Angelina Grimke & Religious Liberty

Angelina Grimke & Religious Liberty


Maintaining religious liberty within the Religious Society of Friends has not always been easy. For instance, contrary to popular Quaker legend, work in the abolitionist movement was very unpopular among Friends, and especially repugnant to the entrenched power structure of recorded ministers and elders.

They thought it was “creaturely,” needlessly dangerous — and many highly-placed Friends, while not owning slaves, yet had extensive business interests connected to the slave economy. These were threatened by connections with abolition “agitation.”

The result was what I have called “The Great Purge”; many Friends were forced out of the Society, and others resigned, to uphold their antislavery principles. Even some meetings were laid down by “executive action” for being tainted by the reforming virus.

Some Friends did not wait for the Overseers and elders to show up to apply this “discipline.” 

Instead, they pre-emptively renounced their membership.  One early activist, for both abolition and women’s rights, was Abby Kelley. She left her Meeting in Connecticut in 1841, publishing her resignation letter, and insisted that she had disowned Friends, for defaulting on their own testimonies, not the other way around. 

In Philadelphia, two rising stars, Angelina and Sarah Grimke, also arranged a departure in their own unique way. Refugees and turncoats from a wealthy slaveholding family in South Carolina, they had joined Friends in Philadelphia because of the testimony against slavery. 

They had also become instant abolitionist celebrities in 1837, when they went on an antislavery lecture tour in New England. Their lectures were thronged, and they even testified before the Massachusetts legislature, the first women ever to do so. But they were rebuked and stifled by the enforced quietism of the Quaker establishment, and soon resolved to leave the Society. 

An elegant way out soon appeared, when Angelina became engaged to abolitionist activist Theodore Dwight Weld. Because Weld was not a Friend, under the existing and strictly applied rules of the Discipline, Angelina forfeited her membership when she married him on May 14, 1838 — and Sarah was disowned as well, simply for being present at the ceremony. (More Friends were expelled for such “offenses” than for any other cause.)

Lucretia Mott was a friend and supporter of the Grimkes — but she too had been the target of several disownment attempts, and she did not dare attend the wedding to avoid falling into that trap.

Indeed, Lucretia did not attend a non-Quaker wedding until 1863, twenty-five years later, when the strictures of the discipline were beginning to relax their grip:

Lucretia wrote of this in a letter to her sister Martha Wright, on Christmas Day, 1863. In it she told of the wedding of Laura Strattan, a distant cousin, who was marrying a dashing army officer, Col. Fitzhugh Birney. He was the son of James G. Birney, a prominent abolitionist who had run for president for the Liberty Party. The groom came in his dress uniform, accompanied by other soldiers. 

“They made an imposing appearance,” Lucretia wrote, “with all the awful regimentals — [William] Furness [the minister] acted well his part–the whole thing beautiful–his prayer touching– especially the close for Fitzhugh.” 

The marriage did not last long. Birney had taken part in many major battles, including Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, and he had been wounded. The exertions of extended combat broke his health, and in the spring of 1864 his health failed.  After surviving so much combat, he succumbed to pneumonia in June; Laura Strattan Birney was a war widow after less than seven months. (Harvard Memorial Biographies, Cambridge: Sever and Francis, 1867, Vol. 2, pp. 415-424)

Theirs was one tragedy among a multitude. But the significance of this report here is something else, a detail that by contrast seems trivial to the point of frivolousness, but is nonetheless portentous: 

By openly being present their nuptials that December, Lucretia Mott, aged seventy, had for the very first time attended a non-Quaker wedding, one conducted by a “hireling preacher,” in a church.  Doing so had long been grounds for immediate disownment in her Quaker world; it was why she had stayed away from Angelina Grimke’s wedding.  

But now she did it — and nothing happened. She had gained and used a new measure of religious liberty, for Friends. the “Great Purge” was ending.

More about this “Great Purge” and its religious context in my book, Remaking Friends, available here.

Religious Liberty Day: for Friends & Others

Religious Liberty Day: for Friends & Others

If I was the Quaker Pope, Fifth Month (May) 24 would be one of the biggest Quaker holidays/festivals on our [non]liturgical calendar. That’s because it is (or should be), “Religious Liberty Day.” 

It was on the 24th of Fifth Month, in 1689, that the Toleration Act, in official jargon, “received the Royal Assent,” and thus became law in England and its dominions.


Why is this important to Quakers?

Continue reading Religious Liberty Day: for Friends & Others

Some Quaker FAQs — Part 8

Some Quaker FAQs — Part 8

[Links to the previous segments in this series are here. ]

Based on several statements in Part 7,  I said I believe the Progressive Quaker view of the church is true to the best spirit of authentic and early Christian Quakerism.

I’m not alone in this view. As a key witness, I want to call on the premier theologian of early Quakerism, Robert Barclay. (Hang on; this gets a bit wonky, but I think it’s worth it.)


Q. Was Robert Barclay Really a Progressive Quaker? Continue reading Some Quaker FAQs — Part 8

The A-Team: Pundits Who DID See Trump Coming

The A-Team: Pundits Who DID SEE Trump Coming

Sure, it’s Fun To Beat Up On the Pundits Who Totally Missed Trump. (They Richly Deserve It.)

That even includes the smarmy Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, who is trying to spin his promise to eat the column he said he’d eat if Trump won the nod into what he clearly hopes will be a huuuuge  social media media event. He’s even put out a made-for-Facebook video.


Continue reading The A-Team: Pundits Who DID See Trump Coming

Happy 233rd Birthday Johannes Brahms!

Happy 233rd Birthday Johannes Brahms! (1833-1897)

Brahms’ music is not only beautiful, often profound, and richly enjoyable. It also saves lives:

The author William Styron is one example. Deep in the pit of depression in 1985, Styron came to the point of carefully planning to kill himself, with a shotgun, in a secluded spot near his home. But when he was driving there, Brahms’** Alto Rhapsody came on the radio.

[**Note to grammar cops: I KNOW it’s supposed to be “Brahms’s”; but that construction both looks and sounds dumb to me, and I choose to ignore it here.]


Continue reading Happy 233rd Birthday Johannes Brahms!

Some Quaker FAQs – Part 7

Some Quaker FAQs – Part 7

[Links to the previous segments in this series are here. ]

Q. What About Hell?

I don’t believe in hell. Just don’t. 

But why not, after all it’s in the Bible?

Well, I don’t believe that women are inferior, that gays should be killed, or that slavery is acceptable; all of which are in the Bible too. And actually, the notion of eternal hellfire is only in part of the Bible, and a pretty late entry. 

Besides, burning in hell forever is just plain unfair. It’s an endless or infinite punishment. But even the worst human crime falls well short of being “infinite.”


Continue reading Some Quaker FAQs – Part 7