Angelina Grimke & Religious Liberty

Angelina Grimke & Religious Liberty

Drawing & calligraphy by Charlotte Lewis.

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 widely unpopular among Friends, and especially repugnant to the entrenched power structure of recorded ministers and elders.

Abolitionist work even precipitated purges that saw whole quarterly meetings abolished by the hierarchy, and led to a formal schism in Indiana Orthodox Yearly Meeting. (Only after the Civil  War was won, and legal slavery abolished, did many prominent Friends suddenly “discover” that they had really been for “abolition” all along.)

While these authorities did oppose owning, buying or selling slaves, they also thought public activism aimed at abolishing the institution of slavery was “creaturely,” needlessly dangerous — and many highly-placed Friends, while not owning slaves, yet had extensive business interests connected to the slave economy. All 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 (later Abby Kelley Foster). 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 also 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” in those decades than for any other cause.)

Lucretia Mott was a friend and supporter of the Grimkes — but as a public speaker & abolition activist, she too had been the target of several disownment attempts, and 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 she was seventy, and when the strictures of the discipline were finally 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 he fell ill.  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 at their nuptials that December, Lucretia Mott had for the very first time attended a non-Quaker wedding, one furthermore conducted by a “hireling preacher,” in a church, with the groom in military regalia, she had defied several rules that  had long been grounds for immediate disownment in her Quaker world.

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.

There have been other struggles for religious liberty in our small Quaker world. Religious Liberty Day, May 24th, is not only for others. it’s for Friends too.

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

6 thoughts on “Angelina Grimke & Religious Liberty”

  1. GFox: “God speaks to us directly, everywhere. Ministers and Steeplehouses are irrelevant.”

    Elders a century later: “God spoke to us. Here are the rules. You can’t go in Steeplehouses.”

    Only Monty Python could do this justice.

    1. There is a lot of Pythonish comedy buried in the earlier Quaker eras; pray for emergence from among us of a talent to bring it out.

      1. Elders, 150 years post-Fox: “Oh, and our Minister is OK.”

        Elders, 200 years post-Fox: “Oh, and we have this handy letter of what you have to believe, direct from God and infallible.” (Give Quakers credit: they beat the Catholic Church to it by 40 years: always on the cutting edge, those Quakers.)

        Elders, 280 years post Fox: “Oh, and the KKK is going to stop by for a little visit to entertain us. The folks the KKK hates don’t get direct revelation from God.”

        Elders, 400 years post Fox: “Oh, and LGBTQ invididuals don’t receive direct revelation from God, either.”

        It’s like Andy Borowitz wrote Quaker history.

        Fox’s method was revolutionary: divine revelation is primary and all else in the sphere of how we are led to engage life is secondary. What Quaker history seems to be teaching us is that socio-cultural influences will assert themselves into that spiritual relationship in a way that (inevitably?) corrupts the original impulse. What “feels right” due to socio-cultural influence becomes what _is_ right, making divine revelation once again secondary.

        How much of what we do now, e.g. limiting Meeting for Worship to an hour as though it were a college class, corrupts rather than enhances our corporate relationship with the divine?

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