Angelina Grimké (1805–1879) strikes a note of loving concern mingled with informed instruction and reproof in this letter to her slaveholding sisters in the faith. Grimké had been raised on a plantation in South Carolina and knew firsthand the evils of slavery for both the enslaved person and the enslaver. Although her parents were committed members of the Episcopal Church, Grimké refused to be confirmed in their denomination, insisting that she found too much to disagree with in the church’s statement of faith. For a time, she embraced Presbyterianism, but after her repeated attempts to convince her fellow congregants in the city of Charleston to voluntarily abandon slavery were ignored, Grimké became a Quaker. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Philadelphia, where she and her older sister, Sarah Grimké, took on a prominent role as speakers and authors for William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist group.
In her Appeal, Grimké makes an argument not only for why Christian women ought to be concerned about abolition in particular, but also for why such women might consider it their duty to take a broader interest in helping to shape the nation’s conversation on public policy questions related to morality of all kinds.
Source: Angelina Grimke, Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1836).
Then Mordecai commanded to answer Esther, “Think not within thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house more than all the Jews. For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shall there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place: but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed: and who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this.” And Esther bade them return Mordecai this answer: “and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to law, and if I perish, I perish.”
Esther IV. 13-16.
It is because I feel a deep and tender interest in your present and eternal welfare that I am willing thus publicly to address you. . . . I feel an interest in you, as branches of the same vine from whose root I daily draw the principle of spiritual vitality—Yes! Sisters in Christ I feel an interest in you, and often has the secret prayer arisen on your behalf, Lord “open thou their eyes that they may see wondrous things out of thy Law”—It is then, because I do feel and do pray for you, that I thus address you upon a subject about which of all others, perhaps you would rather not hear anything; but, “would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly, and indeed bear with me, for I am jealous over you with godly jealousy.” Be not afraid then to read my appeal; it is not written in the heat of passion or prejudice, but in that solemn calmness which is the result of conviction and duty. It is true, I am going to tell you unwelcome truths, but I mean to speak those truths in love, and remember Solomon says, “faithful are the wounds of a friend.” I do not believe the time has yet come when Christian women “will not endure sound doctrine,” even on the subject of Slavery, if it is spoken to them in tenderness and love, therefore I now address you.
. . . It will be, and that very soon, clearly perceived and fully acknowledged by all the virtuous and the candid, that in principle it is as sinful to hold a human being in bondage who has been born in Carolina, as one who has been born in Africa. All that sophistry of argument which has been employed to prove, that although it is sinful to send to Africa to procure men and women as slaves, who, have never been in slavery, that still, it is not sinful to keep those in bondage who have come down by inheritance, will be utterly over thrown. We must come back to the good old doctrine of our fore fathers who declared to the world, “this self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights among which are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is even a greater absurdity to suppose a man can be legally born a slave under our free Republican Government, than under the petty despotisms of barbarian Africa. If then, we have no right to enslave an African, surely we can have none to enslave an American; if a self-evident truth that all men everywhere and of every color are born equal, and have an inalienable right to liberty, then it is equally true that no man can be born a slave, and no man can ever rightfully be reduced to involuntary bondage and held as a slave, however fair may be the claim of his master or mistress through wills and title-deeds.
But after all, it may be said, our fathers were certainly mistaken, for the Bible sanctions Slavery, and that is the highest authority. Now the Bible is my ultimate appeal in all matters of faith and practice, and it is to this test I am anxious to bring the subject at issue between us. Let us then begin with Adam and examine the charter of privileges which was given to him. “Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” . . . And after the flood when this charter of human rights was renewed, we find no additional power vested in man. “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and every fowl of the air, and upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea, into your hand are they delivered.” In this charter, although the different kinds of irrational beings are so particularly enumerated, and supreme dominion over all of them is granted, yet man is never vested with this dominion over his fellow man; he was never told that any of the human species were put under his feet; it was only all things, and man, who was created in the image of his Maker, never can properly be termed a thing, though the laws of Slave States do call him “a chattel personal;” Man then, I assert never was put under the feet of man, by that first charter of human rights which was given by God, to the Fathers of the Antediluvian and Postdiluvian worlds, therefore this doctrine of equality is based on the Bible.
. . . There are however two other laws which I have not yet noticed. The one effectually prevented all involuntary servitude, and the other completely abolished Jewish servitude every fifty years. They were equally operative upon the Heathen and the Hebrew.
- “Thou shall notdeliver unto his master the servant that is escaped from his master unto thee. He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose, in one of thy gates where it liketh him best: thou shall not oppress him.” Deut. 23:15, 16.
- “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim Libertythroughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you.” Lev. 25:10.
Here, then, we see that by this first law, the door of freedom was opened wide to every servant who had any cause whatever for complaint; if he was unhappy with his master, all he had to do was to leave him, and no man had a right to deliver him back to him again, and not only so, but the absconded servant was to choose where lie should live, and no Jew was permitted to oppress him. . . . Is it so at the South? Is the poor runaway slave protected by law from the violence of that master whose oppression and cruelty has driven him from his plantation or his house? No! No! Even the free states of the North are compelled to deliver unto his master the servant that is escaped from his master into them. . . .
But by the second of these laws a still more astonishing fact is disclosed. If the first effectually prevented all involuntary servitude, the last absolutely forbade even voluntary servitude being perpetual. On the great Day of Atonement every fiftieth year the Jubilee trumpet was sounded throughout the land of Judea, and Liberty was proclaimed to all the inhabitants thereof. I will not say that the servants’ chains fell off and their manacles were burst, for there is no evidence that Jewish servants ever felt the weight of iron chains, and collars, and handcuffs; but I do say that even the man who had voluntarily sold himself and the heathen who had been sold to a Hebrew master, were set free, the one as well as the other. This law was evidently designed to prevent the oppression of the poor, and the possibility of such a thing as perpetual servitude existing among them.
Where, then, I would ask, is the warrant, the justification, or the palliation of American slavery from Hebrew servitude? How many of the southern slaves would now be in bondage according to the laws of Moses; Not one.
. . . But perhaps you will be ready to query, why appeal to women on this subject? We do not make the laws which perpetuate slavery. No legislative power is vested in us; we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken. You can do much in every way: four things I will name. 1st. You can read on this subject. 2d. You can pray over this subject. 3d. You can speak on this subject. 4th. You can act on this subject. I have not placed reading before praying because I regard it more important, but because, in order to pray aright, we must understand what we are praying for; it is only then we can “pray with the understanding, and the spirit also.”
- Read then on the subject of slavery. Search the Scriptures daily, whether the things I have told you are true. Other books and papers might be a great help to you in this investigation, but they are not necessary, and it is hardly probable that your Committees of Vigilance will allow you to have any other. The Biblethen is the book I want you to read in the spirit of inquiry, and the spirit of prayer. Even the enemies of abolitionists, acknowledge that their doctrines are drawn from it. In the great mob in Boston, last autumn, when the books and papers of the Anti-Slavery Society, were thrown out of the windows of their office, one individual laid hold of the Bible and was about tossing it out to the ground, when another reminded him that it was the Bible be had in his hand. “O! ’tis all one,” he replied, and out went the sacred volume, along with the rest. We thank him for the acknowledgment. Yes, “it is all one,”for our books and papers are mostly commentaries on the Bible, and the Declaration. Read the Bible then, it contains the words of Jesus, and they are spirit and life. Judge for yourselves whether he sanctioned such a system of oppression and crime.
- Pray over this subject. When you have entered into your closets, and shut to the doors, then pray to your father, who sees in secret, that he would open your eyes to see whether slavery is sinful, and if it is, that he would enable you to bear a faithful, open and unshrinking testimony against it, and to do whatsoever your hands find to do, leaving the consequences entirely to him, who still says to us whenever we try to reason away duty from the fear of consequences, “What is that to thee, follow thou me.”Pray also for that poor slave, that he may be kept patient and submissive under his hard lot, until God is pleased to open the door of freedom to him without violence or bloodshed. Pray too for the master that his heart may be softened, and he made willing to acknowledge, as Joseph’s brethren did, “Verily we are guilty concerning our brother,” before he will be compelled to add in consequence of Divine judgment, “therefore is all this evil come upon us.” Pray also for all your brethren and sisters who are laboring in the righteous cause of emancipation in the Northern States, England and the world. There is great encouragement for prayer in these words of our Lord. “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will giveit to you”—Pray then without ceasing, in the closet and the social circle.
- Speak on this subject. It is through the tongue, the pen, and the press, that truth is principally propagated. Speak then to your relatives, your friends, your acquaintances on the subject of slavery; be not afraid if you are conscientiously convinced it is sinful, to say so openly, but calmly, and to let your sentiments be known. If you are served by the slaves of others, try to ameliorate their condition as much as possible; never aggravate their faults, and thus add fuel to the fire of anger already kindled, in a master and mistress’s bosom; remember their extreme ignorance, and consider them as your Heavenly Father does the less culpable on this account, even when they do wrong things. Discountenance all cruelty to them, all starvation, all corporal chastisement; these may brutalize and break their spirits, but will never bend them to willing, cheerful obedience. If possible, see that they are comfortably and seasonably fed, whether in the house or the field; it is unreasonable and cruel to expect slaves to wait for their breakfast until eleven o’clock, when they rise at five or six. Do all you can, to induce their owners to clothe them well, and to allow them many little indulgences which would contribute to their comfort. Above all, try to persuade your husband, father, brothers and sons, that slavery is a crime against God and man, and that it is a great sin to keep human beings in such abject ignorance; to deny them the privilege of learning to read and write. The Catholics are universally condemned, for denying the Bible to the common people, but, slaveholders must not blame them, for they are doing the very same thing, and for the very same reason, neither of these systems can bear the light which bursts from the pages of that Holy Book. And lastly, endeavor to inculcate submission on the part of the slaves, but whilst doing this be faithful in pleading the cause of the oppressed.
Will you behold unheeding,
Life’s holiest feelings crushed,
Where woman’s heart is bleeding,
Shall woman’s voice be hushed?
- Act on this subject. Some of you own slaves yourselves. If you believe slavery is sinful, set them at liberty, “undo the heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free.” If they wish to remain with you, pay them wages, if not let them leave you. Should they remain teach them, and have them taught the common branches of an English education; they have minds and those minds ought to be improved. So precious a talent as intellect, never was given to be wrapt in a napkin and buried in the earth. It is the duty of all, as far as they can, to improve their own menial faculties, because we are commanded to love God with all our minds, as well as with all our hearts, and we commit a great sin, if we forbid or prevent that cultivation of the mind in others, which would enable them to perform this duty. Teach your servants then to read &c, and encourage them to believe it is their duty to learn, if it were only that they might read the Bible.
But some of you will say, we can neither free our slaves nor teach them to read, for the laws of our state forbid it. Be not surprised when I say such wicked laws ought to be no barrier in the way of your duty, and I appeal to the Bible to prove this position. What was the conduct of Shiphrah and Puah, when the king of Egypt issued his cruel mandate, with regard to the Hebrew children? “They feared God, and did not as the King of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive.” Did these women do right in disobeying that monarch? “Therefore (says the sacred text,) God dealt well with them, and made them houses.” What was the conduct of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, when Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image in the plain of Dura, and commanded all people, nations, and languages, to fall down and worship it? “Be it known, unto thee, (said these faithful Jews) O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the image which thou hast set up.” Did these men do right in disobeying the law of their sovereign? Let their miraculous deliverance from the burning fiery furnace, answer; What was the conduct of Daniel, when Darius made a firm decree that no one should ask a petition of any man or God for thirty days? Did the prophet cease to pray? No! “When Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went into his house, and his windows being open towards Jerusalem, he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he did aforetime.” Did Daniel do right thus to break the law of his king? Let his wonderful deliverance out of the mouths of the lions answer. Look, too, at the Apostles Peter and John. When the rulers of the Jews, “commanded them not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus,” what did they say? “Whether it be right in the sight of God, to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.” And what did they do “They spake the word of God with boldness, and with great power gave the Apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus;” although this was the very doctrine, for the preaching of which, they had just been cast into prison, and further threatened. Did these men do right? I leave you to answer, who now enjoy the benefits of their labors and sufferings, in that Gospel they dared to preach when positively commanded not to teach any more in the name of Jesus. . . .
I know that this doctrine of obeying God, rather than man, will be considered as dangerous, and heretical by many, but I am not afraid openly to avow it, because it is the doctrine of the Bible; but I would not be understood to advocate resistance to any law however oppressive, if, in obeying it, I was not obliged to commit sin. If for instance, there was a law, which imposed imprisonment or a fine upon me if I manumitted a slave, I would on no account resist that law, I would set the slave free, and then go to prison or pay the fine. If a law commands me to sin I will break it; if it calls me to suffer, I will let it take its course unresistingly. The doctrine of blind obedience and unqualified submission to any human power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is the doctrine of despotism, and ought to have no place among Republicans and Christians.
. . . And what, I would ask in conclusion, have women done for the great and glorious cause of emancipation? Who wrote that pamphlet which moved the heart of Wilberforce to pray over the wrongs, and his tongue to plead the cause of the oppressed African? It was a woman, Elizabeth Heyrick. Who labored assiduously to keep the sufferings of the slave continually before the British public? They were women. And how did they do it? By their needles, paint brushes and pens, by speaking the truth, and petitioning Parliament for the abolition of slavery. And what was the effect of their labors? Read it in the emancipation bill of Great Britain. Read it, in the present state of her West India Colonies. Read it, in the impulse which has been given to the cause of freedom, in the United States of America. Have English women then done so much for the Negro, and shall American women do nothing? Oh no! Already are there sixty female Anti-Slavery Societies in operation. These are doing just what the English women did, telling the story of the colored man’s wrongs, praying for his deliverance, and presenting his kneeling image constantly before the public eye on bags and needle-books, card-racks, pen-wipers, pin-cushions, &c. Even the children of the north are inscribing on their handy work, “May the points of our needles prick the slaveholder’s conscience.” Some of the reports of these Societies exhibit not only considerable talent, but a deep sense of religious duty, and a determination to persevere through evil as well as good report, until every scourge, and every shackle, is buried under the feet of the manumitted slave.
The Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society of Boston was called last fall, to a severe trial of their faith and constancy. They were mobbed by “the gentlemen of property and standing,” in that city at their anniversary meeting, and their lives were jeoparded by an infuriated crowd; but their conduct on that occasion did credit to our sex, and affords a full assurance that they will never abandon the cause of the slave. The pamphlet, Right and Wrong in Boston, issued by them in which a particular account is given of that “mob of broad cloth in broad day,” does equal credit to the head and the heart of her who wrote it. I wish my Southern sisters could read it; they would then understand that the women of the North have engaged in this work from a sense of religious duty, and that nothing will ever induce them to take their hands from it until it is fully accomplished. They feel no hostility to you, no bitterness or wrath; they rather sympathize in your trials and difficulties; but they well know that the first thing to be done to help you, is to pour in the light of truth on your minds, to urge you to reflect on, and pray over the subject. This is all they can do for you, you must work out your own deliverance with fear and trembling, and with the direction and blessing of God, you can do it. Northern women may labor to produce a correct public opinion at the North, but if Southern women sit down in listless indifference and criminal idleness, public opinion cannot be rectified and purified at the South. It is manifest to every reflecting mind, that slavery must be abolished; the era in which we live, and the light which is overspreading the whole world on this subject, clearly show that the time cannot be distant when it will be done. Now there are only two ways in which it can be affected, by moral power or physical force, and it is for you to choose which of these you prefer. Slavery always has, and always will produce insurrections wherever it exists, because it is a violation of the natural order of things, and no human power can much longer perpetuate it. . . .
. . . [M]y object has been to arouse you, as the wives and mothers, the daughters and sisters, of the South, to a sense of your duty as women, and as Christian women, on that great subject, which has already shaken our country, from the St. Lawrence and the lakes, to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Mississippi to the shores of the Atlantic; and will continue mightily to shake it, until the polluted temple of slavery fall and crumble into ruin. . . .
. . . Can you not, my friends, understand the signs of the times; do you not see the sword of retributive justice hanging over the South or are you still slumbering at your posts?—Are there no Shiphrahs, no Puahs among you, who wilt dare in Christian firmness and Christian meekness, to refuse to obey the wicked laws which require woman to enslave, to degrade and to brutalize woman? Are there no Miriams, who would rejoice to lead out the captive daughters of the Southern States to liberty and light? Are there no Huldahs there who will dare to speak the truth concerning the sins of the people and those judgments, which it requires no prophet’s eye to see, must follow if repentance is not speedily sought? Is there no Esther among you, who will plead for the poor devoted slave? Read the history of this Persian queen, it is full of instruction; she at first refused to plead for the Jews; but, hear the words of Mordecai, “Think not within thyself, that thou shalt escape in the king’s house more than all the Jews, for if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then shalt there enlargement and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place: but thou and thy father’s house shall be destroyed.” Listen, too, to her magnanimous reply to this powerful appeal; “I will go in unto the king, which is not according to law, and if I perish, I perish.” Yes! if there were but one Esther at the South, she might save her country from ruin; but let the Christian women there arise, as the Christian women of Great Britain did, in the majesty of moral power, and that salvation is certain. Let them embody themselves in societies, and send petitions up to their different legislatures, entreating their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, 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; no longer to make men, women, and children, work without wages; no longer to make their lives bitter in hard bondage; no longer to reduce American citizens to the abject condition of slaves, of “chattels personal;” no longer to barter the image of God in human shambles for corruptible things such as silver and gold.
The women of the South can overthrow this horrible system of oppression and cruelty, licentiousness and wrong. Such appeals to your legislatures would be irresistible, for there is something in the heart of man which will bend under moral suasion. There is a swift witness for truth in his bosom, which will respond to truth when it is uttered with calmness and dignity. If you could obtain but six signatures to such a petition in only one state, I would say, send up that petition, and be not in the least discouraged by the scoffs, and jeers of the heartless, or the resolution of the house to lay it on the table. It will be a great thing if the subject can be introduced into your legislatures in any way, even by women, and they will be the most likely to introduce it there in the best possible manner, as a matter of morals and religion, not of expediency or politics. You may petition, too, the different ecclesiastical bodies of the slave states. Slavery must be attacked with the whole power of truth and the sword of the spirit. You must take it up on Christian ground, and fight against it with Christian weapons, whilst your feet are shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace. And you are now loudly called upon by the cries of the widow and the orphan, to arise and gird yourselves for this great moral conflict, with the whole armor of righteousness upon the right hand and on the left.
There is every encouragement for you to labor and pray, my friends, because the abolition of slavery as well as its existence, has been the theme of prophecy. “Ethiopia (says the Psalmist) shall stretch forth her hands unto God.” And is she not now doing so? Are not the Christian negroes of the south lifting their hands in prayer for deliverance, just as the Israelites did when their redemption was drawing nigh? Are they not sighing and crying by reason of the hard bondage? And think you, that He, of whom it was said, “and God heard their groaning, and their cry came up unto him by reason of the hard bondage,” think you that his ear is heavy that he cannot now hear the cries of his suffering children? Or that He who raised up a Moses, an Aaron, and a Miriam, to bring them up out of the land of Egypt from the house of bondage, cannot now, with a high hand and a stretched-out arm, rid the poor negroes out of the hands of their masters? Surely you believe that his aim is not shortened that he cannot save. And would not such a work of mercy redound to his glory? But another string of the harp of prophecy vibrates to the song of deliverance: “But they shall sit every man under his vine, and under his fig-tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts hath spoken it.” The slave never can do this as long as he is a slave; whilst he is a “chattel personal” he can own no property; but the time is to come when every man is to sit under his own vine and his own fig-tree, and no domineering driver, or irresponsible master, or irascible mistress, shall make him afraid of the chain or the whip. Hear, too, the sweet tones of another string: “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Slavery is an insurmountable barrier to the increase of knowledge in every community where it exists; slavery, then, must be abolished before this prediction can be fulfilled. . . .
Slavery, then, must be overthrown before the prophecies can be accomplished, but how are they to be fulfilled? Will the wheels of the millennial car be rolled onward by miraculous power? No! God designs to confer this holy privilege upon man; it is through his instrumentality that the great and glorious work of reforming the world is to be done. And see you not how the mighty engine of moral power is dragging in its rear the Bible and peace societies, anti-slavery and temperance, sabbath schools, moral reform, and missions? . . .
. . . Sisters in Christ, I have done. As a Southerner, I have felt it was my duty to address you. I have endeavored to set before you the exceeding sinfulness of slavery, and to point you to the example of those noble women who have been raised up in the church to effect great revolutions, and to suffer for the truth’s sake. I have appealed to your sympathies as women, to your sense of duty as Christian women. . . . I have sowed the seeds of truth, but I well know, that even if an Apollos were to follow in my steps to water them, “God only can give the increase.” To Him then who is able to prosper the work of his servant’s hand, I commend this Appeal in fervent prayer, that as he hath “chosen the weak things of the world, to confound the things which are mighty,” so He may cause His blessing, to descend and carry conviction to the hearts of many Lydias through these speaking pages. Farewell—Count me not your “enemy because I have told you the truth,” but believe me in unfeigned affection,
Your sympathizing Friend,
- Coming from the south herself, Grimké understood the role of southern women quite well. How and why does she pitch her Appeal to capitalize on societal expectations for women? Does this strengthen or weaken her argument?
- Compare Grimké’s program for reform to that of Beverly LaHaye (“Exploring the Link Between Womanhood and the Rabibinate”): how are they similar or different? Which one seems more likely to succeed, and why?
- Psalm 119:18
- 2 Corinthians 11:1–2
- Proverbs 27:6
- Genesis 1:28
- Genesis 9:2
- Genesis 42:21
- John 16:23
- from the antislavery hymn, “The Nation’s Guilt”
- Isaiah 58:6
- an allusion to Matthew 5:14–30
- two Jewish midwives who did not kill the Jewish newborn as Pharaoh had commanded, Exodus 1:15–21
- Daniel 3:16–18
- Daniel 6:10
- Acts 4:19
- Acts 4:33
- free from slavery
- a leading British abolitionist
- Matthew 16:13
- According to Micah 6:4, Miriam joined with Moses and Aaron to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.
- Huldah was an Old Testament prophetess.
- Esther, a secret Jewess and wife of a Persian King, helped save the Jews in Persia.
- Esther 4:14
- This passage alludes to Ephesians 6: 11–17.
- Psalm 68:31
- Exodus 2:23
- Micah 4:4
- Daniel 12:4
- 1 Corinthians 3:6–7
- 1 Corinthians 1:27
- Grimke refers to the conversion of Lydia in Acts 16:14.
- Galatians 4:16