The Annotated “Slave Bible” and Slave-Initiated Bible-Based Resistance

The Annotated “Slave Bible” and Slave-Initiated Bible-Based Resistance December 12, 2018

This week in weird history:

On display now at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., is a special exhibit centered on a rare Bible from the 1800s that was used by British missionaries to convert and educate slaves.

What’s notable about this Bible is not just its rarity, but its content, or rather the lack of content. It excludes any portion of text that might inspire rebellion or liberation.

Anthony Schmidt, associate curator of Bible and Religion in America at the museum, says the first instance of this abridged version titled, Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands, was published in 1807.

Yes, you read that right—a bunch of white missionaries wanted to convert slaves in the West Indies without simultaneously suggesting that escaping from brutal racial slavery a la Moses and the Israelites might be a thing they could actually, you know, do. Therefore, they edited the Bible and took those bits out. Problem solved! They cut the Bible to bits and gave the slaves they evangelized in the West Indies only the bits they wanted them to have.

I grew up in an evangelical home, and an evangelical community. I was taught that being an evangelical meant believing the Bible and putting it into practice in our lives. I was a true believer. I may no longer be an evangelical today, but I still feel a sense of betrayal when I read stories like this. I understand that much of the Bible is in how you interpret it, and I know white antebellum Southerners found interpretations that allowed them to claim that it supported slavery. But cutting up the Bible to literally hide away the parts you don’t like feels far more brazen.

I’m left wondering—why convert the slaves in the West Indies at all, if you’re going to cut the Bible up so that they don’t see parts you don’t want them to know about?

Let’s step away from the West Indian ‘Slave Bible’ for a bit and turn to a slightly different, albeit related, topic White supremacist Reformed pastor Doug Wilson—who is still way too accepted in evangelical circles—has often referred to the antebellum South as “the Last Nation of the First Christendom.” We’ve seen the kind of editing that was happening in the West Indies. How, then, were things going up in the U.S. South, this acclaimed last great Christian nation? 

In the U.S. South, the slaves were indeed evangelized. By the 1800s, most slaves were at least nominally Christian. But while some planters hoped conversion to Christianity would ensure social control—after all, the Bible does say “slaves, obey your masters”—it did not always work out that way. In 1929, African American abolitionist David Walker wrote a book condemning Christian support for slavery and calling for resistance, which he argued was justified in the Bible:

…we will leave the whites or Europeans as heathens, and take a view of them as Christians, in which capacity we see them as cruel, if not more so than ever. In fact, take them as a body, they are ten times more cruel, avaricious and unmerciful than ever they were; for while they were heathens, they were bad enough it is true, but it is positively a fact that they were not quite so audacious as to go and take vessel loads of men, women and children, and in cold blood, and through devilishness, throw them into the sea, and murder them in all kind of ways. While they were heathens, they were too ignorant for such barbarity. But being Christians, enlightened and sensible, they are completely prepared for such hellish cruelties.

Have not the Americans the Bible in their hands? Do they believe it? Surely they do not. See how they treat us in open violation of the Bible!! … Our divine Lord and Master said, “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But an American minister, with the Bible in is hand, holds us and our children in the most abject slavery and wretchedness. Now I ask them, would they like for us to hold them and their children in abject slavery and wretchedness?

I remember a Camp Meeting in South Carolina … we were all called up to hear; I among the rest went up and took my seat–being seated, I fixed myself in a complete position to hear the word of my Saviour and to receive such as I thought was authenticated by the Holy Scriptures; but to my no ordinary astonishment, our Reverend gentleman got up and told us (coloured people) that slaves must be obedient to their masters–must do their duty to their masters or be whipped–the whip was made for the backs of fools. &c. Here I pause for a moment, to give the world time to consider what was my surprise, to hear such preaching from a minister of my Master, whose very gospel is that of peace and not of blood and whips, as this pretended preacher tried to make us believe.

A law has recently passed the Legislature of this republican State (Georgia) prohibiting all free or slave persons of colour, from learning to read or write; another law has passed the republican House of Delegates, (but not the Senate) in Virginia, to prohibit all persons of colour, (free and slave) from learning to read or write, and even to hinder them from meeting together in order to worship our Maker!!!!!!–Now I solemnly appeal, to the most skilful historians in the world, and all those who are mostly acquainted with the histories of the Antideluvians and of Sodom and Gomorrah, to show me a parallel of barbarity. Christians!! Christians!!! I dare you to show me a parallel of cruelties in the annals of Heathens or of Devils, with those of Ohio, Virginia and of Georgia.

White Southerners reacted quickly to the publication of Walker’s book, and the state of Georgia even put a price on his head (Walker, a free black man born in North Carolina, lived in Boston when he published his book; I’m not sure whether it’s legal for a state to put a price on the head of a free person living in another state, but I’m guessing they didn’t care.)

Two years later, in 1931, Nat Turner, motivated by religious zeal and his Christian beliefs, initiated a bloody, short-lived slave rebellion. At this point, the noble white Christian Southerners so lauded by Wilson decided to take action. States across the South passed laws that criminalized teaching a slave to read, in order to ensure that slaves could not read the Bible themselves. (Interestingly, Nat Turner’s Bible is on display in the Smithsonian not far from the truncated West Indian ‘Slave Bible’). Southern states and communities also banned slaves from having unsupervised church meetings.

Of course, I suppose none of this is necessarily out of step with Wilson’s views—he might argue that the slaves were not capable of reading and understanding the Bible themselves, and that they needed a guiding hand when holding church meetings for the same reason. Such logic would, of course, be racist—and such emphasis on the need for social control would also undermine Wilson’s insistence that antebellum slavery was a time of racial harmony and friendship, a time of unmatched happiness and repose for the region’s enslaved population.

The Bible in the hands of  white man was well and good. The Bible in the hands of a black man—or a woman—was subversive and dangerous. We cannot ignore the racism of past religious forebears, or separate it from their religious beliefs, because that racism mapped itself onto those individuals’ religious beliefs. So much for sola scriptura.

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