Harvard Divinity School Hosts Conversation on the Presence of Enslavement in Early Christian Stories


Harvard Divinity School hosted a discussion on the presence of enslavement and enslaved people in early Christian stories at a virtual forum Monday night.

The event — the first in the series of public online conversations titled “Religion and Legacies of Slavery” — aims to build on Harvard’s landmark Legacy of Slavery report released in April 2022, which detailed how slavery “powerfully shaped” the school. The discussion was led by HDS professor Karen L. King; Diane L. Moore, faculty director of religion and public life; and Melissa Wood Bartholomew, associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

During the discussion, King listed several areas in which enslavement runs through New Testament literature: the presence of enslaved persons and enslavers, references to enslavement in Jesus’s parables, discussion of the roles of enslaved and enslavers in Christian households, and the social assumptions that shaped underlying news, ethics, political life.

“The presence of enslaved people in ideologies, discourses, and practices — these enslavement permeate Christian stories and teachings, which themselves express a wide variety of attitudes, aims and assumptions involving complex relations with different groups in different ways,” King said.


“Examining these may sharpen our capacity to take account of religion in addressing and redressing the legacies of enslavement at Harvard and beyond,” she added.

King discussed how readers of the Bible have appealed to the text to support both slavery as an institution and its abolition, referencing the “Slave Bible” — originally titled “Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands” — as a historical example of her point.

“Even though this Bible was produced by abolitionists, in order to secure the support of the slavers, they agreed to publish a select version that emphasized the duties of enslaved persons to their masters, and they left out much that might encourage the thoughts of resistance, escape or freedom,” King said.

According to King, some passages in the New Testament commonly used to rationalize slavery and racism have been “racialized in white supremacy” and “used to justify Christian slavers as righteous.”

“But another legacy is to develop a theology of God who shares in pain and suffering, and who requires justice to promote resistance to enslavement as an unjust institution, to tell other stories — complex stories, true stories — and for us to ask more about religion and the legacies of slavery,” King said.

—Staff writer Tyler J. H. Ory can be reached at