Imagine a Bible that starts with the creation account in Genesis 1-2, but then skips several chapters to the story of Joseph being sold into slavery and makes a point of how imprisonment benefited him! Imagine an edited Bible where the Exodus story of God rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt is removed, together with every reference to freedom, such as Galatians 3:28 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” But passages like Ephesians 6:5, “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ,” were kept. Imagine a Bible manipulated to over-emphasize themes of submission and subservience to the exclusion of context and sovereign redemption in the mercy and grace of God. What kind of Bible is left when references to God’s deliverance of His children from physical and spiritual slavery is absent? Does this sound like the Bible you know?
Yet, in the early 1800s, Rev. Beilby Porteus, bishop of London, instructed a group of missionaries to create such a book.
“Prepare a short form of public prayers … together with the select portions of Scripture … particularly those which relate to the duties of slaves towards their masters.”
The final product is known today as the Slave Bible. First published in 1807, the book was intended for enslaved Africans in the British West-India Islands. The Slave Bible was edited to instill obedience and preserve the system of slavery within the Caribbean colonies.
The Slave Bible’s story is not only about slavery and Christian missions, it is also a story of how time and place shape the way people understand and use the Bible. These missionaries believed the Bible was the authoritative Word of God and reading it was an imperative Christian practice. They wanted to use the Slave Bible to teach enslaved Africans how to read while simultaneously introducing them to the Christian faith and improving their relationships with the slaveholders. From the missionaries’ perspective, it was a benevolent book. However, in the eyes of many others, this “Bible” is part of the story of oppression and manipulation found in the Atlantic system of slavery.
The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told, is presented by Museum of the Bible. This story must be told so Christians are reminded to not edit God’s word with our self-serving agendas. When we interpret the Bible always to personal advantage where it never confronts, challenges, or convicts you, then you have edited the Bible from its meaning and God’s purpose. Telling this story further reminds Christians we must share the fullness of the good news with the fullness of the people in our world; every tribe and language and people and nation (Revelation 5:9). Now that’s a story worth imagining.