Massachusetts Ministers on the Public Role of Women

Periodical Article

Background Notes

The New England lecture tour of Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the first female agents of the American Anti−Slavery Society, shocked and angered most clergymen. They not only disapproved of abolition but believed that public speaking was completely wrong for women. Disturbed by the Grimkés’ activities, the leaders of the Congregational churches in Massachusetts circulated a “Pastoral Letter” to all their congregations in August of 1837. The letter urged the churches not to permit “strangers to preach on subjects that ministers do not agree with” and went on to warn against “the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character.” Although the letter did not mention the Grimkés by name, it was widely understood to be an attack on them. The letter also mentioned “things which ought not to be named,” a reference to something even more controversial. In their lectures and writings, the Grimké sisters explicitly discussed the fact that slave women were prohibited from marrying and subject to the sexual demands of white masters and overseers. According to then widespread notions of female “purity” and “delicacy,” women should neither know about nor discuss such subjects.

The Antislavery press published the “Pastoral Letter” and defended the Grimké sisters.

Transcription of Primary Source

The Misses Grimké were women of genius and eloquence. They were humble and devoted Christians also, and therefore, free from the cramping−irons* of the religious and fashionable world, by which genius and eloquence are so often paralyzed. On their appearance in New England, great alarm was manifested by the pro−slavery ministry.

The general association of Massachusetts clergymen, met at Brookfield, June 27, 1837...They issued a pastoral letter...The following we consider the parts best worth preserving in this connection...

‘III.We invite your attention to the dangers which at present seem to threaten the FEMALE

CHARACTER with wide−spread and permanent injury.

The appropriate duties and influence of woman are clearly stated in the New Testament. Those duties and that influence are unobtrusive and private, but the source of mighty power. When the mild, dependent, softening influence of woman upon the sternness of man’s opinions is fully exercised, society feels the effects of it in a thousand forms. The power of woman is in her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection and which keeps her in those departments of life that form the character of individuals and of the nation. There are social influences which females use in promoting piety and the great objects of Christian benevolence which we cannot too highly commend. We appreciate the unostentatious prayers and efforts of woman in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad; in Sabbath−schools; in leading religious inquirers to the pastors for instruction; and in all such associated effort as becomes the modesty of her sex; and earnestly hope that she may abound more and more in these labors of piety and love. But when she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary, we put ourselves in self−defence against her; she yields the power which God has given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural. If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean upon the trellis−work and half conceal its clusters, thinks to assume the independence and the overshadowing nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonor into the dust.

We cannot, therefore, but regret the mistaken conduct of those who encourage females to bear an obtrusive and ostentatious part in measures of reform, and countenance any of that sex who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers. We especially deplore the intimate acquaintance and promiscuous* conversation of females with regard to things ‘which ought not to be named;’ by which that modesty and delicacy which is the charm of domestic life, and which constitutes the true influence of woman in society, is consumed, and the way opened, as we apprehend, for degeneracy and ruin. We say these things, not to discourage proper influences against sin, but to secure such reformation as we believe is Scriptural, and will be permanent.’


  • cramping−irons − an iron bent at both ends that holds together pieces of timber or stones; something that confines: shackle
  • promiscuous − composed of all sorts of things or persons, of high or low position, male and female

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Right Wrong in Boston. No. 3
45, 47−48
Isaac Knapp
Place of Publication: 
Old Sturbridge Village