Christianity in the Debate of Women's Rights in the Early Nineteenth Century / by Tyler Wood

After women got involved in politics by petitioning Indian removal they realized they could, and should, get involved in politics. The ‘separate spheres’ of sexes idea was in place at the time, which meant women should stay out of the public life. The next movement saw a more active role for women, like Angelina and Sarah Grimke, speaking out against slavery. In the process of this movement they realized their rights to speak were under attack and began fighting for equal rights for women based on their interpretation of scripture. Christianity takes center stage in the debate, existing as the field of battle amongst the three sides; pro-women’s rights/ pro-abolition, pro-abolition / anti-women’s rights (at least until slavery is taken care of), and anti-both.  This paper will discuss the role of Christianity in the debate of women’s rights - pro, con, and in between - and how it plays into the relation between the abolitionist movement, the Grimke sisters, and the women’s movement.

Angelina and Sarah Grimke were southern born, ex-slaveholders that converted to abolitionists and stirred up controversy for speaking as women amongst the clergy. They began speaking of the horrors of slavery after joining the Garrisonians, the leading abolitionist movement, in 1835. The speaking raised much controversy when they spoke to “promiscuous audiences” of women and men. They defended their rights to speak in a letter to Amos Phelps a clergyman who criticized the sisters, “Our views & principles & practices in this matter are founded upon the immutable Truth of God, & we believe that to abandon them would be to surrender our rights as moral & responsible beings (Sklar, p. 118).” This defense uses Christianity, the very thing the clergyman thinks he is using, against them. In this debate Christianity is used as the playing field of intellect, especially at the beginning. In the Pastoral Letter: The general Association of Massachusetts to Churches under Their Care of July 1837 the clergy used their interpretation of scripture to urge the sisters to stop what they were doing, because “The appropriate duties and influence of women are clearly stated in the New Testament. Those duties and that influence are unobtrusive and private, but the sources of mighty power (120).” They believe that women should be private beings that are the moral centers of the household but have no place in the disgusting world of politics. The men are supposed to protect the women from the harshness of the world and “when she assumes the place and tone of a man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary; we put ourselves in self-defence of her; she yields the power which God has given her for her protection, and her character becomes unnatural (120).”  They argue that the system set up now, by God, is right because it is intact, essentially. The Grimke’s disagree with this opinion saying “The clergy have done an infinite injury to women, & women in the coming conflict will, we apprehend, be much in the situation of Paul, when he said: ‘No man stood by me.’ (118).” 

The Grimkes defend their move for women’s rights amongst the abolitionist movement. After a couple letters from Weld and Whittier trying to convince the sisters to wait until the slaves were freed to work on women’s issues Angelina defended her stance by saying, “we [women] cannot push Abolitionism forward until we take up the stumbling block out of our road (132).” Weld urges the women, in non-Christian terms, that if we focus on the slaves first then “it will be an easy matter to take millions of females from their knees and set them on their feet (128).” Whittier suggests that it “look[s], dear sisters, like abandoning in some degree the cause of the poor and miserable slave.” Later adding, “is it not forgetting the great and dreadful wrongs of the slave in a selfish crusade against some paltry grievance of your own (129-130)?” Whittier and Weld tried rationalizing based on secular reasoning to convince the sisters of their straying from the ‘real’ cause. The Grimkes have a higher calling saying, ‘you may depend on it, tho’ to meet this question may appear to be turning out of our road, that it is not. IT IS NOT: we must meet it & meet it now & meet it like women in the fear of the Lord (132).” The Grimkes pull the causes together as one in the eyes of God, “Anti-slavery men are trying very hard to separate what God hath joined together (133).” 

The clergy against abolition use women speaking as a weak point in morals on the side of the abolitionists. In a lecture in Hingham, Mass., on August 27 1837, Albert Folsom, a pastor at Universalist Church, attacked the whole abolitionist movement for letting women speak in public saying, “if it is not permitted unto women to speak publicly upon the subject of religion, it verily is no part of their right or privilege to be heard upon the subject of slavery.” He goes on to say, “’The simplicity of Christ’ peremptorily forbids those practices […] as it does all interference in the concerns of the state, on the part of the female portion of the community. It is unbecoming of the dignity of the feminine class of society to importune the National Court, year after year, upon the difficult subject of slavery (121-122).” Interestingly, Folsom uses political rhetoric in his lecture as a clergyman showing the interweaving of the two at the time. It is just as interesting that he doesn’t use very strong Christian arguments against women getting involved except to say they are “busy bodies” and it is “unbecoming”. 

In response to the clergy attacks Angelina Grimke writes about what Christian moral duties she has as a woman and the problems with the clergy. She writes a letter to Jane Smith in 1837 saying, “it must be discussed whether women are moral & responsible beings, and whether there is such a thing as male and female virtue & male and female duties &c (123).” She uses the doctrine she envisions Christianity to have taking down the distinction between sexes and male and female virtues saying, “My opinion is that there are none & that this false idea has driven the plowshare of ruin over the whole field of morality (123).” She takes it upon herself to not submit to any “man made creeds” and the Christian doctrine becomes increasingly important in this debate. She later writes “when I look at human beings as moral beings, all distinction in sex sinks to insignificance and nothingness; for I believe it regulates rights and responsibilities no more than color of the skin of the eyes. My doctrine then is, that whatever it is morally right for a man to do, it is morally right for a woman to do (143).” She sums up her religious doctrine of morality based on her interpretation of the Bible. 

Angelina becomes a voice for Christian doctrine reform in the church amongst the fight for abolition and women’s rights. She takes on all comers against her belief in the equality and that even means the clergy and church. She attacks the clergy for trying to stifle her and her sisters words from the masses by saying, “they [clergy] know full well that if they can persuade the people it is a shame for us to speak in public, & that every time we open our mouths for the dumb we are breaking a divine command, that even if we spoke with the tongues of men or angels, we should have no hearers (132).” She attacks the institution later by saying, “The whole church government must come down; the clergy stand right in the way of reform...The church is built not upon the priests at all but upon the prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ being the corner stone (133).” 

Catharine Beecher offers a different view of the situation of women, while supporting the abolitionists, by using the ‘separate spheres’ argument to keep women out of the public arena. She is writing to Angelina Grimke to explain her opinion of the issue of women’s rights as a Christian female abolitionist. Beecher believes, like many others at the time, that it is man’s place to take the role of political change because “heaven has appointed to one sex the superior, and to the other the subordinate station.” She agrees with the abolitionist clergy that women should “win everything by peace and love…to yield to her opinion and to gratify her wishes…But this is to be all accomplished in the domestic and social circles.” Beecher uses more secular language than the Grimke sisters in her defense of her opinion. She urges women to stay out of the “petitions to congress” because they “fall entirely without the sphere of female duty.” She mentions the concern for the “severing of the Union by the present mode of agitating the question.” Beecher, as well as others against the Grimkes’ fight for women’s rights instead of abolitionism, uses more of a secular rhetoric than the sisters’ very religious wording. This shift to a more secular rhetoric showed a weak opposition to the women’s religious attack but they may have been finding ground in legal opposition (108). 

Angelina responds to Beecher’s letter with her Christian views expressed. Angelina attacks the distinction of separate spheres and moral virtues by saying “this regulation of duty by the mere circumstance of sex, rather than by the fundamental principle of moral being, has led to all that multifarious train of evils flowing out of the anti-christian doctrine of masculine and feminine virtues.” She takes the assumed Biblical story of Adam and Eve and tells it like she believes it to be, not as women being the “last best gift of God to man” but “She was created, like him, in the image of God, and crowned with glory and honor; created only a little lower than the angels, - not, as it is too generally presumed, a little lower than man.” She reinterprets the word itself saying “Let us examine the account of her creation. ‘And the rib which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto man.’ Not as a gift – for Adam immediately recognized her as a part of himself – (this is now ‘none of my bone, flesh of my flesh’) – a companion and equal.”  She dismisses the argument of the Union breaking up because she adds that Adam and Eve stood “under the government of God only.” This would place Angelina under the rules of her belief system above the laws of the land. She takes the next step to assert women’s positions, based on the equality of the sexes, of power in the government, “if Ecclesiastical and Civil governments are ordained by God, then I contend that woman has just as much right to sit in solemn counsel…as man – just as much right to sit upon the throne of England, or in the Presidents chair of the United States, as man.” Her reference to the English throne would be especially powerful since Queen Victoria had just been crowned in the same year of this letter fueling the fire of women’s rights in America (143 – 144).

Angelina Grimke gets married and a new activist takes over. Angelina Grimke married Theodore Weld and retired from public life, along with her sister Sarah, to start a family. This action caused different reactions, one of which is voiced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Lucretia Mott (both Stanton and Mott are women’s rights activists) saying, “you have both been in a state of retiracy long enough, & that it is not right for you to be still, longer, that you should either write for the public or speak out for oppressed women (170).” These two women start to take a more secular role of arguments into the forefront of this cause than did the Grimkes. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was involved in the planning of the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 and needed something to use as proof for women to have rights. The Grimke’s had been basing all their arguments, as did the opposition, on religious grounds. In planning the Seneca Falls event Stanton used the Declaration of 1776 and adopted it to replace “King George” for “all men”. This was in support of the shifting of the opposition to secular means, since they were losing their ground on religious arguments. The women had to counter the secular arguments by adopting their own, and this was the ebbing of Christianity in the debate; it still existed of course, but increasingly it became a legal discussion (172).

The abolitionists started a movement that stated all men are equal at a time when women were getting more and more involved in politics in America. The arguments used in the fight against holding slaves in bondage struck home with the women trying to free them, especially when they were attacked for speaking. Angelina asked the question, “When will we be ‘delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God’ (133)?” She argued that Christians must adhere to the word of God and support equality. Clergy responded with their own Christian ideals and stated that women had no right to enter the public arena, but the Grimke’s popularity only grew. Christianity was holding up on the side of equality, it turns out, so the anti-women’s rights supporters turned to the secular arguments (just like the Indian removal supporters). This spawned the new women’s activist, after the retirement of the Grimke’s, which used the legal rhetoric against the opposition and continued the fight, connecting the separate spheres of religion and legality while also invading the ‘separate spheres’ of the sexes.




Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement 1830- 

1870: A Brief History with Documents. 1st ed. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's, 2000.