Five years ago, a group of African American religious leaders and scholars launched an ambitious project with the lofty goal of safeguarding their spiritual heritage and helping future generations: publishing a new kind of Bible.
The group feared that younger generations of black men and women were casually abandoning a powerful tool that had helped their ancestors survive slavery, segregation and racism. Before the Civil War, the Bible was used by slaves to secretly teach their children how to read, even when doing so was a serious crime. And the book's ancient stories of liberation served as a symbol of hope to many generations.
But on the eve of 2000, many younger black Americans--like all younger Americans, according to nationwide polls--are finding less time to read and are learning less about the Bible than did their parents and grandparents.
In response, concerned clerics and academicians, working through the American Bible Society in New York, decided to create a new type of Bible that would appeal to a new generation of readers while enhancing the spirituality of the old.
The result is the African American Jubilee Edition of the Bible, a 1,756-page volume filled with color illustrations, black-and-white drawings and photographs of prominent leaders and moments in African American history. The Bible, published this fall, includes 300 pages of articles by 17 scholars about the history of African Americans and their Christian heritage.
Among the contributors are Cain Hope Felder, professor of New Testament at Howard University School of Divinity; the Rev. Virgil A. Wood, pastor of Pond Street Baptist Church in Providence, R.I., who organized Virginia's participation in the 1963 March on Washington; and Edwina Maria Wright, assistant professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
The Bible, published by the nonprofit American Bible Society, will be promoted in a series of city-by-city celebrations, starting Dec. 26 at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem and continuing in February and March in Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Houston and Los Angeles. The events will feature a liturgy focused on the concept of jubilee, a recurring theme in the Old and New Testaments that emphasizes justice, freedom, forgiveness and restoration.
The Rev. Kevin Turman, pastor of the historic Second Baptist Church in Detroit, called publication of the Jubilee Edition "very exciting" and said it "provides a common touchstone" for African Americans.
"We need to reconnect with younger people," he said. "They're not only disconnected from the experiences of slavery and emancipation and segregation. . . . They're disconnected from people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. They're cut off from the strength that has brought us this far."
The Rev. Diane M. Ritzie, a biblical scholar, prison chaplain and Baptist pastor who managed the Bible project, said the volume offers hope "by reminding our people about our heritage."
That message can be discovered both by African Americans who have prospered and by others who face a bleak future in impoverished city neighborhoods, Ritzie said. "I live in the South Bronx, and I can tell you there are some communities where the poverty is just overwhelming," she said.
That heritage also speaks to black women by encouraging them to become church leaders, she said. Although most mainline Protestant denominations ordain women, their progress has been slow in traditionally black denominations. So Ritzie pushed to include a chapter about pioneering female preachers.
One example is Amanda Berry Smith, a Civil War-era evangelist who crisscrossed the country, preaching sermons so powerful that she became known in her day as "God's image carved in ebony."
Just as important as reconnecting African Americans with their Christian heritage is reconnecting the Bible itself with Africa, said Dennis Dickerson, professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who wrote a survey of the black church for the new Bible.
"People get the idea that the Bible is a white man's book," Dickerson said. "But God didn't dictate it to us in the king's English. The Bible is a multicultural document that derives from a part of the world where there are many people of color."
The Hebrew of the Old Testament falls within the same family of ancient languages used in several parts of Africa, one article explains. Another lists African characters in the Bible, including an Ethiopian who saved the prophet Jeremiah's life. Africans also were among the crowd of people who witnessed the birth of the Christian church at Pentecost, after Jesus's death, the book says.
"Our people have had an extraordinary historical ride with the Bible," said the Rev. Elliott Cuff, a historian and Baptist pastor in Brooklyn, N.Y., who wrote a piece on black preaching.
Yet even with 300 pages of material on black heritage, "I really don't think this Bible goes far enough," Cuff said. "Someday, I'd like to see a companion African American encyclopedia of the Bible. There's so much good scholarship out there now."
Felder, of Howard Divinity, praised the African American Jubilee Edition of the Bible for making "important connections between the Bible and the black religious experience." But the essays focus primarily on the last 400 years and therefore fail to provide the "whole sweep" of black religious history, he said.
Another new African American edition, of which Felder is co-editor, will cover the same ground but in more depth to show "stunning and important parallels" between ancient Israel and the Nile Valley, he said. The Jubilee Legacy Bible is scheduled for publication next month by the National Baptist Sunday School Board in Nashville.
Turman, the Detroit pastor, said the American Bible Society's Jubilee Bible is part of a renaissance of African American scholarship that extends beyond the boundaries of the black community. He points to the popularity of a new encyclopedia, "Africana," and a recent PBS series, "Wonders of the African World," both supervised by Harvard University's Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Within the realm of religious scholarship, recent books by the Rev. Peter Gomes, the pastor of Harvard's Memorial Church, also have found an audience far beyond the black community.
"This new Bible is a real milestone," Turman said. "I hope we're seeing the beginning of a very exciting conversation in this country about African American religious culture."
Spokesman Fred Allen said the society expects to sell at least 200,000 Jubilee Editions next year and 1 million by 2005. Current editions contain only the Protestant Bible, the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. A Catholic version including 15 extra books known as the Apocrypha may be published in the next few years, he said.
The Jubilee Bible is available in a leather-bound King James Version ($49.95) and paperback and hardcover editions of the Contemporary English Version ($24.95 and $29.95). The society, which produces dozens of specialty Bibles, usually does not sell in bookstores but through a network of churches, direct-mail catalogues, a Web site (www.americanbible.org) and a toll-free number (800-322-4253).
Staff writer Bill Broadway contributed to this report.
CAPTION: "Harriet," a 1975 linocut by Elizabeth Catlett, above, and "Baptism," right, a 1994 oil painting by Anna Belle Lee Washington, are illustrations used in the African American Jubilee Edition of the Bible, which includes articles about African Americans and their Christian heritage.