The Bible and Social Reform

Abolitionists marshaled biblical texts to expose slavery as sinful, nineteenth-century women’s rights activists underscored texts supporting women’s equality, and the early civil rights movement sustained itself on biblical narratives that made sense of their experience. Each movement produced its own mini-canon, a body of familiar and frequently invoked material, and habits of thought learned in one movement sometimes transferred to others.

See Also: Bible in the American Experience (SBL Press, 2020).

By Claudia Setzer
Professor of Religious Studies
Manhattan College
April 2020

Many Americans know that people who were on the wrong side of history weaponized the Bible, defending slavery or opposing women’s rights. But fewer realize that more progressive voices also mobilized the biblical text to reform our nation’s ills. Abolitionists marshaled biblical texts to expose slavery as sinful, nineteenth-century women’s rights activists underscored texts supporting women’s equality, and the early civil rights movement sustained itself on biblical narratives that made sense of their experience. Each movement produced its own mini-canon, a body of familiar and frequently invoked material, and habits of thought learned in one movement sometimes transferred to others. Abolitionists became suffragists, and the tropes of anti-slavery black preachers in the nineteenth century infused the civil rights movement.    

Abolitionists and the Bible

The flagrant contradiction of any professing Christian participating in the cruel system of slavery was as obvious to Christians outside North America as it was to enslaved people themselves. Mark Noll notes that no Protestant group outside the U.S. condoned it (Noll 2002). Yet many whites in the southern and northern United States assumed the Bible supported slavery. The Hebrew Bible provided examples of patriarchs as slaveholders and contained laws about managing slaves, while in the New Testament, Paul’s letters, both genuine and attributed to him, assumed slavery and counseled obedience (Philemon; 1 Cor 7:21-23; Eph 6:5; Col 3:22). Jesus said nothing at all about slavery. Christian slaveholders outright ignored biblical laws that required a slave to go free automatically in the seventh year (Ex 21:2) or the command to shelter and protect a runaway slave (Deut 23:15). So close was the relationship between slavery and the Bible that fugitive slave Henry Watson, fleeing to England, called the United States, “the land of Bibles and whips” (Sinha 2016).

            Abolitionists, on the other hand, corralled the Bible to their cause and chipped away at a literalist approach to the text. They argued in a general way that ancient slavery was different from slavery in the American south, and that abiding principles of love and reciprocity overrode individual mentions of slavery. A common-sense approach told enslaved people that the religion of Christianity and slavery were simply incompatible. Frederick Douglass identifies false Christianity, “the woman-whipping, the mind-darkening, the soul-destroying religion that exists in the southern states,” in contrast to true Christianity, “based on the glorious principle of love to God and love to man” (Douglass 1855). Sojourner Truth praying to God in a secluded arbor, presented her own sufferings under slavery and added, “Do you think that’s right, God?” (Truth 1850). White abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld said, “the Bible defenses thrown around slavery by professed ministers of the Gospel do so torture common sense, Scripture, and historical facts, it were hard to tell whether absurdity, fatuity, ignorance or blasphemy predominates in the compound” (Weld 1864). Frequent reference to the Exodus story provided proof that God abhorred slavery. The Exodus threads through much of the spirituals and speeches of enslaved people and black abolitionists.

          More fine-grained exegetical arguments interrogated contexts and individual words. Slavery was the sin of kidnapping or “man-stealing” (Ex 21:16), a capital crime. William Lloyd Garrison, the most famous white abolitionist and editor of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator put it simply, “Every slave is a stolen man. Every slave-holder is a man-stealer” (Garrison 1854). Presbyterian clergyman George Bourne in Virginia proposed that every slaveholder be barred from the church for their sins against biblical laws.

          Furthermore, the so-called “curse of Ham” in Gen 9:20-27 is simply a drunken man’s rant, not a rationale for permanent African slavery. The words for “slave” in both Hebrew and Greek testaments really meant “servant,” so referring to indentured service. Jesus’ teaching of the Golden Rule and the “one blood doctrine” render all humans equal. The latter comes from the King James translation of Acts 17:26, where Paul recounts God’s acts in creation, “And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” This verse, often paired with Acts 10:34, where Peter says, “God is no respecter of persons,” or impartial, was frequently employed by abolitionists to argue that all humans were descended from Adam and shared common ancestry. The verse promotes the equality of all peoples as part of divine design and therefore refutes slavery, but it also counters theories of polygenism that had gained currency in scientific circles. Polygenism, put forth by certain naturalists, argued that races had different origins and immutable differences, and even constituted different species. In the hands of racists, such ideas had been used to assert the inferiority of all non-white races.

          “Ethiopianism,” or the claim of African nobility and future ascendance emanates from understandings of Psalm 68:31, “Princes shall come out Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch other hands to God (KJV).” Finally, Jesus is not silent on slavery: The Golden Rule (Matt 7:12) shows his overall teaching is like “the seed growing secretly” in Mark 4:26-29, which would eventually grow into a more just society and dismantle slavery. These arguments vary in their quality and some strain the evidence of the ancient Near East, Greco-Roman period, and simple common sense. The same could be said of the pro-slavery arguments.  

Women’s Rights and the Bible

Lessons learned in abolitionism could be transferred to women’s rights. Just as abolitionists had corralled biblical passages that supported their view, refuted verses used against them, and took a critical view of the way culture affected biblical interpretation, so too people fighting for women’s suffrage and other rights used the Bible to their advantage. The mothers of first-wave feminism in the nineteenth century, Sarah Moore Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony were all abolitionists, just as abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass were supporters of women’s rights. The natural alliance between these groups later frayed as they came to compete with one another over whether or not the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave voting rights to African Americans, should enfranchise women. Unlike the abolitionists, women’s rights advocates divided on the Bible’s utility, some seeing it as an ally in their struggle, some seeing it as the enemy, and a few others arguing that it was an irrelevant bystander.

Bible as Ally

Interpreters who mobilized the Bible to support women’s rights had several strategies, stressing the first creation story, dismantling the “curse of Eve” idea, pointing to the women prophets, leaders and followers of Jesus in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and claiming a new equality under Christian teaching. Sarah Grimké, who wrote the first such extended defense of women’s equality, insisted the text itself was pure, but interpreters had infected it with views from their own patriarchal cultures. Frances Willard showed the absurdity of literalism, saying if they would take the punishment of Gen 3:16 literally, that her husband would rule over Eve permanently, they must also take the punishment of Adam in 3:19 literally, that he must eat his bread by the sweat of his face. “Literalism is a two-edged sword, and cuts both ways” (Willard 1888).

          Fundamental to this side’s argument is Gen 1:26-27, where females are created at the same time as males, in the same way (by God’s speaking), and in God’s image, 

And God said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth. So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26-27). In all this sublime description of the creation of man, (which is a generic term including man and woman), there is not one particle of difference intimated as existing between them. They were both made in the image of God; dominion was given to both over every other creature, but not over each other” (Grimké 1838).

Recognizing the presence of two versions of the creation story in Genesis 1-3, she suggests the second one where woman is created as a helper out of Adam’s rib meant Eve was a genuine companion and equal in all respects. Other interpreters discount the second version as a culturally conditioned version that subordinates women and sullies the true meaning of God’s design.         

            “Eve’s sin” in eating the forbidden fruit and the so-called “curse of Eve” that followed did massive service as a block to women’s rights in multiple areas-preaching, ordination, voting, holding public office. Women’s rights advocates like Grimké, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton undercut its power in different ways, remarking that Adam, too, received the command and ate the fruit, that he had a chance to resist Eve’s request, and that he showed cowardice in shifting the responsibility to her. Sojourner Truth put it more simply, “Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again” (Truth [1851] Washington 1993).

Bible as Enemy

Elizabeth Cady Stanton edited a commentary, The Woman’s Bible, which considered passages in the text that featured women or where women seemed purposely excluded. She and her panel of women interpreters had some positive remarks about particular women featured, but on the whole, the Bible was indicted as a major cause of women’s subordination. Stanton, who was aware of critical scholarship that identified different sources in the Hebrew Bible, argued that material like the second creation story was not from God, nor authoritative, but even from some evil spirit, “it is evident that some wily writer, seeing the perfect equality of man and woman in the first chapter, felt it important for the dignity and dominion of man to affect woman’s subordination in some way” (Stanton [1895-1898] 2002).

            Matilda Joslyn Gage also rejected the Bible as a tool of subordination, but her larger target was the institution the Church, which in concert with the State, worked throughout history to suppress women and destroy feminine elements of culture. She argued that many societies had respected women’s power, some forming women’s priesthoods and matriarchies. Eve’s sin and other biblical materials were pretexts for power grabs. Teachings from the Bible provided cover and content for women’s subordination and encouraged celibacy, feminine self-sacrifice, and witch-hunting. Rejecting marriage helped erase the feminine principle within the Divine, “inasmuch as it was a cardinal doctrine that the fall of Adam took place through his temptation into marriage by Eve, this relation was regarded with holy horror as a continuance of the evil which first brought sin into the world, depriving man of his immortality” (Gage [1893] 1972).

Bible as Bystander

Stanton, Gage, and most of the contributors to The Woman’s Bible understood the Bible as a part of the institutional wall that blocked women’s possibilities. For them, God was pure spirit, manifest in nature. But for others, religious arguments or citations from the Bible were simply beside the point. Ernestine Rose, a Polish rabbi’s daughter and avowed atheist, rejected appeals to the Bible, saying women’s rights were human rights. When Reverend Antoinette Brown introduced a resolution at a women’s rights convention in Syracuse in 1852, stating that the Bible supports the rights of women, Rose blocked it, arguing, “here we claim human rights and freedom based on the laws of humanity and we require not written authority from Moses or Paul,  because those laws and our claim are prior even to these two great men…It has done mischief enough, A book that is so ambiguous as not to convey any definite idea, can furnish no authority to this convention” (Harper 1899).

Jesus and Paul

Women’s rights advocates had the same two puzzles to solve as abolitionists did: Jesus’ silence on their issue and Paul’s (and deutero-Paul’s) verbosity. Although Stanton, Gage, and others accuse Christianity of its long-standing anti-woman bias, they hold Jesus remarkably innocent of it, preferring to indict Paul. Frances Willard called Jesus “her [woman’s] Emancipator,” and “Woman’s liberator, possessing both motherly and fatherly qualities” (Willard 1888). One contributor to The Woman’s Bible cited him as “the great leading Radical of his age” on this issue, in a pitched battle with conservatives. Yet, as Stanton observes, he never said a word on women’s rights (Stanton 2002 [1895-1898]). Paul puts forth a stunning statement of male-female equality in Gal 3:28, but interpreters need to explain his injunction against women speaking in churches (1 Cor 14:34-35) and his somewhat confused remarks about covering their heads (1 Cor 11:4-6), as well as statements in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Timothy (texts attributed to him by nineteenth-century readers, but not by critical scholars today). Unfortunately, writers often resort to anti-Judaism as a way out of the problem, splitting Paul in two. Paul the Jew keeps women down, while Paul the “Christian” (an anachronism) liberates women. Gage, who had little regard for Christianity, nevertheless indulged in this view when she said, “his conversion did not remove his old Jewish contempt for woman” (Gage 1972 [1893]) and even the mild Grimké explained Paul’s command for women’s silence in the churches as “a Jewish ordinance…the rabbis taught that a woman should know nothing but the use of her distaff” (Grimké 1838).

Civil Rights Movement

The early to mid-twentieth century saw the emergence of the civil rights movement, the push for African Americans to claim their legal and civil rights, to demand fair treatment in education, the courts, housing, employment, and all aspects of public life. Unlike the debate over slavery in the nineteenth century, where both sides marshaled biblical texts to promote their views, the Bible was almost wholly owned by the civil rights preachers and teachers who promoted integration and racial equality. Their opponents used states’ rights as the main plank in their platform to keep Jim Crow laws in place.

          The civil rights movement was nurtured by preachers and teachers in the southern churches. Black ministers like Martin Luther King wove a liberationist message out of biblical material and the founding documents of the United States. The name Southern Christian Leadership Conference underscored the religious basis of their movement. A second, under-appreciated strand of the movement was made up of women teachers and organizers who did the quotidian hard work of teaching literacy and citizenship. Some African Americans grew up not knowing they had a constitutional right to vote or how to go about exercising it. Septima Clark, a leader in teaching and coordinating literacy programs for SCLC, said that when she was growing up in Charleston’s black community, “nobody thought of voting” (Charron 2009). In her writing curriculum and reading booklets, she often combined “Bible and ballot,” presenting a seamless argument for voting and literacy using biblical and constitutional principles. In her pamphlet, “The Bible and the Ballot,” she begins with Luke 4:18-19, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (KJV). Often her material was much more ballot than Bible, but the biblical framing provided authority.

          Fannie Lou Hamer, a graduate of one of Clark’s citizen education programs, learned she had a right to vote when she attended a mass meeting at age 44. The speakers linked themes in Luke 12:56 to voter registration, and from then on, Hamer became an eloquent and impassioned champion of equality. Lacking the education of King and Clark, Hamer is nevertheless recalled for her incisive turns of phrase like “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She uses the Bible more frequently than the other two, weaving the verses together so tightly with the story of their freedom struggle that the two are inseparable.

          Hamer, too, assumes the mantle of the prophet and cites Luke 4:18, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” putting herself in the story of God’s deliverance throughout history. She also speaks the language of apocalyptic, comparing the drive to assert voting rights in Mississippi to cosmic battles of good and evil between God and Satan. She often quotes an Isaac Watts hymn, about “facing Satan’s rage.” A sudden ripening of the time means “the time is out” and they are engaged in a fight to the death in imitation of Christ, “Quit trying to dodge death,” she exhorts, “Jesus died to set us free, staying until he was thirty-three, letting us know how we would have to walk” (Brooks and Hauck 2011).

          Hamer is especially skilled in the jeremiad, a form of prophetic critique named after the prophet Jeremiah, calling out injustice and predicting coming judgment for racists and white supremacists. She faced the policeman who ordered other black prisoners to beat her while she was in a jail cell, saying, “It’s going to be miserable for you when you have to face God, because ‘God has made of one blood all nations” (Acts 17:26). God’s justice would prevail as evil-doers would be punished, predicted by quoting Galatians 6:7, “God is not mocked. For whatsoever a man sow, that shall he also reap.”

Martin Luther King

          King embodied a confluence of traditions, growing up as a minister’s son in the black Baptist church and educated in the liberal Protestant theology of the day at Boston University and Crozer seminary. Like Clark and Hamer, he believed in the unfolding of God’s work in history, leading to a society of social justice. Known for his spell-binding oratory, his last words in Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike invoked the image of Moses overlooking the Promised Land before his death. King, reflecting on the possibility of his own life being cut off, said, “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the Promised Land” (“I See the Promised Land,” Washington 1986). He was assassinated the next day.

          King’s body of work is vast, including speeches, sermons, interviews, articles, and books. He grounded his arguments in his faith in both biblical history and the promise of America’s founding documents but also laced his works with references to philosophy, history, and literature. Some speeches were framed by a parable or biblical idea, while others had little religious material, perhaps merely ending with a line from Scripture. Despite disenchantment and disappointment in people and events, he did not abandon certain themes nurtured in the southern black Baptist church and earlier African American traditions from abolitionism: the equality of all humanity or “one blood doctrine,” God’s saving power under persecution, following Jesus’ example of sacrificial love, the role of the prophet to confront worldly power and speak God’s truth, and the ultimate triumph of justice.

            King nimbly incorporated the biblical text in different ways. He built some expositions on a single story or example. His sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” drew on Mark 10:35-45, where the sons of Zebedee ask Jesus to sit at his right hand. King built on the desire of all people to feel important, circling back to the Markan verses, saying, “Tell them I was a drum major for justice…” Similarly, he anchors his critique of America, “A Knock at Midnight,” in Luke 11:5-9, saying “it is midnight in the social order” and “midnight in the inner lives of men and women” as people hunger for the bread of faith, hope, and love (Washington 1986).

          Isolated verses or phrases rich with history appear as rhetorical flourishes, often at the end of sermons. “A chosen people within a chosen people,” for example, stretches back to abolitionism and the jeremiad tradition (Howard-Pitney 2005). Such verses also create an atmosphere of the journey, of their struggle playing out on the broad canvas of history.

            He draws on the images of Jesus and Paul, presenting himself as an imitator of both. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he talks about Jesus as an extremist, robbing the term of its negative implications. He strives to be an extremist like Jesus, Paul, and Martin Luther. Similarly, he invokes the prophet’s example often in the jeremiad tradition, reflecting Amos’ plea “to let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (5:24), Isaiah’s vision that God will “make a way out of no way” (based on 43:16-19). He predicts changes in society with the words of Second Isaiah, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa 40: 4-5; “I Have a Dream”; “Beyond Vietnam” Washington 1985).

The Bible in Contemporary Movements

Countless reform and relief organizations today have religious origins and are powered by religious convictions, but few show the thorough-going, Bible-soaked rhetoric of earlier movements. Some are interfaith or seek a broad base of support, avoiding rhetoric that might sound sectarian. Tropes familiar to earlier generations or more homogenous groups like the southern black churches or New England feminists might not play for more inclusive groups today, but biblical-based ideals and rhetoric remain powerful.

          Repairers of the Breach, founded in 2015 by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, directly invokes the biblical themes of the 20th-century civil rights movement. The group’s name derives from Isaiah 58:12,

           Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
          you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
          you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
          the restorer of streets to live in (NRSV).

Although the group is consciously diverse, its language echoes King and others, talking of morality and sin in social terms, preaching non-violent action, even launching a Poor Peoples’ campaign. It claims that “voter suppression is sin,” just as earlier activists decried the sin of slavery or the sin of racism. Barber rests his call for reform on the Bible and the Constitution, but unlike King, does not assume his hearers know the Bible. Delivering the 2020 Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Global Justice at Yale Law School, he notes,

          "What we say in a real way is if you’re going to put your hand on the Bible, the Quran, or whatever, and swear yourself into office, you need to know what’s in that Bible…we’re also saying that about the Constitution. What we’re saying is every policy needs to be examined by [the Constitution]. Does it establish justice? Does it provide for the common defense? Does it promote the general welfare, and does it ensure domestic tranquility? If it doesn’t, then we will need to change. And that’s what we’re doing” (Tran 2020).

          T’ruah is a network of rabbis and cantors who work in the Jewish community on social justice issues, oppose Israeli occupation, and pursue workers’ rights. They draw from texts of the Torah and rabbinic literature and from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The group’s name derives from one of the notes sounded by the shofar, the ram’s horn that is sounded on Rosh ha Shanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish holidays that call Jews to repentance and good deeds. The group notes on its website that “in the Torah, the sound of the shofar also heralds the beginning of the Jubilee Year, when debts are forgiven and indentured servants go free. Shofar blasts also announce the beginning of the revelation at Mount Sinai. The shofar, then, symbolizes liberation, as well as the presence of the divine” (T’ruah 2020).

          The fight against human trafficking has been powered by religious rhetoric and passion, particularly from women. Pope Francis recognized the “Super Nuns” of Talita Kum, a network of women religious coming together as a result of an initiative by the International Union of Superiors General (Talitha Kum 2020). The group began with study and training in the late 1990s to identify, rescue, and heal victims of human trafficking. Its name comes from Mark 5:41, where Jesus raises a young girl presumed dead, saying, “Little girl, get up!” Talitha Kum is a “network of networks” that includes numerous organizations battling sex slavery, forced marriage, labor trafficking, and any form of forced servitude. Lia Beltrami, who filmed the revealing documentary, Wells of Hope, says she tried to live the gospel message and to “follow the way of Ruth” identifying instances of trafficking around the Mediterranean and Middle East and showing groups of women rescuing victims (EWTN 2020). Jewish women have also banded together in the Jewish Coalition to End Human Trafficking. Like the enslaved peoples of the nineteenth century, these contemporary anti-slavery advocates look to themes of rescue and liberation resonating in the Exodus story. Many groups with and without religious affiliations belong to World Without Exploitation, an umbrella organization that includes over 60 anti-trafficking groups.   


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Charron, Katherine Mellen. 2009. Freedom’s Teacher: The Life of Septima Clark. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Douglass, Frederick. 1999. My Bondage and My Freedom [1855], in The Frederick Douglass Papers, series 2. Vol. 2, J. W. Blassingame, J. R. McKivigan, and P. P. Hinks, P.P., eds. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Talitha Kum. “About Us.” Talitha Kum website. 28 April 2020.

Tran, Khue. “Reverend Delivers Gruber Distinguished Lecture,” Yale Daily News 27 February 2020.

T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “Our Name and History.” T’ruah website. 28 April 2020.

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Weld, Theodore Dwight. 1970. The Bible Against Slavery, or, an Inquiry into the genius of the Mosaic system, and the teachings of the Old Testament on the subject of human rights[1864]. Repr. Detroit: Negro History Press.

Willard, Frances. 1888. Woman in the Pulpit. Boston: D. Lothrop.

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