Mu­seum high­lights ‘Slave Bi­ble’ that fo­cuses on servi­tude, leaves out free­dom

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BELIEF - By Adelle M. Banks

WASH­ING­TON — On dis­play on the ground floor of the Mu­seum of the Bi­ble there is a lone vol­ume that stands out from the many ver­sions 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. 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 15inch-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 dis­cus­sion 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,” Seth Pollinger, di­rec­tor of mu­seum cu­ra­to­rial, told Reli­gion News Ser­vice.

“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 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 to 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, 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.

Ab­sent from that Bi­ble were all of the Psalms, which ex­press hopes for God’s de­liv­ery from op­pres­sion, and the en­tire Book of Rev­e­la­tion.

“That’s where you re­ally have the story of the over­comer, and where God makes all things right and ret­ri­bu­tion,” Pollinger said of the fi­nal book found in tra­di­tional ver­sions of the Chris­tian Bi­ble.

The Slave Bi­ble’s Book of Ex­o­dus ex­cludes the story of the res­cue of the Is­raelites from slav­ery in Egypt, the lib­er­a­tion that gives the bi­b­li­cal book its ti­tle.

“It’s con­spic­u­ous that they have Chap­ter 19 and 20 in there, which is where you got God’s ap­pear­ance at Mount Si­nai and he gives his law,” said Pollinger. “The Ten Com­mand­ments would be Ex­o­dus 20 but miss­ing is all of the ex­o­dus from Egypt.”

Schol­ars ac­knowl­edge that the lit­tle-known Bi­ble can be a shock­ing dis­cov­ery for stu­dents and mu­seum visi­tors alike.

“When they first en­counter the Slave Bi­ble, it’s pretty emo­tional for them,” said Holly Hamby, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Fisk who uses the ar­ti­fact as she teaches a class on the Bi­ble as lit­er­a­ture. Many of the stu­dents at the his­tor­i­cally black uni­ver­sity are Chris­tian and African-Amer­i­can, most of whom are de­scen­dants of slaves, in­clud­ing those in the West In­dian colonies.

“It’s very dis­rup­tive to their be­lief sys­tem,” said Hamby, who is cur­rently teach­ing from a dig­i­tized ver­sion of the Slave Bi­ble.

Some stu­dents won­der how they could have come to the Chris­tian faith with this kind of Bi­ble pos­si­bly in their past. Oth­ers dive deeper into the com­plete Bi­ble, in­clud­ing the Ex­o­dus story.

“It does lead them to ques­tion a lot but I also think it leads them to a pow­er­ful con­nec­tion with the text,” she said. “Very nat­u­rally, see­ing the parts that were left out of the Bi­ble that was given to a lot of their an­ces­tors makes them con­cen­trate more on those parts.”

The mu­seum has plans for con­fer­ences and panel dis­cus­sions to fur­ther ex­plore the un­usual ar­ti­fact and its com­plex mean­ings.

Pollinger hopes it will of­fer a chance for a more di­verse range of visi­tors, black and white, to join in dis­cus­sions, just as white and black schol­ars have worked in re­cent months on the ex­hibit.

“This ex­hibit is go­ing to desta­bi­lize peo­ple; it’s go­ing to dis­turb peo­ple, and it’s not nec­es­sar­ily one group rather than the other,” said Pollinger, who hopes that learn­ing about this piece of Bi­ble his­tory will foster greater un­der­stand­ing.

In a quo­ta­tion dis­played in the ex­hibit, Brad Brax­ton, di­rec­tor of the NMAAHC’s Cen­ter for the Study of African Amer­i­can Re­li­gious Life, says: “This re­li­gious relic com­pels us to grap­ple with a time­less ques­tion: In our in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Bi­ble, is the end re­sult dom­i­na­tion or lib­er­a­tion?”

Hamby sug­gested that the ex­hibit should fea­ture cur­rent Fisk stu­dents’ voices, so it in­cludes a video of them dis­cussing ques­tions sur­round­ing the con­tro­ver­sial take on the Bi­ble.

“My fa­vorite ques­tion is the last ques­tion on the list that we asked them, which is: Do you think that this Bi­ble is still the good book?” she said of ques­tions the stu­dents were asked and the pub­lic will have an op­por­tu­nity to an­swer for them­selves.

For her part, Hamby, a United Methodist, says: “It’s a good book. I still be­lieve in the Bi­ble on the whole but not this ver­sion of it.”

Adelle M. Banks / Reli­gion News Ser­vice

The Slave Bi­ble ex­hibit at the Mu­seum of the Bi­ble fea­tures a ver­sion of the holy book that ex­cluded ma­jor por­tions of the Old and New Tes­ta­ments.

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