Going to Extremes: Sarah Stanley Grimke from Maine to California

As 2012 opens, my research and writing focus is shifting from Ghost Land to Esoteric Lessons. One of the major differences is that Sarah Stanley Grimke’s writing never appeals to the authority of mysterious adepts in the way that Britten did. Nor is there any overt autobiographical content; we have to read between the lines to discern the personality behind the words. Yet once we know the basic outline of Sarah’s life, some of the references to slavery read as autobiographical. This passage, from the opening of A Tour Through the Zodiac (the third and final portion of Esoteric Lessons), is the most suggestive in that regard:

As a slave, in bondage to sense and seeming, with a simple staff in my hand, I started out in my first studies in search of the Pole-Star of truth– for truth implies freedom…Now a scepter has two ends; a head, or master, who wields it, and a foot, or slave, who is “under the rod,” and since these two ends cannot be detached, the ruler and the serf are two halves of a unit, while at this point of Unity is the true King.

So, in my own individual case, at the same time that I am a slave I am also a master.  I comprise the two within my system.  If I have been a slave of some, I must also have been a tyrant to others.

Therefore, since the King alone is free, before I can realize freedom I must be able to maintain the point of equilibrium between the tyrant and the slave, and it will, most assuredly, be an incessant warfare until this harmony is experienced.

 Finding a point of equilibrium appears to have eluded Sarah in a lifetime of going to extremes.  Astrologers may find her natal chart of interest in this regard. In 1879, the daughter of a white abolitionist minister married a former slave over the strenuous objections of her family.  Parental opposition to the marriage continued even after the birth of Sarah’s daughter. Any biographical sketch of Sarah must treat race relations as a key issue, since both her husband Archibald and daughter Angelina were prominent African American writers. But another aspect of her life that strikes me as significant, and symbolic, is the succession of places she lived. 

Born in upstate New York in 1850, Sarah moved with her family to Farmington, Maine, in early childhood. This was a few miles from the home of her maternal grandparents, and her father served as a minister there for several years before moving on to Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Three years after her marriage, Sarah left Archibald in Boston to visit her parents in Mackinac Island, Michigan, bringing her daughter Angelina along for the visit. Sarah never saw her husband again, but four years later she returned Angelina to her father’s custody. The next we know of her, she is living in California and collaborating with Thomas Burgoyne on the lessons of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor.  She died in 1898 in San Diego, in circumstances that remain obscure. Thus her life took her from the northeasternmost to southwesternmost points of the country. Her husband Archibald was a South Carolinian, and their daughter spent most of her life on the border between North and South, in Washington, D.C.  Sarah fled a failed marriage between North and South, black and white, settling in California and collaborating with an Englishman to make a major contribution to a spiritual movement that has been based in the West since the 1880s.

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