After the first day of opening ceremonies at Pennsylvania Hall, abolitionists from throughout the U.S. gathered at the Philadelphia home of Anna R. Frost to witness what was, among abolitionists at least, the wedding of the century. Frost’s sister, Angelina Grimke, one of the most well known women abolitionists of the time, was about to marry Theodore Dwight Weld, the leader of the famous Lane Seminary rebels. Although a happy event for most, this wedding was also mired in controversy.
The wedding was a major milestone in both the abolition and the women’s rights movements. Most of the major abolitionits of the time, including Gerrit Smith, William Lloyd Garrison, James G. Birney, Henry B. Stanton, Alvan Stewart and Lewis Tappan were present, along with the bride’s sister Sarah Grimke. Also in keeping with the antislavery theme, Angelina ordered the cake from a black confectioner who used nothing but free-grown sugar (as opposed to slave-grown sugar). In addition, the couple was blessed by both a white and a black minister, and the guests included whites as well as blacks.
In terms of women’s rights, the wedding vows were more progressive than many today. The couple made up their vows as they went along, and Theodore’s included a denunciation “femme covert,” the legal concept by which women at the time became legally one (“covered”) by the husband and thus lost all power of ownership over property, money, or even their own children. For her part, the bride pledged her undying love to the groom but did not include the tradition promise to “obey” him.
The wedding was simple, dignified, and controversial. Beyond the inclusion of both blacks and whites and the unusual vows, the couple was breaking a major rule in the bride’s Quaker faith. While Angelina was a Quaker, Theodore was not, and Quakers were not allowed to marry outside their faith. As a result the bride and any Quakers who attended the wedding faced excommunication. Indeed both Sarah and Angela met that fate. To avoid being similarly punished, Lucretia Mott, a Hicksite Quaker, did not attend the ceremony. Likewise, John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the groom’s dearest friends and an Orthodox Quaker stayed away as well. While one account I have found says he stood just beyond the room during the ceremony, all others agree that he did not attend but came to the home in the morning to give the couple a poem.
This wedding will be covered briefly in the Pennsylvania Hall book, but it clearly deserves a book of its own. A couple of letters I have found leave me quite intrigued.
According to this letter from Theodore to Angelina there was some sort of issue concerning their friend and fellow abolitionist Henry C. Wright:
“Dearest, I was very sorry that you said in your letter inviting H.C. Wright to our marriage “We know you will feel for us and be helpers of our joy in the Lord”, for I cannot say any such thing. I do believe he feels for us in one sense, that is, the thought that you should marry me is to him like poison. Perhaps I speak too strongly, but not more so than the reality seems to warrant. When he speaks of our marriage, it is impossible for him to keep from manifesting distress. Now he would necessarily infer from that letter that you supposed him to sympathize entirely in our feelings. It is impossible for me to say with truth that I believe he does “feel for us” in the sense in which he must understand those words, or that he will be or can be a “helper of our joy”. If that clause had been left out, my Love, I could have signed the letter conscientiously and for your sake could have invited him very cordially to our marriage. But as it was, you see I could not sign it; and as I had, before you sent that on, given him verbally an express invitation as specifically and kindly as I could frame it, it did not seem really necessary to have a written one”
(Weld to Grimke, Barnes & Dumond, Letters of TDW, AGW and SG, vol. 2, p. 673-74)
Apparently this was not the only objection, as we can see in Angelina’s response to Theodore:
“I am glad to hear that brother Whittier will come even after “the excommunicable offence is perpetrated.” He must pity thee I think almost as much as that other abolition brother. Well I heartily excuse them, for I am amazed at thy daring such an experiment”
(Grimke to Weld 10 May 1838 in Barnes & Dumond, Letters of TDW, AGW and SG, vol. 2, p. 677)
Sarah Grimke must also have been having a really hard time with the threat of excommunication, as Angelina added: “May the Lord help her! And me too. I know I do not feel right about the trial she feels in anticipation of our union”
This exchange of letters leaves me wondering what was going on with Wright and just who the “other abolition brother” was. I suspect it might have been Garrison because I know that at one point he took Angelina aside and expressed his concern that Theodore was going to drag her into his theology, which Garrison saw as threatening.
The largest effect this wedding had on events at Pennsylvania Hall was that it fueled rumors of an interracial wedding. These rumors lent credence to the charge of “amalgamation” used by the crowd to justify the destruction of the building. But more of that in the book.