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Rare ‘Slave Bible’ exhibition offers glimpse of Christianity’s role in slavery

By Adelle M. Banks | 11/29/2018, 6 a.m.
On display on the ground floor of the Museum of the Bible is a lone volume that stands out from ...
The Slave Bible exhibit at the Museum of the Bible in Washington features a version of the holy book that excluded major portions of the Old and New Testaments. Left, this Slave Bible, one of three known in existence worldwide, was published in the early 1800s and is on loan to the museum from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service

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Dr. Holly Hamby

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Mr. Seth Pollinger

WASHINGTON

On display on the ground floor of the Museum of the Bible is a lone volume that stands out from the many versions of the Bible shown in the building devoted to the holy book.

It’s a small set of Scriptures whose title page reads “Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands.”

The so-called Slave Bible, on loan from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., excludes 90 percent of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and 50 percent of the New Testament. Its pages include “Servants be obedient to them that are your masters,” from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but missing is the portion of his letter to the Galatians that reads, “There is neither bond nor free … for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Since opening more than a year ago, the museum has featured this 15-inch-by-11-inch-by-4-inch volume in an area that chronicles Bible-based arguments for and against slavery dating back to the beginnings of the abolition movement.

But in anticipation of next year’s 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in the New World in Jamestown, Va., the Slave Bible will be on special view until April in an exhibition developed with scholars from Fisk and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“We feel it’s an opportunity to contribute to important discussions today about the Bible’s role in relationship to human enslavement and we know that that connects to contemporary issues like racism as well as human bondage,” said Seth Pollinger, director of museum curatorial.

“We’ve had such visitor interest in this book, probably wider interest in this single artifact than any other artifact in the museum.”

The rare artifact is just one of three such Bibles known across the world. The other two are housed at universities in Great Britain.

Fisk’s scholars believe its version may have been brought back from England in the late 19th century by the school’s famed Jubilee Singers, who sang spirituals before Queen Victoria during their European tour.

The exhibition draws on the dichotomy of coercion and conversion, keeping slaves in their place while also attempting to tend to their souls. On two walls of the exhibition, portions of the Bible that were excluded from the slaves’ text are juxtaposed with verses determined to be appropriate for them.

“Prepare a short form of public prayers for them … together with select portions of Scripture … particularly those which relate to the duties of slaves towards their masters,” said Anglican Bishop of London Beilby Porteus, founder of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves, in 1808.

Anthony Schmidt, curator of Bible and religion in America for the Museum of the Bible, said that quote “kind of shatters our ideas of these abolitionists being so progressive. Porteus held to very racist views even as he fought for the freedom of enslaved Africans in these colonies.”

A London publishing house first published the Slave Bible in 1807 on behalf of Porteus’ society.