House Chaplain's Words Shine a Light on the Righteous Angelina Grimke Weld

Saturday, February 23, 2019

The number of women legislators on Beacon Hill is at a record high following the elections of this past November.  Women occupy 46 of the 200 legislative seats (28.5%): 11 in the Senate, 35 in the House.

Until that hoped-for day in a hoped-for-not-too-distant future, when the legislature is evenly divided between men and women, there's no reason to pause long for self-congratulation.  The battle for equality is long and never ending, and almost any look into Massachusetts history reveals a milestone telling us how slowly our society has been moving toward an egalitarian ideal.  Take February 21 as an example. 

On that date in 1838, a woman addressed a legislative body in Massachusetts for the first time.  Ever.  This happened sixty-two years after the Declaration of Independence and two hundred and eighteen years after the Pilgrims, refugees from persecution turned persecutors, landed in Plymouth.

The speaker was Angelina Grimke (later to become in marriage Angelina Grimke Weld), an advocate for the abolition of slavery.  She was in the company that day of her sister, Sarah.  Both had been raised on a plantation in South Carolina that operated on the scarred backs of enslaved African Americans.

In revulsion to the horrors they had witnessed, the Grimke sisters converted to the Quaker faith and joined the burgeoning crusade for abolition, which climaxed in the Civil War.  They traversed northern states, giving speeches in which they agitated not only for freeing the slaves but also for total racial and gender equality.  A demand such as this, the National Women's History Museum states, was "highly radical for the times."

The museum also states that lectures by the Grimke sisters about their first-hand knowledge of slavery's evils -- especially to mixed male and female audiences -- "provoked rebuke from ministers for their 'unwomanly behavior.' " 

Women telling hard truths was offensive.  How much have things really changed? 

This past Thursday was February 21.  In honor of the occasion, the Rev. Rick Walsh of Boston's Paulist Center, chaplain of the Massachusetts House, delivered a session-opening prayer that summarized the significance of Angelina Grimke's appearance at the State House and of the words she spoke that day before the Massachusetts Senate. 

"Today we give thanks for a legacy in Massachusetts on the struggle for human rights," Father Walsh said.  "On this day in 1838, a woman addressed a legislative body in the United States for the first time.  Angelina and Sarah Grimke were daughters of South Carolina slave owners who had moved north to pursue their Quaker faith.  In the Massachusetts Senate chamber on Feb. 21, 1838, Angelina Grimke spoke out against slavery, saying it affected American women as a moral, religious and political issue.  We pray today for the women in Massachusetts who serve in ways the Grimke sisters could only dream of." 

I mentioned that Angelinia Grimke married a Weld.  That would be Theodore Dwight Weld, a native of Connecticut who is considered one of the architects of the American abolitionist movement.  Mr. Weld co-authored the book American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, one of the sources used by Harriett Beecher Stowe when writing Uncle Tom's Cabin, the book that Abraham Lincoln said helped bring on the Civil War. 

Wondering if Mr. Weld was related to our former governor, William F. Weld, I did a little research and quickly discovered that he is, indeed, in the governor's family tree, albeit in a branch distant from the governor's. 

In an unforeseen complement to the Civil War aspect of this post, I happened also upon an illustrious Union Army veteran who's much closer on the tree to the governor's family: Stephen Minot Weld, Jr., of Boston (1842-1920).  This Weld left Harvard Law School at war's outbreak to enlist in the army.  Commissioned a second lieutenant, he fought bravely in the Second Battle of Bull Run and in the battles at Antietam and Gettysburg.  By the end of the war, he had achieved the rank of colonel and was commanding the 56th Massachusetts Regiment. Stephen Minot Weld is Governor Weld's first cousin, twice removed.













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