On display now at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., is a special exhibit centered on a rare Bible from the 1800s that was used by British missionaries to convert and educate slaves.
What's notable about this Bible is not just its rarity, but its content, or rather the lack of content. It excludes any portion of text that might inspire rebellion or liberation.
Anthony Schmidt, associate curator of Bible and Religion in America at the museum, says the first instance of this abridged version titled, Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves, in the British West-India Islands, was published in 1807.
"About 90 percent of the Old Testament is missing [and] 50 percent of the New Testament is missing," Schmidt says. "Put in another way, there are 1,189 chapters in a standard protestant Bible. This Bible contains only 232."
Schmidt says passages that could have prompted rebellion were removed, for example:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28
And verses that reinforced the institution of slavery, including "the most famous pro-slavery verse that many pro-slavery people would have cited," says Schmidt, were kept.
"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." Ephesians 6:5
"It was intended for use among enslaved Africans in the British West Indies, which is modern day Caribbeans, so Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua," he says.
Schmidt says there are several theories behind the editing and omitting of so much of the standard Bible, but the main thought stems from the fact that farmers in the West Indies were opposed to missionaries worked with the enslaved Africans on their land.
"This can be seen as an attempt to appease the planter class saying, 'Look, we're coming here. We want to help uplift materially these Africans here but we're not going to be teaching them anything that could incite rebellion.' " Schmidt says. "Coming in and being able to educate African slaves would prepare them one day for freedom, but at the same time would not cause them to seek it more aggressively."
The Bible is on loan from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., and has been in the museum since it opened in November 2017. The university says only three copies of this Bible are known to exist, and that the one on display in Washington is the only copy in the U.S.
Schmidt says the museum decided to create the exhibit, "The Slave Bible: Let the Story Be Told," because of the attention visitors were already giving it the artifact.
"From the very beginning people have been shocked to see it," Schmidt says. "It's drawn a lot of interest. In fact, of all the items we have on display here it's probably been the most talked about among our guests."
While the exhibit tells the story of what's inside the Bible, it also gives people a chance to reflect and respond to the material.
"One of the points of the exhibit is that time and place really shape how people encounter the Bible," Schmidt says. "What I mean by that is people don't look at the Bible or approach the Bible or read the Bible in a vacuum. They're shaped by their social and economic context."
As people come from a multitude of backgrounds, Schmidt says how they encounter the Bible can vary greatly from person to person and, as such, the exhibit will affect them all differently.
"I hope people take away a greater appreciation for that and maybe even a self reflection to be more cognizant of why you read something a certain way," he says. "If people can better appreciate that then maybe they can better empathize with others."
NPR's Robert Baldwin III and Elizabeth Baker produced and edited the audio for this story. Wynne Davis adapted it for digital.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
You might remember that we first visited the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., for its opening last November. As you might imagine, with some 3,000-plus items on display, we were only able to manage a quick overview. So we went back last week to check out a special exhibit - a rare Bible on loan from Fisk University that was published by British missionaries in the 1800s to convert and educate slaves, or, perhaps, a better word would be indoctrinate them.
ANTHONY SCHMIDT: If you look here at this - the card here, that's the actual title, "Parts Of The Holy Bible, Selected For Use Among Negro Slaves, In The British West-India Islands" (ph).
MARTIN: So that is - the actual title of the book is "Selected For The Use Of The Negro Slaves"?
SCHMIDT: Yeah. That's the actual title...
MARTIN: That's amazing. That sounds amazing.
Curator Anthony Schmidt joined us in the exhibit, where the so-called slave Bible sits in a glass case, propped up for view, the only artifact in the room.
SCHMIDT: Looks like a regular Bible, but it was produced by British missionaries. The first instance that we know of, that it was published was 1807. And it was intended for use among enslaved Africans in the British West Indies, which is modern-day Caribbean, so Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua. But what's unique about it is that it's an abridged version of the Bible. About 90 percent of the Old Testament is missing...
MARTIN: Ninety percent?
SCHMIDT: Ninety percent. Fifty percent of the New Testament is missing. Put in another way, there are 1,189 chapters in a standard Protestant Bible. This Bible contains only 232. We displayed this here. This section - you'll see a jump from Genesis 45. And they'd cut out all the material up to Exodus 19 here. And so what they cut out is the story of the Israelites' captivity in Egypt and their eventual liberation and journey to the promised land. And, of course, that was a pretty powerful story for enslaved Africans in the Caribbean but, also, in the - America. And so we suspect that they were excising that because it was such a powerful source of inspiration and hope.
MARTIN: The wall next to the Bible's display case highlights other well-known verses that were intentionally left out of this edition.
These are among the passages that were cut out.
SCHMIDT: Yeah. Galatians 3:28, of course. There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither bond nor free. There is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
MARTIN: That's for the King James Version.
SCHMIDT: These are the King James Version...
MARTIN: And - so give us an example of something that was left in.
SCHMIDT: Right. Probably the most famous, you know, pro-slavery verse that's - many pro-slavery people would have cited is the 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.
MARTIN: So to associate kind of human bondage and human slavery with obedience to the higher power? So interesting...
MARTIN: Also from King James. Well, let's back up a little bit and talk a little bit more about how this whole exhibit came to be. The item itself, which is here, has been on loan from Fisk University since the museum opened last year. But why did you decide to highlight it in this special exhibit space?
SCHMIDT: We - yeah. So Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., is - generously allowed us to display this item. And, from the very beginning, people have been shocked to see it. They've - it's drawn a lot of interest. In fact, of all the items we have on display here, it's probably been the most talked-about among our guests. So this is an exhibit that uses only one artifact, and it seeks to tell that artifact's story, what was inside it. And then, we also wanted to give a space for people to reflect and respond.
MARTIN: So I want to talk about - I want to talk about what's in the Bible. But then, I also want to talk about how people are responding to it.
MARTIN: So, first of all, tell me a little bit more about the work that you have done around discovering the origins of it, who's behind it, what their motivations were. Just tell us a little bit more about that research.
SCHMIDT: Sure. So the missionary society for the conversion of Negro slaves in the British West Indies was founded - or you might say refounded - in 1794. Originally, it had been aimed at the conversion and education of Native Americans. After the revolution, however, that - those ties broke off, so they were looking for different avenues to direct that revenue.
MARTIN: So what was the intention, though, in excising the Bible so - or editing it, or I might say censoring it...
MARTIN: ...So heavily? What was their intent?
SCHMIDT: There are several theories and several - there are several layers to this, the first one being that most of the planter class in the West Indies were opposed to missionary work among enslaved Africans there on their land. And so this can be seen as an attempt to appease the planter class, saying, look. We're coming here. We want to help uplift, materially, these Africans here. But we're not going to be teaching them anything that could incite rebellion. And so coming in and being able to educate African slaves would prepare them one day for freedom but, at the same time, would not cause them to seek it more aggressively.
MARTIN: The sense that I get - this comes with a video where there are students at Fisk encountering the text. And this - also, the exhibit has a place for people to reflect on the text. The sense I get from some of the people is that they're shocked.
MARTIN: They are shocked...
MARTIN: ...To know that this existed. And I just - I - you know, I have to ask you. Were you?
MARTIN: Really? You were...
SCHMIDT: Absolutely, yeah. I was talking with a person who was looking at the text. And they kind of verbalized it for me - is that I can't believe it was printed like this. Like, it wasn't taking a razor blade or anything like that. It was actually printed like this. And knowing that - the intentions behind it - so, yeah. That is shocking.
MARTIN: I wonder if this is going to change something for people. Does this change something for you, knowing that what was delivered to certain people is different from what you received, right?
MARTIN: I wonder. Does that change something for people?
SCHMIDT: I hope...
MARTIN: I'm asking you to speculate...
SCHMIDT: Yeah. I mean, one of the points of the exhibit is that, you know, time and place really shape how people encounter the Bible. And what I mean by that is people don't look at the Bible or approach the Bible or read the Bible in a vacuum. They're shaped by their social and economic context. And what's - your coming from this different from what other people are going to be coming from.
And so I - if anything, I hope people take take away a greater appreciation for that, maybe even self-reflection, to be more cognizant of why you read something a certain way. And if people can better appreciate that, maybe they can better empathize with others.
MARTIN: That was Anthony Schmidt, curator of Bible and Religion in America for the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. We're visiting with him at the exhibit that he curated on the slave Bible. Anthony Schmidt, thank you so much for talking to us.
SCHMIDT: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.