An exhibit at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., shows how Scripture—or rather, certain portions of it—once were used to justify slavery and prevent uprisings among captives.
One of three known copies of the so-called Slave Bible, a heavily abridged collection of Scripture, is on display in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and Fisk University, a historically black school in Nashville.
The Slave Bible deletes about 90 percent of the Old Testament and half of the New, reducing Scripture to just 282 chapters. Key omissions include the entire books of Jeremiah, Psalms and Revelation, as well as the account of the exodus from Egypt and verses such as Galatians 3:28 (“There is neither…slave nor free”). The Ten Commandments remain, as does Ephesians 6:5, which instructs slaves to obey their earthly masters.
The Slave Bible Was Used in Mission Work
This historical artifact dates back to 1807, when a London-based organization called the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves published it for use in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Ironically, missionaries at that time tended to be abolitionists, says Anthony Schmidt, a curator at the Museum of the Bible. But this exhibit “kind of shatters our ideas of these abolitionists being so progressive,” he says.
Missionaries believed the abridged Scriptures “would improve the lives of enslaved Africans both materially and spiritually,” says Schmidt. Although missionaries used the Slave Bible to justify the system of captivity, he adds, they also used it to teach slaves how to read.
Fisk likely obtained its copy in 1873, when its famous choir traveled to Great Britain to sing spirituals for Queen Victoria. The other two known copies are housed at British universities.
Museum curatorial director Seth Pollinger says this artifact has generated the most interest by visitors so far. “It’s an opportunity to contribute to important discussion today about the Bible’s role in relationship to human enslavement,” he says. “We know that that connects to contemporary issues like racism as well as human bondage.”
Exhibit Will ‘disturb people’
Holly Hamby, an associate professor at Fisk, uses a digitized version of the Slave Bible for a class on the Bible as literature. Her students, many of whom descend from slaves, have a “pretty emotional” reaction to the book, she says. “It’s very disruptive to their belief system.”
The museum exhibit features a video of Fisk students discussing questions about the Slave Bible, such as, “Do you think that this Bible is still the good book?” Hamby’s answer to that is, “I still believe in the Bible on the whole but not this version of it.”
Conferences and panel discussions are in the works for the exhibit, which coincides with the upcoming 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to Jamestown, Virginia.
The exhibit features this quote from Brad Braxton of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “This religious relic compels us to grapple with a timeless question: In our interpretations of the Bible, is the end result domination or liberation?”