If you’re looking for a beautiful model of an egalitarian relationship in the midst of a decidedly non-egalitarian culture, the love story of Angelina Emily Grimké (1805–1879) and Theodore Dwight Weld (1803–1895) is especially inspiring. A fearless pioneer for women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, Angelina Grimké had some initial misgivings about relationships and marriage—she wondered if it would be possible to find a partner who would view her as a spiritual and moral equal, rather than just a fulfillment of a culturally perpetuated stereotype of womanhood. A century and a half later, her fears may still resonate with many egalitarian singles. After growing up in a culture that told me I needed to be a “princess” in order to find my “warrior,” I know I can certainly understand her initial hesitations! Yet, Angelina overcame her fears of falling victim to social restrictions placed on women and, together with Theodore, went on to build a new kind of relationship that honored both individuals as equals.
Angelina and her sister Sarah toured and lectured extensively as abolitionists at a time when such public activism was still quite new for women. They faced much criticism because of their gender, but, holding to a high view of Scripture and a deep personal faith in Christ, both Sarah and Angelina defended their right as women to speak and advocate. They boldly insisted that forced gender roles in marriage created unhealthy personal relationships, and that such marriages left women as powerless and objectified as did the denial of a political voice. Angelina had faith that the oppressive state of marriage that she observed around her could be redeemed through changing the viewpoint of each spouse. In her Letters to Catherine Beecher, she asserted that “when human beings are regarded as moral beings, sex, instead of being enthroned upon the summit, administering upon rights and responsibilities, sinks into insignificance and nothingness.” When Angelina met Theodore Weld, a fellow abolitionist, their relationship was built on this very concept—not traditional ideas of male-female courtship roles, but on an intellectual and spiritual communion. They were attracted to each other physically, but they were even more attracted to each other’s spiritual and moral priorities. And regarding their spirituality as their foundation allowed their courtship to establish a strong egalitarian base from the beginning. By examining their relationship, we can attempt to answer the question: what are some components in a successful egalitarian relationship?
Having a foundation of mutual respect
Many Christian relationship books today stress that, in order for relationships to flourish, men need respect and women need love. In Weld and Grimké’s case, however, their relationship developed through the enormous respect they had for each other. Theodore Weld shared the activist spirit of the Grimké sisters, and they met for the first time at an American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) convention. The Grimké sisters were the only females in attendance, and Weld was leading the training for the workers. When the Grimké sisters began their speaking tour a year later, Weld was their main contact to the AASS, and they forged a great friendship with him as they exchanged letters. As Theodore and Angelina’s relationship progressed, the foundation of mutual respect and camaraderie continued to grow.
Loving the Lord “better” than you love each other
Grimké and Weld consistently used spiritual language in their love letters to describe their courtship, reminding one another that God was the divine overseer of their relationship. When Weld first confessed his love to Angelina, he did so believing that it was his sacred duty. In his letter, he stated, “I have taken this step at His bidding whose I am, and whom I serve.” Weld sought to begin a relationship with Grimké not out of his own selfish desire for her or out of a sense of infatuation, but because he felt God calling him to love her. Even so, Weld recognized the dangerous nature of human love. Weld and Grimké were both aware that many individuals fall into the trap of finding one’s entire identity in another human being, instead of finding it in God. For this reason they strove to keep God first in their relationship. After declaring his affections in his first love letter to Grimké, Weld was sure to point out his devotion to God above all else, stating “I do love the Lord…better than I love you. And it is because I love him better that I love you as you do.”
Viewing one another as spiritual, eternal beings
From the very start of their relationship, Weld emphasized that he viewed Grimké not “as a brother spirit or a sister spirit” but simply as a kindred spirit. Grimké echoed this idea more clearly when she stated “Yes, true love does not, cannot originate in differences of sex, and this idea is a disturbing force which the mind instinctively repels, for it is the seeking of the spirit after spiritual communion, the filling up of itself in love, the union of heart and mind and soul. This is marriage.” Weld and Grimké’s relationship focused on what they had in common rather than on their gender differences; what took preeminence was the intellectual and spiritual fellowship between two equals that made a healthy marriage possible. Grimké believed that for two individuals to truly become one, as God intended, such a fellowship was necessary.
Basing your relationship on your calling in Christ
Grimké and Weld approached their relationship the same way they approached other issues important to them—they asserted that Christian love and practice should result in equality and justice for everyone. Thus, building an egalitarian relationship was as important to them as their fight for suffrage or their abolitionist work. They sought to revolutionize marriage as it currently stood in their culture: a corrupted social institution. Weld proposed that the marriages he witnessed around him could be listed among “the most horrible perversions of all”, and he shared with Grimké the thought that God could have called them into such a relationship precisely to redeem marriage from these perversions, at least on a personal level. They believed that their relationship could function as a fulfillment of their Christian call to love and as another way of enacting justice in the world. In this way, they were brought together by a common purpose—a sense that they were called to be part of a larger, divine plan.
Realizing that each of you fulfills needs in the other
Both Weld and Grimké were puzzled by their love, wondering how another individual could suddenly form “a constituent half of my own being somehow mysteriously surrendered from me.” It was especially disconcerting to Grimké because of her strict ascetic life. She feared that in finding such love she might fall into the sin of idolatry—of loving an individual more than God. Weld struggled with this as well, but asserted that it was because of their differences that they fulfilled each other—that “God had created them so in order that marriage would be a holy sacrament where they could minister to one another.” These differences were not necessarily male and female, although Weld asserted that marriage offered an answer to why friendships with “those of our own sex cannot fill the void in human hearts.” Grimké and Weld recognized that as male and female, together as equals, without restrictions or roles, they could truly become one as was intended from the beginning, each providing something that might be lacking in the other.
At their wedding, Grimké and Weld read personal vows to one other, in lieu of a minister officiating. In his vows, according to the reports of Sarah Grimké, Weld “abjured all authority, all government, save the influence of which love would give to them over each other as moral and immortal beings.” What an inspiring example of mutuality in action!