A historic Bible edited to justify slavery

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, November 26th. This is The World and Everything in It from listener supported WORLD Radio. Glad you’re here today!  Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Here are some reactions to a book that was published in the 1800s: Manipulative. Disturbing. Brazen.

We’re talking about a book now on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. WORLD reporter Jenny Rough is a docent at that museum. She talked with one of the curators about the display of what’s called the Slave Bible. 

JENNY ROUGH, REPORTER: Perhaps you have many Bibles on your bookshelf: different translations, children’s Bibles, chronological Bibles. 

But have you heard of this one? 

SCHMIDT: Parts of the Holy Bible Selected for the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands.

It’s a mouthful, but it’s the title of a real book. The Slave Bible is a heavily redacted version of the King James Bible. British missionaries distributed the book in the 1800s to enslaved Africans in the West Indies. But much of the Bible’s contents are purposefully missing: Genesis Chapter 4, Genesis Chapter 5, Genesis Chapter 9…

SCHMIDT: It’s probably better to say what was included. 

Anthony Schmidt is a curator at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. Only three slave bibles are known to still exist today. The museum has one on display, on loan from Fisk University. 

The book contains about 10 percent of the Old Testament and about half of the New Testament. That’s it.

SCHMIDT: We have the creation story in Genesis, it begins with that and goes to Noah. And then it jumps to the Joseph story where he’s sold into bondage by his brothers. 

The omissions continue, skipping chapters and even entire books, like the Psalms. The Ten Commandments are left in, but most of the rest of Exodus isn’t. What’s missing is the story of how God, through Moses, freed the Hebrews slaves from Egyptian rule to deliver them into the Promised Land. That’s because the missionaries wanted the slaves to convert to Christianity, but didn’t want to rock the social boat and incite rebellion.

SCHMIDT: They didn’t want to give Africans any ideas that this conversion somehow made them equal to the white plantation owners. 

The Slave Bible was published in London by Law & Gilbert. The book functioned like a primer, similar to the way schoolhouses in Colonial New England used elementary textbooks that mixed vocabulary lessons with the basics of Christian faith.  

SCHMIDT: So these are basically beginners readers for people who are learning how to read, in the same list as spelling books and catechisms, right? So this is something that they would’ve distributed to Africans partly of course to teach them Christianity, but also to teach them how to read because that was a big part of the missionary organization’s agenda. 

But from the plantation owners’ perspective, teaching enslaved people how to read was dangerous. The more educated they became, the more likely they would fight for emancipation. 

SCHMIDT: It would encourage them to communicate across plantations, but also to consume abolitionists’ literature. Oh, my gosh, so now they’re learning these new ideas, they could begin reading certain laws and, you know, they might become just more equipped to fight their situation, right, the social structures there.

In order to placate the plantation owners, the missionaries decided to prioritize certain Bible passages over others. Evidence indicates that one of the missionaries’ tactics was to include verses that appear to sanction slavery:

SCHMIDT: Well, the big one that most people that were looking to the Bible to justify slavery is Ephesians 6:5. And that’s “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” 

Parts that were excluded include Exodus 21:16:

SCHMIDT: “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.”

And Jeremiah 22:13:

SCHMIDT: “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages, and giveth him not for his work.” 

Surprisingly, Philemon is cut out, the story where Paul tells the runaway slave to return to his master. 

But most of the story of Joseph remained in the Slave Bible, you know, the guy who was thrown in jail for not sleeping with Potiphar’s wife. True, Joseph did become a slave. But when he was freed, he rose to become the second most powerful man in the world. Schmidt explains why that story stayed in:

SCHMIDT: It also in a sense teaches what they would consider a moral lesson that, yeah, you are enslaved right now, but you will be rewarded if you simply do your job, fill your role in society now because God has a plan…

Modern sensibilities are offended by this kind of Biblical text manipulation. But that’s not how the missionaries viewed it. 

SCHMIDT: In one sense they were abolitionists, right, they wanted to abolish the slave trade, end it. It was awful, but they would not go so far as to say that we have to end slavery right now.  

So the Slave Bible seemed intended to preserve the system of slavery. 

ROUGH: My question is: Did it work?
SCHMIDT: No, it did not. No.

Thousands of individuals worked hard and fought and died to end the Atlantic slave systems despite obstacles such as the Slave Bible. 

SCHMIDT: Finally, in 1833, the slaves are eventually emancipated. 

The artifact illustrates the temptation of every generation to ignore certain passages. And it begs the question: What portions of the Bible are being neglected or skipped over today to support social causes?

SCHMIDT: If they’re doing that then, what the heck are we missing?

For WORLD Radio, I’m Jenny Rough reporting from Washington, D.C. 

(Photo/Museum of the Bible)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “A historic Bible edited to justify slavery

  1. Dave Waldrup says:

    Great re-exposee of a horrible book and period in our American story. I like the way Jenny focused on how the Bible is still being abused to support current social and political agendas. Yet the truth will always win though it may take longer than anyone would wish. Jenny is a great docent at Museum of the Bible where I also serve with her. We hope many will come to see this amazing museum and engage, that is read, the Bible and decide for yourself what impact it has on you.

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