Sec. 3, Ch. 15 Coming to Grips with in Justice & Corruption
Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, Higher & Higher
Turner's Spiritual Perfection or Sanctification
By Rudolph Lewis
Turner meditated on the heavenly things he had seen and the
words of the Holy Spirit. He appeared to have made some progress in coming to an
understanding of his spiritual experiences. For the Holy Spirit returned shortly
after the vision. Turner told Gray, it "appeared to me, and reminded me of
things it had already shown me." The Holy Spirit seemed to have gone over
with Turner what he had experienced. Turner’s four-year period of keeping of
the faith under two masters (Sam Turner and Moore).
Nathaniel Turner resisted the
temptation for flight and of disobedience to the Spirit. By these spiritual
acts, Turner, had, in the Wesleyan sense, been justified. This spiritual
preparation was of such success that the Holy Spirit multiplied Turner’s
spiritual gifts. Turner told Gray, the Holy Spirit revealed to him "the
knowledge of the elements, the revolution of the planets, the operation of the
tides, and changes of the seasons." This was Turner’s fifth encounter
with the divine, five times within a period of eight years, 1817-1825.
In ancient Greek cosmology, the "elements" were
considered earth, air, water, and fire. But such a definition does not
provide the full cosmic sense of the religious term. The biblical perspective of
the "elements" can be found in the Wisdom of Solomon (Freedman,
For he [God] gave me sound knowledge of existing things,/
that I might know the organization of the universe and the forces of its elements,/
The beginning and the end and the midpoint of times,/ the changes in the sun’s
course and the variations of the seasons./ Cycles of years, positions of the
stars, natures of animals, tempers of beasts,/ Powers of the winds and
thoughts of men, uses of plants and virtues of roots—/Such things as are
secret I learned, and such as are plain;/for Wisdom, the artificer of all
taught me (7.17-22). [my italics]
In the Christian context, Wisdom corresponds to either the
Christ, or the Holy Spirit. In effect, God through the agency of the Holy Spirit
gave Turner extranatural powers in which to command the powers of nature. In
pedagogical terms, Turner had completed his masters with honors; he then readied
himself for doctoral work.
Gaining power over the elements, Turner understood he was
caught up in a process of "sanctification." Turner told Gray, "I
sought more than ever to obtain true holiness before the great day of judgment
should appear." Turner wanted to be the person the Holy Spirit wanted him
to be. With respect to individual spiritual growth, "holiness" and
"sanctification," terms to indicate "Christian perfection,"
began in the Methodist movement. John Wesley (1703-1791), according to Donald G.
Bloesch, "envisaged salvation as a process beginning with seeking for
salvation, leading to justification and sanctification, and culminating in
entire sanctification or Christian perfection" (The Holy Spirit, pp.
John Wesley’s "way of salvation" corresponds to
the spiritual process through which Turner was led by the Holy Spirit. To
restate Bloesch’s list. Wesley’s three step process included
"preventing grace," "justifying grace," and
"sanctifying grace." According to Ted A. Campbell, "Prevenient
grace is the appropriate heading under which Methodists have described all the
ways in which God works with human beings before they believe in
Christ." This is grace that comes before "faith in Christ."
Bloesch called "seeking for salvation" and Wesley called
"preventing grace" correspond to the spiritual events in which the
Holy Ghost commanded Turner to "Seek the kingdom of heaven." These two
initial revelations Turner misread, expecting its intent implied his personal
freedom was near, when it was indeed salvation in his grasp. "Prevenient
grace leads us to repentance, sorrow over sin and the realization that we
are unable to save ourselves" (Methodist Doctrines: The Essentials,
Turner’s wilderness experience corresponds to the dividing
line between the first and second steps in the Methodist way of salvation. In
his sermon, "The Wilderness State," John Wesley considered the
wilderness experience as indicative of a spiritual problem or illness. In the
quest of sanctification one must come to grips with "temptation, fear,
false security, boasting of spiritual accomplishments, forms of religious
Turner had lived the good life—prayed, meditated on the
scriptures, fasted, treated his fellow servants with respect—and as an outcome
he expected that God would reward him with freedom from the bonds of slavery. In
Methodist doctrine, goodness nor works nor status are sufficient to be justified
by God. Turner’s real trial had yet to begin.
Disappointed and frustrated, Turner ran away from his master
Samuel Turner. He had not yet learned that man is not saved or justified by his
own abilities, or his piety, or puritan practices. By God’s grace "are ye
saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God"
(Ephesians 2.8-10). The Holy Spirit stopped Turner and counseled patience,
obedience, and faith. This justification creates "the experience of
assurance as related to the earlier experiences of awakening and
repentance." The Christian gains a sense of "direction" in his
On returning, Turner remained in obedience to God’s command, though
forced into an undesired "marriage," sold on the auction block, and
separated from his family. In spite of these attacks against his humanity,
Turner never attempted again to escape or abandon that which God had destined
Turner sought to be sanctified, to find holiness, before
"the great day of judgment." On his return, the Holy Spirit led Turner
to understand that the vision of the warring spirits was an eschatological sign.
In the New Testament, there are related and varying expressions of the meaning
and intent of "judgment." In all instances, judgment occurs in
history. For some, it is a day when one "makes a permanent decision to
accept Jesus Christ or reject him" (McKenzie, p. 468). For others, judgment
is always present.
In Revelations 19.2, judgment is the downfall of a world
power. In 2 Peter (2.6, 2.9, 3.7), it is the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. In
some traditions, the final judgment would occur when Christ comes out of the
clouds on a white horse with an army of angels to do final battle with Satan,
which would end history. In this scenario, the final judgment occurs outside of
history. Likely, Turner still did not know the full implications of the
eschatological imagery of the warring spirits. He probably expected a judgment
in which Christ came as divine warrior to bring closure to history, an end to
physical and spiritual bondage—a liberation of both Christian slaves and
slaveholders. Such millennial thinking and reading of celestial signs had
existed in America since 1780 (Juster, par. 1).
Through his spiritual exercises and the agency of the Holy
Spirit, Turner arrived at the desired state of sanctifying grace or
sanctification. For, in the "Confessions," Turner said he was
"made perfect." He had reached Christian perfection. Turner told Gray,
"And then I began to receive the true knowledge of faith. And from
the first steps of righteousness until the last, was I made perfect"
[my italics]. Turner’s "knowledge of faith" is related to a
knowledge of God or Christ, that is, the acceptance of the gift of divine grace.
"It is an insight which is the fruit of revelation, faith, and
experience," according to McKenzie.
It is "more than speculative or
theoretical knowledge" (Dictionary of the Bible, pp.
486-487). In Matthew 13.11, "knowledge of faith" concerns itself with
the mystery of the "kingdom of heaven." In his phrasing, Turner added
"true" to suggest that there existed a "false knowledge of
faith." Likely this was an oblique reference to the religionists of Turner’s
Methodist Church who had created a "white only" Christian worship.
Thus singled out, Turner was "redeemed," set free
by his faith in God’s righteousness, that is, the Spirit of the Lord was ever
with him, guiding him. Turner’s redemption, his striving for
"holiness," was a greater freedom than any promised by Benjamin Turner
or dodged by Samuel Turner or denied by Thomas Moore.
The state of holiness is a "perfecting
perfection" rather than a "perfected perfection." Wesley
himself never claimed to have attained this higher state, though various of
his followers made the claim. He argued that sanctification is both a
process and an event. Before the moment of the experience of perfect love we
are moving toward it, and after this moment we continue in it. He once
described sanctification as a "progressive work, carried on in the soul
by slow degrees, from the time of our first turning to God" (Bloesch,
This holiness, this sanctifying grace ends in absolute
perfection or glorification, but this takes place beyond the pale of death"
(The Holy Spirit, pp. 124-125). Though his perfection was not a
"perfected perfection," Turner received powers from the Holy Spirit
that he would not have had simply as a "free man." Nathaniel Turner,
however, continued to grow in his spirituality, which rose eventually to the
height of Christian martyrdom.
Turner’s "perfection" proceeded from his
certainty of his relationship with the divine. In such a state, the individual
is "‘born again’ to a new life in Christ," according to Ted
Campbell. In Sermon 40 "Christian Perfection," Wesley explained that
holiness "does not imply as some men seem to have imagined an exemption
either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. . . . we may,
lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection
on earth. . . . none which does not admit of a continual increase. . . . he hath
still need to ‘grow in grace’, [2 Peter 3:18] and daily to advance in the
knowledge and love of God his Savior [see Philippians 1:9]" (Maddox, p.
One is not immune to sin (e.g., sins of omission). There are numerous
"spiritual problems or illnesses that the believer might face . . .
.temptation, fear, false security, boasting of spiritual accomplishments, forms
of religious depression" (Methodist Doctrine, p. 59).
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