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‘Chilling reminder’: Rare ‘Slave Bible’ loaned by University of Glasgow for overseas show

A ‘Slave Bible’ created for Christian missionaries in 1807 has been loaned by the University of Glasgow to an exhibition in Holland.

The rare first edition copy was heavily edited to remove anything that might be seen to promote freedom among enslaved peoples and is one of only three surviving copies recorded in the world.

Entitled “Select parts of the Holy Bible for the use of the Negro Slaves in the British West-India Islands”, the religious text will be on display in Utrecht, the Netherlands until January 16 2023.

Julie Gardham, Senior Assistant Librarian at the University of Glasgow Library, said the bible was a, “chilling reminder of how White Christians manipulated and misused even sacred texts to control the enslaved and legitimise slavery.”

Despite censorship, passages about freedom that were omitted from religious texts turned up in spirituals, the songs of enslaved people in the United States. 

The bible was among 12,000 books donated to the University by insurance broker William Euing in 1874.

The University of Glasgow's 'Slave Bible' is one of only three in the worldUniversity of Glasgow

In 2019, it appeared as an exhibit in Call and Response; the University of Glasgow and Slavery exhibition which formed part of the institution’s reparative justice programme launched in the wake of its 2018 slavery report, which quantified the institution’s financial gains from historic slavery. 

Graham Campbell, a Glasgow City Council councillor, human rights activist and advisor on the report said at the time: “Pro-slavery ‘Christians’ were very deliberate in editing the Bible to exclude its most inconvenient truths about freedom, emancipation, liberty, justice and mercy. 

“Enslaved Africans and their descendants had these mental chains smelted from a peculiarly Scottish mixture of white-supremacist racial hatred and enlightenment rationalist missionary zeal. 

“This bible was as effective a tool of enslavement as any cast-iron chains.”

It will be displayed as part of the exhibition “Gospel: Musical Journey of Spirit and Hope” at the Museum Catharijneconvent, which is the Dutch national museum for the art, culture and history of Christianity. 

A spokesperson for the Museum said: “The Slave Bible is a key object in our exhibition about gospel music. It is an example of how white Christians used the Bible as a tool of power to legitimise and preserve the institution of slavery.

“Not only in the British West-India Islands, where this book was used by British missionaries, but also in, for example, Surinam, a Dutch colony and the United States. 

“In these places Bible texts were used to legitimise slavery and other texts were censored and kept away from the enslaved. However, these measurements did not prevent faith from taking root on the plantations. 

“The passages about freedom that were omitted turned up in spirituals, the songs of enslaved people in the United States. We are very fortunate and proud that we can show this impressive object in our exhibition.”

As is common with books of this age, the Bible’s condition had deteriorated with use.

To enable safe handling in teaching, research and display, it was treated by the University’s conservation team in advance of its travel to the Netherlands so that it could be loaned for exhibition with minimal risk of further damage

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