Imagine where America would be if Harriet Tubman, the legendary heroine of the Underground Railroad, had been unable to quote the mighty Book of Exodus and tell Southern slaves that it was God’s will that they—like the ancient Israelites—should flee bondage and reach the Promised Land of freedom in the North.
Imagine how much longer the bitter walls of segregation would have remained standing if Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights preachers were unable to shame powerful Southern judges, sheriffs, governors and newspaper editors by quoting Moses straight from the Bible: “Thus sayeth the Lord—Let my people go.”
In a dark, little-known chapter of history, British missionaries in the early 1800s created an abridged version of the Bible that literally cut all reference to freedom and liberation from holy scripture. Long sections—and even whole books, such as Exodus and the Book of Revelation—that might promote rebellion or offer hope of a better life to enslaved Africans were removed.
The result was the Slave Bible, a stunted, distorted version of the book distributed to enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas to help colonialists fortify an inhuman system of captive labor that was so important to the British Empire.
It was a cruel trick. A typical Protestant Bible contains 66 books, and the Catholic religion recognizes 73 books. The Slave Bible contains only 14 books. The truncated version seemed to answer our centuries-old philosophical debates about whether the Bible condones or condemns slavery, where proslavery injunctions were left to guide us: 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.”
Another famous example is Saint Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which Paul—serving time in prison for his faith—meets and befriends a fellow prisoner, a slave named Onesimus. Paul converts Onesimus to Christianity, but ultimately sends him back to his owner as a new believer—but still a slave.
Fortunately, honest missionaries brought the full Gospel to slaves in the Americas, who drank long and deeply from the wellspring of liberation in the true Bible. But the debate over whether the Bible promotes freedom or restricts it continues to this day.
This week, a new exhibit, “The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told,” will open at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a rare, original edition of the Slave Bible, one of only three still in existence.
I urge everyone to see the powerful exhibition and ponder what might have happened if the Slave Bible alone had succeeded. The Civil Rights Movement could never have succeeded without the blueprint of liberation described by Exodus and planted deeply in the hearts, families and churches of the African-American South.
In his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, my dear friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. relies on this powerful book to compare the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt to African-Americans’ liberation from slavery, and our continued march toward the Promised Land. For slaves, the Promised Land was emancipation; for African-Americans, equality, justice and opportunity are the fruits of the land we strive to reach, even today.
We can all benefit by prayerfully pondering this cautionary tale of how religion was once distorted in ways that stood faith and freedom on their heads.