A Defeat Sweeter than Victory
If you deny us your [Methodist] name, you cannot seal up
the Scriptures from us, and deny us a name in heaven.
Richard Allen, 1760-1831 AME Church founder
Nathaniel Turnerís influence might have ended at the gallows if
he had not managed to bring about the publication of his
"Confessions." In this spiritual testament, Turner cast his essential
self and spirit into words that must be read in religious and theological terms. Turner was not
given a full opportunity to present his life, reasoning, and spiritual
influences. The law for Christian slaves limited his freedom of speech was. Turner was not fortunate as John Brown.
Virginia gave Brown a month between sentencing and execution and allowed him pen
and paper to write letters.
Turner was not allotted free correspondence to
provide in detail his life and sentiment and all that happened in Cross Keys.
And his relationship with God and man, beyond the seeming. But Turner gave us enough, if we read skillfully in addition the folklore and the
religious context of Cross Keys. However, we have not taken good advantage of that
which he left behind. Race and race-thinking have so
dominated the discussion of Turnerís life and his holy war so much so that the public
has not been able to get a true grasp of Turnerís religious issues and
Turner symbolically stripped the "Confessions" down
to the essentials for the sake of expediency and to assure publication of his
Testament. It thus became necessary to provide background to flesh out the world
of Turnerís birth and youth and his religious consciousness. Much of this
material is found in folklore and letters to Virginia papers.
The works of
Gilbert Francis, F. Roy Johnson, and Henry Irving Tragle, in a manner, provide
the corpus of Turnerís life. These tales, however, must be critically examined
to get at the truths they convey. Here are some "facts" gleaned from
the folklore and letters to the Virginia papers.
1) Turnerís first master, Benjamin Turner, was his
father; Nancy, his birth mother, was raped immediately after purchase. 2)
Turnerís grandmother and grandfather, Harriet and Tom, were his
"parents" and his first spiritual guides. 3) Like his white
father, Nathaniel Turner was heavily influenced by Methodist doctrine. That is,
Turner was not a Baptist, as has been claimed by most historians. 4) Turner
had three masters within a period of eight years. 5) Turner was thoroughly
versed in the Christian bible and biblical exegesis. 6) Turner did not make
war on all whites, which included the white Turners; and 7) Turner planned
his capture and martyrdom. 8) Fearing Turner would be viewed as a Christ
figure, Southampton slaveholders desecrated his body.
Many of these truths have never been put together in a
systematic reading to provide a full portrait of Turnerís religiosity. Turnerís
detractors have been overly influential.
A careful reading of the "Confessions" and
Methodist history in Virginia reveals that Turner, during his childhood,
underwent a form of slavery modified by Methodist principles. If his religiosity
was earnest as Gilbert Francis suggested, Ben Turner tried to develop a Pauline
view of slavery in Cross Keys. In such a religious perspective, slavery was
viewed as a moral and spiritual test for both slave and slaveholder. These
Methodists held out freedom for the slave. After Ben Turnerís death, spiritual
matters worsened for Christian slaves in Cross Keys.
Historically, after 1810,
there was a downturn in Virginiaís economy and slaveholders began to sell
their slaves into the deep South. Slave trading and slave breeding became the
major industry in many sectors. Nathaniel Turner, nevertheless, attempted to hold Sam
Turner, Ben Turnerís son, to the promise of freedom made to him when he was a
child. Nathaniel Turner was ignored. These Christian slaveholders created a dual
religion: a Christianity for slaveholders and one for slaves. All these matters
created a moral and spiritual crisis in Cross Keys that led to a holy war.
Though many have argued the contrary, Turnerís war did no
dishonor to himself or orthodox Christianity. Like other Methodists, Turnerís
religion was not based singly on the New Testament but the entire Christian
bible. In both testaments, nevertheless, injustice and evil, at least, in the
end time, are reined in by divine violence. Thus, with the scriptures, Turnerís
war can be justified and be viewed as ethical and high-minded.
did not use such a justification, directly. This theological view of the use of
violence, however, is not held by all. For instance, in his World Justice
article entitled "A Critical Analysis of the Notion of a Just War,"
Rene Coste concludes that "for Jesus Christ, non-violence was the general
rule of behavior, both on the collective and on the individual plane" (Coste,
p. 293). Turnerís visions revealed that Christ makes exceptions: all
things are not forgivable or reconcilable by acts of fraternity and humility.
According to Coste, a reading of Matthew "provides us
with a dynamic idealówe might say a commandóof non-violence" ("A
Critical Analysis," p. 293). Jesus presented himself as "gentle and
humble-hearted (11.29). In the Sermon on the
Mount, Jesus condemned the old law
of retaliation. Jesus says, "If someone slaps you on the right, turn and
offer your left" (5.38-39). And again in Matthew, Jesus says, "All who
take the sword die by the sword" (26.52). Such a reading of Matthew is
just, if considered conditional.
Collective violence such as African slavery in America, the
Jewish holocaust, and other acts such ethnic and political cleansing, must be counted as
exceptions to the rule. That we should stand silently and do nothing in the face
of collective violence is unreasonable and unnatural. We have seen too many mass
murders and holocausts to conclude that we should meet these occasions by
turning the other cheek.
At least a measure of violence is necessary to bring to
an end the extermination of people merely on the basis of some external marking.
Coste also would encourage "legitimate defence . . . in very strictly
defined conditions . . . excluding all vengeance and hatred" ("A
Critical Analysis," pp. 293-294). On these bases was Turnerís war just
from a Christian ethical view.
The memory of Turner among the people of Southampton
continued long after Turnerís death in folklore and fireside stories. The
machinations of slaveholders and their sympathizers, inside or outside of the
South, failed to defuse the explosive aspects of Nathanoel Turnerís righteousness.
According to Johnson, "After the 1831 Southampton County massacre the
people of this and neighboring counties were especially apprehensive upon the
arrival of each Augustóthe time of unrest and the time of insurrection."
Hearing reports of uprisings, whites and their "trusted Negroes rushed to
swamps, where they remained until the scare was over." These fearful
people, Johnson concluded, were thought "to have developed ĎAugust
madnessí" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 181).
"August madness" was an unfortunate yet necessary
outcome of Turnerís apostleship. From their racial fantasy, slaveholders would not be awakened,
except by violence. Turnerís ultimate desire was a world of righteous
men, who lived beyond the superficial restraints of tradition, race, color, and
geographic origin. He invoked an American religious spirit, that is, egalitarian
and structured, governed by the just. This was the world Jesus taught
in his notion of the "kingdom of heaven."
In his religious struggle
against the slaveholders of Cross Keys, Turner experienced that first-century
religious consciousness. As an apostle of the gospel, he attempted to revive the
original intent and spirit of Jesusí teachings and that of the New Testament.
Christian slaves in Cross Keys responded to his message. That message was
swamped by the propaganda of both abolitionists and pro-slavery sympathizers.
Turnerís detractors have placed too much emphasis on the
material conditions of slavery, rather than its day-to-day religious reality.
Turnerís Methodist Church of Cross Keys became strictly a congregation of
slaveholders. The Elders of the church, after the death of Benjamin Turner, set
up and refused to modify their policy of separation and oppression, but extended
it beyond reason or accommodation. The Elders of the Church rejected Wesley and
They rejected the Pauline view of slavery. This new generation of
Methodists of Cross Keys promoted and sustained slave trading and slave breeding
of Christian children, and other abominations that undermined Christian morality
and community. The abuse of children and the rape of women, the sins of
Christian slaveholders were as plain as day, in the faces of the children of
Christian slaves. The most responsible slaveowners kept their silence, tolerated no argument to the contrary.
The Cross Keys Methodists wanted absolute control over the
lives of their Christian slaves. For Christian slaves conscious of the
importance of a personal relationship of man and God, the satanic tyranny of
Cross Keys slaveholders went too far. They locked their Christian slaves and
freemen into an intolerable situation They refused to accommodate fellow human
beings within the universality of the Christian spirit. This was the central
conflict that Turner conveyed in the "Confessions," which was indeed
the central tension in the Christian gospels.
Christian slaves resorted to righteous violence to set
matters right. Such wars are never desirable or preferable. They occur as a
necessity and grudgingly. However peaceful and well-meaning a people are, they
can be goaded into violence. My view, however, is not the environmentalism of
New England abolitionists nor that of Aptheker and the Marxists.
conditions did not determine the Rebellion. From Turnerís perspective, it is
the moral implications of those material conditions that led Christ "to lay
down the yoke." The source of the war on Christian slaveholders rose out of
a great faith in Godís righteousness and a willingness to sacrifice all in
obedience to Godís command.
Turner was morally indignant toward and disillusioned with
the Christian leaders and Christian teachings of Turnerís Methodist Church.
But even that was not Turnerís justification. Turner said that Christ, he who
sat at the right hand of God, directed him to kill men, women, and children who
were slaveholders in Cross Keys. The slaughter was not for Turnerís
indignation nor for his "disillusionment." Turnerís prophetic claim,
however, has never been accepted.
This "madness" of prophecy is a norm
and universal. That is, that God speaks through man to other persons (Overholt,
p. 168). This fact is put forth not as an excuse or an apology for Turner. When
his life is reported, however, it should be placed in its proper religious and
moral context. Unavoidably, the problem returns to racialism: the difficulty of
viewing a Christian slave in America as Godís voice.
Turner was not only a symbol of fear and dread, of Godís
wrath. He was and continues to be also a symbol of hope and Christian manhood.
His inspirational influence has extended beyond Cross Keys. In his 1845 Narrative,
Frederick Douglass, a Delmarva Methodist, studied religion in his youth.
Ordained a minister, Douglass recalled hearing of Nathaniel Turner in his childhood.
For the young Douglass, Turner was a marker in his determined search for
righteous manhood and Turnerís influence, I suspect, first led him toward the
ministry. Though he became an enlightened intellectual, Douglass retained a
faith that God did operate in history in establishing that which was just.
During the Civil War, in encouraging the Colored Soldiers of the Union Army,
Douglass again evoked the name of Nathaniel Turner, in this instance, as a symbol of
courage, devotion, and sacrifice.
During the black consciousness movement of the late 1960s,
Nathaniel Turner again surged into the national consciousness to inspire many young
militants and revolutionaries. Herbert Apthekerís Nat Turnerís Rebellion
(1966) was one of the central texts that supported the new militancy. It lay
beside Fanonís Wretched of the Earth as one of the key black texts
thought necessary to establish the full actuality of black manhood and to bring
forth radical racial change in America.
After publication of William Styronís
novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, white and black intellectuals fought
again over what was the significance and meaning of Nat Turner and his
Rebellion. All believed they knew the real Nathaniel Turner. They quibbled over
fables and inaccuracies. Each wanted to use Turner as his own blood-stained
In the 200th year of his birth, black
intellectuals are again revisiting the life and "Confessions" of Nathaniel
Turner, that enigmatic radical figure of American letters. We hope that this
exposition will contribute to clarifying some of the mistaken aspects of Turnerís
life. His critical response to Christian oppression still unmans us.
Contemporary Christianity pales besides his utmost commitment, faith, and
obedience to God.
Like Abraham, Nathaniel Turner may yet have much to instruct us with
regard to faith and the suspension of the ethical norm. I have portrayed Turner
as honestly and fairly and thoroughly as information and reason would allow.
This interpretation encourages a Turner criticism that regards with the utmost
seriousness the religious world that created Turner and the one to which he
responded as a Christian slave.
Hopefully, this portrait will not be the final word on Nat
Turner and his significance as an American Christian. Turner yet may have
something to say with respect to an American Christian theology. Certainly he
remains an untapped resource for "African-American theology." For many
black theologians believe, as Albert B. Cleage, Jr. wrote in 1972, "We must
free the Black church from slave Christianity" (Black Christian
Nationalism, p. 175).
If this severance is indeed what has occurred in the
last forty years, the black church may have thus faltered. The implied argument
of this exposition of Turnerís life is that Turner and his fellow Christian
slaves in Cross Keys attempted indeed to call back "the original teachings
of Jesus." The black church seems only rarely willing to undergo the Cabin
Pond experience, as in the martyrdom of Martin King.
We applaud any
further interest and efforts to explicate Turnerís Christian views. My sincere
hope is that this appreciation of Turnerís religious life, is worthy of his
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update 28 June 2008