Theodore Dwight Weld was born in Connecticut
, on 23rd November 1803
, the son of a Congregationalist minister
. He grew up in New York
and attended college with the intention of following in his father's footsteps, but in 1826
he saw Charles Finney
, a former lawyer
who had felt God called him to become a traveling minister preaching personal salvation. Weld was hit hard by Finney's message and joined his followers, shortly becoming one of Finney's closest assistants. Weld believed in preaching to small towns and spreading his ideas of religious devotion
and spiritual freedom in the country before tackling large cities. He wanted the beliefs of his converts to spur them to fight for social justice
, particularly the temperance
movement at first.
He and his followers formed the Oneida Institute, which was a divinity school that also required its students to do manual labor so that they would know what their prospective converts' lives were truly like. Weld was there from the start, but once the buildings were constructed and the schedules set up, he went West to try and accomplish the same kind of thing at the Lane Seminary in Ohio in 1832. He spoke throughout the state, and at one speech in Hudson, Ohio, met with Western Reserve College professors who convinced him that slavery was a stain on America and that immediate emancipation of all slaves was a necessary goal. The discussions he sponsored of the question of slavery back at the Lane Seminary caught the attention of the entire state. Weld and his followers received tremendous criticism for their position, as most people then who wanted slavery to end felt that it must be done gradually. The school decided to censure Weld, and this gave him more ammunition; it was now a debate over his right to free speech as well. His group of anti-slavery crusaders walked the streets of Cincinnati with free blacks -- a social scandal at the time. In 1834, Weld and his followers decided to leave Lane rather than submit to the restrictions the school was trying to put on them.
Weld became the Ohio representative of the American Anti-Slavery Society and went back to his lecture tours. By 1835, there was immense backlash developing to his views. Even in the North, abolitionist speakers had to be protected from angry mobs; their books were burned at Southern ports before they could reach actual slaveholders. Nonetheless, the Society kept on working, and although for the next few years they did more by writing pamphlets and circulating petitions to be sent to Congress. Weld was drawn back east where the AAS felt he could do more good.
Weld met Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké at a conference in New York in 1836. The two sisters worked in the abolitionist movement and published their views, and Weld struck up a correspondence with them, and particularly Angelina, while he was away on lecture tours, providing advice for their own lectures. Eventually their friendship grew into love, and Theodore and Angelina were married in 1838. Weld, his wife, and his sister-in-law lived together on a farm in New Jersey and cooperated in the assembling of the work American Slavery As It Is (1839). This book was a compilation of the words of Southerners, taken from many sources, describing how slaves were treated. Slaveholders' own words on their "discipline" practices were turned against them; the book also included abolitionist Southern viewpoints. This book would become a major influence on the abolitionist movement and a source for the events depicted in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Weld became a Quaker, as was his wife, and in 1841 went to Washington, D.C. to work with John Quincy Adams as an anti-slavery lobbyist for two years. He mostly did research for Adams' debates over the "gag rule" which forbade slavery to be discussed in Congress. Adams baited his opponents into trying him in early 1842 for supposedly advocating disunion of the states, but the motion to censure him did not succeed. This success for the abolitionists made Weld very happy.
Shortly after he returned to New Jersey, his aged parents and invalid siblings moved into down, and his third child was born. With all this, he was forced to try and earn more money to support his family. Farm work did not suit him, though, so he, Angelina, and Sarah opened a school in Belleville, New Jersey near their farm in 1848. It went well from the students' perspective, but did not earn the money they'd hoped for. Five years later, they moved and ran a progressive school at the Raritan Bay Community in New York. It later was renamed the Eagleswood School, and was quite successful after a few years.
During the Civil War Theodore, his wife and his sister-in-law wrote and lectured in support of Abraham Lincoln and the North. They were also dealing with the mental illness of the second Weld son, Sody, who would eventually be confined to a mental asylum. These two concerns caused the Welds and Sarah to leave Eagleswood in 1862. After the war the they moved to Hyde Park, Massachusetts. All three taught in a local school for a few years before retiring when it burned down. When Sarah and Angelina found that their nephews, sons of their brother Henry and one of his slaves, were attending college in the North, all three provided the brothers with advice and what money they could spare. Sarah died in 1873, and Theodore had to nurse Angelina (which he did devotedly) after she suffered a stroke and was partly paralyzed in 1876. He became a widower in 1879 and devoted most of his time to his children after that. He died on 3 February 1895.
Perry, Mark. Lift Up Thy Voice: The Grimké Family's Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders. New York: Viking, 2001.