Turner, the Bible, & the Sword:
Reconsideration of the 1831 “Confessions”
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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
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.
Andrews, William L., ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of
the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Herbert. Nat Turner’s
Slave Rebellion. New York: Grove Press, 1966.
Molefi Kete. “The Real Nat Turner.” Emerge,
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.
Clarke, John Henrik, ed. William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.
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:
of Notre Dame, 1985.
Gross, Seymour and Eileen Bender. “History,
Politics, and Literature: The Myth of Nat
American Quarterly, Vol.
23 (October 1971), pp. 487-518.
Harding, Vincent. “God’s Avenging Scourge.” Christianity
Today, Spring (1999), XVIII,
Holland, Sharon P. “Nat Turner before the Bar of
Judgment: Fictional Treatments of the
Slave Insurrection.” Book Review. American
Literature 72.1 (2000)
Johnson. F. Roy. The
Nat Turner Slave Insurrection. Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson
Ogbona, Jeffrey. “Prophet Nat and God’s Children
of Darkness: Black Religious
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
History edited by Milton C. Sernett. Durham: Duke University, 1985.
Sobel, Mechal. Trabelin’
On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith. Princeton,
University Press, 1988.
Torbet, Robert G. The Baptist Story. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1964.
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
* * *
Martyrdom in Southampton
Theology of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
* * * *
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
* * * *
The State of African Education
Attack On Africans Writing Their Own History Part 1 of 7
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
3 of 7 /
Part 4 of 7
Part 5 of 7 /
Part 6 of 7 /
Part 7 of 7
* * * *
Basil Davidson's "Africa Series"
But Equal /
Mastering A Continent /
of Gold /
The King and the City /
The Bible and The Gun
West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A
History to 1850
African Slave Trade: Precolonial History,
By Basil DavidsonJ
ohn Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk
* * * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous
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
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
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,
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.
* * *
The People Debate the Constitution,
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
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updated 1 November 2007