Slavery, Women's Rights, and the Beginnings of Feminist Biblical Interpretation in the Nineteenth Century


  • Claudia Setzer Manhattan College



feminism, biblical interpretation, biblical criticism, nineteenth-century, anti-Judaism


Progressive movements create social changes that reach far beyond their original contexts. Such movements challenge authoritative texts and interpretations in the culture, generate alternative understandings of authoritative works that may be applied to other struggles, create a social arena for the dissemination of ideas, create patterns of thought that may be re-constituted in other forms, and may leave intact some related social problems. The abolitionist movement demanded a confrontation with slavery in the Bible and the development of non-literal exegesis. It also provided a conduit for the new methods of European biblical scholarship, particularly through the preaching and writings of abolitionist Theodore Parker. Three nineteenth-century women, Sarah Grimké, Frances Willard, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in spite of differences in their biographies and religious commitments, shared similar methods of interpreting the Bible to argue for women’s rights. This article argues that habits of interpretation and knowledge of emerging historical-critical scholarship that these women learned in the abolition movement carried over into their fight for women’s rights. Like many nineteenth-century Christians, they subscribed to a belief in progressive revelation, occasional Orientalism, and a sometime negative evaluation of Judaism. Yet they show a remarkable anticipation of contemporary feminist biblical scholarship in their understandings of the effect of culture on interpretation, their view of gender as socially constructed, and their descriptions of God and Jesus as both male and female.

Author Biography

Claudia Setzer, Manhattan College

Claudia Setzer is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, Riverdale, NY. She received a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Columbia University/Union Theological Seminary in 1990, specializing in New Testament. She also received an M.A. in rabbinics from The Jewish Theological Seminary. Her book, Jewish Responses to Early Christians (Fortress: 1994) discusses the reactions of Jews to the earliest generations of believers in Jesus. She has also published articles on the historical Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the witness of women in proclamation of the resurrection, and Jews and Christians in North Africa. Dr. Setzer has published several articles and a book on early ideas of bodily resurrection, Resurrection of the Body in Early Judaism and Early Christianity. Doctrine, Community and Self-Definition (Brill: 2004). A forthcoming book, The Bible and American Culture (Routledge: 2011) brings together primary documents that illustrate the role of biblical ideas in American movements, history, and the arts. She is also a contributor to the forthcoming A Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford: 2011). She has served for several years as chair of the Early/Jewish Christian Relations group at the Society of Biblical Literature, as an associate editor of The Journal of Biblical Literature, has been a contributor to the PBS website "From Jesus to Christ." In 2006 she helped re-establish the Columbia University Seminar on the New Testament, which she also co-chairs.


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How to Cite

Setzer, C. (2011). Slavery, Women’s Rights, and the Beginnings of Feminist Biblical Interpretation in the Nineteenth Century. Postscripts: The Journal of Sacred Texts, Cultural Histories, and Contemporary Contexts, 5(2), 145–169.