This past summer, our Leadership Forum students had the opportunity to tour the newly opened Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. One of the exhibits in “The Impact of the Bible in America” gallery included a book known as “The Slave Bible.”
I had learned from a friend several years ago that many slaveowners would rip out certain sections of the Bible used by their slaves. Nevertheless, I had no idea that a deliberate publication had been produced that “omit all entries that express[ed] themes of freedom…[as a] part of an inhumane process to make slaves docile and subservient, to break their spirits.”
As the exhibit above notes, “This volume [of the Bible] is called ‘Holy’ but it is deeply manipulative”–and anything but holy.
Because this artifact “attracted greater attention than perhaps any other artifact on display” since the Museum of the Bible’s opening in November 2017, the Museum decided to “dig deeper into the mysteries surrounding this rare and disturbing book.”
In cooperation with Fisk University and the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Museum of the Bible created a new spotlight exhibition entitled, “The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told.”
This past December, while speaking at a Bible conference in D.C., I had the opportunity to visit this thought-provoking exhibit and take the accompanying pictures in this blog.
As you can read above, The Slave Bible was first published in London in 1807 and again in 1808.
The Slave Bible was published on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves (SCNS)–deliberately omitting Scriptures that condemned slavery, promoted freedom, and more importantly, shared the hope of the Gospel for all. One such omission was Galatians 3:28, which declares all humans as God’s image-bearers: “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.” (King James Version)
Thus, as the exhibit notes, missionaries were allowed to “’save’ the souls of enslaved Africans even as they condemned their bodies to servitude.”
The amount of Scripture left out of “The Slave Bible” was shocking.
As Dr. Jessie Carney Smith, Dean of the Library at Fisk University notes, “The Slave Bible is evidence of an attempt to keep the enslaved enslaved, to deny them access to the true biblical view of what freedom means to all people. Freedom was never designed solely for the privileged but for all humankind.”
Given the above exhibit and its implications, it is amazing that slaves would even consider the Christian faith. That the LORD was able to use such brokenness to bring men and women to faith in Christ is a testimony to His faithfulness and sovereignty.
Along those lines, many of the truths from the stories and Scriptural passages omitted from the Slave Bible made their way to the slaves through “Negro Spirituals.” God’s Word prevailed despite men’s attempts to distort and remove certain truths.
As human beings made in God’s image, we respond to redemptive songs such as Negro spirituals–songs of former slaves that helped them endure harsh lives and conditions with the powerful, transforming hope of Jesus and eternal life. In these horrific circumstances, they “rejoiced not because their circumstances were good, but because God is good!”
On November 16, 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers—”all but two former slaves and many still in their teens — arrived at Oberlin College in Ohio to perform before a national convention of ministers. After a few standard ballads the chorus sang spirituals and other songs associated with slavery. It was one of the first public performances of the secret music African Americans sang in the fields and behind closed doors for generations.”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers came on to the scene at a time when the University was struggling financially to keep the doors open. God’s faithfulness was evident, as the engagements that arose for the Singers around the country and world enabled them to raise over $20,000 for the University.
Watch this inspiring video to learn more about the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the faith, hope, and love they brought so many in the name of Jesus—demonstrating that we all are image-bearers of God.
Resources for Further Study: