Theodore Dwight Weld: An Unknown Hero

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An Unknown Hero

An Essay on Theodore Dwight Weld

From 1830 through 1844, during the formative years of the American abolitionist movement, many arose as leaders in the fight for freedom. Author, editor, and auditor, Theodore Dwight Weld, was one of the leading framers of this movement. Many historians regard Weld as the most influential figure in the abolitionist movement. Despite his great works, Weld strove for anonymity in all his endeavors. This has long made him an unknown figure in American history. Weld, born in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, was the son and grandson of Congregational ministers. At the age of fourteen he began earning money to attend Phillips Academy. He continued his studies here until failing eyesight caused him to drop his courses in 1822. Following his attendance at Phillips Academy, Weld began a lecture series on mnemonics. He traveled for three years throughout the United States, including the South where he saw slavery firsthand. Weld’s family moved to upstate New York, where he studied at Hamilton College. Here Weld became a disciple of Charles Finney. Finney was best known as an innovative revivalist, an opponent of Old School Presbyterian theology, an advocate of Christian perfectionism, a pioneer in social reforms in favor of women and blacks, a religious writer, and president at Oberlin College. Weld was drawn to Finney's system for many reasons. It left no excuse for sin; it emphasizes present responsibility; it exalted the atonement of Christ; and it magnified the work of the Holy Spirit. Weld became a member of Finney’s “holy band” and worked under Finney for several years. When Weld decided to begin lecturing again, he became a preacher and entered the Oneida Manual Labor Institute in Oneida, New York. There, he would travel in two-week intervals about New York, lecturing on the virtues of manual labor, temperance, and moral reform. In 1831, philanthropists, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, hired Weld as the general agent for the Society for Promoting Manual Labor in Literary Institutions. The Tappan brothers devoted their time and money to causes such as temperance, the abolition of slavery, and the establishment of theological seminaries. In Weld’s report to the Tappan's, he reveals that he "traveled 4,575 miles; 2,630 miles by boat and stagecoach; 1800 miles on horseback, 145 miles on foot. En route, he made 236 public addresses." During his time as a manual labor agent, Weld helped establish and became a student at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati in 1833. Pastor, Lyman Beecher moved his family to Cincinnati to become the first president of the Lane Seminary. The Seminary was founded during a time of rising social, political and religious conflict. Beecher was well known for his fiery sermons, yet attempted to contain his students’ social activism to maintain mainline support for the Seminary. His opposition of fellow revivalist Charles Finney’s views led him also to refuse demands made by a group of students led by Weld at the Seminary in 1834. Weld was an advocate of immediate emancipation, despite the fact that the Seminary had its own colonization society, which proposed to send slaves back to Africa. Weld convinced nearly every student of his beliefs over a period of months. This led to a debate that spanned across eighteen days over the appropriate solution to slavery. This debate addressed these two main questions:

1. "Ought the people of the Slaveholding States to abolish Slavery immediately?"
2. "Are the doctrines, tendencies, and measures of the American Colonization Society, and the influence of its principal supporters, such as render it worthy of the patronage of the Christian public?"

Addressing the first question, the opponents of immediate emancipation argued that slaves were too incompetent to provide for themselves, leaving unlearned freed slaves without homes. This lack of education would lead to a increase in violence and criminal activity....
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