The Abolitionist Who Lost His Faith

The man behind this outburst of abolitionist animosity was not William Lloyd Garrison. Thanks largely to his combative ways and offensive language, his impact was limited outside his small circle of New England followers; the circulation of The Liberatorremained small. The new vigor emanated from the New York–based American Anti-Slavery Society, financed by Arthur Tappan and his circle of well-to-do philanthropists. Their energies were divided by enthusiasm for numerous good causes. But they found a man in upstate New York who became their dynamic spokesman against slavery: Theodore Dwight Weld.

A Connecticut-born minister’s son in search of a life-fulfilling mission, Weld was Garrison’s opposite in many ways. He was a big, muscular man with a rough-hewn face and streaming unkempt hair. Unlike the fastidious Garrison, Weld was proud of his “bearish” style and sometimes described himself as a “backwoodsman untamed.” When he was invited to speak in Boston, he declined, saying he was much too “shaggy” for their elegant tastes.

This was the language of a consummate actor, playing a role to please an audience. The man behind the persona was a much more complex human being, as his followers would eventually discover. Weld’s audience was the tens of thousands of Yankees who had streamed into New York and then into the midwestern states. They brought with them their New England Protestant faith with its roots in Puritanism. Almost all of Weld’s followers had experienced the spiritual drama of the Second Great Awakening and were ready to listen to new ways of winning the approval of their stern Old Testament God.

Some embraced temperance in the hope of abolishing alcoholism, a plague that was ruining countless families. Their version of temperance quickly became an absolute ban on even a single drink of alcohol, including beer or wine. Others assailed Roman Catholicism as a creeping menace to American liberty. Still others crusaded against the Masonic Order for its secretive, supposedly evil ways. Even more turned to abolition—and Theodore Dwight Weld became their heaven-sent prophet.1

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Instead of publishing a newspaper sent to unseen readers, Weld sent himself. He began his career as a protégé of a famous revivalist in upstate New York but soon transferred his abilities to Ohio. There he entered Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, and in a few months he convened an eighteen-day discussion with his fellow seminarians that persuaded them slavery was America’s most ghastly sin. They called on Lane to start admitting Cincinnati’s free Negroes to some of their classes. Lane’s trustees objected; they were sensitive to the city’s proximity to Kentucky with its 250,000 slaves. Lane’s president, a glowering former New Englander named Lyman Beecher, was also opposed. He thought the Roman Catholic Church was the nation’s premier evil.2

Weld led a revolt that virtually emptied the seminary of students. Many of them became Weld’s collaborators in a campaign to awaken antislavery fervor in Ohio. Another large group transferred to Oberlin College, which was run by outspoken abolitionists and was already admitting blacks. Others flung themselves into educating and uplifting Cincinnati’s free blacks, who lived in a segregated “Little Africa” community.3

From town to town Weld and his followers travelled, preaching their message of slavery’s sinfulness and the guilt that every American man and woman shared for this ongoing defiance of God’s will. They used the techniques of the revival meeting to stir emotions; they challenged their listeners to put themselves in the slave’s place, to imagine how he felt when he saw his wife lashed or raped by a sadistic owner, or his children sold to a slave trader who took them, shackled and forlorn, to Memphis or New Orleans. Garrison said similar things in The Liberator, but words on paper were pale lifeless things compared to the impact an impassioned Weld and his disciples achieved in person.

Weld was the most indefatigable of these crusaders by far. He would arrive in a town, introduce himself to the local minister, and sometimes board with him and his family. Meanwhile he would rent a hall and preach day and night, as many as eighteen times in one place. He was not always welcome. More than once, he found himself the target of flung stones and pods of manure and mud. In Circleview, Ohio, a rock struck him in the head while he was preaching. Dazed but unfazed, he got up and finished the sermon. Most of the time, audiences succumbed to his call for action; when he departed a town, he usually left behind an antislavery society.

The pace at which the Weld wing of the abolitionist movement grew under his leadership was phenomenal. In four years of campaigning, often to the point of physical and emotional collapse, he and his followers created 1,346 local antislavery societies, and they raised enough money to hire seventy full-time paid agents to continue the crusade. To appreciate this achievement, a comparison to the British antislavery campaign is instructive. At the climax of their forty-year struggle, they had only six paid agents.

Energized by Weld, the American Anti-slavery Society also began distributing over a million publications—pamphlets, sermons, petitions to Congress and state legislatures—each year. These became the paper avalanche that deluged and infuriated Virginia.4

One of the keys to Weld’s success was his almost mystical appeal to women. They sent him stories of dreams he had inspired, in which his stentorian voice and charismatic figure is mingled with the power of God. One woman told him he had moved her “like the quivering throb of a lacerated limb, the convulsive throb of a crushed bosom.” Women became the prime distributors of antislavery publications. They jammed Weld’s meetings, wept and cried out at his oratorical flights, and soon gave Weld the illusion that he was invincible. He told one man that he now thought slavery would be vanquished in five years.5

“God’s terrors begin to blaze upon the guilty nation,” he told one fellow campaigner. “If repentance, speedy and deep and national, does not forestall Jehovah’s judgment . . . the voice of a brother’s blood crying from the ground will peal against the wrathful heavens and shake down ruin like a fig tree casteth her untimely fruit.”

These apocalyptic words terrified and uplifted most of Weld’s listeners. But some people began asking tough questions. Most of Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and northern New York were in an abolitionist turmoil. But had all this excitement freed a single slave in the South?

It began to dawn on many abolitionists that America was not and never would be England. No matter how many people they converted and how many antislavery petitions they generated, they had little or no impact on the politicians in the state and federal governments. Even more daunting was the realization that they were changing almost no minds in the South, where the power to free or not to free the slaves resided. For Weld, such doubts were troubling and his experience in northern New York further darkened these questions in his mind and heart.

Weld was not welcomed in this turbulent section of the Empire State. He swiftly became “the most mobbed man in the United States.” Usually he demanded and got police protection. But at Troy, Weld collided with a hostile community—and public officials—not unlike those he would encounter if he ventured into the South. A mob shut down the church where he and an associate were planning to preach. The mayor of the city said things that encouraged the demonstrators. When Weld found another church that gave him its pulpit, the mob stormed into the place and tried to drag him into the street. It soon became apparent that if he so much as ventured outside his boarding house, he was going to be assaulted by rocks and epithets. His body became “one general painful bruise.”6

In a letter to a Rhode Island believer who was urging him to quit Troy, Weld declared that every abolitionist had to find out if he were willing to “lie upon the rack” for the cause. But the mayor of Troy did not give him an opportunity to make this sacrifice. He told Weld to leave the city or he would use force to deport him.7

This defeat inflicted a serious psychological wound on Weld. For a while, he continued to play a leadership role at the American Anti-Slavery Society. To energize their paid agents, they held a convention in New York and asked Weld to preside over it. For seventeen days in November and December of 1836, he did so with his usual vigor, meeting with these eager crusaders for eight hours every day and often toiling until three a.m. preparing his remarks for the following day. By the last session, his mighty voice had been reduced to a croak. No one realized that they would not hear Theodore Dwight Weld speak again for another decade.8

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During the next years, Weld turned to a new role in the crusade. He became a writer and editor for the American Anti-Slavery Society and a resident of New York, where he fell in love with a remarkable woman, Angelina Grimké. She and her older sister, Sarah, were the daughters of a wealthy Charleston slave owner. They had decided slavery was evil, broken with their family and friends, and moved north. Angelina and her sister were also passionate advocates of women’s rights. When Angelina married Theodore in 1838, instead of the usual ceremonial words about love and obedience, she required a promise that he would always treat her as an equal.

The Grimkés’ firsthand stories of the cruelties inflicted on slaves in South Carolina mesmerized Weld. For the first time he realized that he and other abolitionists had been contending with a general idea of slavery as wrong in principle. They devoted most of their speeches to what freedom could accomplish in a slave’s soul. They had little or no acquaintance with slavery as a day-to-day reality. Weld decided they needed a book that would prove slavery was wrong in practice. Day after day for the next six months, he and the Grimkés went through twenty thousand copies of southern newspapers, clipping stories that proved slavery’s almost daily cruelty.

The Grimkés added to this collection their personal memories. Angelina told of talking to the female slave of a wealthy Charleston woman, who had been sent to the “treadmill” where disobedient or defiant slaves were flogged. The slave revealed gashes on her back so deep, Angelina said, “I might have laid my whole finger in them.” Another victim, a disobedient boy, had been whipped so ferociously he could barely walk. These were typical of the examples that filled the pages of Weld’s book, Slavery As It Is.

In Weld’s introduction to the book, he urged each reader to sit as a juror and bring in “an honest verdict” on slavery and slave owners. When a reader finished the book, Weld was sure, he or she would no longer believe slave owners who claimed to treat their slaves as human beings. Here was proof that slaves’ “ears are often cut off, their eyes knocked out, their bones broken, their flesh branded with red hot irons; that they are maimed, mutilated and burned to death over slow fires; All these things and more, and worse, we shall prove.”

Slavery As It Is was an instant publishing success. It sold a hundred thousand copies in its first year and continued to sell for another decade. But it did not solve the personal problems that were troubling Theodore Weld—or the future of the stalled abolition movement. Not a few of Weld’s friends objected to the harsh tone of his book. Others accused him of worsening the threat of a civil war. The Grimkés’ relations in South Carolina considered the book a personal insult. One of Angelina’s sisters accused her of hastening their mother’s death.9

Weld followed this book with a report on the impact of abolition in the British West Indies. He claimed that contrary to the dread inspired by Santo Domingo, emancipation had gone smoothly there. Subsequent developments would prove this was anything but the case. But it was undoubtedly true that the freed slaves had not turned on their ex-masters with machetes and muskets.

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Over the next few years, Theodore Weld became dubious about abolitionism as a way of life. He was enormously disturbed by two scandals in the movement. One was the discovery that a leader in the Midwest had pilfered funds from Oberlin College. The evildoer had also seduced and impregnated a woman acquaintance, forced her to abort the child, and married another woman. Even more shocking was the revelation that the minister of an abolitionist church in Brooklyn had sexually abused at least ten young girls.

Weld began to wonder whether abolitionism was the path to personal holiness and true contact with God. Compounding these doubts were angry clashes with abolitionists and their critics in many parts of the nation. A series of visits to Washington, DC, where Weld worked with antislavery members of the new Whig Party, added to his disillusionment. He saw firsthand the rage that abolitionism stirred in Southerners, who accused its proponents of being indifferent to—or even eager for—a slave insurrection and a race war in which thousands of women and children would be slaughtered. Was this the way to achieve God’s heaven on earth? Weld wondered.

His doubts exploded in a speech Weld gave in 1844, “God’s Hinderances.” He asked his audience—and himself—a question: Could any person or group of persons hope to reform the American world in any fundamental way by calling slave owners vicious names? Were Christian charity and any hope of mutual respect being destroyed by abolitionism? Weld’s reply was a mournful yes, and he withdrew from the abolitionist crusade.10

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