Christian Martyrdom in Southampton
of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
Scholars, Theologians & Other Commentators
Turner of Southampton
Below are comments culled from a number of
works on black religion and black activism in America. All in
some way attempt to situate and characterize the life and
career of Nathaniel Turner. Though important in their varied
perspectives, all fall short of rendering a full integral
portrait of Nathaniel, the prophet and holy man of Southampton.
These comments below tend to tell us more about the writer than
the inward religious life of Nathaniel Turner. More often than
not these comments are contradictory or mistaken in an accurate
Moreover, these evaluations also fall short
of insightful theological investigation for they do not place
Turner truly in the crux of the salvation history of African
Americans. These comments do not really "feel" Turner.
The authors are unable to enter the religious life and
perspectives of African-Americans of the era, as they are unable
to enter the religious life of the authors of the Spirituals.
And when they attempt to do so they fall into a mindless
romanticism or worse they import Africanisms as a means of
translating the religious experience of 18th and early 19th
black Christian slaves.
In short, these commentators do not relate
Turner's intellectual response to his social and religious
reality nor speculate on the pressing questions he more than
likely put to the dominating book of his time, namely, the
Christian Bible, and how it spoke or did not speak to the dire
situation of Christian slaves in southeastern Virginia. A prime
example of my criticism of the treatment of Turner can be found
in W.E.B. DuBois' "Toussaint
L'Ouverture & Nat Turner"
(chapter 9 Negro
Most of the commentators below
look at Turner as an object of contemplation and reflection -- a
poor benighted slave, noble in intent but, on the whole,
ignorant theology, really, a "crazy nigger" with
little of an intellectual or theological nature to say to us.
They look at Turner, for the most part, through the eyes of
white academia (or with the eyes of white academia looking over
their shoulders) and its rules of certainty and scientific
logic. Turner is thus reduced to a specimen of rebellion, to be
taken apart, diced into tiny pieces for closer observation.
These commentators below are
by and large black intellectuals. Mechal Sobel, I believe, is
the exception; but also, Rosemary Reuther, who, however, is more
reserved in her views of Turner than any of the other
commentators. Yet from an African-American perspective much of
it is an unfavorable species of wild speculations which run
after every fad of the time. In the minds of some, Turner is an
abolitionist; in others, he is a mad man; still others, see him
as mere body responding to Walker and Garrison; for others
still, he is a black political revolutionary. For most, Turner
is a black man who gave all in the struggle against American
slavery, his actions evidence of the wretchedness of the slave
system and symbolical of the manliness of black
Despite the shortcomings of
the Turner commentators below and their attempts to sabotage
Turner's Christian martyrdom, these accounts are indeed useful
for Turner scholarship. For these accounts need to be placed in
a more critical context. I place them before those unable to
gather such research; without such information, it is difficult
to have an informed discussion, to know just what is the problem
in Turner scholarship -- to know what is at the stake.
Readers may also note that in
my writings of Turner I use Turner's full name
"Nathaniel," rather than the abbreviated nickname
"Nat," which I believe was just another means of
belittling or making small of a black man who was a very
serious minded individual, in essence, a holy man. To appreciate
him fully and in his integrity, I encourage the use of his full
name, specifically, the first name, which carries biblical
meaning and significance.
The commentators will be
presented in alphabetical order. I have summarized some of the
comments and in places I have added by my own reactions to the
writers comments on Turner. For a fuller exposition of my own
view of Turner I direct readers to my manuscript Nathaniel
Turner: Christian Martyrdom in Southampton.
Nathaniel Turner Commentaries
Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America,
1619-1962. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company,
(At the time of the
writing, Bennett was history editor for Ebony magazine.)
"A mystic with blood on his mind, a
preacher with vengeance on his lips, a dreamer, a fanatic, a
terrorist, Nat Turner was a fantastic mixture of gentleness,
ruthlessness and piety, of middling stature, black in color, in
demeanor commanding and bold, Nat was five feet, six inches
tall, a little dumpy perhaps, running to fat around the middle,
with a mustache and a little tuft of hair on his chin" (p.
"With maturity and increasing
recognition came understanding, Nat became convinced that he was
destined to lead his people out of bondage. Like Gabriel, like
Denmark Vesey, he found food for insurrection in the bible. He
immersed himself in religion; he even prayed at the plow. He saw
visions and heard voices. One day he had an unusual vision; he
saw black and white spirits wrestling in the sky, the sun grew
dark and blood gushed forth in streams.
"Ordinary things appeared to the
mystical slave in a strange light. While plowing the field, he
saw drops of blood on the corn. on the leaves in the woods, he
found hieroglyphic characters and numbers. he concluded that the
day of judgment for slaveholders was nigh" (p. 119)
"On November 11, the dark buddha-bellied
man call The Prophet dangled from the end of a rope in a town
called Jerusalem. Author W.S. Dreary said Nat prophesied that it
would grow dark and rain after his execution. 'It did actually
rain.' Drewry wrote, 'and there was for some time a dry spell.
This alarmed many whites as well as Negroes'." (p. 125)
A Commentary on Bennett's
"Nat Turner": Though Bennett's comments are
well-written and hint at the complexity of Nathaniel's
character, they nevertheless misrepresent and fall short of an
actual representation of Turner's character. Such phrases as
" a mystic with blood on his mind,"
"fanatic," "fantastic," and "vengeance
on his lips" have little or nothing to do with the Turner
found in the 1831 "Confessions." Here, we have an
imposition. Bennett's portrait of Turner does not differ from
one that would be presented by a slaveholder of 1831 or anyone
who wanted to present had a demeaning view of Turner.
Bennett does not present
certain facts. It is not clear whether Turner was
"black" in complexion. The wanted poster described him
as "yellowish" in complexion. That Turner had a "buddha"
belly at his hanging after 70 days in the wilderness seems
highly unlikely. That Turner found "food for insurrection
in the bible" like Vesey and Prosser is not historically
accurate. Turner is very much unlike Prosser and Vesey in his
motivation for revolt.
Bennett fails to explore the
symbolism in Turner's religious imagery and fails to question
how a backwoods Christian slave would have knowledge of
hieroglyphic letters and numbers. In short the portrait we find
in Bennett is superficial and borders on minstrelsy.
* * *
Slave leader's Bible
given to museum—18
a century, the descendants of one of Virginia's oldest
families have kept a Bible that connected them to Nat
Turner, the slave who led the bloodiest slave revolt in
American history. Maurice Person, a descendant of people who
were killed during the Turner rebellion, and his
stepdaughter, Wendy Porter, decided to give the small Bible
to the National Museum of African American History and
Culture."It didn't have the home it deserved. It needed to
be in a place where it could be seen," Porter said.
Members of Person's
family and the Francis family were among the estimated 55
white Virginians killed by Turner and his followers. One of
the family members, Lavinia Francis, was hidden by the
Francises' house slaves. The gift launched an investigation
by museum experts to pinpoint the Bible's origins. They knew
its provenance—kept in the courthouse after Turner's trial
and execution in 1831. When Virginia's Southampton County
Courthouse was being renovated in 1912, an official asked
the Person family whether it wanted Turner's Bible. Person's
father, Walter, accepted the book and displayed it on the
family piano for many years. Later, the family put it in a
safe-deposit box. . . .
Even with the ownership clear, the museum did its
due diligence. A photograph of the Bible, identified as
Turner's, was taken in 1900 and is part of the archives at
the University of Virginia. An affidavit in 1969 by Harriet
E. Francis, a descendant of Lavinia Francis, is also part of
the university archives.
Nora Lockshin, a paper conservator for the
Smithsonian Institution Archives, examined the
paper, leather, ink and arrangement of the pages.
The book, which is a little larger than pocket-size,
is missing both covers, part of its spine and one
chapter. Its pages are yellowed, and there are
watermarks and mold. Because of its age, it cannot
be opened flat. "The paper is in good shape, and it
is a good, strong rag paper," Lockshin said. She
enhanced the 1900 photograph, matching the page in
the photo to a page in the book. "It matched the
pattern of stains." With the Turner Bible, Bunch
said, the museum will tell many stories about the
resistance to slavery and the compassion of slaves.—NewsLeader
* * *
James H. Cone.
For My People, Black Theology and the
Black Church: Where Have We Been and Where We Are Going.
Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984.
is Charles Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology
at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.)
"It was Nat Turner [and
others] . . . who helped young radical preachers articulate a
black version of the gospel" (p. 60).
According to Cone, black
"cultural nationalists" and "revolutionary
nationalists" of the 1960s and 1970s viewed Turner as their
"saint" (p. 46)
A Black Theology of Liberation . Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books,
"For the pre-Civil War
black church, salvation involved more than longing for the next
life. being saved was also a present reality that placed persons
in a dimension of freedom so that earthly injustice became
intolerable.Tthat was why Nat Turner, a Baptist preacher, had
visions of God that involved his own election to be the
the Moses of his people, leading it from the house of
bondage" (p. 127)
"Black Power is Nat
Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser planning a slave
revolt" (p. 26).
Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of
Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
"after 1831, over two
thousand slaves escaped yearly (p. 19) [see Miles Fisher, Negro
Slave Songs in the United States. New York: Citadel Press, 1953;
references to Turner can be found on pages 27-28; 66-67; 108;
"Must every black take
Nat Turner's option in order to affirm his humanity? I do not
think so." (p. 128)
A Commentary on James H.
Cone's "Nat Turner": Cone's remarks are dated by
the black consciousness movement of the 1960s and the 1970s in
which he and others used Nathaniel as a political icon or tool
for ideological perspectives that had little or nothing to do
with Turner or his times. There is no evidence that Turner was a
black "cultural nationalist" or "revolutionary
nationalist" and surely there is nothing in Turner's 1831
"Confessions" that can be read as an argument for
"Black Power." All these interpretations are
impositions or readings that have more to do with the
individuals of the 20th century who have gone through over a
century of Jim Crow and racial oppression of the most insidious
The most theological statement
about Nathaniel made by Cone come in his
A Black Theology of Liberation (1997) in which he raises the question of the
meaning of "salvation" for Turner and others of his
time. But Cone ignores statements made in the "Confessions" and
immediately assume that Turner had an Old Testament orientation
-- Turner is characterized as a Moses. But Turner never mentions
Moses nor even quotes from the Old Testament. Nathaniel however
quotes from the gospels, Luke specifically and references
Matthew and John, but also the Acts of the Apostles (with
respect to his emphasis on the Holy Spirit) and probably also
Worst, Cone does not have his
facts correct. There is no historical evidence nor in the
"Confessions" that demonstrate that Turner was a
"Baptist preacher." Such a characterization devalues
Turner. All evidence points to Turner being trained as a
Methodist, like Cone himself. And moreover, Turner is much more
than a mere preacher, he was a holy man, a Christian prophet, as
much so as was Paul and Peter of the New Testament. At least,
that is how he seems to characterize himself, with his emphasis
on the Christ.
* * *
Noel Leo Erskine.
King Among the Theologians.
Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1995
(Erskine is associate
professor of theology and ethics, Candler School of Theology,
Emory University. This writer is also author of
'The philosophy of Black Power
has its roots in the teaching of Black Church leaders such as
Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Bishop McNeil Turner, and Marcus
Garvey" (p. 84).
"Other Black Church
leaders such as Nat Turner provided a theological baseline for
Cone's explication of an ecclesiology that accommodated Black
Power" (p. 93).
A Commentary on Erskine's
"Nat Turner": Erskine seems to have been
exceedingly and not very creditably influenced by James H.
Cone's writings on Nathaniel Turner. Ecclesiology is indeed a
subject that is found in the "Confessions."
Nathaniel's argument is not, however, toward a "black
church." One can argue more reasonably that the conflict in
Cross Keys centered on the trustees' rejection of Nathaniel's
petition to become a member of Turner's Methodist Church. That
is, Nathaniel believed that the white religionists stood between
God and his people. He may have settled for a black
congregation, but we must keep in mind that he also reached out
to whites, specifically, Brantley (the slave driver) and brought
him to Christ and baptized him.
These ecclesiological acts all
appear in the 1831 "Confessions" and neither Cone nor
his disciple Erskine responds to them.
* * *
James H. Evans, Jr.
We Have Been Believers: An African
American Systematic Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press,
(Evans is president and
Robert K. Davies, Professor of Systematic Theology at Colgate
Rochester Divinity School, Crozer Theological Seminary)
". . . the messianic
revolutionary, manifested in the angry Jesus driving the money
changers out of the temple, was the backdrop to the interpretation
of the significance of the revolt of Nat Turner" (p. 82).
"The Mosaic liberator,
manifested in the resolute standing over against the political
forces of his day, was the backdrop to the interpretations of the
significance of the exploits of Harriet Tubman" (p. 83).
A Commentary on James H.
Evans, Jr.'s "Nat Turner": The ecclesiological
argument suggested by Evans is worth exploring. But he does not
elaborate. He leaves us hanging. The money changers are indeed
suggestive of Cross Keys slaveholders who were trustees and elders
of Turner's Methodist Church and who were in addition involved in
slave breeding and slave trading, violating all kinds of moral and
ethical laws in contradiction to the Christian spirit. Also,
Evans, however, does not undertake to come to grips with
Nathaniel's revelatory experience. That is, Turner, contrary to
Evans and others, does not make use of an interpretive mode that
argues metaphorically from biblical figures (Christ or Moses) to
the present or present acts. Clearly, Turner argues that his
actions were motivated by divine revelatory experiences. When we
deny his own words, we deny the reality of his own religious
* * *
Curtis W. Freeman, James William McClendon, Jr., C. Rosalee
Velloso da Silva.
Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology
of a Christian People. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1999.
Freeman is professor in the Department of Christianity and
philosophy at Houston Baptist University in Texas; James Wm.
McClendon, Jr. is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Fuller
theological Seminary in Pasadena, California; C. Rosalee Velloso
da Silva is a graduate student at Duke university in Durham, North
Carolina, where she is studying Theological Ethics.)
"Crazed killer or legendary
hero? What is often lost in the denigration and celebration of Nat
Turner (1800-1831) is the supremely religious character of the man
who inspired the slave rebellion of 1831 in Southampton County,
Virginia. . . . As he searched the scriptures, Nat discovered that
proslavery preachers had overlooked warrants against enslavement
(e.g. Exodus 21. 16; Deuteronomy 24:7). Although he was never
officially received into or ordained by any organized church, Nat
Turner identified himself as a Baptist preacher. In 1827 he
baptized himself and a notorious white sinner in the water of
Person's Mill Pond. . . . Turner and his followers marched toward
Jerusalem. . . . 'to slay utterly old and young, both maids, and
little children, and women' (Ezekiel 9:6). This was the same
biblical text cited by the militant Anabaptists at Munster three
centuries earlier. . . . Along with Anne Hutchinson, Turner
contributes to the mystical and prophetic streams of Baptist
theology, though he joined many others in rejecting
nonviolence" (p. 241).
A Commentary on Curtis W.
Freeman, James William McClendon, Jr., C. Rosalee Velloso da
Silva's "Nat Turner": These three writers mean
well, especially in their stress of Nathaniel's "supremely
religious character." Desiring to make their argument
biblically based they go too far and thus imposed on Turner what
cannot be sustained by the "Confessions." They fall into
the old stereotyped view that Nathaniel is somehow to be
classified and grouped with Old Testament prophets (e.g. Ezekiel) or
related to Mosaic texts (Exodus and Deuteronomy). In trying to
establish this biblical argument, they assume that Nathaniel made
use of such passages as motivations for his acts. It is indeed a
spurious argument against slavery and a spurious argument for the
slaughter that Turner committed in Cross Keys.
First, the 1831 "Confessions" is
not an anti-slavery document. The enslavement that the document
mentions that troubles him is his own and the grounding of his
resentment about his own enslavement is that he is not suited to
be a slave and goes to some extent to demonstrate it.
Secondly, the biblical passage from
Ezekiel may be helpful in there is biblical precedent for the
kind of slaughter committed by Turner. Yet it does not explain his
selectivity: he and his men killed only those connected to slavery
and Turner's Methodist Church.
Thirdly, these three writers also
again overlook the prime motive Turner provides for his holy war,
namely, a Christian revelation. So the Bible is not his motivation
for war, nor for the mode of killing that Nathaniel used to
justify his acts, his holy work-- it is Christ himself.
These three writers also commit the
logical error of assuming as proof that if an act occurs next to
some object that the act is associated with that object. That is,
Turner used a pond next to a Baptist church and thus he was a
Baptist. That is such nonsense. To drag up Munster and Anne
Hutchinson into the argument is clearly pedantic, which says more
about the writers than it does Turner and his
But we can say that he was a
Methodist in that he preached outside a Methodist church the week
before the revolt. The truth of the matter is that he was raised
in a Methodist community, studied as a Methodist, and sought
membership in a Methodist church. And it was that Methodist church
Turner's, founded doubtless by his slave master/father, that
denied his entrance and his humanity that was at the crux and
rationale for the revolt. We can go further and say all those who
were killed were probably members and leading members of Turner's
Methodist Church. Of course, the exceptions not involved in the
slaughter, though member of the church, were his own blood
relations, that is, the white Turners, descendants of his father,
* * *
Charles V. Hamilton.
Black Preacher in America. New York: William Morrow and
"In 1831, the Reverend Nat
Turner attempted to lead a group of slaves in a violent revolt
against slavery in Virginia" (p. 58)
"Reverend Nat Turner who felt
commanded by God to lead a violent revolt against slavery"
A Commentary on Charles V.
Hamilton's "Nat Turner": In the two quoted statements
above Hamilton says more or less the same thing. The primary
emphasis is on the word "reverend" with a capital
"R." But I suppose we should not be surprised of such a
tactic by the co-writer of the book
Black-Power:The Politics of Liberation writing a
book on the black preacher. But such deference and respect in this
instance seems misplaced. He was not tied to that which became the
"black church." He indeed had ecclesiological arguments. The masses of African-Americans have
always had realistic, reserved, and ambiguous views of the
"black preacher." That is the black preacher is not held
in awe nor is he given the deference of the Catholic priest.
But Turner was more than an
exhorter or a preacher -- he was indeed a holy man, a prophet of
Christ. If we do not speak of him in those terms, we miss what he
meant to the masses of blacks of his era and region -- for they
believe he was a man who truly spoke with God and possessed powers
of no ordinary man or ordinary preacher.
* * *
Harding. "Religion and Resistance Among Antebellum
Slaves, 1800-1860," in
Interpretive Essays in History and Culture. Timothy E. Fulop
and Albert J. Raboteau, editors. New York: Routledge, 1997.
(Vincent Harding is Professor
of Religion and Social Transformation at the Iliff School of
Theology; Timothy Fulop is Assistant Dean of Faculty and Lecturer
in the History of Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary;
Albert J. Raboteau was Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion,
Princeton university, holds Ph.D. from Yale University in
Religious Studies, considered a historian of religion.)
The "central theme of
Turner's Confession" was "a black avenged Messiah, urged
into action by nothing less than the repeated calling of God. Here
was religion and resistance that would not be separated" (p.
"When asked later about
this 'Spirit', the 31-year-old prisoner made it clear that he
stood self-consciously in the prophetic tradition, for he said
that he had been visited by 'The Spirit that spoke to the prophets
in former days'.
"Eventually the young
mystic became fully confirmed in his sense of ordination to some
'great purpose in the hands of the Almighty', and he went through
his own Wilderness experience--thirty days in the forests of
Virginia as a runaway slave. Then the Spirit drove him back for
his great encounter with the future" (p. 116).
Turner "ate a last supper
with some of his followers and went forth to carry out his own
version of the work of Christ, using the weapons of the Old
testament, drenching the ground with blood. for neither age nor
sex was to be spared. And when asked if he thought himself mistake
as he faced execution at the end, Turner's response came fittingly
enough, 'Was not Christ crucified?' To the charge of dastardly
crime, his plea, of course, was 'Not Guilty'." (p. 117).
"Obviously Nat turner was
one of those religiously charismatics who arise in a variety of
settings, from the walls of Munster to the fields of Southampton
County. He was not a 'preacher' in any formal sense of the word,
and evidently belonged to no structured church group. But he was
an 'exhorter', and he clearly convinced his fellow slaves by the
power of his message and the strange sense of his presence that he
was the anointed one of God for their deliverance--a deliverance
for which slaves never ceased to yearn.
"No other explanation will
open the intricacies of Nat Turner. Thus when they were wounded
and waiting to die, it was said of his companions that some of
them 'in the agonies [sic] of death declared that they was going
happy for that God had a hand in what they had been doing. . . .
They still believed that 'Prophet Nat' was sent from God" (p.
"The religion of Nat
Turner, the religion of black rebellion became part of their
tradition" (pp. 117-118).
A Commentary on Vincent
Harding's Nat Turner: Although Vincent Harding has written
often about Nathaniel of Southampton, each successive writing has
not brought him any closer to bringing forth the reality of black
life in the Cross Keys-Jerusalem region of Southampton, Virginia.
His reading of the 1831 "Confessions" too often is a stilted
paraphrasing of Turner's words rather than getting at the gist of
Turner's religious world beneath the text. The truth of the matter
is that like many academics Harding has no heart-felt sympathy for
Turner's Christian slave world and thus, for instance, he resorts
to a loose analogy of a peasant rebellion in 16th century Germany
to that which occurred in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. An
understanding of that class war or its leadership by Thomas Muentzer will not bring us closer to understanding the familial
war that took place in an isolated village of southeast
To appreciate and understand Turner, we must do
so along the lines he sketched out in the 1831 "Confessions." With
his emphasis on a promise unfulfilled, the central theme of his
Confessions seems to be one of disinheritance, rather than as
Harding asserts, "a black avenged Messiah." And it seems
that it was indeed his response, his urge to action, to his
disinheritance that activated his religious consciousness.
Here was a boy, a man, a human being of
extraordinary talents and abilities. His father and master
Benjamin Turner assured him and his "mother" that he
would be freed at twenty-one, for he was one not suited for
slavery, one of such high intelligence. At the death of his
father, his half-brother Samuel inherited the major portion of
Benjamin estate. And Samuel assigned Nathaniel the lowest
jobs on the farm, that of plowboy and field hand. Nathaniel was
not given a chance to exercise his skills or his intelligence and
after years of endurance and patience Nathaniel when he reached
the age of twenty-one, his half-brother Samuel denied him the
freedom he was promised.
Nathaniel's initial act was one of indignation,
then came the threatened punishment (whipping) and then he ran
away. It must have created a sensation -- even more so
in that Samuel Turner was a trustee of Turner's Methodist Church
and probably everyone in that community knew of the familial ties
between Nathaniel and Samuel. And probably some knew of
Benjamin's promise to his son Nathaniel and of Samuel's betrayal,
which, though a secondary theme, is a significant one.
As far as Turner's religion, Harding's use of
such terms as "mystic" and "religious
charismatic" and "exhorter" and "religion of
rebellion" obfuscates rather than bring us closer to Turner's
religious experience. Surely, this kind of language is not that
which is derived from the 1831 "Confessions." This kind of
linguistic plating of Turner's character and actions distorts what any
truly interested party could gather in the meaning or connotation
of such language. The ultimate questions in this regard is whether
one believes in God and whether God acts in history, not only
yesterday, but today, and whether God calls on individuals today
as he did in biblical history and whether God as he did of old
called on Nathaniel of Southampton to do his bidding.
Unlike Harding's assertion that Turner
"clearly convinced his fellow slaves" that "he was
the anointed one of God for their deliverance, the 1831 "Confession"
puts forth a different perspective. What we see in actuality is a
man uncertain, constantly checking with other Christians about his
religious experience. It seems that it was they who convinced him,
rather than his convincing them on the truth of his religious
experience: "I often
communicated to them, and they believed and said my wisdom came
from God." It was only when his fellow Christian slaves
confirmed his religious experience that Turner began to believe
that he had been chosen for a divine purpose.
Still, in this instance, he misread God's message,
which was biblically based, "Seek
ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto
It is significant that he quotes a passage
from the New Testament - a saying of Jesus which occurs in both
Matthew and Luke. At this stage of his development, he believed
that God's purpose was the same as his, namely, his freedom:
"I now began to prepare them for my purpose, by telling
them something was about to happen that would terminate in
fulfilling the great promise that had been made to me." But his
freedom did not come, and worse he was threatened with punishment
-- and that was a great emotional swing: from the great heights of
expectation down down to a hellish kind of humiliation. And when
his personal freedom did not come, he ran away.
the Spirit questioned his sincerity, the depth of his faith.
Whatever the occasion, the life outside of God is misery and
not freedom, for without salvation freedom is yet slavery to
desire. Those outside of God are against God and deserving of
punishment. Thereafter, Turner is continuously cautious of his
interpretation of scripture, the urgings of the Spirit, and of
divine signs. He says, "I wondered greatly at these miracles, and prayed
to be informed of a certainty of the meaning thereof." This
reluctance to make war on the congregants of Turner's Methodist
Church continues even into the holy war itself, in his reluctance
to take a life even thought he has been given divine warrant.
* * *
James H. Harris.
Preaching Liberation. Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 1995
(Harris is Senior Pastor at 2nd
Baptist Church and Professor of Pastoal Theology, Virginia Union
"The African American preacher
was sometimes radical and revolutionary, as evidenced by Rev. Nat
Turner" (p. 39)
"Nat Turner . . . felt he was
called for messianic purposes, to set at liberty the oppressor
slaves (see Luke 4:18). Henry T. Young, in his book Major Black
Religious leaders, argues that David Walker's Appeal had
influenced Turner in his liberation theology of action" (p.
"Nat Turner was a
revolutionary who desired to transform the system of evil
represented by slavery. His actions were suicidal, and he
obviously equated slavery with death" (p. 44)
"Nat Turner epitomizes the
prophetic revolutionary preacher who was discontented with
conditions of slavery . . . Turner's hatred of the dehumanizing
and sanctimonious institution of slavery, couple with revelations
from God, propelled him to seek freedom violently. . . . He was a
self-made preacher who was extremely intelligent and religious and
seriously bothered by the institution of slavery' (p. 45).
"Jungian psychology would
suggest that the 'structured unconscious' played a role in the
visions of Turner" (p. 46).
"Moreover, Turner's acts of
violence were akin to what Franz Fanon described as a 'purgatory'
through which oppressed people had to pass before they could
achieve a fresh sense of identity" (p. 46).
Nat Turner "interpreted
slavery as death."
A Commentary on James H. Harris'
"Nat Turner": Harris' terms of "radical"
and "revolutionary" are indeed misleading. Of course,
Nathaniel's holy war was a radical act and seemingly
revolutionary. But such terms tells us little or nothing about the
intrinsic man; moreover, such terms identifies Nathaniel with
characters that are so much unlike him driven by modernist motives
so unlike his biblical and religious influences. One could as
easily argue that symbolically Nathaniel was possibly attracted
but rejected revolution by his changing the date of his revolt
from July 4th to the period of the August religious revivals, for
which he had grown to view as highly hypocritical.
Without sound evidence, Harris
accepts Henry T. Young's theory that David Walker "influenced
Turner in his liberation theology of action." Turner's action
may indeed be described under the rubric of "liberation
theology," but his theology has little or nothing to do with
that which was expounded by James H. Cone and later exponents of
"Black Theology." Of course, there is absolutely no
proof to substantiate Young's claim that Turner had familiarity
with Walker's Appeal. Moreover, Young's argument is gross:
he views Walker as mind and Turner as body.
Harris' use of Jung and Fanon in
his analysis of Turner does not seem insightful and moreover seem
an evasion of Turner's own report in the 1831
"Confessions." Harris prefers scientific explanations
(psychoanalytical theories) for religious visions and motivations
for revolt. Harris' further argument that Turner "interpreted
slavery as death" again is highly speculative and cannot be
substantiated by the 1831 "Confessions." Matter of fact,
Turner in the "Confessions" makes no concerted verbal
attack on the institution of slavery, basically because,
biblically based, Turner found no concerted argument in the
scriptures against the institution.
* * *
Dwight N. Hopkins and
Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black
Theology in the Slave Narratives. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis
(Hopkins is a professor at the
Divinity School, University of Chicago)
"For the Rev. Nat Turner, a black Baptist
preacher, 'Steal Away to Jesus' symbolized the gathering of his
prophetic band of Christian witnesses in preparation for armed
struggle and guerilla warfare against slavery" (p. 22)
Dwight N. Hopkins. Down,
Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology. Minneapolis:
Fortress Press, 2000.
"Finally, the Baptist Rev. Nat Turner
exhibited the most graphic traits of the mystic, prophet, and
possessed leader. Handling new religious language steeped in
symbolic and metaphorical discourse tinted with encoded
significance only Rev. Turner could decipher, he eventually
confessed the following when captured and put on trial: 'I
reflected much on this passage ['Seek ye the kingdom of heaven and
all things shall be added unto you'.] . . . As I was praying one
day at my plough, the Spirit spoke to me . . . [It was the same]
Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days'. After two years
of contemplation and prayer, he concluded that he 'was ordained
for some great purpose in the hands of the almighty'. Turner
brought together a radical biblical understanding from the
perspective of the bottom of society, the third person of the
Trinity, and prolonged and profound prayer with an acceptance of a
vocation directly ordained by the Christian God. because Christ
had laid down the heavy burden of a yoke, Turner believed that 'I
should take it on and fight against the Serpent'.
"Individual and group actions exemplified the
divine right to resist. Along with seizing sacred domains and the
divine right to resist--both employed in the dynamic of
co-creating the black self in concert with the sacred
presence--the third manifestation of methods of the black self was
creating a syncretized religion in the Invisible Institution.
"'Stealin' the meeting', what enslaved
religious blacks called the secret (reinterpreted) Christian
gatherings--commonly termed the Invisible Institution--were the
institutionalized location out of which the future black theology
of liberation emerged. Such surreptitious congregations often
reached huge numbers. the intricate dynamic of 'stealin' the
meaning--its types, content, and forms--located the syncretistic
or hybrid reality of African American religious experience. In the
Invisible Institution, a novel substance was molded from remnants
of African indigenous religion, everyday common folk wisdom, and a
reinterpreted Christianity. Only in secret communion with God
could black folk both speak freely about the God that had
liberated the Hebrew people and act out the self that they created
away from the presence of white power" (p. 135)
A Commentary on Dwight N. Hopkins'
"Nat Turner": Hopkins like others mistakenly
identifies Turner as a "Baptist preacher." And like
others such as Charles Hamilton insist on addressing Turner as
"Rev." But such an approach again is shallow respect and
ultimately does not bring us closer to the real Nathaniel of
Southampton. Hopkins again like others have concluded that
Turner's focus was on the institution of slavery rather than on
aspects of slavery as it manifested in Cross Keys and Turner's
But Hopkins has no real interest in the life and
career of Turner. The above quoted material is the full extent of
his writing on Turner. With such brief remarks it is unavoidable
in being superficial. Yet there are serious problems in the
applicability of certain of his arguments. His remark about Turner
"Handling new religious language steeped in symbolic and
metaphorical discourse tinted with encoded significance [that]
only Rev. Turner could decipher" is incredulous. I find it
odd that Hopkins as a theologian can interpret religious language
2,000 years old in several different foreign tongues and cultures,
but find it too formidable to translate the religious language of
a Christian slave which in in English and is less then two
centuries old. His problem seems one of intellectual laziness or
at best a serious disinterest in Turner's religiosity and
But Hopkins charge of "symbolic and
metaphorical discourse tinted with encoded significance" is
derived from his assumed theory that Turner imported something to
the text that was not already in the scriptures. This import
theory suggests that Turner as a first generation American had
made use of elements of tribal African culture as a mean of
interpreting the New Testament and the Christian religion. But
Hopkins cannot and does not sustain his "syncretized
religion" argument, that is, that in the
"Confessions" there are elements of West African tribal
religions. Moreover, Turner himself made the point that he had
nothing to do with "conjure" and such cultural imports.
Hopkins also like other desires to make use of
Turner as an icon of favorite ideological assertions such as a
Cone's "black theology of liberation" and Albert J.
Raboteau's "Invisible Institution" (slave religion as
opposed to regular Christianity). That is, what we see in the 1831
"Confessions" is "the syncretistic or hybrid
reality of African American religious experience." The
problem with the enterprise of establishing a lineage for such
ideological assertions is that too often we end up violating the
integrity of another's life and religious reality, in this
instance, Nathaniel Turner.
* * *
Eric Lincoln, ed.
Experience in Religion. Garden City, NY: William Morrow and
Nat Turner's "spiritual leadership included
an important commitment to black protest" (p. 155).
A Commentary on Eric
"Nat Turner": Lincoln's comment is so brief and
dated that it is difficult to get any foothold to make a coherent
response to his view of Turner. Nevertheless, we can say that
Lincoln's "commitment to black protest" has little to do
with the struggle that took place in Cross Keys, Virginia in the
ten-year period of 1821 and 1831.
* * *
Olin P. Moyd.
in Black Theology. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1979.
(Moyd is the pastor of Mt.
Lebanon Baptist Church, Counselor for CCB; adjunct faculty of St.
Mary's Seminary and University.)
"It is clear that Nat Turner felt that he was
being obedient to the will of God which with the will of his
master when he led the bloody insurrection of 1831. Of course,
this raises the question of whether obedience which leads to such
actions is really the will of God or whether it is merely the whim
of men who finds himself in a situation of oppression. Whatever we
might think, Nat Turner was assured that his violent expression
against the oppressors evolved out of the will of God. Black
religionists and Black people in general do make room in their
thought for violent retaliations against oppression as obedience
to the will of God. And the Old Testament is filled with incidents
in which rebellion by the oppressed were seen as fulfilling the
will of God; and in the New Testament, in a moment of disgust in
the synagogue, Jesus himself used a whip to teach a lesson"
A Commentary on Olin
"Nat Turner": Moyd raises forthrightly the
skeptical perspective with respect to Nathaniel's call and
commands received from God. Doubtless, these are the centering
aspects surrounding the person and career of Nathaniel of
Southampton, whose claim was that God spoke to him Nathaniel as
God had spoke to the prophets of old. I for one am unable to argue
the contrary in either case. I unlike others have as much faith in
Turner's veracity as I have in that of the prophets of old. That
God would command slaughter 3,000 years ago and would not do so
200 years ago is incredulous. In short, I have no reason not to
believe Nathaniel's truth.
* * *
Black Odyssey: The Story of the Negro in
America. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1949.
was a distinguished Negro journalist and author of the highly
successful and influential New World A Coming,1945)
"Nat Turner, a mystical Cross Keys slave
known as the 'Black prophet', decided the time had come to lead
his people out of bondage. An intelligent and even gifted man, he
was thirty-one years old--short, black, and calm, with a hairless
bullet head set on broad shoulders. he had a mustache, a thin Van
Dyke beard, and bore a nasty scar across one temple, one back of
his head, and a big knot on the bone of his wrist, all produced by
blows. Nat's mother, transported from Africa to Virginia, had
attempted to kill him as a child to save him from the fate of a
slave, and his father after countless attempts had escaped to
Africa" (p. 139).
"He set the time for Sunday midnight,
August 21, 1831. Not to arouse suspicion, he planned a barbecue
feast after evening church services. While the slaves ate, he
quietly outlined his plans which were simple enough. they called
for the slaughter of all whites--complete extermination" (p.
A Commentary on Roi
"Nat Turner": The term "mystic" or some
form of the word is probably one of the words most often
ascribed to Turner's character. It is not suggestive of his
spirituality or his closeness to God. When ascribed to Nathaniel,
it is use to suggest a mental or psychological state brought on by
imposed physical hardship or punishment coupled with a level of
religiosity. It is like a nightmare produced by a late night heavy
meal. In short, the use of the term mystical is a means of
discounting Nathaniel's receipt of divine revelations.
has been oft-repeated that Nathaniel's mother, recently imported
from Africa where slavery was an ordinary state of affairs,
decided to kill her son for fear he would be a slave. This
scenario is a species of abolitionist nonsense. Ottley can not
sustain such a claim. Just as likely, Nathaniel mother's action
can be explained as a result of the sight of the child, which was
of a pinkish or yellowish complexion. The sight of the child
stirred the hatred and anger that she still held for the man who
raped her -- her owner and master and Nathaniel's father, namely,
oft-repeated assertion is that Turner ordered "complete
extermination." On the contrary, there is considerable
evidence that this slaughter was selective. None of Nathaniel's
white relatives were killed; no non-slaverholders who did not work
directly for slaveholders were killed. Giles Reese, a slaveholder
(owner of Cherry, purportedly Nathaniel's wife), was not killed;
his farm was bypassed. In addition, Gray, the editor of the 1831,
his farm was also by-passed.
* * *
The Negro in the Making of
New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1969.
these statements were written, Quarles was professor of history at
Morgan State College.)
"No revolt equaled that of Nat Turner in
its consequences. A slave preacher in Southampton County,
Virginia, Turner's actions were inspired by his interpretation of
the Old Testament and his belief that he was God's chosen
instrument to lead the slaves out of bondage. Turner's preparation
consisted of prayer and looking for a sign from on high rather
than in the listing of a larger force. . . . 'The Prophet,' as
Turner was called by the slaves, was caught and sent to the
gallows, along with nineteen other culprits" (p. 82).
A Commentary on
"Nat Turner": The term "slave preacher"
does not in any way adequately categorizes Nathaniel of
Southampton and moreover the term is misleading. It was late in
his life before he was engaged in preaching; furthermore, as
Quarles and others point out the Christian slaves of his time
referred to him reverentially as a "prophet" was
respectfully considered a holy man by his habits of speech,
thought, and behavior. That is he received a deference that far
exceeded that was usually extended to a preacher.
misleading statement is that Turner was especially influenced by
the Old Testament. But there is nothing in the
"Confessions" that one should make such a conclusion.
One may take the statement that he was spoken to by "The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former day."
But the term "Spirit" is found most often in the New
Testament; as far as prophets, one can include Jesus as well as
Paul and Peter, in that number.
assertion that has been imposed upon Turner is that he Nathaniel
was "God's chosen instrument to lead the slaves out of
bondage. Such an egoistic statement is nowhere to be found in the
1831 "Confessions." Nowhere does Turner cast himself as
a Mosaic figure either before or after the Rebellion. if we would
stick to Turner's actual words we would approach closer the
reality of his life and his actions. Such a misstatement by
Quarles leads him to show his dislike and distrust of religion and
the religious, specifically, the gibe -- "Turner's
preparation consisted of prayer and looking for a sign on high
rather than in the listing of a larger force." Turner's
scheme was not so grandiose as that of Gabriel Prosser and we
should fuse Turner with Prosser nor Vesey and especially not
Touusaint. This confusion is the great error made by the great
W.E.B DuBois in his "Toussaint
L'Ouverture & Nat Turner"
(chapter 9 Negro
* * *
Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology. Maryknoll,
New York: Orbis Books, 1994 (revised edition).
is Distinguished Professor of Philosophical Theological Seminary
I believe, is inconsistent with the Christian ethic. Here I
condemn violence that is covert and overt, violence of blacks
against blacks, and violence of white against blacks. . . . I
understand Nat turner’s insurrection and Bonhoeffers’ plot to
assassinate Hitler as springing from righteous indignation—as
the only obvious path to freedom and justice for millions” (p.
violence of this type is ever consistent with Christian ethics, it
will need to be programmed and measured. It should be a means
rather than an end. It should be used only after all better
alternatives have been duly tried and it should be used only
because it is the lesser of two evils” (p. 103)
blacks have been embittered by suffering, like Nat Turner; others
have been mellowed by it, like Martin Luther King, Jr.” (p. 50).
nationalists, like Cleage [who includes Turner in his pantheon of
saints], may reject the inclusiveness of the Christian family
ideal” (p. 34)
so-called white Christian had fed to our black fathers and mothers
the opiate of obedience, servitude, and humility, but long before Nat
Turner, the prophet of revenge, hate, and revolt, awakened whites
to the incendiary possibilities of the Bible, blacks understood
its message of 'deliverance to captives'. (p. 34)
the study of Nat Turner's Confessions, one discovers a religiously
motivated but blood thirsty path to 'revenge and revolt'. . . .
white men as well as black may misread and misuse their Bibles. .
. . Black men, therefore, may likewise see what they desire to see
in the Bible" (p. 50)
A Commentary on J.
"Nat Turner": In his equivocating argument about the
use of violence in encountering outrageous oppression, Roberts has
made an insightful and proper connection between
Nathaniel Turner. I have also made use of
Bonhoeffer in my own
arguments. But Roberts' reconciliation is
an unsatisfactory one. He paints an unsympathetic portrait of
Turner and fails to explore Nathaniel's christocentric struggle
with slaveholder Christianity and Virginia slavery. Ultimately, he
seems to countenance
Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators and
demeans Turner and his fellow conspirators. Part of the the
problematic with his analysis is that Roberts compares and
contrast Turner with two black leaders that are far from Turner's
reality, namely, King and Reverend Albert Albert B. Cleage, both
contemporaries of his own time and both dealing with Jim Crow laws
and social, political, and cultural racism.
Nathaniel Turner of Southampton
was born and raised in a social and cultural atmosphere of
absolute racial oppression which had degenerated to the breeding
and selling of Christian slaves, which involved the worst moral
crimes including adultery, rape, and the break up of Christian
families -- the selling and separation of mother and child; and
worst, the refusal of Christian slaveholders to grant joint
worship and the Christianization of their own slave and slave
children. I am not one, nevertheless, to make arguments about the
severity of Hitlerian Germany in relation to that of American
Maybe some Christian Germans and
Jews had it worse than our fathers and mothers of the early
19th-century America slavocracy. Yet whether more severe or not,
it was sufficiently severe for bloody revolt. Roberts'
characterization thusly, "Nat
Turner, the prophet of revenge, hate, and revolt" must be
viewed indeed as a capitulation to white sentiment of his own era
and therefore must be rejected.
clearly the statement noted above was no slip of the pen for he
reinforces those comments by demeaning Turner and his war against
the devils and their evil by these further comment which
characterizes Turner's war as "a religiously
motivated but blood thirsty path to 'revenge and revolt'."
Turner is viewed as some wild man or some wild animal, thoughtless
and without conscience. Roberts, of course, would not use such
terminology to describe Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators.
But of course "white violence" is of a different nature
and character than "black violence."
could not retain respectability, seemingly, by no other means than
giving it to Turner with both barrels. Turner is not viewed as a
prophet and disciple of Christ, but rather as a "prophet of
revenge, hate, and revolt"; not as a "Christian
soldier" who acted out of righteous indignation under the
command of Christ, but as one who was "bloodthirsty."
Such analyses will not do and do not serve us or our liberation
* * *
Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope. New York:
Paulist Press, 1970.
(Ruether is a professor of
theology at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston,
"Turner's practical impact was small, but
his psychological impact was great. The tenor he evoked was not
simply due to the few death he caused but to the consciousness
that he expressed thereby of being the divinely appointed agent of
apocalyptic wrath, to which white society, in its guilt, could
only respond in fear and fury" (p. 225).
A Commentary on Rosemary
"Nat Turner": Ruether's remarks about Turner are
very measured and reserved, as they should be. Matter of
fact, she refrains from making any statement about Turner's
character or his religion. The remarks she does indeed make seem
to be an accurate representation of Turner's "impact" on
southeastern Virginia and the rest of the South.
* * *
Theophus H. Smith. "The Spirituality of Afro-American
Christian Spirituality: Post Reformation
and Modern. Editors Louis Dupre and Don E. Saliers. New York:
demonstrably and more self-consciously Christian than his fellow
slaves, also eschewed the common, magical folk practices of
conjuring as sub-Christian. 'I always spoke of such thing with
contempt'. his interviewer records in Turner's 'Confessions'.
the evidence represents him as a seer and prophet, given to
mystical or shamanic visions and dreams. Turner's mystical
experiences gave rise to explicitly Christian symbolic
interpretations (e.g. blood found on corn in the fields was
Christ's blood 'returning to earth again in the form of dew'), and
also supported his [p. 383] conviction of divine retribution
against slavery. He had a remarkable vision in which 'white and
black spirits were engaged in a great battle with blood flowing in
a literate slave, Turner like Vesey was a compelling Bible
preacher. Together they represent two stages in the black
religious tradition of conjuring God for freedom. Stage one,
represented by Vesey, features magical conujurational practices
alongside or in concert with the use of biblical and Christian
theological elements. Stage two, represented by Turner, features
ostensibly the repression of magical conjure but (precisely
thereby) the return of conjurational impulses via Christian
symbology and theological discourse. (This hypothesis applies
Freud's concept of 'the return of the oppressed' to
discussion of spiritual-political dynamics below describes the
results of generations of black religionists practicing Vesey's
and Turner's facility of conjuring with Scripture and conjuring
with God for freedom. ( Such practices may be represented by the
formula 'conjuring God with Scripture for freedom'. . . . In this
section we have been concerned with showing the extending of
conjure from its folk roots as 'magical shamanism' [Joyner] to a
mode of faith and prayer" (p. 383).
A Commentary on
Theophus H. Smith's
"Nat Turner": To satisfy his own thesis,
cultural, and anthropological interests, Smith insists on making
Turner a conjurer or conjure man despite Turner's protestations.
With such ideologues, to argue to the contrary will take us
nowhere as does his thesis. He will
have the import theory or nothing. Theology and biblical studies
and ethics have no interest.
* * *
On: The Slave Journey to An Afro-Baptist Faith. Westport,
Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.
is assistant professor of History at the University of Haifa,
Turner, a member of this large group of lay preachers, had an
uncommon ability to communicate his convictions to others.
Turner’s neo-African understanding of spirit power provides an
insight into the plantation African/Baptist faith at its most
powerful level. Through this faith Turner developed into a
charismatic leader, and he and his followers derived the strength
to be ready to sacrifice their lives.
primary source of information on Turner’s spiritual development
is The Confession [sic] of Nat Turner . . ., published in 1831 and
advertised as a confession ‘fully and voluntarily made to Thomas
R. Gray’. This highly interesting document raises many
questions, the first of which concerns reliability” (p. 161).
language reportedly used by Turner raises difficult problems. . .
. It is probable that Turner used a different rhythm and language
than Gray used and in trying to faithfully portray Turner’s
visions and power, Gray superimposed his own style” (p. 161).
Turner did talk of verbal ‘intercourse with his fellow
servants’, of ‘cutaneous eruptions’ of [p. 161] ‘zeal’,
‘austerity’, and studiousness’. He knew how to red and
write, and he had a Bible and knew it well. The language of the
King James version is very eloquent, and he may well have used it
as a second language for sermons and for a final confession to a
white lawyer (p. 162).
had contact with both white and black Christians. His childhood
master Benjamin Turner, belonged to the Methodist church; church
people visited Benjamin Turner’s home and Nat Turner saw them at
prayer” (p. 162).
was marked from birth as a person of spiritual potential. This was
a very African
tradition, a tradition his mother Nancy, who had been taken from
Africa only some five years before his birth, was not very distant
from.. (His father may have also have been born in Africa.) Nat
Turner had birthmarks on his head and chest, which both of his
parents described as signs of greatness, noting also that at the
age of three or four he seemed to have knowledge of events that
had occurred prior to his birth. They concluded that spirit was
shown to be working through him. Turner grew up with this
conviction” (p. 162).
clearly he was in contact with Baptist meetings, either on the
plantation or at the local Barnes’ Baptist Church” (p. 162)
consciously rejected Voodoo. . . . However, he communicated with
spirit, served it, and learned mysteries from it in a traditional
African fashion” (p. 162)
explained himself as a Jonah. He had been seeking to run away from
his God-given call to special leadership. He had been thinking of
his selfish desires, but he returned to slavery to do his heavenly
Master’s will by preparing for insurrection’ (p. 163).
reference to the vision of white and black spirits, Sobel wrote:
“It is this decisive revelation of the racial violence to come
that his own voice (or his inner voice) seems to break into
Gray’s narrative” (p. 163).
now walked with spirit; he was given the ‘true knowledge of
faith’ and was ‘made perfect’. (His new wisdom recalls that
of the Dogon, for whom spirit provided a full knowledge of all
natural phenomena.) In his completion, the spirit came to Turner
as the Holy Ghost, closer to Christ, but not Christ himself,
although he saw the stars as Christ’s hands stretched out for
the redemption of sinners” (p. 163)
had been in contact with spirit many years before he was called on
to be baptized. His was not the usual Baptist dialogue with God”
this idiosyncratic behavior, the unbaptized Turner brought about
the conversion of Ethelred T. Brantley, a white man, who began to
bleed from his skin. This was seen as another significant sign of
Turner’s power. After fasting and praying for nine days (the
same number used by Voudouists prior to initiation), Brantley was
cured” (p. 164)
in not accepting Turner for baptism, the church did not consider
his soul-travels a proper conversion experience. Local Baptists
did not accept his baptism of himself” p. 165)
Baptist faith was of a most unorthodox type, unconsciously
reflecting influences of the Voodoo that Turner consciously
rejected. Visions of spirit, and not of Christ, brought him the
truth. With spirit, he could cure disease and prophesy the future.
Although the Baptists accepted faith healing and prophesy as
God-given roles, they believed Turner used individual power beyond
permissable limits. As a result, the church played a negative role
in the working out of his destiny. Had he been absorbed within the
black Baptist church, his visionary travels might have taken him
in another direction” (p. 165).
famous answer confirmed his identity: ‘was not Christ
crucified?’ Turner saw himself as a black Christ dying for his
black brothers and sisters” (p. 166).
had seen himself as Christ baptized by the spirit; carrying his
yoke; awaiting crucifixion” (p. 166).
"Quasi-African Voodoo existed side by side
with Christian promise. Nat turner (who claimed not to believe in
Voodoo) did believe in his own invulnerability" (p. 166)
A Commentary on Mechal
Sobel "Nat Turner": Sobel
makes a racialist analysis of Turner's life, career, and his
"Confessions." Sobel has no evidence for his
conclusion that Turner's mother was brought "some
five years before his birth" nor that Turner's" father
may have also have been born in Africa" These are wild
speculations. The problem he is trying to resolve is the
"mother" to which Turner refers in the Confessions, who
is basically Americanized. Sobel is not fully familiar with Turner
folklore and thus does not realized that the mother is a surrogate
mother and not the African woman who gave him birth. The best
evidence is that is birth mother arrived the same year of his
birth, that is, 1800 -- only about nine months before his birth,
which means that she was raped and impregnated immediately after
she was bought by Benjamin Turner.
also does not provide nor does he have evidence that Turner had
religious meetings with Baptists. His conclusion that Turner was
an “unorthodox Baptist" is more claptrap. Moreover, there
is no evidence of a black Baptist church in Southampton
until after the Civil War. That is, there was no black Baptist
church in Cross Keys in 1831, visible or invisible, and there
certainly is no evidence that Turner sought to be baptized in the
white Baptist church, which probably attracted non-slaveholding
whites. All of Sobel’s imagining are absurd. In that region, the
blacks did not begin to be organized into churches until the
Sobel, in effect, is attracted by the import
theory. Sobel is pressed to sustain his Afro-Baptist thesis by
making use of Turner without regard to Turner's own integrity.
Though voodooism is not apart of the regional culture, Sobel
insists that it was. Though Sobel's research on black Baptists
made be useful, his work on Turner is useless and tends towards
* * *
M. Stampp, “A Troublesome Property,” from
Peculiar Institution (Chapter 3), pp. 86-140.
ante-bellum Southerner could ever forget Nat Turner. The career of
this man made an impact upon the people of this section as great
as that of John C. Calhoun or Jefferson Davis. Yet Turner was only
a slave in Southampton County, Virginia-- and during most of his
life a rather unimpressive one at that. He was a pious man, a
Baptist exhorter by avocation, apparently as humble and docile as
a slave was expected to be. There is no evidence that he was
underfed, overworked, or treated with special cruelty. If Nat
Turner could not be trusted, what slave could? That was what made
his sudden deed so frightening.
"Somehow Turner came to believe that he had been divinely
chosen to deliver his people from bondage, and he persuaded
several other slaves to assist him. In due time he saw the sign of
which he had waited, and early in the morning of August 22, 1831,
he and his followers rose in rebellion. They began by killing the
family to whom Turner belonged. As they marched through the
Southampton countryside they gained additional recruits, making a
total of about seventy. (Others seemed ready to join if the rebels
came their way. The slave Jacob, for example, proclaimed
"that if they came by he would join them and assist in
killing all the white people.") Within two days they killed
nearly sixty whites. They could have killed more. They left
undisturbed at least one poor white family, "because they
thought no better of themselves than they did of Negroes." To
justify the killings, members of Turner's band declared that they
had enough of punishment, or that they now intended to be as rich
as their masters. One rebel demonstrated his new status by walking
off in his late owner's shoes and socks.
"The Nat Turner rebellion lasted only forty-eight hours.
Swiftly mobilizing in overwhelming strength, the whites easily
dispersed the rebels. Then followed a massacre during which not
only the insurrectionists but scores of innocent bondsmen were
slaughtered. Others, charged with feloniously consulting, advising
and conspiring ... to rebel ... and making insurrection and taking
the lives of divers free white persons of this Commonwealth,"
were tried before a court of oyer and terminer during the months
of September and October. Some were executed, others transported.
Most of those transported had not actively participated in the
rebellion; the had merely expressed sympathy for the rebels.
"Nat Turner himself was not captured until October 30, more
than two months after the uprising. He was brought to trial on
November 5, convicted the same day, and hanged six days later.
Thus ended an event which produced in the south something
resembling a mass trauma, from which the whites had not recovered
three decades later. The danger that other Nat Turners might
emerge, that an even more serious insurrection might some day
occur, became an enduring concern as long as the peculiar
institution survived. Pro-slavery writers boldly asserted that
Southerners did not fear their slaves, that a rebellion of the
laboring class was more likely to transpire in the North than in
the South; but the fear of rebellion, sometimes vague,
sometimes acute, was with them always.
"Though it was the most disastrous (for both slaves and
masters), Nat Turner's was not the first insurrection. Several
earlier conspiracies, which narrowly missed being carried into
execution might easily have precipitated rebellions much more
extensive than that of Turner. These uprisings and conspiracies
began as early as the seventeenth century and kept Southerners
apprehensive throughout the colonial period. The preamble to the
South Carolina statute of 1740 defining the duties of slave
patrols stated that many "horrible and barbarous
massacres" had been committed or plotted by the slaves who
were "generally prone to such cruel practices." On the
eve of the American Revolution a Charlestonian wrote about a
"disturbance" among the bondsmen who hand "mimicked
their betters in crying Liberty." In 1785, a West Florida
slaveholder was dismayed to learn that several of his slaves were
involved in an insurrection plot: "Of what avail is kindness
and good usage when rewarded by such ingratitude ... [?]"
Such incidents set the pattern for the ninetieth century.
"The new century opened with the Gabriel Conspiracy (August,
1800) in Henrico County, Virginia, in which at least a thousand
slaves were implicated. The warnings of two bondsmen and a severe
storm enabled the whites to forestall a projected march upon
Richmond. A decade later some five hundred slaves in St. John the
Baptist Parish, Louisiana, armed with cane knives and other crude
weapons, advanced toward New Orleans. But the planters and a
strong detachment of troops put them to flight. In 1822, Denmark
Vesey, a free Negro in Charleston, planned a vast conspiracy which
came to nothing after it was given away by a slave. These and
other plots were invariably followed by severe reprisals,
including the indiscriminate killings of slaves as well as mass
executions after regular trials. The heads of sixteen Louisiana
rebels were stuck upon poles along the Mississippi River as a grim
warning to other slaves. After the Vesey conspiracy.
Charlestonians expressed disillusionment with the idea that by
generous treatment the slaves "would become more satisfied
with their condition and more attached to the whites."
"The shock of Nat Turner caused Southerners to take
preventive measures, but these never eliminated their apprehension
or the actual danger. Hardly a year passed without some kind of
alarming disturbance somewhere in the South. When no real
conspiracy existed, wild rumors often agitated the whites and at
times came close to creating an insurrection panic. The rumors
might be entirely unfounded, or they might grow out of some local
incident which was magnified by exaggeration. Even the historian
cannot always distinguish between the rumors and the facts. Most
of the stories seem to have had a foundation in at least a minor
disturbance, limited perhaps to a single plantation where the
slaves suddenly became insubordinate or to a whole neighborhood
where they showed signs of becoming restive. Whether caused by
rumor or fact, the specter of rebellion often troubled the sleep
of the master class.
"The Turner rebellion itself produced an insurrection panic
that swept the entire South. A Richmond editor wondered whether
the southern press was trying to give the slaves "false
conceptions of their numbers and capacity, by exhibiting the
terror and confusion of the whites, and to induce them to think
that practicable, which they see is so much feared by their
superiors." In eastern North Carolina the panic caused the
arrest of scores of slaves and the execution of more than a dozen.
A South Carolinian reported that there was "considerable
alarm" in his state too and that some slaves were hanged to
prevent a rumored uprising. The excitement spread into the
Southwest where it was feared that the bondsmen would become
"troublesome." A Mississippian, confessing "great
apprehension," noted that "within 4 hours march of
Natchez" there were "2200 able bodied male slaves."
He warned: "It behooves [us] to be vigilant -- but
"That there was no slave conspiracy comparable to Denmark
Vesey's and no rebellion comparable to Nat Turner's, during the
three decades before the Civil War, has been explained in many
ways. The explanations, however, do not sufficiently emphasize the
impact which the Turner rebellion had on the slaves themselves.
The speed with which it was crushed and the massacre that followed
were facts soon known, doubtless, to every slave in Virginia and,
before long, to almost every slave in South. Among the Negroes
everywhere, news generally spread so far and so fast as to amaze
the whites. The Turner story was not likely to encourage slaves to
make new attempts to win their freedom by fighting for it. They
now realized that they would face a united white community, well
armed and quite willing to annihilate as much of the black
population as might seem necessary.
"In truth, no slave uprising ever had a chance of ultimate
success, even though it might have cost the master class heavy
casualties. The great majority of the disarmed and outnumbered
slaves, knowing the futility of rebellion, refused to join in any
of the numerous plots. Most slaves had to express their desire for
freedom in less dramatic ways. They rarely went beyond
disorganized individual action -- which, to be sure, caused their
masters no little annoyance. The bondsmen themselves lacked the
power to destroy the web of bondage. They would have to have the
aid of free men inside or outside the South.
"The survival of slavery, then, cannot be explained as due to
the contentment of slaves or their failure to comprehend the
advantages of freedom. They longed for liberty and resisted
bondage as much as any people could have done in their
circumstances, but their longing and their resistance were not
enough even to render the institution unprofitable to most
masters. The masters had power and, as will be seen, they
developed an elaborate technique of slave control. Their very
preoccupation with this technique was, in itself, a striking
refutation of the myth that slavery survived because of the
cheerful acquiescence of the slaves."
Commentary on Kenneth
Stamp's Nat Turner: Stamp mistakenly identifies Turner as a
Baptist when there is no evidence that he had any association with
Baptist as a theological view or with individual Baptists, or with
a Baptist church in Cross Keys. A baptism does take place in the
1831 Confessions and its an event that is significant in biblical
history as well as the Nathaniel of Southampton story. As
far as cruelty, according
there is, "no evidence." But slavery as constituted in
Cross Keys was the very expression of cruelty. In the midst of
rape, adultery, the breeding and sale of slaves, the break-up of
families and perverse treatment of familial ties that was Cross
Keys and Turner's Methodist Church, that Turner was humble and
pious (sensitive soul) in the midst of such a hellish phantasm of
sins and cruelties make him even the more special and
The image of Moses or Messiah resides also in Stampp's scoff:
"Somehow Turner came to believe that he had been divinely
chosen to deliver his people from bondage." Nowhere in the
1831 Confessions can be found the thought that Nathaniel thought
chosen to deliver his people from bondage." Turner more than
likely was more convinced than convincing, more questioning than
exhorting, with respect to or by his fellows. I think that more
than likely Turner and his six holy men knew quite well that they
"themselves lacked the
power to destroy the web of bondage. They would have to have the
aid of free men inside or outside the South." Turner's
mission was not a war of total liberation, but one mission in a
plethora of missions.
Stampp discounts a savage
indiscriminate attack on all whites. The houses of the poor and
other sympathizers or potential sympathizers went undisturbed. The
dreams of men in such times are wild indeed -- freedom from
punishment and rich as their Christian masters. But who does not
mock the aspirations of black slaves?
This social and moral
blindness of this local group of Methodist slaveholders made them
overreach generation after generation -- the hypocrisy and the
setting aside of themselves as above judgment made them objects of
judgment indeed. To be judged by the judged with such swift and
murderous deeds was indeed traumatic, the lives of slaveholder and
slave so insidiously entwined. Turner's fearless strike
against structured evil -- undermined white supremacy's sense of
security. It is indeed a bit of Southern angst -- one so close to
one's bosom who will betray you eventually and ultimately.
What indeed is
extraordinary is not the masters "elaborate technique of slave
control," but rather that African men and women retain their
overall dignity and humanity throughout their struggles with
disinheritance, denial, and threats of death. There was never
"cheerful acquiescence of the slaves" though this
myth salved a many a white conscience.
* * *
"The most important thing to know about
Nat Turner is that he is the prototype of an important group of
slave preachers who discovered a secret about the Judeo-Christian
faith that white Christians had attempted to conceal from the
slaves for more than two hundred years. Nat Turner, like others
before him whose names are buried forever under the debris of the
citadel of slavery, discovered that the God of the Bible demanded
justice and that to know him and his Son, Jesus Christ, was to be
set free from every power on earth. Nat Turner discovered his
manhood by unveiling the God who liberates. His fanatical attempt
to authenticate that manhood in blood was the inevitable
consequence of the fanatical attempt of white men to deny it.
Styron's frequent Biblical quotations and references to his inner
life never lifts this essential fact about the man to the level of
significance" (p. 64).
"At a very
early age, it was obvious to everyone who came into contact with
him that Nat was a precocious child. This belief was fortified in
the mind of his mother and father by certain birthmarks which,
according to African custom, indicated the unusual mental
capacities associated with a 'witcheth man', a conjurer" (p.
"His paternal grandmother had a
decisive influence on him. She was a member of the Methodist
church called Turner's Meeting House, where slaves of the Turner
family had worshipped with their masters and mistresses from the
late colonial period. Benjamin Turner believed in promoting
religion on his plantation and conducted prayer meetings for the
family. The slaves were included in these meetings and it was in
such an atmosphere of evangelical piety that Nat came into a
knowledge of the faith. He also was supported in a belief that
everyone shared that God had ordained him for a special vocation.
Surrounded by such influences his childhood was exceptional for a
slave. Opportunities were given to him that were denied to
other" (p. 64).
"The text of Luke
12;31 . . . struck Nat Turner as having peculiar relevance during
this period. We cannot know precisely what meanings he attached to
these words, but the context is highly suggestive in light of his
subsequent development as a messianic figure. The nations of the
world seek material things, and these indeed are needful to life,
but the followers of Jesus shall not only receive them in
abundance, but much more, when the kingdom of God shall come in
secrecy and in great power. Hence, Luke 12:35, 39-40, 49-51 reads
. . ." (p. 65).
"The context of this
remarkable passage, which made such an impression on Turner, tells
us that the messianic vocation that will usher in the kingdom of
prosperity and power is symbolized not by peace, but the sword.
When dubious about what spirit had prompted Nat to concentrate
upon this passage, Gray questioned him about it. He replied
without hesitation that it was the spirit of the prophets of the
Old Testament. At the beginning of his ministry he had already
perceived a close relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the
great prophets who had called down the wrath of God upon his
disobedient people and their enemies" (p. 65).
is all the more remarkable when we remember that such an
interpretation of Jesus was far from the interpretation given by
the missionaries. For them Jesus was the meek and mild exemplar of
the faith--the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world
whose obedience to his Master, God the Father, was the model for
the slave. We can well imagine that this was the picture painted
by Benjamin Turner in his frequent prayer meetings. Nat Turner's
appropriation of another kind of Lord, his recognition of the
meaning of Jesus and the kingdom in relation to the prophets of
God's justice on behalf of the oppressed, adumbrated the black
theology which developed among black preachers from Henry Highland
Garnet to Martin Luther King, Jr.--Jesus as the protagonist of
radical social change" (pp. 65-66).
is no reason why we should not assume that 'the master's will'
meant nothing less to nat than the will of Christ. He did say that
'the reason of my return was that the Spirit appeared to me and
said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world and not
to the Kingdom of Heaven'. He had, in other words, been
disobedient to his calling. Instead of remaining on the plantation
and waiting for the day of the lord, about which he had been
secretly preaching, he had yielded to impatience, to the
temptation to escape alone. He had evaded the terrible work God
had called him to do and had thought selfishly of his own freedom
and the material success that awaited him in the North" (p.
"We have Turner's own rendition of the
parable about being ready for the parousia--the second advent of
Christ--which is found, interestingly enough, in his favorite
chapter of the New Testament, Luke 12. The faithful and wise
steward in the parable is the one who remains at his post and
watches for the Lord's coming. He is to be rewarded by being made
ruler over the entire household" (pp. 66-67).
Turner had become weary--waiting for the sign that the Day of
Judgment had come. he had weakened under the burden that head been
his as a leader of the slaves and had run away, only to be driven
back by the relentless spirit that pursued him. His was the
classic dilemma of the prophets of the Old Testament from Moses to
Amos. They could always find an excuse for refusing the mantle of
the prophetic calling. But in the end--contrary to their own
preferences--they were drawn irresistibly to the awesome
responsibility" (p. 67).
the destiny toward which Nat turner was drawn with increasing
rapidity by that time, one thinks of Stephen (Acts 7.54ff), who
gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at
the right hand, before he was stoned to death. We can only say
that the great founders of the world's religions, and some of
their most renowned disciples, had experiences similar to Nat
Turner's. The world has been puzzled by their visionary
experiences, but the power of their lives was sufficient to
convince millions that wonders most persons are too spiritually
blind to see were in fact revealed to prophets and mystics"
When Turner received the
unmistakable sign that he should prepare for the great work--the
apocalyptic struggle with the serpent, which to him must have
symbolized the system of slavery. The white slaveholders who have
been first in this world would now become last in the kingdom. And
the slaves, who had been last--as Scripture clearly
prophesied--become first" (p. 68).
from David Walker to Nat Turner, black religion in the United
States--strongly fortified by the prophets of the Old Testament
and New testament apocalyptic--provided blacks with spiritual
resources with which to resist oppression, if with tragic
resources. The southern whites who observed the slave preachers at
close range knew about the possible amalgam of African religion
and radical Christianity. They sensed the ability of those men and
women to inspire revolt and threw up the ramparts of repressive
legislation and the lynch law against them" (pp. 71-72).
Commentary on Gayraud S. Wilmore's Nat
Turner. Wilmore with his emphasis on the significance of
Nathaniel Turner's religious words, thoughts, and actions probably
comes closer to capturing the real Nat Turner than probably any
writer, surpassing at great length the speculations of Vincent
Harding. Wilmore walks with Turner only part of the way. "His
[Nathaniel's] fanatical attempt to authenticate [his] manhood in
blood was the inevitable consequence of the fanatical attempt of
white men to deny it." This charge of fanaticism was raised
by Christian slaveholders and their public defenders in 1831. So
Wilmore does not move us forward in this sense. The other element
that is Old School is the abolitionist argument of inevitability.
In this argument Turner cease to be subject; he is reduced to an
object of forces beyond his control.
Bible as a means of control and liberation is important in the
life of Nathaniel as it were for all Christians of Cross
Keys-Jerusalem area of Southampton. But also is the family and the
nature of family during slave life in Virginia. Getting family
relationships straight is important and significant in
understanding the underbelly, perverse aspects of Virginia
slavery. In Southampton County, more so than the surrounding
counties (Sessex, Greensville, etc) had a higher free population
and a higher number of mulatto and mixed parentage children. In
short, there was a passion for rape and adultery, and hypocrisy in
this Christian county more so than any other in the region.
seemingly accepts the traditional view that Turner's parents were
both Africans and that his father escaped to freedom. But the fact
is that Turner was a light-skinned Negro with an African mother.
His biological father was his master Benjamin Turner, who was also
the founder of Turner's Methodist Church. As a child Nathaniel was
taken from his African mother and given to an older slaver, an
older Christian African-American slave woman. Nathaniel refers to
her alternately in the Confessions as his mother and grandmother,
but more importantly as his spiritual mother, the one who taught
him about Christ and the other prophets.
gave the child to
Harriet and Tom to be raised. (Harriet and Tom were house slaves
who had probably also been owned by Ben Turner’s father.) This
scenario of taking the child from the mother and giving it to
older slaves to raise was not unusual. Disatrously, Wilmore
aligns Turner with conjure, despite Nathaniel's protestations:
That Nathaniel was a special child was "fortified in the mind
of mother and father by certain birthmarks which, according to
African custom, indicated the unusual mental capacities associated
with a 'witcheth man', a conjurer" (p. 64). This error
judgment is derived from the mistaken view that Turner was raised
by his African mother. Frederick Douglass makes it plain that he
was not and neither was Nathaniel.
reading of birthmarks is not a practice peculiar to African
cultures. Harriet was a Methodist and member of Ben Turner's
Meetinghouse, a Christian arrangement in which blacks and whites,
slave and slavemasters worshipped together. This was indeed the
biblical way, both Old and New Testaments. But Virginia (American)
slavery introduced a new element, the segregation of religious
worship. Turner's Methodist Church closed itself to black and
slave worship and limited itself to white Methodists, and
seemingly white slaveholding Christians.
captures an element of the religious drama occurring in Cross Keys
and at Turner's Methodist Church, but he overlooks that these
churches are families churches and they are owned by families.
Wilmore thus falls into the general figure of Nathaniel as a
messianic figure, as a liberator of the slaves. There is however
no evidence in the 1831 Confessions that Turner was in a global
perspective of the inherent evil of slavery. And that his war was
directed toward freeing the slaves or abolishing the institution
of slavery. What we have here is a punitive religious war rather
than a war of liberation -- to slaughter the Satan, the Serpent,
that had been loosen in Cross Keys and at Turner's Methodist
Satan was not the institution of slavery, as Wilmore suggests, but
rather the structure of evil as it existed in Cross Keys and
Turner's Methodist Church -- a community that gave into rape,
adultery, and hypocrisy to breeding and sale of slaves and
break-up of families, the disinheritance of families to the
segregation of religious worship, of standing between Christian
slaves and their salvation. Christian manliness, yes, required
righteous indignation and war.
* * *
The Way of the Black
Messiah: The Hermeneutical Challenge of Black Theology. London:
Meyer Stone Books, 1987
Nat Turner as "proletarian" leader.
"Nat Turner, with his outspoken preference
for the gospel account in Luke, saw Jesus as the liberator of the
poor and those without rights and regarded the eclipse of February
1831 as the sign of Christ's second coming and the signal for
violent revolt. He thus belongs in a (proto) nationalistic
tradition to which David Walker, Henry Highland Garnett, and Henry
McNeal Turner also belong" (p.211).
on Theo Witvliet's Nat Turner: Witvliet seemingly believes
that naming a thing is sufficient -- that saying Turner was a
proletarian made a plowboy into an industrial worker. The argument
is so absurd one should deal with it only slightly. Wilvliet's
second argument that Turner was a "(proto) nationalist"
has no basis in the 1831 Confessions, which contains no appeal to
race or nation. Nathaniel is indeed outside of that tradition, his
appeal purely religious and biblical, a local emphasis rather than
a global one.
* * *
Henry J. Young.
Religious Leaders: 1755-1940. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979.
(Young was senior research
director for the Center for Parish Development in Napersville,
Illinois. Formerly an assistant professor of philosophy and
theology and editor of the Journal of the Interdenominational
Theological Center, Atlanta. He has a Ph.D. degree in systematic
theology from Hartford Seminary Foundation in Connecticut.)
Theology of Nat Turner (title
believed that Nat Turner got a copy of the Walker Appeal when it
was being circulated in Virginia, and having read the above
section he saw himself as the fulfillment of Walker's prophecy
that God was going to send a messiah to liberate the slaves from
oppression and bondage. Believing that he was the messiah,
Nat Turner gave himself to constant fasting and prayer in
preparation for the great task of liberating the slaves." (p.
"Turner realized the task of liberating
the slaves from bondage was a very difficult one and that it
required maximum preparation spiritually and strategically.
Therefore, at every point he attempted to follow God rather than
his intuition and insights. It is evident that he made every
attempt to be as careful and sure about his actions as possible.
As long as he felt that his actions were in conformity with God's
will, he was not troubled" (p. 54).
Liberation Theology (title of section)
"Nat Turner was not a theoretician,
because he did not develop a theological system, and he did not
reflect on the nature and meaning of theology, Walker's Appeal, as
we have observed, constituted the theoretical foundation for the
Turner revolt. It gave the rationale and justification for
revolutionary activity, and Nat Turner put the theory into
practice. Nat Turner was, as Lerone Bennett, Jr., said 'David
Walker's word made flesh'. Therefore, Nat Turner's liberation
theology should be interpreted as a theology of action.
Nat's commitment to the liberation of the
slaves from bondage was tested when he ran away for thirty
days" (p. 55).
On Turner's vision of black and white spirits
in the heavens, Young wrote: "This vision said to Nat that
his effort was to be put toward the liberation of the slaves
through bloodshed and violence" (p. 56).
"There were essentially three approaches
used by the abolitionist for liberation. There were moral suasion,
political action, and physical violence. Nat Turner was not an
exponent of moral suasion nor political action, and physical
violence. Nat turner was not an exponent of moral suasion nor
political action. He felt led by God to liberate the slaves with
physical violence only. David Walker advocated moral suasion in
the Appeal when he called upon America to repent and free
the slaves. Walker appealed to the moral conscious of America in
hopes of avoiding a revolt such as Nat Turner's. And since
Walker's Appeal did not persuade the slaveholders to free
the slaves, Nat Turner chose not to write another appeal of moral
suasion but rather to put the already existing one into
action" (p. 56).
"The Nat Turner revolt raises complex
theological questions. What does it have to say about the problem
of the ethics of violence? Was he ethically right in what he did?
Is violence ever legitimate before God? Who sets the limits, man
or God? From Nat's perspective, God sets the limits, he determines
what man must do to be saved" (p. 58)
"the Nat Turner revolt was a response to
violence" (p. 58)
"The following questions can be asked:
Does the end justify the means? Should one use violence to fight
violence? Does the Christian faith stand in opposition to violence
regardless of the situation? How is one to understand the ethics
of violence in light of the Christian faith?" (p. 59)
"When looked at theologically, the problem
of violence in light of the Nat turner revolt becomes a question
of survival. The institution of slavery was so severe and rigid
that it gave Turner no alternative other than violence. Mora
suasion was used as a liberation strategy by Richard Allen, David
Walker, and others, but it failed to convince the slaveholders
that slavery was sinful in the light of God and therefore should
be abolished. Slavery had become so embedded in the matrix of
America until the slaveholding states were insensitive to the
moans and groans of the slaves' (p. 59).
"But rather than repent and abolish
slavery, the slaveholders made slavery severe and inhuman, thus
encouraging the physical violence of Nat Turner.
"This raises a serious question about the
possibility and power of moral suasion as a strategy used for
eliminating slavery, oppression, and man's inhumanity to man. Not
only did the slaveholders refuse to take seriously the prophetic
utterances of Richard Allen's and David Walker's, but even after
the Nat Turner revolt they refused to free the slaves, this
refusal significantly contributed to the start of the Civil
War" (p. 60)
A Commentary on Henry J. Young's Nat Turner:
That the source of slave insurrections and
betrayals was the work of Northern abolitionism and its moral and
intellectual posturing has been repeated by both slave
sympathizers and slavery apologists as if it were an
unquestioned fact. That Christian slaves had something to say
about freedom and responsibility, decency and respectability,
especially their own, plays little or no role in the estimations
of either Southerners or Northerners. This devaluation of the
Christian slave perspective continues to be generated by scholars,
both black and white.
This historical mythmaking
is sustained by academics who are willing without substance to
indulge in a connection between David Walker's Appeal
and Turner's 1831 Confessions -- it is the belief that one action
flowed out of the other, with a kind of certainty and
inevitability. That is Henry J. Young's view. He wrote: "It is
believed that Nat Turner got a copy of the Walker Appeal"
This belief by Young and others devalues the possibility that the
circumstances and motivations for the holy war may have been
stimulated by local and immediate concerns and interests rather
than the global concerns expressed by David Walker's Appeal.
to Gray's question about a "concerted plan," Turner
responded "but can you not think the same ideas,
and strange appearances about this time in the heavens might
to right wrongs. There is no evidence that Turner was
familiar with any Northern abolitionist propaganda, including
Walker's Appeal (which is a red herring, leading nowhere)
and there is nothing in the 1831 Confessions that approximates in the least
abolitionist rhetoric. Nowhere in no instance by text or report
that Turner declared that he was about "the great task of
liberating the slaves." As they say, all politics are local,
not necessarily with global intent.
like "liberator of the slaves" or "a liberating
Black messiah" are not derived from anything Turner is
rumored to have said or from the 1831 Confessions. If Turner saw
himself in such a light, he would be indeed as the slaveholders
argued "a fanatic," "a mad man." There
is nothing in the text of the 1831 Confessions that Turner's
action was directed toward slavery as an institution. There is not even in
the 1831 Confessions that slavery
is an evil., a position that was indeed the abolitionist's central
Nowhere in this document does Turner
speak of slavery as an evil. He however does wrestle with themes
like disinheritance and betrayal -- maybe these themes themselves
inhere to the structure of American slavery in general. Clearly,
Turner restricts himself to the familial concerns (of blacks and
whites) in a backwoods, isolated village, a near wilderness in
western Tidewater Virginia.
Unless we accept
Young's reductionist view, we must conclude as did Gray that
Turner had "intelligence" enough and "quickness of
apprehension" enough to determine what was possible for seven
unarmed yet committed men. Turner's holy war, most likely, was
intended as a punitive act against a certain class and family of
Christian slaveholders, rather than the military conquest of
the whites in Southampton and certainly not Virginia.
posted 20 October 2007
* * *
Martyrdom in Southampton
Theology of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
* * * *
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,
John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk
* * *
* * * * *
Turner Before the Bar of Judgment
Fictional Treatments of the
Mary Kemp Davis
This Virginia rebel, she argues, has been re-arraigned,
retried, and re-sentenced repeatedly during the last century and
a half as writers have grappled with the social and moral issues
raised by his infamous 1831 revolt. Though usually lacking a literal, the novels Davis examines
all have the theme of judgment at their center, and she
ingeniously unravels the "verdict" each author
extracts from or her plot. Davis begins by dismantling the historical scaffolding that
surrounds her subject. She decodes Virginia governor John
Floyd's "official' assessment of the revolt, which, she
says, exemplifies the dialogism between the earlier texts about
the rebellion and the incipient novel tradition. She also considers three classes of documents that
triangulate the trial trope: court records, selected newspaper
accounts, and Thomas Gray's seminal work, The Confessions of
Nat Turner (1831).
* * * *
A Life of Reinvention
in the making-the definitive biography of
the legendary black activist.
Of the great figure in twentieth-century
American history perhaps none is more
complex and controversial than Malcolm X.
Constantly rewriting his own story, he
became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and
an icon, all before being felled by
assassins' bullets at age thirty-nine.
Through his tireless work and countless
speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands
of black Americans to create better lives
and stronger communities while establishing
the template for the self-actualized,
independent African American man. In death
he became a broad symbol of both resistance
and reconciliation for millions around the
new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement.
Filled with new information and shocking revelations
that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a
sweeping story of race and class in America, from the
rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the
struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties
Malcolm's troubled youth, it traces a path from his
parents' activism through his own engagement with the
Nation of Islam, charting his astronomical rise in the
world of Black Nationalism and culminating in the
never-before-told true story of his assassination.
Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of
the most singular forces for social change, capturing
with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in
the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.
* * *
The People Debate the Constitution,
By Pauline Maier
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
* * * * *
The Rebellious Slave
Nat Turner in American Memory
By Scot French
“Nat Turner was neither the first nor the last American slave
to rise in arms against his oppressors,” French writes. “Yet
he stands alone in American culture as the epitome of the
rebellious slave, a black man whose words and deeds challenged
the white slaveholding South and awakened a slumbering nation. A
maker of history in his own day, Turner has been made to serve
the most pressing needs of every generation since. In
remembering Nat Turner, Americans must boldly confront--or
deftly evade, at their peril--the intertwined legacies of
slavery and racism in a nation founded on revolutionary ideals
of freedom and equality.”
* * * * *
A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory
Kenneth S. Greenberg
Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory, Kenneth S.
Greenberg gathers twelve distinguished scholars to offer
provocative new insight into the man, his rebellion, and his time,
and place in history. The historians here explore Turner's slave
community, discussing the support for his uprising as well as the
religious and literary context of his movement. They examine the
place of women in his insurrection, and its far-reaching
consequences (including an extraordinary 1832 Virginia debate
about ridding the state of slavery). Here are discussions of
Turner's religious visions—the instructions he received from God
to kill all of his white oppressors. Louis Masur places him
against the backdrop of the nation's sectional crisis, and Douglas
Egerton puts his revolt in the context of rebellions across the
* * * *
Creating Black Americans
Painter draws on early stories and
official histories, biographical
accounts and legends, well-known events
and little known incidents. One person
highlighted is Olaudah Equiano, one of
the earliest of the African slaves to
write his account. As one might expect,
Painter's pieces on Sojourner Truth and
others of her generation are
Painter also draws on the official
history of the quest for civil rights.
She looks at famous court cases, like
the Dred Scott decision, Plessy v.
Ferguson (which made 'separate but
equal' a legal standard), Brown v. Board
of Education (which knocked down the
same 'separate but equal' as being
unworkable), and other political and
legal events in the quest for civil
rights, even those sometimes viewed as
separate from the Civil Rights Movement
proper, which is also highlighted in
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
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
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 22 July 2012