Theodore Dwight Weld

Theodore Dwight Weld (1803-1895) was an American reformer, preacher, and editor. He was one of the most-influential leaders in the early phases of the antislavery movement.

Theodore Weld was born in Hampton, Conn., on Nov. 23, 1803, the son of a Congregational minister. Sent to Phillips-Andover to prepare for the ministry, he was forced to leave because of failing eyesight; he tried lecturing and later entered Hamilton College in New York. Here he was especially influenced by evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, who conducted revivalist meetings in the area. Weld toured with Finney's "holy band, " leaving for Oneida Institute in 1827 to complete his ministerial studies.

Weld soon converted to the antislavery cause. "I am deliberately, earnestly, solemnly, with my whole heart and soul and mind and strength, " he wrote in 1830, "for the immediate, universal, and total abolition of slavery." The New York philanthropists Lewis and Arthur Tappan hired Weld as an agent for the Society for the Promotion of Manual Labor to lecture and also to choose a site for a theological seminary for Finney. Weld chose Lane Seminary, and when the Tappans installed the Reverend Lyman Beecher as president, Weld remained as a student. However, Weld and other "Lane rebels" left in 1834 to train agents for the new national American Antislavery Society. Weld himself was a powerful speaker, and his famous agents, the "Seventy, " preached abolition across the West.

In 1837, his voice failing, Weld went to New York to edit the society's books and pamphlets. His The Bible against Slavery (1837) summarized religious arguments against slavery, while American Slavery as It Is (1839, published anonymously), a compilation of stories and statistics, served as an arsenal for abolitionist speakers and writers. In 1838 Weld married Angelina Grimké, one of two sisters he had helped train as antislavery speakers.

By the late 1830s antislavery forces formed a significant bloc in Congress, led by John Quincy Adams. Weld helped to develop the "petition strategy, " which forced the slavery issue into open debate. In 1843, feeling that abolition was established as a political issue, Weld, in poor health, retired to New York. In 1854 he founded an interracial school in New Jersey. He died Feb. 3, 1895, in Massachusetts.

Weld's passion for anonymity and fear of pride tended to osbcure his role in the antislavery movement, on which he exerted an enormous influence. He trained more than a hundred agents for the cause, directed its strategy for a decade, and influenced many of its leaders.

Further Reading on Theodore Dwight Weld

The best biography of Weld is Benjamin P. Thomas, Theodore Weld (1950). Additional information is in Gilbert H. Barnes and Dwight L. Dumond, Letters of Theodore Dwight Weld, Angelina Grimké Weld and Sarah Grimké (2 vols., 1934). For Weld's place in the antislavery movement see Gilbert H. Barnes, The Antislavery Impulse, 1830-1844 (1933); Louis Filler, The Crusade against Slavery, 1830-1860 (1960); and Martin Duberman, ed., The Antislavery Vanguard: New Essays on the Abolitionists (1965).

Additional Biography Sources

Abzug, Robert H., Passionate liberator: Theodore Dwight Weld and the dilemma of reform, New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

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