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Two Southern Sisters Remembered for Challenging Slavery

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“It won’t make a difference.” “You can’t change the system.” “That’s just the way things are.” Have you ever heard these words? Have you ever uttered these words?

Have you ever heard these words? Have you ever uttered these words?

If so, how do we influence, change—indeed transform—our culture? How do we impact fundamental social systems in place before we were born? Is it worth our efforts to try?

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, NRSV).

In 1837 two southern white women—sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke—faced these challenges daily. Bible study convinced them that slavery was an evil that Christians should eradicate. And the Grimke sisters understood, long before “systems theory” became a popular term, that a whole system of laws and informal customs needed transforming for individuals to experience significant, lasting change.

Armed with their conviction, study and knowledge, not to mention their personal experiences as members of a slave-owning family, the Grimkes were surprised to meet only discouragement from well-meaning, even reform-minded Christians. Friends and family in the South closed their doors to these radical young women. And new friends in the North offered mostly cautious condescension rather than support or encouragement.

The Grimkes were baffled by such an aversion to changing “the system” on the part of Christians claiming to dislike slavery. Many of the Grimkes’ white Christian friends in both the North and the South privately wished for an alternative to slavery. But the vast majority of them continued to shrug and sigh: “That’s just the way things are.”

To the Grimkes in particular, the church said, “Give up trying to change the system. You can’t make a difference. You won’t see any change in your lifetime.” Fortunately, the Grimkes and a few others like them believed that abolition merited their effort, whether or not they lived to see tangible “results.”

Known as the first female anti-slavery agents, the Grimkes endured years of criticism, opposition, hostility, public taunting, and even physical assault by Christians as well as non-Christians. Contributing to the improbability of their cause were the Grimkes’ sex and southern roots. For many Christians at the time, the sisters’ sex alone disqualified them from any leadership of a social movement. And to many northern Christians, the Grimkes’ personal experiences on a slave-owning plantation made them suspect, not authoritative.

The Grimkes’ essays and public lectures, in addition to being scandalously daring for women, exposed the deficiencies of current leaders and the church’s love affair with the status quo. They audaciously pointed out Christian leaders’ vested interests in maintaining the current system. Changing it would involve social power-sharing, something many Christians were not ready to embrace, despite the teachings of Jesus. In addition, the Grimkes excused no one from responsibility for “the way things were.”

Angelina Grimke, for example, admonished northern whites “to subdue that deep-rooted prejudice which is doing the work of oppression in the free States to a most dreadful extent.” To upper-class white women in New England, she said, “When you can recognize the colored woman as a WOMAN—then will you be prepared to send out an appeal to our Southern sisters, entreating them to ‘go and do likewise.'”

Tiring of such brazen criticism, a group of New England male clergy publicly denounced the sisters in 1837 as “obtrusive” and “ostentatious” radicals. Sarah Grimke quickly published a “reply” to the pastors in which she defended the Gospel, the abolition of slavery, human rights/women’s rights, and Christian women’s social activism on behalf of such issues.

“I find the Lord Jesus defining duties of his followers in his sermon on the Mount, laying down grant principles by which they should be governed, without any preference to sect or condition,” she wrote.

“I follow him [Jesus] through all his precepts,” Grimke insisted, “and find him giving the same directions to women as to men, never even referring to the distinction now so strenuously insisted upon between masculine and feminine virtues.”

Sarah and Angelina Grimke’s seemingly simple statements in the 1830s—three decades before the eruption of the Civil War—reflect the courage of Christian women leaders ahead of their time. Undaunted, they struggled their entire lifetimes to help transform their society’s systems. They could not keep silent or still in the presence of injustice, even when it existed—however subtly and insidiously—within the church itself.

Without much encouragement or support from the church itself, the Grimkes followed the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, becoming, like the Apostle Paul, “change agents” who indeed made a difference in the world.

Carol Ann Vaughn is director of the Christian Women’s Leadership Center at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

March is Women’s History Month and an excellent time to read more about these courageous women and introduce their story to children and young adults.

For Ages 4-8:
Sisters against Slavery: A Story about Sarah and Angelina Grimke

For Ages 12 and Up:
Appeal to the Christian Women of the South
The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Woman’s Rights and Abolition
The Grimkes of Charleston
The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimke
Angelina Grimke: A Voice of Abolition