The edition removed nearly 80% of content, leaving only passages that promote slavery.
The Bible is filled with verses that promote freedom and record the struggle against slavery. The Old Testament, in particular, is rife with references to the Jews tugging at their bonds and warring for autonomy. Even Jesus himself, in Luke 4:8 said that he came to “set the captives free.”
There is one version, however, that had these important texts expunged and altered in order to spread the exact opposite message to the people who needed the real thing most of all. This edition, the controversial “Slave Bible,” is now on display at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.
The purpose of the exhibit, in the words Museum of the Bible President Ken McKenzie, is to “pass the message on: may this never happen again. The Bible itself is a whole book. It’s not one to carve up and use this piece or that piece.” He added that the exhibit was created with the hopes that it might discourage such an edit from “ever happening again.”
“The Bible itself is a whole book; it’s not one that you get to carve up and you get to use this piece or that piece,” McKenzie told NBC.
Published in London, in 1807, the “Slave Bible” appears to be a normal Bible from the outside, but its contents are missing roughly 90% of the Old Testament and about 50% of the New Testament. In an interview with NBC News, as seen above, Museum of the Bible curator Anthony Schmidt describes the extensive editing.
“A normal King James Version has 1189 chapters in it; the ‘Slave Bible’ has only 232,” said Schmidt.
Among the omissions is the Book of Exodus, in which Moses famously demanded that the Egyptian Pharaoh release his people. The book of Jeremiah didn’t make the cut either, as verses such as this were apparently too incendiary:
“Woe to him who builds his house on wrongdoing his roof-chambers on injustice; Who works his neighbors without pay, and gives them no wages.” – Jeremiah 22:13
One of the books removed from the New Testament was the Epistle to the Galatians, which was most likely omitted due to the way St. Paul attacked the idea that some people are better than others:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” – Galatians 3:28
What was left in the “Slave Bible” were all the passages that encouraged slaves to work hard for their earthly masters. An example can be found in the Epistle to the Ephesians, which states:
“Slaves, be obedient to your human masters with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ.” – Ephesians 6:5
In a Museum of the Bible-sponsored video series on the “Slave Bible,” the first installment of which is viewable below, Schmidt gives more information on the history of the edition. Christian Post reports that the formal title of the book was “Parts of the Holy Bible Selected for the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands,” and was most likely produced by an organization called The Society for the Conversion of the Negro Slaves.
These missionaries are thought to have had good intentions, and in fact many of them called themselves abolitionists. Schmidt added that they believed that the revised scriptures “would improve the lives of enslaved Africans both materially and spiritually.”
“This book,” Schmidt explained, “is aimed at justifying and reinforcing the slave system. But at the same time, it was used to help teach Africans how to read, for example, and to somehow educate them in the classroom.”
The Museum of the Bible opened the “Slave Bible” exhibit in November 2018 and it is expected to run through September 2019. If you visit the museum during this time, they welcome all guests to join in the discussion on the “Slave Bible” in the exhibition’s response area.