Visiting The Bible Museum for the first time a few weeks ago, my eye was caught by a special exhibit: “The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told.” I approached to take a closer look—and was both horrified and disgusted.
In 1807, British missionaries, eager to spread Christianity to all parts of the British Empire, began carrying to the West Indies copies of deeply abridged Bibles. They were intended for use by enslaved Africans laboring under the hot sun on sugar plantations. Slavery was viewed as vitally important to the economic system of the British Empire—which is why these so-called “Slave Bibles” omitted portions of Scripture that might give slaves dangerous ideas.
For instance, the story of the Exodus, which describes how God used Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt, has been omitted entirely. After all, this stirring story might inspire Caribbean slaves to seek freedom, as well.
Deuteronomy 23:15 commands that “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee,” so that had to be eliminated, too.
The warning in Jeremiah 22 (“Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness . . . that useth his neighbor’s service without wages and giveth him not for his work) is also missing.
So is Galatians 3:28, which teaches that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free . . . for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” That’s understandable. If we are all children of God, if we are all one in Christ, Africans might start wondering why they must spend their entire lives working without pay for their fellow Christians—that is, people who own the plantations.
Shockingly, Slave Bibles contain portions of just 14 of the 66 books in the Protestant Bible: 90 percent of the Old Testament and 50 percent of the New Testament have been stripped away. Among the passages that stayed in: Verses from Ephesians and 1 Peter, urging servants to obey their masters (without explaining how greatly ancient slavery differed from slavery in the eighteenth century).
Slave owners were also happy to have their slaves read Luke 12:47, in which Jesus tells a story about a disobedient servant: “And that servant, which knew His Lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to His will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”
What a comforting verse THAT must have been to the Africans while they were being lashed.
Obedience to one’s master, it turns out, was a key reason for spreading the Gospel among the slaves. The Rev. Beilby Porteus, founder of the Society for the Conversion and Religious Instruction and Education of the Negro Slaves, told his publisher to “Prepare a short form of public prayers for them . . . together with select portions of Scripture . . . particularly those which relate to the duties of slaves toward their masters.”
As the Slave Bible exhibit points out, “The publishers emphasized portions that justified and fortified the system of slavery . . . This allowed missionaries to ‘save’ the souls of enslaved Africans even as they condemned their bodies to servitude.”
By focusing on certain verses and censoring others, the creators of the Slave Bibles offered a distorted view of God—one that served the purposes of the British Empire, not God’s. They used the Bible as a tool of oppression in order to increase profits, engaging in proof-texting on a grand scale. The end result–to put it in modern parlance–was Fake Bibles.
So much was stolen from the millions of Africans who endured life in bondage: their homelands, their families, the pleasure of using their God-given talents instead of being forced to labor on their owners’ plantations. Their lives were shortened by disease, inadequate food, and harsh conditions. How tragic that they were denied the comfort of Holy Scripture, as well.
As we look back sorrowfully on this unholy episode, we need to remember that the temptation to delete or reinterpret portions of scripture readers disagree with has a lengthy pedigree. Thomas Jefferson snipped out passages about Christ’s miracles—in effect, creating his own “bible.”
Joseph Smith added the Book of Mormon. Gays who identify as Christians but are unwilling to give up homosexual practices re-interpret clear teachings about God’s design for sexuality. And who among us has not been tempted to skip over teachings that we find difficult to follow—such as warnings against gluttony?
We do this at our own peril, for the Bible is clear on this matter of adding and subtracting and overlooking. Deuteronomy 4:2 warns, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.”
Revelation 22:19 puts it even more strongly: “and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life . . .”
At the Museum of the Bible, I took a long look at a page from an actual Slave Bible—one of just three extant—revealing how the Old Testament narrative jumps from Genesis 45 to Exodus 19, leaving out an amazing story of freedom for slaves that–250 years after the “bibles” were printed–inspired American civil rights leaders in the fight for equality for the descendants of slaves.
The story of the Slave Bibles provides a modern warning: Offering the Good Book (or a chopped up version of it) to someone with any purpose other than that person’s welfare, is nothing short of evil.
Anne Morse spent 17 years writing and editing BreakPoint radio scripts for Chuck Colson, and is the author or editor of several books. She lives in Maryland with her husband.