Celebrating Bible Champions This Black History Month
Honoring the lives and legacies of two African Americans who advanced the Bible cause.
In celebration of Black History Month, American Bible Society honors Black Americans who have brought God’s Word to people across the United States and around the world. With them, they carried precious truths of the Bible: that all people are created in the image of God, and that God’s vision for his church—both here on earth and in heaven—includes multitudes “from every tribe, language, nation, and race” (Revelation 5:9 GNT).
This year, we’re celebrating the legacies of two people who made significant contributions to the Bible cause: Henry Gray and Miss S. E. Harris. One a former slave who became an educator for his community, the other the first female African American colporteur at American Bible Society, their lives made an eternal impact.
Building a Future
Henry Gray was born and raised in slavery in Texas. He received news of his emancipation in 1865, perhaps around the same time now celebrated as the Juneteenth holiday. Although he lived without the “slightest knowledge of the alphabet until liberated,” Gray overcame the barrier of illiteracy—which was often legally imposed on slaves—and became an educator for freed people. In 1876, he wrote to American Bible Society for help supplying his church’s Sabbath School with biblical resources. However, getting copies of God’s Word proved difficult.
While the Civil War ended legalized slavery, the injustices of the institution lingered. Most enslaved people, like Gray, had no opportunity to pursue an education or read God’s Word. During the war itself, thousands made the dangerous journey to freedom and found refuge in military strongholds like Fort Monroe in Virginia, where many finally learned how to read and write. An overwhelming “desire for the Word of God” grew in camps like Fort Monroe as newly freed people found dignity and hope in the pages of Scripture.
When American Bible Society delivered Bibles to the camp in 1864, the scene was unforgettable: “They have kissed the Bibles and Testaments when given them, wept over them, carried them upon their persons, and rejoiced in them with joy unspeakable.”
After the war, African Americans like Gray faced significant challenges in their quest to make educational and biblical resources available to their communities. From their former masters, Gray writes, he and his fellow freedmen did not expect “anything necessary to our upbuilding in intellectual wisdom.” Similarly, he knew that any church or institution influenced by the former slaveowners would likely refuse aid. But Gray wasn’t ready to give up—for him and those working alongside him, the Bible and its message of hope were essential to the future of their communities.
Despite his fears that his initial request would be denied on account of his race, Gray writes that his congregation was “handsomely supplied with books … by two Northern societies,” making his Sabbath School the first to obtain such resources in his “community of five Christian churches.” He ends his letter by renewing his request for more biblical literature—this time for a Baptist congregation nearby, where he planned to organize another Sabbath School. American Bible Society provided Gray with the books he needed, supporting his work of spreading education and God’s Word.
Bringing the Word
Accounts like Henry Gray’s highlighted the need for more reliable and equitable Bible distribution in the South. In 1901, American Bible Society organized the Agency for the Colored People of the South, paving the way for people like Miss S. E. Harris to carry God’s Word to African American communities themselves.
In 1911, Harris was hired as the first female African American colporteur. A graduate of Atlanta University, Harris had volunteered with the Agency before becoming a salaried agent tasked with expanding the Agency’s reach into Mississippi and Oklahoma.
Like other colporteurs, Harris went from town to town selling Bibles at affordable prices. She traveled long distances alone, facing discomfort and discrimination as she made Bible ownership a reality for thousands of African American families. Along the way, she also sought out neglected families and provided free Bibles to those who could not afford to purchase a copy. In each new town or city, she and other colporteurs often partnered with churches, organizing Bible readings and equipping the community to complete the work of Bible distribution.
The impact of Harris’s work as a colporteur was extensive. Many adults were inspired to learn how to read using their new Bible, which functioned as both an educational resource in the home and source of spiritual comfort, peace, and joy in the face of the daily injustices endured by African Americans. Even those who could not read benefitted from owning a Bible. One person said, “I’ll stop the children as they go to school and have them read me a few lines.”
In the span of 30 years, Agency colporteurs like Harris delivered more than 1,730,000 Scriptures to African American communities across America.
Continuing the Work
We look back at our history and praise God for people like Henry Gray and Miss S. E. Harris, who overcame slavery and injustice to bring God’s Word to all Americans. Today, their work continues. We honor the heroes who uplift their communities by bringing the Bible—and its message of justice, healing, and love—to people in our nation and around the world, living out the mission of American Bible Society.
Note: A previous version of this blog mistakenly referred to Henry C. Gray as Henry C. Dray. We have since corrected this error.
- Gray, Henry. Letter (1876). American Bible Society Archives.
- Lupas, Liana. “Out of the House of Bondage: American Bible Society and the African American Community.” Brochure. American Bible Society Archives.
- “The American Bible Society Agency.” Article. https://bibleresources.americanbible.org/resource/the-american-bible-society-agency
- “The American Bible Society’s Work and the African American Community.” Timeline. American Bible Society Archives.
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