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The slave owner's Bible

Thursday, January 03, 2019 - Updated: 8:41 am

By David Mills

Would you give the Bible to slaves, if you were a slave owner or a friend to slave owners? Not if you’re smart. You might honestly want to make them Christians, but you wouldn’t want that Bible putting dangerous ideas in their heads. Because it would.

Some English Christians at the beginning of the 19th century hit on an answer. Give the slaves just part of the Bible. The parts telling people to be submissive and obedient. Don’t give them the parts talking about freedom and liberation. Like the story of the Exodus.

I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago on a website called The Stream. The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., runs an exhibit on a so-called “Slave Bible.” A group called “the Incorporated Society for the Conversion and Religious Instruction and Education of the Negro Slaves in the British West India Islands” published it in 1807.

The ministry itself was compromised. It included abolitionists, people trying to abolish slavery in the British empire. But they were comfortable members of the English establishment, which really liked the practice of slavery because it made them a lot of money. And worse, many of the ministers they employed as chaplains in places like Barbados owned slaves.

The Slave Bible left out 90 percent of the Old Testament and half of the New Testament. That means the Book of Psalms, with all those songs of liberation. It also means the Book of Revelation, with all its talk about a new heaven and new earth. And Philemon, of course, because Paul begs Philemon’s owner to give him his freedom. (For more about all the things the Slave Bible cut out, see my article at stream.org/the-slave-owners-bible.)

In other words, this Bible’s editors deleted almost everything that might imply a judgment on slavery or a promise of freedom in this world. Here’s the most revealing thing the editors removed. Their Bible ignored God delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It leaves out the Exodus.

Think about that. It leaves out the event that gives the Book of Exodus its name.

Remember the stories they made sure their slaves never heard. Their slaves would never hear that God’s chosen people endured brutal slavery and that God didn’t like it. They would never hear about the cruel, tyrannical pharaoh, just like their own slave masters. They would never hear about Moses, the man God sent to lead a revolution. Nor about the plagues God sent to punish the oppressor, the divine Passover striking the slave-owners and sparing the slaves, God helping his people miraculously escape the Egyptians by crossing the Red Sea, God destroying pharaoh’s army. The slave owners didn’t want their slaves thinking God wants to free them.

We see this by the small part of Exodus that the Slave Bible did include. It included God giving the Ten Commandments. It included the basics of the law. The slave masters did want their slaves to think that God wants them to be good, which means completely submissive no matter how badly the masters treated them.

In other words, the members of the Incorporated Society for the Conversion and Religious Instruction and Education of the Negro Slaves in the British West India Islands turned the written word of God into a tool for oppressing black people. They didn’t let God speak freely. They only let him say what they wanted him to say. They used his authority as God to increase their power as men who claimed to own some of God’s most vulnerable people. That is, in a word, blasphemy.

Some of them meant well. As I said, some of them led the attempt to outlaw slavery, which was like being a pro-life leader in Manhattan. However, they knew the British empire wasn’t going to abolish slavery anytime soon.

The well-meaning ones truly wanted slaves to be Christians. Good for them. It’s better to be a Christian than not to be a Christian. They wanted slaves to live by the Bible. Yes to that, too.

But they lied. They claimed to give the whole word of God while hiding the “dangerous” parts. The Slave Bible proclaimed the good news for slave masters, but it didn’t proclaim the Gospel.

 

Mills and his family are members of St. Joseph Parish in Coraopolis.


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