Sarah Stanley Grimké’s Esoteric Lessons

Starting in December 2018 and continuing through June 2019 this blog will serialize the bio-bibliographical appendix of Letters to the Sage, Volume Two on the posthumously published author who was the only collaborator of Thomas H. Burgoyne. Burgoyne’s later career is the topic of my upcoming presentation at the preconference intensive duringthe biennial Church of Light convention.

Sarah Eliza Stanley was born in Scriba, Oswego County, New York in April 1850, the first year of her father’s career as a Free Baptist clergyman.  The following year Moses Stanley became pastor of a Free Baptist church in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin; in 1855 he returned to New England to another Free Baptist church in Farmington, Maine, a few miles from Wilton where his wife Sarah Pease Stanley had been born in 1827.  In 1859 Moses was in Two Rivers, Wisconsin as pastor of a Congregational church, and beginning in 1860 he served Episcopal churches in Michigan and Indiana.   In the first ten years of her life, Sarah thus lived in four states with a father affiliated with three denominations. Throughout her life, she formed no stable attachments to any place she could call home nor any Christian denomination, which was foreshadowed in her early childhood. The geographical and spiritual mobility of Moses Stanley’s clerical career was reflected in his daughter’s career as a writer. Another connecting thread for decades was abolitionism. The Free Baptist movement had begun in 1780 in New Hampshire, with the name referring to belief in free will as opposed to determinism. By the 1850s, “Free” for northern Baptists also referred to the divine imperative to end slavery.  This denomination in which Sarah Stanley spent her early childhood had been strongly abolitionist, and Moses Stanley’s commitment to the abolitionist cause continued into his Congregational and Episcopal pastorates. Sarah by marriage became a part of the most renowned abolitionist family of the 19th century.

Sarah Stanley graduated from Boston University with a PhB awarded by the College of Liberal Arts.  Her Senior class of 1878 included twelve women and fifteen men. The “Philosophical course” leading to the PhB was discontinued upon their graduation of the class of 1880. Admission requirements for the College of Liberal Arts were daunting by modern standards, with preliminary examinations involving Greek and Latin Grammar and literature, Arithmetic, Algebra, English Grammar and Rhetoric, Modern History and Geography. Required philosophy courses for all students included Theistic Philosophy, Ethical Philosophy, Evidences of Christianity, and History of Philosophy. Electives in Philosophy included Metaphysics, Logic and Theory of Knowledge, and Aesthetics. All philosophy courses were taught by Borden P. Bowne, remembered today as one of the foremost proponents of Personalism, a theistic Christian philosophy emphasizing the immanence of God. Bowne identified himself as a Berkeleyan idealist modified by Kantian epistemology. He taught psychology as well as philosophy, and published books on all major branches of philosophy as well as on theology.[i] In an obituary for the American Journal of Theology, John Alfred Faulkner lamented Bowne as a “severe loss not only to Boston University and American Methodism…but to American philosophy and theology and well” whose “writings cover almost every important branch of philosophy.”[ii]

Sarah converted to Unitarianism in Boston and was strongly influenced by the Transcendentalist Unitarian clergyman Cyrus Augustus Bartol. In April 1879 Bartol presided at her wedding ceremony when she married Archibald Henry Grimké, a native South Carolinian and the eldest of three sons of a white plantation owner and his enslaved mistress. Sarah’s letters home announcing her engagement have not survived, but her father’s reply dated February 21, 1879 is preserved in the Moorland-Spingarn Center at Howard University. He blamed both Bartol and her prospective in-laws for the engagement:

There is not one of us who finds any pleasure in what seems to elate you.  It may be a source of fun to the Unitarians of Boston but it has filled our hearts with mourning. You speak of the delight of Dr. Bartol and others. Do you think they would find the same delight if it were one of their daughters? We look upon it as a sad day when you went to Boston and especially when you associated yourself with the deniers of Christ and the insane theorizers of that infidel city. Boston will nevermore have any charms for me. We have always prided ourselves in you, but we are sorely, sorely disappointed.  You seem to have lost your reason—deceived by the Weld[s] and the delusive theorizers of the sickly and pestilent sentimentality of Boston. They are not your true friends who urge you on to this cause.[iii]

Moses Stanley’s dismay at his daughter’s associates in Boston might be explained as a consequence of his earlier faith that she was in respectable company there in terms of Christian orthodoxy. Boston University’s philosophy program was strongly theistic and influenced by the Methodist affiliation of the institution. Sarah’s first year of philosophy education at the University of Michigan, in 1872-73 prior to her transfer to BU, was in a department led by another Methodist theologian, Benjamin Franklin Crocker. Hence her conversion to Unitarianism and abandonment of orthodox Christian theism would have been as shocking to her father as her interracial marriage.

Cyrus Bartol was one of the founding teachers of the Concord School of Philosophy. As pastor of West Church in Boston from 1837, and sole pastor from 1861 through retirement in 1889, he was the most visible exponent of Transcendentalism in the city in a career spanning five decades. Although Archibald Grimké was a resident of Boston and recent graduate of Harvard Law School, his aunt, uncle and cousins lived in Hyde Park where they were founding members of the Unitarian congregation. By referring to “the Weld,” Moses Stanley accused his future son-in-law’s white relatives of encouraging the marriage for ideological reasons. When Sarah Stanley married Archibald Grimké she took the surname of the most celebrated abolitionist women of the 19th century. Theodore Weld, like his wife Angelina Grimké Weld and her sister Sarah Moore Grimké, had begun as a traditional Protestant and passed through many phases of belief before finding a spiritual home among Unitarians in Hyde Park. The Grimké sisters’ spiritual beliefs had inspired their long careers as abolitionist speakers and writers. Sarah Moore Grimké’s dedication to the anti-slavery cause emerged after an 1823 conversion to Quakerism following several visits to Philadelphia.  Angelina followed suit eight years later, both in joining the Friends and in support for abolitionists. Later they both developed an interest in Spiritualism, but ended life as Unitarians as did Theodore, who also in his final years embraced “mind cure.”

Sarah Moore Grimké died in 1873 before Sarah Stanley went to Boston University; Angelina Grimké Weld had suffered a stroke the same year and died in 1879. They had discovered their biracial nephews Archibald and Francis, sons of their brother Henry, in 1871, and assisted their educational advancement in Massachusetts. Neither of the famed sisters could have been a direct influence on young Sarah, but Angelina’s husband Theodore Weld was a definite presence in her family life.  In his twenties, Theodore became a fervent apostle of the abolitionist cause, and early in his career he encountered the accusation that abolition of slavery would lead to race mixing, described by his biographer Robert Abzug as “one word, amalgamation, which was code for the mixing of the races.”[iv] Thinking of himself “as the John the Baptist of the antislavery movement,” Weld had worked closely with free blacks for decades.[v] When young Archibald first encountered his aunts Sarah and Angelina, Weld fully supported their embrace of him and his brothers as family members. Abzug writes that Theodore “viewed the discovery of Archibald and Francis as the completion of the fateful union he had entered into so many years before with Angelina, coupling the destiny of the Weld family forever with that of the Grimkés—the black Grimkés—of Charleston…a chance, finally, to put into practice what they had all been preaching for so long.”[vi]

After the death of his wife, Theodore Weld, head of the extended Weld-Grimké clan, was a respected figure in his community. Mark Perry’s history of the family depicts him in the early 1880s “walking slowly, on the arm of Sarah Stanley Grimké, through the streets of Hyde Park, where he had once jogged.”[vii] A 1925 biography of Archibald by his daughter describes the thrilling social network into which he was introduced by his aunts and Theodore Weld: “He met the Fosters, Lucy Stone, the famous Miss Elizabeth Peabody, his old friends the Pillsburys, Judge Sewell, Dr. Bartol, Garrison, Sumner and Phillips, prominent and great men of his own race, such as Lewis Auden and Frederick Douglass.”[viii]

This was the world into which Sarah married in 1879. Child of an abolitionist minister, Sarah Stanley was fifteen years old at the end of the Civil War, and at twenty-nine she married a former slave. Themes of warfare and freeing slaves feature in her lessons written in the postwar era. Although her father Moses Stanley appears as her adversary at the time of her marriage, his moral evolution is apparent in his letters over the next two decades. He immediately saw “amalgamation” as an inevitable consequence, as Theodore Weld had insisted for decades, of abolishing slavery:

It is what has been flung at me scores & perhaps hundreds of times in years past when I have advocated the rights of the colored race but little did I dream it was an arrow that would pierce my heart.  I have advocated every measure for their full enfranchisement to civil & religious liberty & the opening of our schools & colleges for their education & culture, but amalgamation always seemed unnatural & revolting. Toward them I cherish none but philanthropic feelings but to give them my beautiful & accomplished daughter seems perfectly abhorrent, and that they should be willing to throw themselves into their arms for husbands is an infinite surprise & grief.  The very thought of it is withering to all the love, the charm, the ambition, the aspiration of life.  Death seems the only relief. I am ready to welcome death.[ix]

Despite the hard feelings Moses Stanley expressed towards Sarah’s conversion to Unitarianism in Boston and her marriage to Archibald, her geographical and spiritual mobility seems to follow his example.  She moved from Transcendentalism to New Thought to Hermetic astrology, from Massachusetts to Michigan to California, with the same freedom that Moses had demonstrated in his life. Religious and geographical mobility is thus a theme connecting the Stanley and Weld/Grimké families.

The marriage had begun with a great intensity of feeling on both sides, as evident from this May 29, 1879 letter from Sarah to Archibald:

“Love! Lord! ay===Husband!

Art thou gone so?”  And where am I? – I cannot tell who I am, nor what I should be doing here. I no longer have a separate being. My soul has gone and only a dull machine moves about – these rooms or the streets and commons of Boston.  All is an unmeaning haze until my Prince return and revivify with his breath and magic touch…The Moral Education Society meeting this morning was very interesting indeed.  Mrs. Woolson presided, and made a speech. Among the other speakers were Dr. Bartol, Rev. Mr. Withers, Mr. Allcott, &c – I met Miss Eddy on my way there so we were together.[x] (Allcott is Bronson Alcott; “Miss” Eddy is Mary Baker Eddy- ed.)

In this passage we find the best available clue in her letters to the combination of influences behind Sarah’s earliest writings. Her correspondence only refers once to Bronson Alcott and Mary Baker Eddy, but many times to Cyrus Bartol, a recurring presence throughout her married life. Moses Stanley, in response to Sarah’s announcement of her impending marriage, denounced Bartol’s “delight” at the prospect of her marrying Archie. After leaving him in 1883, Sarah mentioned Bartol and his wife as the only Boston acquaintances with whom she wished to remain in contact. The triangular configuration of Alcott, Eddy, and Bartol provides the context in which Sarah, a Unitarian, became a Mind Cure author and later an exponent of Hermetic and Neoplatonic esotericism.


[i] President’s Annual Report, 1878, Boston University.

[ii] John Alfred Faulkner, American Journal of Theology, July 1, 1910, 422-425.

[iii] Archibald H. Grimké papers, Series A, Box 1, Folder 5, Manuscript Division, Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

[iv] Robert Abzug, Passionate Liberator (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 103.

[v] Ibid., 154, 137.

[vi] Ibid., 230

[vii] Mark Perry, Lift Up thy Voice (New York, Viking, 2001), 26.

[viii] Angelina Weld Grimké, “Biographical of Archibald H. Grimké,” Collected Works (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 431

[ix] Archibald H. Grimké papers, Series A, Box 39-1, Folder 5, Manuscript Division, Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

[x] Ibid., Series C, Box 39-3, Folder 76.