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 The most authoritative document of Turner's life is the 1831 "Confessions."

 

 
 

 

Nathaniel Turner, the Bible, & the Sword:

A  Reconsideration of the 1831 “Confessions”

 By Rudolph Lewis

 

According to Mary Kemp Davis, author of Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment (1999), the most important problem to resolve in Nat Turner scholarship is “how to write about Turner’s religious awakening.” Two centuries after Turner’s birth, this “problem” is indeed a paradox, especially since an ocean of ink has been spilt in Turner’s name. There have been indeed documents sufficient enough for such an exposition. Most important, we have had the 1831 “Confessions” to contemplate. Certainly within the last thirty years other pertinent materials have been readily accessible in F. Roy Johnson’s collected folklore, Gilbert Francis’ video history of the Rebellion, and Henry Tragle’s collection of letters and documents.

Why is it, then, that we do not have a religious portrait of the prophet of Southampton, which sustains his dignity and integrity? The causes of this problem can be seen as fourfold: 1) a lack of discernment in how to read the folklore and how to interpret the 1831 “Confessions,” 2) the general ignorance of Turner’s religious context, 3) a narrow emphasis on the political and the racial, and 4) strenuous objections to Turner’s theological orientation by both black and white intellectuals.

Far beyond other scholars, F. Roy Johnson and Gilbert Francis possessed a mastery of most of the local stories produced by the Southampton Rebellion. A lifelong  resident of the region, F. Roy Johnson attempted to organize the Turner lore into an overall coherence. Because Johnson lacked a sympathetic objective critical view of Turner’s Christianity, his conclusions with regard to Turner’s intentions align themselves with the traditional racial and political view. Gilbert Francis, a local Southampton historian, and a descendant of local slaveholders, and whose position is supported by the Southampton County Historical Society, sustains, however, a peculiar and ignored view of Turner’s relationship with his first master Benjamin Turner, founder of Turner’s Methodist Church of Cross Keys.

Much of the so-called Turner folklore was derived from letters and other commentary printed in Virginia’s pro-slavery papers. Often it has been presented uncritically as factual data. For instance, in his Introduction to the "Ten Black Writers Respond” to Styron, Negro historian John Henrik Clarke uses T.W. Higginson, a Harvard man, as an authoritative source to establish that Turner had a wife. The only contemporary account that Turner had a wife was provided by a local disturbed slaveowner, whose letter was printed in a pro-slavery paper. A child when Turner was hanged, Higginson, whom John Henrik Clarke quotes, concluded Turner had a wife based on this one letter.

That we should have an unquestioning confidence in such a source is unwarranted. Moreover, in his appended remarks, Thomas Gray, to whom the “Confessions” was dictated, also did not testify or report that Turner had wife or children. But Clarke goes farther. He claims that Nat Turner "loved his wife dearly." How anyone can know that as a historic fact is mystifying. One wonders how any scholar can maintain such a romantic view of slavery. The actual facts of slavery present a more lurid picture. Between 1810 and 1860, the Commonwealth of Virginia, with its highly boasted slave breeding and internal slave trade, exported about 10,000 Christian slaves a year to the Deep South, mostly women and children..

In the "Confessions," Turner did not deal with family or provide portraits of family in the manner of Fred Douglass’ 1845 Narrative, clearly an abolitionist document. Turner was silent with respect to wife or child, nor did he express any regret on those grounds in meeting his impending death. Turner dealt with family matters only in how God affected his spiritual life. Moreover, the licentiousness of Christian slaveowners generated an environment which impaired genealogical guarantees. Thus, we have no definite evidence from Turner or science that Turner had any physical progeny. That is not to say, that all these Turners of Southampton, black and white, were unrelated. If they are indeed related to Turner, it is through a white lineage rather than directly from Turner.

Because of Turner’s silence on the matter, I am inclined to the view he had neither "wife" nor children, though he was doubtless a father figure for many Christian slaves. There is, indeed, a great likelihood that Nat Turner, on his return from his “wilderness experience” was forced into a "marriage" by Samuel Turner, his second master and trustee of Turner’s Methodist Church and possibly Nathaniel’s half brother. Turner’s so-called marriage thus provided a shield for Sam Turner’s improprieties. 

To appreciate fully the Christian horror of slavery, we must understand that it had less to do with chains and whippings than with the most intimate moral violations against women, children, and their paternal relationships. In stark contrast, in his habits, most attest, Turner was priestly, in a manner similar to the preachers we find in Francis Asbury’s journals. The primary interests of these itinerant preachers, traveling sometimes 10,000 miles a year by horseback and carriage, did not veer toward wife or children or money, but selfless service to Christ.

Though useful and important, all of this folklore material, from whatever source, must be treated as secondary. The most authoritative document of Turner's life is the 1831 "Confessions." It must be the test for all the folklore concerning Turner’s life. To avoid the obvious implications of Turner’s religious testimony, however, some have raised unwarranted questions about the authenticity of events that Turner related. His otherworldliness is disconcerting. That Turner dictated it to Thomas Gray (a white man and a petty slaveholder) is irrelevant. 

To suggest that Thomas Gray created the religious world contained in the “Confessions” is to speak absurdities. We owe much gratitude to Gray and numerous other white men for saving tons of slave literature. The questioning of the authority of this revelatory text is thus a red herring, expressing an unwillingness to accept Turner’s religious perspective. This obtuseness does not in any manner lessen the “Confessions” as the actual words of Nathaniel Turner. It is a document to which he testified in a Southampton court as his truth.

To know Turner then we must look first and foremost at Turner’s own words than what others say about him. Turner’s basic referent was neither William Garrison nor David Walker. The Bible and its testaments were his foundation. As an adult, his mentors were not New England abolitionists, but the Holy Spirit and Christ, persons who possessed much more reality for him than any Boston social reformer. Despite the biblical illiteracy of today’s generation, the Bible story was our story. The scriptures are the grounding of our major cultural roots, far more so than the political ideologies that have gathered together to call themselves “black” or “African.”

Before modern education and the secularization of America, African Americans were a biblical people. As the ten African-American bishops wrote in their pastoral letter in 1984:

The Bible was not for our ancestors a mere record of the wonderful works of God in a bygone age; it was a present record of what was soon to come. God will lead his people from the bondage of Egypt. God will preserve his children in the midst of the fiery furnace. God’s power will make the dry bones scattered on the plain snap together, and he will breathe life into them. Above all, the birth and death, the suffering and the sorrow, the burial and the resurrection tell how the story will end for all who are faithful, no matter what the present tragedy is (305).

For our ancestors, then, the Christian Bible was not a “superstitious old book.” Such beliefs for them were not viewed as “fanatical.” Rational proofs did not move us as convincingly as revelation, which tended to democratize religious experience and Christian authority.

Thus, for an exegesis of the “Confessions,” one must have a mode or an approach that considers Turner’s religious world as one in which eschatology had greater weight than secular humanism and utopian schemes. Turner was a Christian whose lifelong urge was to come to grips with his own spirituality and his religious mission. But all of this is mere incidental for the racial nationalists, who see Turner merely as a symbolical  counterbalance for the Sambo myth or the myth of the contented slave. But Turner was more. His Christian manliness disarms us. His passion to be an obedient servant, to sacrifice all for Christ, is beyond our secular orientation. Few Christians, then or now, can sustain over a lifetime Turner’s evangelical commitment and conviction.

Those who see him as hero, abolitionist, revolutionary, thus, do not see Turner through his Christian testimony, his own words. The appropriate interpretive approach would require a measured consideration and respect for the religion of Ben Turner and other Cross Keys Methodists. We get some sense of that in the “Confessions,”  in Turner’s emphasis of a “promise” made to him by his fellow religionists. The form that religion took in Turner’s world may account for the numerous “free blacks” in Southampton compared to surrounding counties. 

Contrary to this approach, Vincent Harding, in his “God’s Avenging Scourge,” dismisses the religious consciousness of such persons as Bishop Francis Asbury (1745-1816) as simply “evangelical southern white religion,” as if this stereotype said it all. Harding denigrates unnecessarily the religious experience of Turner’s co-religionists. Turner’s detractors prefer to see him rather through their own imaginings, which, for me, seem greatly off the mark and do Turner an injustice.

Turner attempted to imitate the life of Christ, to take up the yoke required of every apostle. However, his Methodist community moved away from a Pauline form of slavery toward industrial slavery which required the breeding and trading of persons as if they were animals, for the prosperity of the children of Christian slaveholders. In this context, Turner’s revelations moved gradually from auditions to visions. This spiritual movement also coincided with John Wesley's "way to salvation,” "or stages in how to achieve spiritual perfection.” Turner’s life, from birth to death, thus, in a manner, mirrors/resonates in distinct ways the life of Jesus as found in the four gospels. Turner might be more accurately viewed as a Black Christ, void of 19th-century or 20th-century racial nationalism.

My contention that Turner's early 19th-century world must be viewed through an Anglican/Methodist one contrasts greatly with the argument put forth for the last 170 years in lore and professional historical accounts of Turner's life. Without evidence, Turner has been portrayed as a Baptist minister or preacher or exhorter by such historians as U.B. Philips. Philips' view, now the traditional one, has been accepted without question, by respected scholars. But, according to Robert Torbet, the Calvinistic Baptists, who believed in a class of sinners beyond redemption, began their mission to the Negroes a year after Turner’s death in 1832 (26). 

T.W. Higginson, a minister himself, also pointed out that Turner was “never a Baptist preacher.” This labeling of Turner as a Baptist was thus intended as a smear. Generally, for the academic or the enlightened modernist, being Baptist evokes Pentecostal images of great emotionalism unharnessed by reason and Rationalism, a system of thought which may have reduced religious conflict, but, which, however, produced, clarified, and promoted modern racial thought.

According to Gilbert Francis, Benjamin Turner, Nathaniel Turner's first master and possibly his father, and most of the other slaveowners of Cross Keys were Methodists and Turner was trained as a Methodist. Francis also believed that Ben Turner’s Methodist sentiments with regard to slavery were closer to those of the Quakers. In addition, the kind of revelatory experience found in Turner’s “Confessions” can also be found in Jarena Lee’s spiritual autobiography. Both Turner and Jarena Lee were grounded in Methodist teachings of the Holy Spirit, whose salvific efficacy moved one to the head of the spiritual line.

Ignoring Turner’s emphasis on his religious experience, abolitionists, nationalists, and socialists have claimed Turner as their very own. If he was not fully an abolitionist, some allow, he was influenced by them. Thus the “Confessions” is usually classified with abolitionist literature. But a reading of the “Confessions” cannot sustain the argument that Turner was under the spell of New England political or religious ideas, though William Garrison and David Walker have been suggested. The slaveholders and the governor of Virginia made similar arguments. These associations, however, are artful overlay and a denial of the possibility that Turner may have come to his conclusions independently of Northern agitation or other non-religious influences.

Because of his biblical grounding, we are not even certain that Turner was anti-slavery in the general American sense of the term. Turner was no proto-John Brown. If Turner possessed an anti-slavery view, it would be more akin to that which we find in Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Clearly, Turner was against how slavery manifested itself in Cross Keys, especially his own enslavement. But there is no ideological view or argument against slavery as slavery in the “Confessions,” whose mode is primarily narrative. Turner was a Southerner, though a first generation African American. 

Moreover, he was a Virginian, born and raised in a state in which former Christian slaves also owned slaves, including their wives and children. The "Confessions" thus is neither an argument against slavery in general nor an abolitionist document. The orientation of the “1831 Confessions” is religious. Rather than a racial or political document, the “ 1831Confessions" is rather a theodicy, a justification of the holy war against the Christian slaveholders of Cross Keys.

Some black theologians also use Turner’s religion as an ideological support for a "black theology" with an African grounding, rather than a biblical one. For their evidence, they rely on the testimony of pro-slavery advocates or abolitionists like Higginson, who possessed an air of cultural superiority with respect to Christian slaves and believed Turner was a self-made prophet, rather than a true apostle. Contrary to Higginson’s ethnic prejudices, in any strict reading of the “Confessions,” one can find no ethnic thinking in Turner's religious view. Adopting Higginson’s perspective, however, Vincent Harding’s “God’s Avenging Scourge” presents Turner as a theological lightweight, trapped between two contending cultures. As in other black nationalist accounts, Harding presents Turner merely as a victim of political oppression.

With their keen ideological lens, Harding and Mechal Sobel mistakenly see orthodox Christian iconography and Christian practices as "African imagery" or “African traditions.” But they provide no proof or evidence for such racial assertions. In this regard, Turner asserted he had nothing to do with conjure and such things, which must be read as his forthright denial of a tribal West African connection in his religion. A more disinterested critique of Turner’s religiosity avoids this "proto-nationalist" overlay. There is no sufficient reason to view Turner as less pure a Christian as St. Cyprian of Carthage or Father Cyprian of Nigeria or St. Onesimus of Ephesus. Like these holy men, Turner did not formulate his Christianity with race or ethnicity as a determining factor.

Much of what has been written about Nathaniel Turner is thus fictional nonsense, an opportunity to fudge historical data and manipulate folklore for ideological purposes disconnected from Turner’s own reality. For such detractors, Turner threatens their Christianity or their Christian commitment, or their lack thereof. These black theologians, like the pro-slavery advocates and the abolitionists, want to make Turner into some kind of mad man—a “scourge” Harding calls him, instead of an obedient servant of Christ. The fault is in their theology; or maybe their ideology has become their theology. They can not (they do not) believe that Turner received a revelation from Christ to slaughter the slaveholders of Cross Keys; they do not believe (they fear to believe) that Turner wrought a miracle with the help of the Holy Spirit to save the life of a tormented white man.

They do not have that type of Christianity, that kind of love. They do not have, for better or worse, that kind of faith. Because they do not have it, they want to suggest that Turner, a Virginia backwoods Christian slave, did not have it either. Turner and other Christian slaves, however, sustained and sincerely believed, God calls whom he wills. The implication of Turner’s detractors, however, is that Turner’s account of his spiritual experiences is not to be taken as that of a serious Christian, one fully in his right mind—for them, he is a “fanatic.” 

For these scholars, he is not a Christian martyr, though that is indeed how Turner characterized himself. For his detractors, however, his revelations are hallucinations invoked by the horrors of oppression. So they make him out to be a buffoon, a babbling, bumbling idiot, a man made mad by circumstances. For them, he was all natural impulse, rather than one who knew what he was about. They create, thus, fictional or mythic images or self-portraits, rather than recreate the Turner of the "Confessions."  In effect, his detractors intend to silence him.

The slaughter of Christian slaveowners flowed, not from a political ideology, but from the Wesleyan notion of spiritual perfection and Turner’s obedience to Christ. Turner was not a mass murderer, not in today's terms, for whom we must make personal or ideological apologies. His violence was religiously sanctioned, commanded by Christ, directed not at all whites, but rather at a Christian slaveholding class. Turner was part of an age that truly believed in God and God in history in the sense that the apostles of the first-century Roman world.

Though these first-century apostles were cautioned to be unassuming, to assume that Christ would condone such an attitude in all situations and all circumstances proscribes God. The conditions of Cross Keys were much more severe in their religious debasement of humanity than at the time of the writing of the gospels. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, slavery was mild during the early Roman era. 

Thus Paul’s near-ethical silence on the question of slavery is understandable. But the inverse was true for Turner’s Christian community. In Cross Keys, the Christian slave was “clearly prevented by his actual situation as a slave from living as a Christian” (289).  

What Turner and his fellow servants endured went beyond the slavery arguments and extended itself into the moral bounds of the  proper conduct among Christians. Turner believed that God, through Christ, avenged himself in the world, not because of slavery, but because of the abominations induced by the form that slavery took in Cross Keys. 

For Turner, Christian slaveholders standing between God and members of his church, that is, Christian slaves, was a greater spiritual crime than the institution of slavery as slavery. In short, Turner was a defender of the faith. His emblems were the same as St. Paul’s—the Bible and the sword.  Behind the veneer of praise, most black theologians are uneasy with Turner and his justification for the slaughter of 55 men, women, and children. Nevertheless, Nathaniel Turner and his Christian followers put us to shame, by the fullness of their convictions, by their willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of justice and righteousness.

Yet Turner and his Christian followers, our ancestors, have been placed outside the pale of “true” Christianity. Our image of Turner as an agent of violence runs against our proscribed image of Christ as merely the god of love.

In that our minds have been trained to see only Turner’s “blackness,” his violence poses the possibility that each black man may be a Nat Turner in disguise. But Turner took an ethical stance, rather than a racial or political one. “Blackness,” for Turner, was indeed a religious issue, but only in the context of the evil in one’s heart. The prevailing racial view promoted by his enemies and his so-called friends has thus distorted and denigrated Turner’s life. This traditional view of Turner, a pivotal figure in our religious and literary history, must be supplemented if we are to fulfill our scholarly calling as seekers of the truth.

Sources Consulted

Andrews, William L., ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of

the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Aptheker, Herbert. Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion. New York: Grove Press, 1966.

Asante, Molefi Kete. “The Real Nat Turner.” Emerge, March 2000.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. New York: MacMillan Company, 1962.

Bowden, Henry Warner. Dictionary of American Religious Biography. Westport,

 Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977

Clark, Elmer T. The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury: In Three Volumes. Nashville:  

            Abingdon Press, 1958.

Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.

Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

Foner, Eric. Nat Turner. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.

Francis, Gilbert and Katherine Futrell. Nat Turner Insurrection—1831. Southampton

County Living Library, 4 tapes.

Gremillion, Joseph. The Church and Culture since Vatican II. Notre Dame, Indiana:

University of Notre Dame, 1985.

Gross, Seymour and Eileen Bender. “History, Politics, and Literature: The Myth of Nat

Turner.” American Quarterly, Vol. 23 (October 1971), pp. 487-518.

Harding, Vincent. “God’s Avenging Scourge.” Christianity Today, Spring (1999), XVIII,

2, p. 28.

Holland, Sharon P. “Nat Turner before the Bar of Judgment: Fictional Treatments of the

Southampton Slave Insurrection.” Book Review. American Literature 72.1 (2000)

191-192.

Johnson. F. Roy. The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection. Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson

Publishing, 1966.

Ogbona, Jeffrey. “Prophet Nat and God’s Children of Darkness: Black Religious

Nationalism.” Journal of Religious Thought, V. 53/54 (1997), p. 51.

Philips, U.B. American Negro Slavery. New York:: D. Appleton and Company, 1918.

Sernett, Milton C., ed. “Religion and Slave Insurrection” in African American Religious

History edited by Milton C. Sernett. Durham: Duke University, 1985.

Sobel, Mechal. Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith. Princeton, N.J.:

Princeton University Press, 1988.

Torbet, Robert G. The Baptist Story. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1964.

Tragle,  Henry Irving. The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1931: A Compilation of Source

Material. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.

Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religions and Black Radicalism. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and   

           Company, 1972.

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Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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Zippety Doo Dah, Zippety-Ay: How Satisfactch'll Is Education Today? Toward a New Song of the South

Dr. Joyce E. King on Black Education and New Paradigms

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The State of African Education (April 200)

Attack On Africans Writing Their Own History Part 1 of 7

Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.

Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.

Part 2 of 7  /  Part 3 of 7  / Part 4 of 7  / Part 5 of 7 / Part 6 of 7  /  Part 7 of 7

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Basil Davidson's  "Africa Series"

 Different But Equal  /  Mastering A Continent  /  Caravans of Gold  / The King and the City / The Bible and The Gun

West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850

By Basil Davidson

African Slave Trade: Precolonial History, 1450-1850

By Basil DavidsonJ

ohn Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Ratification

The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 1 November 2007

 

 

 

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