When I chose the Grimké sisters for the following brief profile in my first book, Interfaith Heroes Volume 1, I had no idea that they would become famous historical characters in 2013 in PBS’s three-hour production, The Abolitionists. These barrier-breaking sisters, especially Angelina Grimké portrayed by Jeanine Serralles, come vividly to life on the screen.
Advocates for Abolition, Women’s Rights and Religious Tolerance
Sarah and Angelina Grimké were sisters born on a plantation in South Carolina. These belles of the South blazed a trail not only for abolitionists but for women’s rights, and in so doing they blazed a trail for interfaith tolerance as well.
Opposition to Slavery
Sarah observed from an early age that slavery was a reprehensible institution, degrading slave and slave owner alike. She argued that slavery was not
Christian and that slaves should be educated and freed. She traveled to Philadelphia where she met Quakers who encouraged her anti-slavery stance. When she returned to Charleston she began to speak out against slavery.
Taking Radical Stances
Her forceful abolitionist views were unacceptable to her home Episcopal Church. She felt drawn to the Society of Friends (Quakers) but discovered that, even to many Quakers, radical abolition was uncomfortable and that public advocacy of a cause by a woman was equally so. During a time when any participation in the religious practices of other faiths was grounds for excommunication, she determined to ally herself with people from other faiths who shared her abolitionist beliefs. Thus, religious toleration became a necessary part of her fight for the abolitionist cause. In her time and social context in the South, religious toleration was an issue concerned more with the diversity of Christian denominations than different religions.
Resisiting Institutional Pressure
As a child Angelina found slavery equally reprehensible. She objected to the law that slaves should not be taught to read. She taught her personal slave to read and, when caught, was severely reprimanded. Raised as an Episcopalian, she refused to be confirmed at age 13. Instead she joined the Presbyterian Church and began to take considerable interest in interfaith work. When her former minister tried to get her to renounce her new faith, she responded:
I could not conscientiously belong to any church which exalted itself above all others and excluded ministers of other denominations from its pulpit. … I have lately succeeded in establishing a female prayer meeting among Baptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians.
Agents of the Abolitionist Movement
When even the supposedly liberal Presbyterian Church did not support her abolitionist beliefs, Angelina left the South and joined her older sister Sarah in Philadelphia. The Grimké sisters became celebrated agents of the abolitionist movement and were in high demand as public speakers. Their activism led to being banned from the Society of Friends, but they continued to press for complete abolition along with others from many faiths who shared their convictions.
Pushing Forward in the Face of Strong Opposition
They were among the first to make the argument that women’s subjugation was tantamount to slavery in many ways. In 1838 in Boston, Massachusetts, Angelina Emily Grimké was the first woman to address an American legislature. Despite receiving many death threats they continued, at great risk to themselves, to advance the causes of interfaith tolerance, women’s rights and abolition of slavery.