The Religious Roots of Abolition

Advisor: Laurie Maffly Kipp, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, National Humanities Center Fellow.
©2011 National Humanities Center

How did American Christians in the nineteenth century come to see slavery as something that needed to be abolished?


Christianity was a central feature of nineteenth-century American life for both slaveholders and anti-slavery activists. To argue persuasively against slavery, abolitionists had to find ways to use the Bible and Christian tradition, along with American patriotic and domestic ideals, to make their case.

Anti-Slavery engraving

American Anti-Slavery Almanac, 1840


Angelina Grimké, “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” The Anti-Slavery Examiner, 1836 (excerpts). Paragraphs are numbered to facilitate assigning them for small-group analysis.

Text Type

Informational text with a moderately complex purpose, structure, language features, and knowledge demands.

Tier 2 vocabulary words are defined in pop-ups (full list at bottom of page). Tier 3 words are explained in brackets.

Text Complexity

Grades 11-CCR text complexity band.

For more information on text complexity see these resources from

Click here for standards and skills for this lesson.


Common Core State Standards

  • ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.5 (Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured…)

Advanced Placement US History

  • Key Concept 5.2 (I-B) (African American and white abolitionists…)

Advanced Placement Language and Composition

  • Reading nonfiction… to give students opportunities to identify and explain an author’s use of rhetorical strategies and techniques.

Teacher’s Note

You might begin by emphasizing that Grimké’s arguments were the sort that ultimately brought most northerners to the opinion that slavery had to be ended. Focus on her rhetorical strategies. How is she trying to persuade people of the rightness of her position? What feelings does she appeal to? What ideas and passages of the Bible or other documents does she think will make her case?

The first discussion passage offered here gives an example of one of her most important strategies: she stresses the fact that as a Christian woman, she understands her readers, sympathizes with them, and shares their feelings and concerns. By gaining their sympathy, she appeals to what were considered at the time the “natural” religious sympathies of women. She also quotes the Bible, here using passages from both Psalm 119 (“Open thou their eyes”) and 2 Corinthians 11:1 (“would to God ye could bear with me”).

The first passage presents a great example of a text that would appeal to nineteenth-century readers in multiple ways. Students may not know the exact Biblical references Grimké cites — or even that they are from the Bible — but Grimké’s audience did, and that is what matters. If one guesses what she might be quoting and why, students can be encouraged to see that she is using the authority of the Bible and her closeness to her reader as a southern woman to make herself a trustworthy source.

The second passage makes it clear why Grimké works so hard to gain credibility: she is going to encourage women to break Southern laws and stand up to their husbands for a greater good. Here she makes the argument that the laws of God are in conflict with U.S. laws respecting slaveholding and that Christian woman are justified in resisting civil laws for the sake of their religious beliefs. One of the laws that caused the most upheaval in northern states was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a law that required Americans to turn over runaway slaves. Southern states, however, had already passed laws making it illegal to free slaves, and here Grimké calls on women to act against those statutes.

In the third passage Grimké deploys tightly reasoned logic to attack the hypocrisy of the slaveholding position. She argues that if it is illegal for Americans to enslave a person in Africa and bring him or her to the United States — and in 1836 it was because Congress outlawed the slave trade in 1808 — then it is absurd to claim that we can enslave people in “free Republican” America. In this passage, too, by invoking the language of the Declaration of Independence, Grimké weds her moral and religious arguments to the founding principles of the nation. She makes two radical assertions: first, that the equality cited in the Declaration extends not simply to white male property owners but to blacks as well (and, by implication, to women) and second, that the principles of the Declaration trump the legal claims of “wills and title deeds.”

In the fourth passage the abolitionist takes her arguments a step further. She uses the words and images of the final judgment and quotes Jesus to warn women that they are themselves sinning if they do not act against slavery. In referring to the “signs of the times,” she references Matthew 24, in which Jesus describes how the temple will someday be destroyed and the Jews will be judged by God. But she also compares the slaves to the ancient Israelites when she talks about the need for female saviors (Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, all from the Old Testament story of Moses in Egypt) to lead them “to liberty and light.”

The endpoint that Grimké reaches here is a radical one: she is encouraging an overthrow of existing southern laws for the good of the slave. While she never directly addresses the passages in the Bible that support slavery, she uses the Bible and Christian tradition in other ways to make the case that slavery is neither Christian nor patriotic and that believers must act or face divine justice for their failure.

To get to the heart of what Grimké is doing, students need to understand the kinds of images and stories that Americans at the time would have known themselves. This is a good chance for them to practice their online research skills to do some detective work. Short phrases and quotations, when put into a search engine, can easily lead them to Bible passages. By piecing these together (or, alternatively, by drawing on the background of students who may be familiar with these stories), students can construct a “map” of what Grimké is saying — and more important, what she is not saying but is alluding to with her use of language.

This lesson is divided into two parts, both accessible below. Four excerpts with accompanying close reading questions provide an analytical study of the texts. The teacher’s guide includes a background note, the text analysis with responses to the close reading questions, and an optional follow-up assignment. The student’s version, an interactive PDF, contains all of the above except the responses to the close reading questions and the follow-up assignment.

Teacher’s Guide (continues below)

  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions with answer key
  • Follow-up assignment
Student Version (click to open)

  • Interactive PDF
  • Background note
  • Text analysis and close reading questions

Teacher’s Guide


The Bible on Slavery

“Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour.” –Leviticus 25:44-46

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.” –Ephesians 6:5-6

“Let slaves regard their masters as worthy of all honor.” –1 Timothy 6:1-2

By the 1830s growing numbers of Protestant evangelicals in northern states grew convinced that slavery was a sin that must be stopped immediately and at all costs. But they faced a great obstacle: the Bible, the book that the vast majority of Americans, North and South, looked to for guidance, contained many passages that sanctioned the slave system. Slave owners and their supporters readily pointed to chapters in the Old Testament Book of Leviticus, which outlined the many laws surrounding slavery but did not condemn it. Even the New Testament, in a plain reading, called on slaves to obey their masters and to “regard them worthy of all honor.”

Anti-slavery supporters knew that they needed to appeal to Christianity to make their case. But how to go about it? Angelina Grimké (1805–1879), the daughter of distinguished South Carolina slaveholders, was raised in the Episcopal Church. Always outspoken, she converted to the more evangelical Presbyterian Church at a young age, and increasingly became convinced that slavery was an immoral and unchristian system that denied human rights. Expelled by the southern Presbyterians for her views on slavery and the equality of women, she left the South for Philadelphia and joined the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), another evangelical group that had been the earliest and most ardent opponents of slavery.

Angelina Grimké

Angelina Emily Grimké (1805-1879)

In Philadelphia Grimké associated with leaders of the abolitionist movement, and she began writing for their most prominent periodical, The Liberator, in 1835. The following year, anxious to enlist southern women in the cause, she penned her most famous piece, “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South.”

Grimké’s piece is unique as a historical document: we know of no other southern woman who appealed to her own kind to rise up against the slave system. But her arguments illustrate the ways that abolitionists used Christianity (including Christian ideas about women’s roles) as well as an appeal to the revolutionary rhetoric of human rights, to convince people that even though the Bible in places supports slavery, the overwhelming thrust of Christian and American duty is to the freedom of Africans.

The power of these arguments was demonstrated by their effect: copies of her essay were burned publicly in South Carolina, and even the Philadelphia Quakers felt that she had gone too far.

Additional Background

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “American Abolitionism and Religion,” in Divining America: Religion in American History from the National Humanities Center.

Text Analysis

Excerpt 1

Close Reading Questions

1. What images does Grimké use in this section?
She uses the image of branches on the vine. The women are the branches, the vine is Christ. It is an allusion to John 15:5 “I am the vine, ye are the branches.”

2. Why does she use the word “sisters”? What effect might this have on her readers?
She uses the word, “sisters” to imply a relationship between herself and her audience. This might help her
readers listen to what she has to say.

3. What do you think she is quoting from? Why does she think these passages will persuade her readers?
She is quoting from the Bible. These passages will help persuade her readers because they too consider the Bible a basic authority to guide human behavior. By quoting biblical references she is using the highest authority available.

4. How does she talk about her role as a woman, and why is that important in understanding the passage?
She prays directly to God rather than through her husband, priest, minister or other male mediator. She is addresses the women directly. This speaks to her role as a woman who speaks for herself. It is important to understand because it helps the reader know that she is speaking woman to woman and she can appeal to the female readers especially.

5. Why is it so important to say that she has an interest in her readers?
This helps her to connect to her readers. If the readers believe she has an interest in them, they will be more willing to listen to her words.

6. How would you respond to this passage if you were a southern Christian female reader? What would it make you feel toward the author?
The appeal to religion would obligate a southern Christian female to at least listen. The fact that Grimke warns her audience that they might “rather not hear any thing” about this subject gives the southern female a chance to extend her own independence, listening to Grimke without asking the permission of a man. She asks them to “bear with me a little in my folly,” and most women would at least want to hear what she has to say, even if they might not agree.

But I feel an interest in you, as branches of the same vine from whose root I daily draw the principle of spiritual vitality — Yes! Sisters in Christ I feel an interest in you, and often has the secret prayer arisen on your behalf, Lord “open thou their eyes that they may see wondrous things out of thy Law” — It is then, because I do feel and do pray for you, that I thus address you upon a subject about which of all others, perhaps you would rather not hear any thing; but, “would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly, and indeed bear with me, for I am jealous over you with godly jealousy.”

Excerpt 2

Close Reading Questions

7. Why does Grimké invoke the Declaration of Independence? Does her use of the Declaration strengthen or weaken her argument? Why?
She involves the Declaration as one of the founding documents of America. It strengthens her argument, as it connects her argument to the founding principles of the nation. To go against these principles would be to betray the Revolution and what it stood for.

8. How does she argue that the nation’s founding principles have more force than existing law?
If we cannot enslave Africans, then it follows that we cannot enslave Americans. The “inalienable rights” of the founding principles are more basic than current laws or statutes, “wills and title-deeds.” If you accept the “self-evident truth” of equality then no law can supersede that truth. In addition, the Constitution is founded upon the Revolutionary principles and laws in turn should be founded upon the Constitution. If there is a conflict between laws and the principles, the laws must be wrong.

We must come back to the good old doctrine of our forefathers who declared to the world, “this self evident truth that all men are created equal, and that they have certain inalienable rights among which are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is even a greater absurdity to suppose a man can be legally born a slave under our free Republican Government, than under the petty despotisms of barbarian Africa. If then, we have no right to enslave an African, surely we can have none to enslave an American; if it is a self evident truth that all men every where and of every color are born equal, and have an inalienable right to liberty, then it is equally true that no man can be born a slave, and no man can ever rightfully be reduced to involuntary bondage and held as a slave, however fair may be the claim of his master or mistress through wills and title-deeds.

Excerpt 3

Close Reading Questions

9. Under what circumstances does Grimké suggest that it is valid to break the law? Why?
If the law of God conflicts with the law of man, then one must break the law of man in order to adhere to the law of God. If the law of man requires one to sin in order to obey it, one must disobey it and take the consequences.

10. What is dangerous, in her mind, about “blind obedience” to civil laws?
It will lead to despotism, which “ought to have no place among Republicans and Christians.”

11. Does her use of the word “sin” change the way you think about her point? How would it be different if she had said “do something wrong” instead of “commit sin”?
The connotation of the word “sin” carries with it a direct disobedience to God and something for which punishment will follow. It is a much more serious, emotionally laden word that the phrase, “something wrong.” Sin is something that Christians would avoid.

12. Why do you think she mentions that both civil and church authorities should be obeyed only in certain cases? What churches might she be thinking of here?
She groups them together as “any human power.” This is another contrast to laws of man and laws of God. If the laws of man, regardless of where they originate, conflict with the laws of God, they must be broken. She may have been thinking of churches that had not yet established an abolitionist policy.

13. Why does she refer to Republicans in the passage?
She refers to those who support the US government and founding principles, not a political party. By grouping them with Christians she is reaffirming that slavery should have no standing for either political or religious reasons.

14. Are there other circumstances in which her call to resist might be dangerous? Why or why not?
Her call to resist would be dangerous to her southern readers, since abolition was not accepted in the South and was in most cases outlawed. Her southern readers might also find themselves socially isolated for abolitionist activity.

15. Do you think that her mention of suffering would help her cause?
It would help her readers understand that she has a realistic view of abolition, that if she breaks laws of men she expects punishment to follow. That the punishment might fall to a woman would, in the culture of her time, render the law and its consequences harsh and perhaps unreasonable.

I know that this doctrine of obeying God, rather than man, will be considered as dangerous, and heretical by many, but I am not afraid openly to avow it, because it is the doctrine of the Bible; but I would not be understood to advocate resistance to any law however oppressive, if, in obeying it, I was not obliged to commit sin. If for instance, there was a law, which imposed imprisonment or a fine upon me if I manumitted [freed] a slave, I would on no account resist that law, I would set the slave free, and then go to prison or pay the fine. If a law commands me to sin I will break it; if it calls me to suffer, I will let it take its course unresistingly. The doctrine of blind obedience and unqualified submission to any human power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is the doctrine of despotism, and ought to have no place among Republicans and Christians.

Excerpt 4

Close Reading Questions

16. What are the “signs of the times” that she refers to?
She is alluding to Matthew 16:3 – And in the morning, It will be foul weather to day: for the sky is red and lowering. O ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky; but can ye not discern the signs of the times? This is also a reference to Matthew 24, describing the end of days.

17. What is the “sword of justice”?
This is a reference to Job 19:29, Be ye afraid of the sword: for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment. The message is that those who hold slaves will receive punishment. [NOTE: Nat Turner’s rebellion was only five years prior to this writing.]

18. In what ways is Grimké’s language here more dramatic and more urgent?
Her language here implies that time is running out. She asks her southern sisters to understand the “signs of the times” and to know that if they don’t wake up and do something soon it will be too late. By asking them if they cannot see the sword of justice “hanging over the South, or are you still slumbering at your posts,” she is seeking to rouse them to act right away.

19. Why does Grimké urge women to act with “Christian firmness and Christian meekness”?
While the appeal to meekness may seem confusing, she is referencing Galatians 6:1. Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. As the women stand up for abolition they should not do so in an arrogant way but in a spirit of meekness. She wants the women to be firm in their convictions but not become so radical that they will be ignored.

20. Who are the “captive daughters”? Are they related to the “Sisters” she mentions in passage 1?
The captive daughters are female slaves. They are related to the sisters in chapter 1 through their womanhood and the fact that they are creations of God.

21. Who are Shiphrah, Puah, and Miriam? How would their stories relate to what Grimké is trying to say?
Shiphrah and Puah were Hebrew midwives who protected Moses, disobeying Pharaoh by not killing the young baby but obeying God instead. Miriam was Moses’s older sister who was watching over him in the basket on the Nile’s edge. When she saw he was rescued by the Princess she convinced her to let Moses be nursed by his own mother, Jochabed. By approaching the Princess Miriam risked her life to help make sure her brother was safe. All these women feared God more than they feared Pharaoh or his laws.

22. Why does she use these figures as models for southern women?
Because these women obeyed God rather than man, they were blessed.

23. Why did southerners react so strongly to Grimké’s piece?
She was not only calling for abolition but she was also calling for women to step outside their traditional roles and speak openly about a controversial subject. She was calling for them to argue against what the many men of the South accepted.

24. In what ways is Grimké’s “Appeal” as much a call for the liberation of women as it is a call for the liberation of the enslaved?
She is asking women to take on a new role, speaking their own minds without their ideas being subordinated or filtered through those of a man.

Can you not, my friends, understand the signs of the times; do you not see the sword of retributive justice hanging over the South, or are you still slumbering at your posts?—Are there no Shiphrahs, no Puahs among you, who wilt dare in Christian firmness and Christian meekness, to refuse to obey the wicked laws which require woman to enslave, to degrade and to brutalize woman? Are there no Miriams, who would rejoice to lead out the captive daughters of the Southern States to liberty and light?

Follow-Up Assignment

Visit The Cult of Domesticity in America in Class® Lessons. Have your students compare the excerpt from Chapter 9 of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) offered there with the passages from Grimké quoted below. Here we provide some discussion questions to facilitate the comparison.

From “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South”:

But perhaps you will be ready to query, why appeal to women on this subject? We do not make the laws which perpetuate slavery. No legislative power is vested in us; we can do nothing to overthrow the system, even if we wished to do so. To this I reply, I know you do not make the laws, but I also know that you are the wives and mothers, the sisters and daughters of those who do; and if you really suppose you can do nothing to overthrow slavery, you are greatly mistaken.
Let them embody themselves in societies, and send petitions up to their different legislatures, entreating their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, to abolish the institution of slavery; no longer to subject woman to the scourge and the chain, to mental darkness and moral degradation; no longer to tear husbands from their wives, and children from their parents; no longer to make men, women, and children, work without wages; no longer to make their lives bitter in hard bondages; no longer to reduce American citizens to the abject condition of slaves, of “chattels personal;” no longer to barter the image of God in human shambles for corruptible things such as silver and gold.

Discussion Questions

  1. How does Stowe illustrate the political power of women to which Grimké refers? In what ways does Stowe’s Mrs. Bird follow Grimké’s advice? In what ways does she not? Compare the arguments Mrs. Bird makes to her husband with those Grimké makes to Southern women.
  2. Both Grimké’s “Appeal” and Stowe’s novel argue for the abolition of slavery. In your view, which form of argumentation is more effective? Why?
  3. In 1836 some northerners saw Grimké’s arguments as extreme. In 1852 northerners made Uncle Tom’s Cabin a bestseller. What brought about this change of attitude?

Vocabulary Pop-Ups

  • civil or ecclesiastical: of the government or the church
  • Republicans: here referring to supporters of the American republic, not to a political party
  • retributive justice: justice that either rewards or punishes
  • Shiphrahs: Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam: women who saved Hebrew children from death ordered by the Egyptian pharaoh (Exodus, Old Testament)

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress:

  • Engraving captioned “Mothers with young children at work in the field,” detail of Illustrations of the American Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840, woodcut print, New York, 1840. Library of Congress, Printed Ephemera Collection, Portfolio 248, Folder 1.
  • Portrait of Angelina Emily Grimké (1805-1879), wood engraving, no date recorded on caption card, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-1609.