Recovering a Heritage

We have already met Theodore Weld in the third essay of this series (October 1974). There we noticed his role in generating the 1834 debates on slavery at Cincinnati’s Lane Theological Seminary. Trustee efforts to block a student anti-slavery society and to prevent their work among local blacks led to the “Lane Rebellion” in which abolitionist students withdrew to the newly founded Oberlin College, a major center of “Christian radicalism” produced by the revivalism of evangelist Charles G. Finney.

But Theodore Weld deserves more than that brief mention. The Lane debates were only one incident in a distinguished career full of meaning not only for his time but for ours. According to the Dictionary of American Biography, “Weld was not only the greatest of the abolitionists; he was also one of the greatest figures of his time.” Yet Weld was nearly lost to history and it is only by a strange twist of events that we know as much about him as we do.

By natural modesty and firm convictions Weld resisted all efforts to thrust himself into prominence. He declined the professorship of theology at Oberlin, insisting that it should go to Finney, and the executive secretaryship of the American Anti-Slavery Society, arguing that his own work was in the ranks. He refused all invitations to speak at anti-slavery conventions because he “loathed” such “ostentatious display” and feared the “habit of gadding” from one convention to another. Weld would not let his speeches and letters be printed and published his books anonymously. He shunned the press and worked in the “West” away from the Eastern centers of influence. He chose, moreover, the obscurity of working in small towns “among the yeomanry,” self-consciously arguing that “the great cities ... must be burned down by bock fires. The springs to touch lie in the country.”

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