An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States
A famous public letter against slavery, published in 1836 and addressed to clergy in the slave states by Sarah Grimké. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.
Sarah Moore Grimké (1792-1873) was the elder of the famed Grimké sisters of South Carolina. Both sisters broke with the traditions of their slave-owning family. Together with Angelina (1805-1879), Sarah Grimké gave vocal public support to the abolitionist cause beginning in the early 1830s. The Grimkés are noted not only for their work against slavery, but because they helped break gender strictures against women speaking to the public. Angelina’s 1836 tract, “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” advocated a course of radical pietism in order to end slavery through the domestic persuasion of women. In the same year, Sarah published this “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States” calling upon clergy to change their consciousness of slavery and to understand it as an offense against the divine order. In this address, Grimké locates herself as a once and still-Southerner speaking to other Southerners.
Grimké’s purpose in writing is to oppose common religious pro-slavery arguments. She begins by associating slavery with the Fall of Man: “He was created a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor, and designed to be God's vice-regent upon earth—but slavery has wrested the scepter of dominion from his hand, slavery has seized with an iron grasp this God-like being, and torn the crown from his head.” (2) Slavery, she argues, offends the divine image that resides within all humans because ownership claims make an impossible claim against this image. Having paraphrased Psalm 8 (“a little lower than angels”), she suggests that this text echoes with proof that God denied human dominion over his own image as reflected in humanity. (4-5) To enslave a human is to treat them as a beast, which contradicts the psalm’s divine characterization of human nature.
Grimké follows this argument with etymological and scriptural arguments that the slavery described in the Old Testament is not the slavery of the West Indies or the United States. She holds that Abraham’s servants gathered around him voluntarily, whereas American race slavery is altogether different. (7-8) Further, since any dispensation for slavery granted to Hebrew tribes relied on divine injunction it was “self-evident that as we have never been commanded to enslave the Africans, we can derive no sanction for our slave system from the history of the Jews.” (8) Grimké, who at several points exhibits anti-semitism and anti-Catholicism common for its day, then suggests that the bitterness of Jewish history is the fate of slaveholders. (9)
For Grimké, an embrace of the antislavery cause is Christian repentance and salvation. “With one hand we clasp the cross of Christ, and with the other grasp the neck of the down-trodden slave!” (10) The institution of slavery, she asserts, withholds knowledge of the Bible from slaves and interferes with their achievement of salvation. She cites numerous Southern ministers concerning the withholding of religious services from slaves and mentions the legal penalties for teaching them to read.
After alluding to the burning of antislavery tracts – “Shall we be dismayed because our mistaken brethren burned our messengers of Truth in Charleston, S.C.?” (15) – she argues that this is the time for religious action against slavery. She calls on pro-slavery ministers to repent, oppose slavery, and demand immediate emancipation. She suggests that the clergy have special power to initiate change (17) that they must exercise. The United States, Grimké suggests, lies under a special burden of guilt because the institution of slavery has persisted so long. Taking note of the religious defenses that churches have offered for slavery, Grimké concludes that it must be the role of the Church to help end the sin of slavery.
Two major works concerning the Grimke sisters are Gerda Lerner, The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition (University of North Carolina Press, 2006 rev. ed), and Larry Ceplair, The Public Years of Sarah and Angelina Grimké (Columbia University Press, 1989). Also see Gerda Lerner, The Feminist Thought of Sarah Grimké (Oxford, 1998) for a collection of writings and interpretive essays. For a specific discussion of this text, see Jami Carlacio, “’Ye Knew Your Duty, But Ye Did It Not’: The Epistolary Rhetoric of Sarah Grimké,” 21 Rhetoric Review (2002) 3: 247-263.
- Joe Lockard