Sarah Moore Grimké was born to Mary Smith and John Faucheraud Grimké, a Revolutionary War veteran, lawyer, legislator, and state supreme court justice, on 26 November 1792 in Charleston, South Carolina. Grimké was horrified by the abuses against slaves that she witnessed as a child. She moved to Philadelphia in 1821 and converted to the Quaker faith, which had an official stance against slavery. Along with her sister, Angelina Grimké Weld, she became one of the most vocal anti-slavery activists of her time, writing and lecturing on the subject. She died on 23 December 1873 in Boston.
Grimké was the fifth child in a family of fourteen children (three of whom died in infancy when Sarah was a child). Raised in a traditional, wealthy household, she did not receive a formal education. Instead, she studied mathematics, science, geography, and history alongside her older brother Thomas, but she was barred by her father from studying Latin when Thomas began preparing for law school. Instead, she devoted herself to religious study and taught Bible classes to slave children each Sunday. The fact that she was encouraged to teach slaves about the Bible, rather than to read the sacred text on their own, was perplexing to Grimké. She defied not only social convention, but the law, by secretly teaching her personal slave, whom she considered a dear friend, to read by firelight. Grimké was sharply reprimanded when her father discovered this act of defiance, but throughout her life she was unable to accept the layers of oppression imposed on slaves in the plantation system.
In 1805, Grimké's youngest sister Angelina was born, and she begged to become the baby's godmother. She maintained extremely strong maternal feelings toward the child, who even began to call her “Mother,” over time. As she grew, Angelina also developed an abolitionist sensibility and joined Sarah in her activism. In 1819 Grimké's father died of an unknown malady. He had travelled to Philadelphia to find a cure, with Sarah as his companion, but no remedy was found. Working through her grief alone in the north for several weeks after his death, she became acquainted with some Quakers, who introduced her to the writings of the abolitionist John Woolman and invited her future correspondence. After returning home and reading Woolman's Journal, Grimké, who was raised an Episcopalian, became intrigued by his ideas. She was particularly interested in the connections he made between his Quaker faith and his abolitionist views and asked her brother Thomas to help her find more works by this thinker. Thomas also harbored anti-slavery sentiments, but favored “recolonization” of the slaves in Africa as the most practical approach to abolition. Yet he was willing to discuss her views and readily located more of Woolman's works for her.
Grimké returned to Philadelphia in 1821, accompanied by her older sister Anna under the pretext of travelling for pleasure, because independent travel by a single woman was scandalous at the time. She stayed in Philadelphia for several years, living in the home of Israel Morris, a widower with eight children, and becoming more attuned to Quaker beliefs. In 1822 she began to study for the ministry as a Quaker, but the combination of her own insecurities and divisions about the process of ministerial approval within the congregation she attended thwarted her efforts. She was tempted to accept the marriage proposal of Israel Morris in 1826, but ultimately declined, presumably for fear of losing her independence. In 1829 Angelina joined her sister in Philadelphia, and their anti-slavery activism, which would make them both celebrated and reviled, soon began.
In 1836, Grimké wrote An Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States, which was followed in 1837 by her composition of An Address to Free Colored Americans. These works were among the first and most compelling appeals against slavery to come from a southern author. In her Epistle, Grimké makes the argument that slavery is against God's will in that it treats a human being as mere chattel. It fails to revere human life, which was created in God's image, and in this sense slavery is a sin. She uses prophetic language in this work to implore good people of faith in the South to see the error of their ways. Grimké's colleague in the movement, Theodore Weld, who later married her sister Angelina, wrote a similar piece titled The Bible Against Slavery, in which he also charged that slavery was a sin. But Weld's work is more narrowly argumentative in style; as a northerner he had no first-hand knowledge of slavery to make the more impassioned appeal that Grimké makes in her work. It is likely that Grimké drew on an extended lecture on this topic that Weld gave during a training session for abolition activists, which she had attended with her sister earlier that year.
In An Address to Free Colored Americans, Grimké invokes much of the same religious language she used in the Epistle. Yet she goes beyond it, anticipating the much later work of W. E. B. Du Bois as an early black pride thinker. She speaks of African history and culture itself with reverence, “The everlasting architecture of Africa still exists – the wonder of the world, though [now] in ruins: her mighty kingdoms have yet their record in history; she has poured forth her heroes on the field, given bishops to the church, and martyrs to the fires” (1837, 6). She also celebrates the achievements of prominent African Americans of the day, such as that of Benjamin Bannaker a former slave and self-taught astronomer who published an almanac in the 1790s and Jasmin Thoumazeau, an African taken in captivity to Santo Domingo, who established a hospital there in 1756 after earning his freedom. Ultimately, this address is meant to inspire her African American audience and give them suggestions for improving social and economic conditions for themselves and their fellow blacks held in slavery through education and support of abolition.
Significant as Sarah Grimké's contributions to the anti-slavery movement were, she made equally valuable contributions to the early feminist movement. In Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women, published in 1838, Grimké makes the case for full social equality for women and men, which is based on the Divine intent for harmony between the sexes. She also reviews the situation of women in a range of cultures, from the Middle East, to Asia and to Africa, to Europe and America, decrying the degrees of oppression to which women were subjected. As in Address to Free Colored Americans, Grimké provides examples of successful and capable women – this included royalty, such as Elizabeth of England, Maria Theresa of Germany, Catherine of Russian, and Isabella of Spain, as well as lesser known figures, like Anne, Countess of Pembroke, who served as sheriff of Westmoreland. She closes this work with a return to religious arguments, declaring that women are not to be held solely responsible for the Fall in Eden, because Adam willingly joined Eve in rebellion against God's command. This work was followed in 1852 by The Education of Women, which expanded on Grimké's nurture-over-nature argument – that women's access to higher education will eradicate gender inequality.
In 1838 Sarah's sister Angelina married fellow abolitionist Theodore Weld, and she soon moved with them to a farm near Belleview, New Jersey, where they lived for more than ten years. During this period, both sisters turned to writing, rather than lecturing at anti-slavery meetings, so they could attend to the work that must be done on a farm. They also provided home hospitality to the many friends and colleagues who were travelling to and from these meetings – Abby Kelley Foster, Henry and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, for example – maintaining a demanding social calendar.
During the Civil War, while living near Boston, Sarah co-authored with Angelina “An Appeal to the Women of the Republic” to encourage women to support the North in the fight against slavery. Angelina spoke at the convention the two helped organize; Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony were also featured speakers at the meeting.
After the war, Angelina discovered that their brother, Henry, had fathered three sons by one of his slaves, Nancy Weston: Archibald, Francis, and John. During this bitter post-bellum time, Angelina moved forward without caution and started a relationship with them, which included the men's wives and children. Sarah was faithful to each of these members of her extended family and felt inspired by their lives. Her last written work was a novel about an interracial couple, yet it was never published because it was too controversial.
Sarah died on 23 December 1873 in Hyde Park near Boston, at the dawn of the Jim Crow era and the policies that would devastate so many of the people she had worked to win freedom for. But in her life and work she helped sow the seeds of racial equality and even harmony, leaving a legacy that would not only change lives and social structures, but long outlive her.