1807 - Why Bibles Given to Slaves Omitted Most of the Old Testament
The so-called “Slave Bible” told of Joseph’s enslavement but left out the parts where Moses led the Israelites to freedom.
When slavery was legal, its proponents often justified it with the Bible; specifically, a verse that tells servants to obey their masters. There were also a lot of verses that abolitionists could and did use to argue against slavery. But you wouldn’t find those in the heavily-redacted “Slave Bible.”
Most of the Old Testament is missing, and only about half of the New Testament remains. The reason? So that the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua couldn’t read or be read anything that might incite them to rebel.
The Slave Bible was actually titled Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands.
It’s not clear who exactly directed these changes. British planters in the Caribbean had long been weary of missionaries, and could’ve demanded that they only teach enslaved people certain parts of the Bible. But some missionaries may have also believed that it was only appropriate to teach enslaved people excerpts that reinforced their enslaved status.
Whoever the Slave Bible’s editors were, “they’re really highlighting portions that would instill obedience,” says Anthony Schmidt, a curator at Washington, D.C. Museum of the Bible, which has a copy of the Slave Bible on display. There are only two other known copies.
The first Slave Bible was published in 1807, three years after the Haitian Revolution ended. That revolution was the only slave revolt in history in which enslaved people successfully drove out their European oppressors to formed a new nation, and it increased American and European paranoia that the people they oppressed would one day rise up against them.
The Haitian Revolution could have been a motivation for publishing a Bible without the part where Moses tells the Pharoah to “Let my people go.” Missionaries and planters may have thought that Christianity—at least, certain parts of it—would protect against revolutions by teaching enslaved people to respect their masters.
In this context, Schmidt says the British may have thought that teaching enslaved people Biblical lesson about obedience and accepting one’s fate would help them “be better slaves.”
The Slave Bible doesn’t include Moses leading the Israelites to freedom, but it does include Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt. In the U.S., some sermons aimed at enslaved people portrayed Joseph as someone who “accepts his lot in life, keeps his faith in God and in the end is rewarded for it,” Schmidt says. The Slave Bible may have wanted to impart a similar lesson to its audience.
Passages that emphasized equality between groups of people were also excised. This included: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). The Slave Bible also doesn’t contain the book of Revelations, which tells of a new heaven and Earth in which evil will be punished.
In contrast, one of the passages that remained was one that proponents of slavery loved to cite: “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” (Ephesians 6:5).