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SBL e-journal

Brandon Hurlbert





The Slave Bible: For Slavery or Salvation?





APA e-journal

Brandon Hurlbert





The Slave Bible: For Slavery or Salvation?








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The Slave Bible: For Slavery or Salvation?

What really motivated the editors of Select Parts of the Holy Bible: For the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands (1807), better known as “The Slave Bible”?


The Slave Bible: For Slavery or Salvation?

Photo via the Museum of the Bible

In 2018–2019, the Museum of the Bible, an evangelical museum in Washington D.C., displayed an 1808 copy of an abridged Bible in an exhibit, “The Slave Bible: Let the Story be Told.”[1] The temporary exhibit drew wide media coverage for its provocative claim about the publishers of “the Slave Bible”:

[They] deliberately removed portions of the biblical text, such as the Exodus story, that could inspire hope for liberation. Instead, the publishers emphasized portions that justified and fortified the system of slavery that was so vital to the British Empire.[2]

Writing about the exhibit for the Smithsonian, Brigit Katz highlights another apparently suspect omission:

Gone was Jeremiah 22:13: “Woe unto him that buildeth his house by unrighteousness, and his chambers by wrong; that useth his neighbour’s service without wages and giveth him not for his work.”[3]

This example and others imprecisely make it seem as if only this verse was excluded, as if it was neatly excised from the whole chapter. In reality the entire book of Jeremiah was excluded.

Slavery and Liberation in the Slave Bible

If indeed the purpose of the Slave Bible was to reinforce slavery and discourage slave uprisings by downplaying the Bible’s liberative message, then it would have made sense for the editors to remove any mention of liberation and include passages that could be used to support slavery. That is not what they did, however.

Supposed Removals of Liberation Themes

The editors did not remove only the exodus account; they also removed almost all of the book of Exodus, retaining only Exodus 19–20 which recounts how Israel received the Decalogue at Sinai, the opening of which says:

שׁמות כ:ב אָנֹכִי יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.
Exod 20:2 “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”[4]

Why would the editors retain this reference to bondage if they are attempting to downplay liberation? To compound this problem, the editors also left in more than a dozen other references to the exodus.[5]

Omitted Passages That Were Used to Defend Slavery

The editors also excluded many passages that would have been helpful in defending slavery, such as the story of Sarai giving her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram to have a child by her (Gen 16), which legitimizes concubinage. The story also offers divine sanction for the cruel treatment of slaves, as God later instructs Hagar to remain with the abusive Sarai (v. 9). Paul’s reference to this narrative in Galatians as a (confusing) metaphor for Israel is omitted as well (4:30–31).[6]

Also absent are the laws permitting enslavement of non-Israelites in Leviticus 25:44–46—a most glaring omission—and, in the New Testament, Paul’s short letter to Philemon that seems to acknowledge that a slave remains a slave until his owner releases him (vv. 12–14).[7] These texts were often cited to support slavery in Britain and the United States.[8]

Included Passages Referenced by Abolitionists

In addition, the Slave Bible retains plenty of verses that would appear to contradict its alleged pro-slavery intentions. For example, the entire chapter of Isaiah 58 is included, even though it contains this verse:

ישׁעיה נח:ו הֲלוֹא זֶה צוֹם אֶבְחָרֵהוּ פַּתֵּחַ חַרְצֻבּוֹת רֶשַׁע הַתֵּר אֲגֻדּוֹת מוֹטָה וְשַׁלַּח רְצוּצִים חָפְשִׁים וְכָל מוֹטָה תְּנַתֵּקוּ.
Isa 58:6 Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

They also left in a passage from Luke that reads:

Luke 4:18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised. (cf. the similar passage in Isa 61:1, also included in the Slave Bible).[9]

These verses that depict the liberation of the oppressed were explicitly invoked in pro-abolitionist sermons.[10]

The editors’ inclusion of the Joseph narrative (Genesis 37, 39–45) is also problematic for the pro-slavery view, as it was used in 1700 in an early argument against slavery in New England.[11] Although the story recounts how Joseph prospered despite being a slave, the incident where Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of attempted rape also reveals the treachery of slave masters. Moreover, by the end of the story, Joseph has become in charge of the kingdom, second only to the king, and is exalted over his former master and his brothers who sold him into slavery.

If the editors of the Slave Bible were not motivated by a desire to justify slavery, then what was their motivation?

The Push to Educate and Evangelize Slaves

In 1783, the Bishop of London, Beilby Porteus, delivered a sermon before the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) calling upon the leaders to reconsider the treatment of slaves on SPG’s plantations in Barbados.[12] These demands were dismissed as “impractical” by the plantation managers, but Porteus’s abolitionist sentiments did not seem to harm his relationship with SPG as he would be invited back to preach at a similar service.[13]

In 1794, Porteus founded the Society for the Conversion and Religious Instruction and Education of the Negroe Slaves in the British West India Islands, whose missionary and educational purpose is evident from its name.[14] The society produced the Slave Bible in 1807, formally titled Select Parts of the Holy Bible: For the Use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands.

Missionary Work on the Plantations

The society’s missionaries were sent to live on or near plantations in order to educate slaves in the Christian faith, but they could only do so with the permission of the plantation owner, who would have had economic and practical concerns.[15] Sunday church services and the expectation to refrain from labor on the Lord’s day would have presented significant problems for the slaves. They normally had Sundays free from mandatory work, but were, in effect, forced to use their free time to provide sustenance for themselves by trading in a market and working small portions of land allotted to them by the plantation owner. This removed part of the owners’ onus of providing for their slaves, but it forced some slaves to choose between starving and attending church.[16]

In his 1808 letter to the governors and plantation owners in the British West Indies, Porteus makes an impassioned appeal for continued amelioration. He wants Sundays to be completely devoted to worship and Bible study, so he asks the owners if they could allow their slaves “a few hours” on another weekday to work their own allotments and to go to market.[17]

Anticipating the capitalistic pushback, Porteus argues two things. First, they are profaning the Lord’s day with work and trade, and secondly, if they correct this error, then God will bless them and their slaves will be happier and more productive.[18] In a similar rhetorical move, Porteus explains that the by-product of conversion will be a greater number of children because Christians (somehow) produce more children.[19] It’s a win-win: the slaves get Jesus and the owners get more slaves.[20]

Christianity Makes Better Slaves

In his letter, Porteus also anticipates two objections to evangelism and education. The first is that if the slaves learn to read, they might encounter literature that would incite rebellion. Porteus is not referring to the Bible here, but to newspapers or pamphlets which might encourage such actions (e.g., news about the 1804 revolution against French control that ended slavery in Haiti).[21] Yet, Porteus suggests that reading will allow the slaves to understand both sides of the argument, rather than being passive listeners to the same seditious material.[22]

The second objection to evangelism is the idea that Christianity makes “bad slaves” who are prideful and “less submissive.” Porteus responds, “Can the religion of the meek and humble Jesus; that religion which above all things inculcates humility, content, patience, subordination...can that produce ambition, pride, discontent, and resistance to lawful authority?”[23] In his opinion as a bishop, Christianity in fact makes better slaves because the faith “most expressly enjoins them, under pain of God’s displeasure here, and of the severest punishment hereafter, ‘to be subject to their masters with all fear....’”[24]

It is difficult to know if this is only a rhetorical move for Porteus, as it appears to run against the grain of his abolitionist sentiments. What is evident from this letter, however, is that Porteus believed in the efficacy of his rhetoric—that such racist and paternalistic arguments would be welcomed and embraced by Christian slave owners.

Thinking Critically about How the Bible Is Used

Though tantalizing, the claims by the Museum of the Bible about the pro-slavery purpose behind the Slave Bible and the redactional and canonical choices of the editors are overstated and likely arise from the Museum’s evangelical anxiety to keep the Bible “good.”[25] The work does, however, allow us to think critically about the complex and conflicting ways a sacred text can be used to promote human flourishing and deny people their basic human rights.

The Slave Bible was an evangelistic tool shaped by white missionaries to convert and educate slaves. Though its origins are rooted in the abolitionism of the missionary society which produced it, the work sits within a wider cultural context that tolerated, and in many cases approved of, the institution of slavery.

Contrary to its portrayal by the Museum of the Bible, the editors of the Slave Bible did not remove liberative portions or emphasize servitude—they did not need to. A contingent benefit to the conversion of slaves—and one which would have been reassuring to white Christian slave-owners—was that the Christian faith was understood to emphasize certain virtues favorable to slavery.

The two institutions, Church and Slavery, were not in necessary contradiction in the minds of those in the pews and on the plantations. In the harsh light of history, we may see the efforts of this missionary society quite differently. Rather than attempting to provide excuses for them or the faith they claimed, we must make an effort to wrestle with the complexities of our own histories and our community’s complicity in racism.[26]


The Contents of the Slave Bible

The Slave Bible contains selections from the King James Version (or Authorized Version) of 14 of the 66 books that make up the Protestant canon. This equates to roughly 10% of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and almost 50% of the New Testament.

The Slave Bible’s Old Testament

In contrast to what the Museum of the Bible exhibit suggests, Christological and evangelistic themes drive the selection of many of the texts from the Old Testament.[27]

Genesis 1–3; 6–8; 18; 37; 39–45 – the creation and flood accounts; Abraham’s plea to YHWH to spare Sodom and Gomorrah; Joseph’s story

Exodus 19–20 – the theophany at Sinai

Deuteronomy 4–6; 8–11; 28 – the theophany; exhortations to obey God’s law; and blessings and curses

1 Samuel 17; 24 – David and Goliath; David refuses to kill Saul

1 Kings 3; 8; 17–18; 21 – the wisdom of Solomon; Temple dedication; stories of Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel

2 Kings 4–5 – stories of Elisha

1 Chronicles 17 – God’s promise of a Davidic dynasty

Job 1–3; 38–39; 42 – prologue; God’s first speech to Job; epilogue

Proverbs 1–24 –– proverbs of Solomon; words of the sages [omits chs. 25–31]

Ecclesiastes [whole book]

Isaiah 1; 5; 9:1–7; 11; 14; 40, 42; 44–45; 47; 51; 53; 55; 58; 60–61 – select poems, many of which have been interpreted in Christian theology as messianic

Daniel 1–9 – court legends and visions [omits chs. 10–12]

Hosea 6; 11; 14 – calls to repentance; and God’s paternal love for Israel

Joel 1–2 – judgment and restoration of Judah [omits ch. 3 (MT ch. 4)]

The purpose of the Slave Bible’s selections from Genesis and Exodus becomes evident if we compare it to an evangelistic religious tract from this period that summarizes these two books in nearly the same way. Structured as a series of dialogues between a missionary and a slave, the tract, Christian Directions and Instructions for Negroes, aims to recount the “Fall of man, and what followed thereupon, till the Coming of Christ.”[28]

The Slave Bible also emphasizes the value of wisdom and proper Christian living in its inclusion of the main sections of Job, much of Proverbs, and the whole of Ecclesiastes. The Isaiah portions, as well as the selections from Hosea and Joel, are often messianic and tell of the day when YHWH will send a deliverer to save his people. For example, the editors included a portion of a chapter is Isaiah 9:1–7 which Christian tradition interprets as a messianic prophecy:[29]

ישׁעיה ט:ה כִּי יֶלֶד יֻלַּד לָנוּ בֵּן נִתַּן לָנוּ וַתְּהִי הַמִּשְׂרָה עַל שִׁכְמוֹ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵץ אֵל גִּבּוֹר אֲבִיעַד שַׂר שָׁלוֹם.
Isa 9:6 For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

The remainder of the chapter (vv. 8–21 [MT 7–20]) deals with the northern Kingdom of Israel, but these verses may have been selected due to their importance within Christianity, as this passage is echoed throughout the New Testament and the child is understood within a Christian frame of reference to be Jesus Christ.

The Slave Bible also includes brief summaries at the head of each chapter, modeled after the longer summaries in the King James Version.[30] These summaries support the Christological emphasis of the work, as parts of the Bible are described as speaking of Christ and the gospel. For example, the summary for the servant song and hymn in Isaiah 42 reads:

1 The office of Christ. 5 God’s promise to him. 10 An exhortation to praise God.[31]

The numbers in the summary correspond to verse numbers in the chapter.

The Slave Bible’s New Testament

The selection from the New Testament includes the full gospels of Matthew and Luke, excerpts from the gospel of John, and the entire book of Acts, thus covering nearly the whole of the actual narrative of Jesus’s life and the formation of the early church.[32] In selecting from the epistles, the editors focused on the more universal calls to holiness, righteousness, and Christian love, rather than the theologically dense sections of Paul’s letters.[33]

Matthew [whole book]

Luke [whole Book]

John 4–5; 11; 13; 19; 21 – episodes of the Samaritan woman; healing on the Sabbath; resurrection of Lazarus; Jesus fortelling his betrayal; Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection

Acts [ whole book] – the founding and early history of the Christian church

Selections from the letters to various Christian communities:

Romans 12–13; 1 Corinthians 1–3, 13, 15; 2 Corinthians 4–5; Galatians 1, 5–6; Ephesians 4–6; Philippians 2, 4; 1 Thessalonians 4–5; 1 Timothy 1–2; 2 Timothy 2–4; Titus 2–3; Hebrews 1–3; 12–13; James 1, 3, 5; 1 Peter [whole book]; 1 John 3


January 15, 2023


Last Updated

February 22, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Brandon Hurlbert is a lecturer in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Durham University, where he received his PhD. He is a research associate at the Centre for the Study of the Bible and Violence and a co-host on the Two Cities Podcast. He has published essays on biblical violence, hermeneutics, and the Bible and film, most recently: “Taking the Absurdity Seriously: Questioning the Complicity of YHWH in Judges 20–21,” in Violent Biblical Texts: New Approaches, edited by Helen Paynter and Trevor Laurence (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2022).