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