless you feel for yourselves and your little ones, and exhibit the spirits of men. O, then, turn your attention to knowledge and improvement; for knowledge is power. And God is able to fill you with wisdom and understanding, and to dispel your fears. Arm yourselves with the weapons of prayer. Put your trust in the living God. Persevere strictly in the paths of virtue. Let nothing be lacking on your part, and in God’s own time, and his time is certainly the best, he will surely deliver you with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm.

I have never taken one step, my friends, with a design to raise myself in your esteem or to gain applause. But what I have done has been done with an eye single to the glory of God, and to promote the good of souls. I have neither kindred nor friends. I stand alone in your midst, exposed to the fiery darts of the devil, and to the assaults of wicked men. But though all the powers of earth and hell were to combine against me, though all nature should sink into decay, still would I trust in the Lord, and joy in the God of salvation. For I am fully persuaded that he will bring me off conqueror; yea, more than conqueror, through him who has loved me and given himself for me.

  1. 1. Psalm 8:5
  2. 2. David Walker (1796–1830) was an African American abolitionist. His Walker’s Appeal (1829) was considered a radical statement of the abolitionist position.
  3. 3. Jeremiah 9:1
  4. 4. Africa
  5. 5. Numbers 6:25
  6. 6. Proverbs 14:34
  7. 7. Isaiah 59:1–2
  8. 8. Jeremiah 3:22
  9. 9. Proverbs 2:2
  10. 10. Proverbs 4:8
  11. 11. a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 32:35
  12. 12. William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) was a leading abolitionist
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