And the Spirit Moved Them was written to demonstrate that the true origin of the modern American women’s rights movement was not the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, but the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women held in New York City in 1837. Author Helen LaKelly Hunt gives a fascinating historical account of these early abolitionist suffragists, whose power as reformers and social justice advocates arose through the convergence of various key personalities and events, a common Christian faith and commitment to social justice, and the willingness to join with men who shared their beliefs and core values, to confront and challenge entrenched racial and sexual domination.
As Hunt tells their story, she highlights three major characteristics of these early suffragists and their movement:
- The abolitionist feminist movement of the 1830s was inclusive in nature, crossing boundaries of race, class, and socio-economic status. It was a movement in which white women and black women—e.g., Sarah Grimke, Lucretia Mott, Sarah Mapps Douglass, Sarah Forten Purvis—worked together as full and equal partners. They turned the world upside down and set things right as emissaries of God, by recognizing the “intersectionality” of racism, sexism, lack of education, and economic oppression.
- Their movement was “relational,” knit together and informed by strong personal bonds formed as they worked together for the emancipation of both slaves and women. They broke through social conventions by emphasizing solidarity, seeing themselves not as isolated individuals but as “selves-in-relation.” Their reform movement was never based on an “us vs. them” mentality. And whenever society sought to separate them, or disagreements rose among them, they sought “both/and” solutions that maintained their inclusive unity.
- The reformation movement of the abolitionist feminists was a faith-fueled activism. These women (and the men who joined them) were able to distinguish God’s overarching message of love, as set forth in the gospel, from those teachings and practices of the churches which condoned slavery and sexual domination, which were contrary to the gospel. For them, it was the essential tenets of the Christian faith—the mercy, love, and power of the risen Christ at work in his followers through the Holy Spirit—that catalyzed them into action toward universal justice.
Lucretia Mott spoke for all the abolitionist feminists when, in a speech given at the 1854 Women’s Rights Convention, she declared:
It is not Christianity, but priestcraft that has subjected women. Such dupes are men to custom that even servitude, the worst of ills, comes to be thought good, till down from sire to son it is kept and guarded as a sacred thing. Women’s existence is maintained by sufferance. The veneration of men has been misdirected, the pulpit has been prostituted, the Bible has been ill-used.
Helen LaKelly Hunt cofounded Women Moving Millions and helped to spark the global women’s philanthropy movement. She is the author of Faith and Feminism, and coauthor of several best-selling books with her husband Harville Hendrix. An examination of And the Spirit Moved Them reveals she is also a serious research historian. While doing research for her PhD she discovered the historical writings of these abolitionist suffragists, and was so amazed at the parallels to her own experience that she was inspired to write this current book. She writes:
Discovering this glorious sisterhood, long lost in that dark and dusty archive of a library, my heart soared. It felt very personal to me. The window on history that opened in the Barnard Library unsealed a parallel window into my past. I was struck how these women spoke to my journey—how I’d learned, just as they had, that power was not given but stepped into, and that its full expression occurred in the arenas of voice, money, empowerment, solidarity, and faith. They were, in effect, telling me my story. And I longed to tell theirs.
And their story she does tell well, set forth in seven chapters sandwiched between the introduction and conclusion.
In the conclusion, Hunt lays out seven principles that these women followed and which the modern feminist movement would do well to incorporate in their attempts to promote social justice and reform today:
- Think and organize relationally
- Include your faith voice in your political voice
- Heal the dissociation, externally and interiorly
- Partner with Men
- Be hungry for history—and recover it
- Don’t agonize—organize
- Promote a feminist agape.
What does this account of early abolitionist suffragists offer egalitarian Christians as we face racial and sexual injustice in our own time? I believe Hunt sums them up well when she states:
The abolitionists were visionaries, both men and women who called for a congruence between the democratic ethic and its practice. They were faith-based activists who called for a seamless integration between the teachings of Christ and the dogma of church doctrine. They were active during a time when the culture was in denial about its false morality and double standard. The government espoused “freedom and justice for all,” while at the same time creating and protecting laws that lifted up slavery. The country had dissociated the creed it espoused from the laws and lives of its citizens. The Christian faith that preached the sanctity of all life had become institutionalized in forms that fractured the unity of love. Many Christian churches either condoned slavery or looked the other way. It was only as more people tapped into the power of a personal faith and the vision of Christian unity that a new ethic of empathy began healing the soul of the nation.
Now, when our culture is fracturing in ever-greater ways, it is even more urgent to once again lift up and wield love. As Dr. Cornel West has said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public….We have to be militants for kindness, subversive for sweetness, and radical for tenderness.” Love is the impulse that exists between parent and child; the force that drives both secular and faith-based activists; and the foundation upon which healthy partnerships can be built…As we use the blueprint of the early abolitionist feminists to construct a new and stronger feminism, love is the most urgent and necessary tool available to us.
This “powerful love” of which Hunt speaks is not our own, but that of Christ himself poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit; a love which has always been the motive power in the church’s faithful proclamation and practice of the gospel.
And so I recommend using this book as an insightful tool for us, the heirs of the abolitionist feminists, in carrying on Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, which is the true mission of the church until Jesus returns.