The “Slave Bible” Removed Key Biblical Passages In Order to Legitimize Slavery & Discourage a Slave Rebellion (1807)

Pho­to via the Muse­um of the Bible

In an 1846 speech to the British and For­eign Anti-Slav­ery Soci­ety, Fred­er­ick Dou­glass summed up the twist­ed bond between slav­ery and reli­gion in the U.S. He began with a short sum­ma­ry of atroc­i­ties that were legal, even encour­aged, against enslaved peo­ple in Vir­ginia and Mary­land, includ­ing hang­ing, behead­ing, draw­ing and quar­ter­ing, rape, “and this is not the worst.” He then made his case:

No, a dark­er fea­ture is yet to be pre­sent­ed than the mere exis­tence of these facts. I have to inform you that the reli­gion of the South­ern states, at this time, is the great sup­port­er, the great sanc­tion­er of the bloody atroc­i­ties to which I have referred. While Amer­i­ca is print­ing tracts and Bibles; send­ing mis­sion­ar­ies abroad to con­vert the hea­then; expend­ing her mon­ey in var­i­ous ways for the pro­mo­tion of the gospel in for­eign lands, the slave not only lies for­got­ten, uncar­ed for, but is tram­pled under­foot by the very church­es of the land.

Dou­glass did not intend his state­ment to be tak­en as an indict­ment of Chris­tian­i­ty, but rather the hypocrisy of Amer­i­can reli­gion, both that “of the South­ern states” and of “the North­ern reli­gion that sym­pa­thizes with it.” He speaks, he says, to reject “the slave­hold­ing, the woman-whip­ping, the mind-dark­en­ing, the soul-destroy­ing reli­gion” of the coun­try, while pro­fess­ing a reli­gion that “makes its fol­low­ers do unto oth­ers as they them­selves would be done by.”

Dou­glass harsh­ly con­demns slave soci­ety in the U.S., but, per­haps giv­en his audi­ence, he also polit­i­cal­ly elides the exten­sive role many church­es in the British Empire played in the slave trade and Atlantic slave economy—a con­tin­ued role, to Douglass’s dis­may, as he found dur­ing his UK trav­els in the 1840s. I’m not sure if he knew that forty years ear­li­er, British mis­sion­ar­ies trav­eled to slave plan­ta­tions in the Caribbean armed with heav­i­ly-edit­ed Bibles in which “any pas­sage that might incite rebel­lion was removed,” as Brig­it Katz writes at Smith­son­ian. But he would hard­ly have been sur­prised.

The use of reli­gion to ter­ror­ize and con­trol rather than lib­er­ate was some­thing Dou­glass under­stood well, hav­ing for decades keen­ly observed slave­own­ers find­ing what they need­ed in the text and ignor­ing or sup­press­ing the rest. In 1807, the Soci­ety for the Con­ver­sion of Negro Slaves went so far as to lit­er­al­ly excise the cen­tral nar­ra­tive of the Old Tes­ta­ment, cre­at­ing an entire­ly dif­fer­ent book for use by mis­sion­ar­ies to the West Indies. “Gone,” Katz points out, “were ref­er­ences to the exo­dus of enslaved Israelites from Egypt,” ref­er­ences that were inte­gral to the self-under­stand­ing of mil­lions of Dias­po­ra Africans.

Gone also were vers­es that might explic­it­ly con­tra­dict the few proof texts slave­hold­ers quot­ed to jus­ti­fy them­selves. Espe­cial­ly dan­ger­ous was Exo­dus 21:16: “And he that stealeth a man, and sel­l­eth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall sure­ly be put to death.” The typ­i­cal 66 books of a Protes­tant Bible had been reduced to parts of just 14. How is it pos­si­ble to pub­lish a Bible with­out what amounts to the myth­ic ori­gin sto­ry of ancient Israel? One answer is that this was a dif­fer­ent reli­gion, one whose aim, says Antho­ny Schmidt, cura­tor of the Muse­um of the Bible, was to make “bet­ter slaves.”

The “Slave Bible” did not cut out the sub­ject com­plete­ly. Joseph’s enslave­ment in Egypt remains, but this is like­ly as an exam­ple, says Schmidt, of some­one who “accepts his lot in life” and is reward­ed for it, a sto­ry U.S. church­es used in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. Pas­sages in the New Tes­ta­ment that seemed to empha­size equal­i­ty were cut, as was the entire book of Rev­e­la­tion. The infa­mous Eph­esians 6:5—“servants be obe­di­ent to them that are your mas­ters accord­ing to the flesh, in fear and trembling”—remained.

Whether or not the Bible real­ly did sanc­tion slav­ery is a ques­tion still up for debate—and maybe an unan­swer­able one giv­en dif­fer­ences in inter­pre­tive frame­works and the patch­work nature of the dis­parate, redact­ed texts stitched togeth­er as one. But the fact that British and Amer­i­can church­es delib­er­ate­ly used it as a weaponized tool of pro­pa­gan­da and indoc­tri­na­tion is beyond dis­pute. The so-called “Slave Bible” is both a fas­ci­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal arti­fact, a very lit­er­al sym­bol of a prac­tice that was inte­gral to the insti­tu­tion of slavery—the total con­trol of the nar­ra­tive.

Such prac­tices became more extreme after the Hait­ian Rev­o­lu­tion and the many bloody slave revolts in the U.S., as the planter class became increas­ing­ly des­per­ate to hold on to pow­er. One of only three extant “Slave Bibles,” the abridged version—called Parts of the Holy Bible, select­ed for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands—is now on dis­play at the Muse­um of the Bible in Wash­ing­ton, DC, on loan from Fisk Uni­ver­si­ty. In the NPR inter­view above, Schmidt explains the book’s his­to­ry to All Things Con­sid­ered’s Michel Mar­tin, who her­self describes the text’s pur­pose in the most con­cise way: “To asso­ciate human bondage and human slav­ery with obe­di­ence to the high­er pow­er.”

via The Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Only Sur­viv­ing Text Writ­ten in Ara­bic by an Amer­i­can Slave Has Been Dig­i­tized & Put Online: Read the Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Enslaved Islam­ic Schol­ar, Omar Ibn Said (1831)

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visu­al­ized in Two Min­utes: 10 Mil­lion Lives, 20,000 Voy­ages, Over 315 Years

Cor­nell Cre­ates a Data­base of Fugi­tive Slave Ads, Telling the Sto­ry of Those Who Resist­ed Slav­ery in 18th & 19th Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Brien says:

    The Bible is One, Sin­gle, Soli­tary book -
    and that is the total extent of your evi­dence to prove your god???

  • Bill W. says:

    Rub­bish, Brien. Read through the list you pro­vid­ed, and it was just a list­ing of cher­ry-picked Bib­li­cal vers­es wild­ly tak­en out-of-con­text by the author. Since Jesus was the Son of God, even if those asser­tions were true, he’d have every right to make them, as God comes before our­selves, and the world­ly things we mor­tals love. If you real­ly want to be ‘brave’, and make a more mean­ing­ful the­o­log­i­cal state­ment, go after Mohammed. His fol­low­ers are still prac­tic­ing slav­ery in many parts of the Islam­ic world!

  • Andrew Agerston says:

    From all of the dehu­man­iz­ing things that the white man did to my forefathers,for the life of me I can’t see what use he have for a bible. The hip­po easy he had then he has now. If you don’t change you heart ‚remov­ing cer­tain scrip­tures doesn’t change any­thing.

  • Jason Dexter says:

    This is only one of 3 “Slave Bibles” extant. How many were pro­duced and were they wide­ly used in the South­ern States of Amer­i­ca or most­ly in British colonies in the Caribbean? I am try­ing to under­stand whether or not this had a wide impact upon the US South.


  • I'm a bit upset is all says:

    This makes me angry (the top­ic in ques­tion, not the essay writ­ten about it). As a Chris­t­ian myself this makes my blood boil, those peo­ple took some­one good, exem­plary, and pure, and turned it into an excuse for the ridicu­lous­ness of slav­ery. It even says in the Bible to remove, alter, or change scrip­ture is heresy and is a crime pun­ish­able by death. Those peo­ple destroyed Christ in the eyes of hun­dreds of thou­sands, by mak­ing him up (or dress­ing him down) to be some ter­ri­ble per­son. I despise this, strong­ly and unceas­ing­ly. This even affects those who aren’t even Chris­t­ian! I move around a lot, and it seems to me that some (not all, some) look down on peo­ple from the south because of this past. The truth is, those from the South who aren’t part of the K.K.K or aren’t just bla­tant­ly racist, are com­plete­ly fair to every­one. Most peo­ple are fair (about 92% of the peo­ple in the south), and are even exem­plary in their treat­ment of those dif­fer­ent from them.

    Please excuse my lengthy com­ment, I sim­ply felt as if I had to say this, for the clar­i­ty of the image of Christ, and some oth­ers whose images were neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed by the ter­ri­ble age of slav­ery.

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