Editor’s Introduction, #24

Chuck Fager

We are very pleased to publish, in this issue, the oldest piece of original theological writing so far (157 years) by our oldest contributor, who clocks in at the ripe age of 205. Or at least, she would be that age if she hadn’t died in 1879.

The author in question is none other than the great early abolitionist and woman’s rights campaigner, Angelina Grimke Weld. Born into an elite slaveowning family in South Carolina, born in 1805, Angelina and her sister Sarah turned against slavery, moved north, joined the Orthodox Friends, and charted a brilliant, controversial course as early public advocates and lecturers on abolitionism and women’s rights.

On both issues, the Grimkes correctly saw that the struggle was as much one of religion as politics economics or any other factor. Black slavery and the subjection of women were not only tradition; they were sacred, described as represented the divine order and command, backed up by the Bible. So it’s no surprise that the Grimkes’ first major antislavery publications were religious in character: “An Appeal To The Christian Women of the South,” (Angelina), and an “Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States,” (Sarah), both in 1836. Both are brilliant polemics, demolishing the religious defense of slaveholding. Later, when denounced for speaking about abolition in public, and before “promiscuous” audiences of both men and women, Angelina published a series of letters defending her public work and women’s rights.

The sisters retired from public life after Angelina married abolitionist leader Theodore Dwight Weld; the marriage also saw them ejected from Quakerism – Angelina for “marrying our”, and Sarah for attending the ceremony. The sisters weren’t dismayed by their disownment; they had quickly been disillusioned by the institutional stodginess and “go-slow, keep quiet” attitudes about antislavery action among the Philadelphia Orthodox establishment. But the sisters continued to think, write and agitate, as way opened. And Angelina’s later work went beyond slavery and women’s rights to more basic religious issues.

The essay here, “The Fall of Man,” is a prime example. We call it original, and even new, because it was plucked from obscurity after 115 years, and appears to have escaped the notice of Grimke’s biographers and feminist historians. Moreover, it deals neither with abolition nor women’s rights, but is rather a daring, forcefully argued piece, challenging conventional views of human nature, sin and salvation; it could in fact be justly called a forerunner of feminist theology. It was uncovered only recently, in an addendum to the Proceedings of the 1859 session of the Pennsylvania Yearly Meeting of Progressive Friends. We are proud to bring it to a general audience, in print and online.

Grimke’s essay also serves as a striking companion to a more traditionally theological study by Indiana Friend John Connell, which considers whether early Friends’ views of sin and perfection were (or were not) like those of early heretics called the Pelagians. (If the Pelagians are new to thee, Friend, maybe it’s time to make their acquaintance.) The counterpoint between Connell and Grimke Weld is provocative and delicious.

These pieces are followed by what is expected to be the last of our reports (six in all) on the schism in Indiana Yearly Meeting. But no sooner had we “put to bed” that story, along comes news of a parallel situation developing in Northwest Yearly Meeting, an evangelical bastion in Oregon, Washington and Idaho: one of its Friends churches has declared itself “welcoming” to gays and lesbians. The backlash has taken shape; talk of schism is in the air; an ultimatum has been issued. And there’s a new wrinkle: an evangelical Quaker college is involved too. For assistance with our initial report on this situation, we’re pleased to welcome a new contributor, Jade Souza of Portland, Oregon.

Another new contributor is activist Quaker attorney Scott Holmes, who checks in from North Carolina, where numerous Friends have been part of an ongoing campaign of protest that has some intriguing parallels to the legal struggles of early Friends. These “Moral Monday” protests have drawn national attention to social conditions in the South, and as readers will see, could also have broader implications, like early Friends’ legal efforts.

Rounding out this packed and substantive issue is a letter in response to our report in Quaker Theology #23 on the homophobic statement issued by leaders of the Friends Church Kenya. It comes from David Zarembka, an American Friend who lives in Kenya and has done peace work there for many years. David has some valuable thoughts to share.

And not least, this fall saw the release of a hefty Handbook of Quaker Studies from Oxford University Press – a compilation of what is referred to as the “settled scholarship” on all (or at least the top 37) things Quaker, from Hicksite versus Orthodox to penal reform to the family and sex. We have an unsettled review.

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