The Slave Bible | Trinidad and Tobago News Blog


By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
April 18, 2022

In 1970, while on the faculty at Fordham University in New York, I taught a course on the development of African American literature. One of the books I used was William Wells Brown, Clotel or the President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, published in England in 1853.

The novel tells the story of Clotel, a daughter of Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, who fathered three children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. Although the white power structure denied this incident for two centuries, in November 1998 the veracity of this claim was authenticated by DNA evidence.

Besides the sale of Clotel into slavery, the novel aimed to challenge the biblical justification for slavery and the fact that slaves had to obey their masters. One such exchange occurs when Pastor Hontz Snyder of The Poplar Farm took the slaves through a recital of the following question-and-answer session:

Q: “What commandment did God give to servants concerning obedience to their masters?”

A: “Servants, obey your masters according to the flesh in all things, not with eyes to please men, but with singleness of heart, fearing God.

Q: “What does God mean by masters according to the flesh?”

A: “Masters of the world.”

Q: “What are servants to be worthy of by their masters?”

A: “All honor.”

When British missionaries came to the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Barbados and Antigua, “to convert and educate” slaves, they brought with them their own version of the Bible suited to their activities. Titled Select Parts of the Holy Bible for the Use of the Negro Slavs in the British West-India Islands, this Bible was a “staggeringly watered down version of the New and Old Testaments” that was printed in England in 1807, the same year that the British slave trade ended in the West Indies.

Anthony Schmidt, associate curator of Bible and religion at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, says about 90 percent of the Old Testament and 50 percent of the New Testament are missing. He adds, “In other words, there are 1,189 chapters in a standard Protestant Bible. This Bible contains only 232.

Charlotte McKillop-Mash, Project Archivist, Bodleian Collections at Oxford University, notes: “This Bible has been carefully edited to remove any mention of people breaking free from bondage. In only one instance does it jump directly from Genesis 45:28 to Exodus 19, so it includes the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) but “disappears” the first eighteen books of Exodus, in which the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt.

This Bible was published by the Society for the Conversion and Religious Education of Negro Slaves, an organization founded by Bishop Beilby Porteus, son of a Virginia tobacco planter and a born and raised slave owner in England. Brigit Katz argues that this Bible also sought “to teach enslaved Africans to read, with the ultimate goal of introducing them to Christianity.” (Smithsonian Magazine, January 4, 2019.)

Paradoxically, Porteus, who later became the Anglican Bishop of London, “criticized the Church’s position on slavery, preached and campaigned against the slave trade and repeatedly voted for its prohibition”. He believed that the abridged Bible would be more acceptable to planters.

The verses that were placed in the slave Bible reinforced the institution of slavery. One such edict, “Servants, obey those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in unity of heart, as unto Christ” (Ephesians 6:5) was reproduced by Pastor Snyder in his question-response session with the slaves I reproduce above. Incidentally, Pastor Snyder was referred to as a “missionary” in the novel.

Sharon Brous, the founding rabbi of IKAR in Los Angeles, noted that the Slave Bible was designed to introduce slaves to Christianity and to preserve the slavery system. “The slavers,” she says, “surely feared that the enslaved people would see themselves in the Israelite struggle for liberation, find strength in God’s identification with the oppressed, and be inspired by the triumph of faith over even one of the strongest regimes of the ancient world”. (New York Times, April 14.)

Physical suffering, as Esau McCaulley observes, is “at the heart of Christian history.” (New York Times, April 15.) Easter Sunday, according to the canonical texts of the Holy Bible, promises the triumph of our spiritual dimension over the death of the physical body. The apocryphal gospels of the early Christians (such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas) offer other events or sayings in the life of Jesus.

As we celebrate Easter, the holiest day in the Christian calendar, we must remember that many of our ancestors did not have the comfort of Jesus’ promise. Father Martin Sirju, however, links Jesus “to the realm of truth” and suggests that Holy Week “begins with a politically subversive act – a peasant, apocalyptic preacher entering Jerusalem on a donkey”. (Express, April 13.)

The Holy Bible also tells us that the meek will inherit the earth, suggesting that everything presented in the Slave Bible was intended to prevent meek, downtrodden, overworked Africans from realizing the possibility of knowing the comfort of the message. of Jesus.

It should also be noted that the Slave Bible omitted Jeremiah 22:13 from its abridged version of the Bible. The offensive passage reads: “Woe to him who builds his house by injustice, and his chambers by evil; who uses the services of his neighbor without pay and does not give him for his work.

This is something our business people should ponder as they reflect on the blessing that Easter brings to Christians around the world.

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