Chapter 8 Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption
Christian Martyrdom in Southampton
of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
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Growing into Spiritual Manhood—1810-1823
Nathaniel's Recognition of Southampton
In 1810, a brutal change occurred in Nathaniel’s
plantation status. About forty-four years old, Benjamin Turner died.
His testament (Deed Book 14, p. 81) willed Nathaniel, his fellow
servants, and 360 acres of land to John Clark’s older brother
Samuel Turner, who became also a trustee of Turner’s Methodist
Church (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, tapes 1-2).
In 1809, Samuel Turner, about
twenty-one years old, was about twelve years older than his
younger brother John Clark. Benjamin Turner’s death forced the two
young boys, Nathaniel and John Clark, each to go his different way to
start a new life. The death of a master was a cataclysmic event,
as turbulent and destructive as any natural disaster.
According to F. Roy Johnson, "All thirty
of the old master’s thirty slaves were divided between their
mistress [Elizabeth] and her five children. Nathaniel, his mother, and
six other blacks—Sam, Lydia, Drew, Chary [spelled also,
C-h-e-r-r-y], Miver, and Elick were already in the possession of
Samuel Turner, the oldest son" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 27).
Whatever John Clark inherited from his
father, which he would not receive until he came of age, did not
approach what Samuel received by the law of patrimony, that is,
the greater part of the estate. In this manner, the patriarchal
system of Virginia’s slavocracy disinherited those born after
the oldest son. John Clark as a child, was probably as befuddled
as Nathaniel by the events that followed Benjamin Turner’s sudden death..
At this stage, Nathaniel Turner, ten years old, had
not a glimmer of the world that awaited him. He had not yet
reached puberty. He was still fairly free spirited; he was a
child who had to be taught to be a slave. The economic-minded
Samuel Turner, Benjamin Turner’s oldest son, would be his guide into that
hell that was slavery. We do not know fully Samuel Turner’s
regard for the little Christian slave child who became a part of
the Turner household. When Nathaniel was born, Samuel Turner was about
thirteen years old.
Any adolescent would probably have viewed
such a child as an intruder, especially a child who attracted so
much attention and approval, especially from his father Benjamin
Turner. The death of the father must have caused many
resentments to rise to the surface, among both the black and
white Turners. Doubtless the separation of John Clark and Nathaniel
Turner was the only means by which Nathaniel could fulfill his
destiny as a prophet, an apostle of what Malcolm X praised as
Benjamin Turner was no longer present to indulge
Nathaniel, the miracle child, and his intellectual attainments. He had
been a central figure in the Turner household. Samuel
Turner, his new master, had no intent to indulge him. Like
Harriet, while Ben Turner lived, Nathaniel was a house servant, a
house boy. As a slave of Samuel Turner, a third-generation
Methodist and slaveholder, that was no longer possible. Though
Benjamin Turner expanded his ownership of slaves at his own father’s
death, the moral wrongs of slavery still disturbed his
From Nathaniel’s child perspective, Benjamin Turner had not
become a coarse slaveholder. In Sam Turner’s generation, however, the moral
dilemma of slavery resolved itself on the economic side. Having
fewer slaves than his father before him, Sam Turner needed farm
hands. There was a downturn in the Virginia economy. Like other
slave children, at ten to twelve, Nathaniel was introduced to field
work and then the plow.
Naturally, the boy Nat felt a measure of
resentment, maybe even hatred. For Sam Turner denied Nat that
essential right needed by every human being: a viable choice. In
his World Justice article John Francis Maxwell pointed out
definitively the horror at the core of slavery: "The slave,
man, woman or child is deprived of the natural vocational right
to arrange and live his own life, to choose his own vocation,
his own work, his own leisure-recreation. This state of deprivation is the necessary
consequence of being in the ownership of a master who can
transfer him, by sale and purchase, to another master"
("The Development of Catholic Doctrine Concerning
Slavery," p. 189).
One man’s inheritance becomes another
man or woman or child’s undeserved disinheritance and
displacement. Nat’s intimacy with John Clark, which had the
tenor of one brother for another, was also undermined and his
opportunities to study formally ceased.
Conscious of plantations rumors and his own
complexion, Turner may have felt deep down that he too was a
"son" of Ben Turner—the bastard son, disinherited.
That tormenting state of not knowing who the father is, as is
evident in Fred Douglass’1845 Narrative, must have been a
prevalent phenomena among many young Christian male slaves, even
to those who had much less on which to base their suspicions.
Patriarchy when injudicious has always
generated discontent, intrigue, and fratricide. In such mythic
contests for power, "legitimacy" is always a central
question. By this time, Tom, his spiritual father, had run away
and escaped. Turner was alone in a male world with none to
Nathaniel Turner learned, however, that which can
not be dismissed must be borne. The plow gave the boy Nathaniel
solitude and the opportunity to develop his spiritual as well as
his physical gifts. He developed great upper-body strength,
endurance, and determination. The drudgery and monotony of farm
work gave him hours of silence to study his thoughts and
feelings and his place in the world. With his regard ever on God
and righteousness, Turner learned, as other wise men before him,
when one road becomes blocked, faith finds another. That is,
fortitude and perseverance find their mark.
Abandoned by the Elders of the local
Methodist Church to the life of a field slave, Nathaniel did not
overly despair. God was still with him and continued to bless
him and increase in him both faith and reason, bestowing upon
him scientific knowledge and religious insight. "While
employed," Turner told Gray in
Confessions," "I was reflecting on many
things that would present themselves to my imagination, and
whenever an opportunity occurred of looking at a book when the
school children were getting their lessons, I would find many
things that the fertility of my own imagination had depicted to
Most likely, Benjamin Turner, and later Samuel,
possessed family libraries to which Nathaniel and John Clark had
access. The young Nathaniel was becoming ever more self-conscious of his own
To stave off his own frustrations, having
been removed away from central stage, Nathaniel disciplined both his
mind and heart. For God had marked him on his head and breast.
So he prayed and fasted when not engaged in his master’s
service, but he also made practical use of his intellect. Nathaniel
experimented "in casting different things in moulds made of
earth." In these experiments, we find, possibly, a mirror
to his soul’s turmoil. If his "casting" involved
metal rather than, say, clay, then the experiments become clear.
The combined experiments, including the
making of paper and gunpowder, suggest Turner attempted to make
a shotgun. This particular intellectual play or desired
production, seemingly, symbolized Nathaniel’s natural anger and his
urge to strike out. At this stage of his development, his
religion, conservative and sincere, however, counseled obedient
Nathaniel Turner was keenly aware directly of how
the religious world of the departed Benjamin Turner was slipping
away. From 1810-1822, the liberal leanings of Methodism
gradually faded. Possibly affected by the Prosser conspiracy,
the Baptists and Methodists, between 1808 and 1812, began to
reverse their policies on Christianizing slaves. Though Prosser
did not use religion himself, there were slave preachers among
his conspirators who used the Moses story to motivate his
listeners to join Gabriel.
One aged Richmond preacher defended his
ministry, thus: "I never preached any doctrine but that
they should serve God and their masters faithfully. But, as for
others who preached, I know they did not advise the same
Rebellion, pp. 53-54). The older Methodist sympathy
for persecuted Christian slaves declined; competition came from
only scattered pockets of Presbyterians, Episcopalians,
Baptists, and Quakers. By 1820, "Methodism moved from a
persecuted, radical sect to dominant church." (The
Garden of American Methodism,
With an economic downturn, Virginia slavery
became more vicious. In 1818, with the corn prices declining and
the soil ruined by tobacco and poor soil management, more and
more slaveowners began to see their slaves as "black
gold," that which could be traded in a financial crisis,
without consideration of family life or attachments. With
President Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory and
the subsequent expansion of cotton production, the Lower South
became a market for slaves, especially since there was no
international source for African slaves, the external slave
trade having been banned constitutionally in 1808.
W.E.B Du Bois, however, in his
Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1896), established
definitively that the African trade continued up to and beyond
the Civil War. But its flow was not adequate to feed the hunger
of Deep South slavery. This new internal trade in Christian
slaves was an innovation, for Virginians tended to free their
excess slaves or provide them an opportunity to obtain their
During the thirty years before the Civil War,
however, Virginia bred slaves like crops, "improving the
line." The market became extremely lucrative. The price of
slaves tripled, from about $400 in 1830 to $1200 in 1860. The
Old Dominion became the greatest exporter of slaves from the
Upper South, about 300,000, an average of about 10,000 a year
Negro in Virginia, p. 180). Being "sold down the
river" (an expression of Virginia origin) was an ominous
shadow over the head of every Virginia black.
According to M.I. Finley of the University of
Cambridge, "any given slave had a virtual 50% ‘chance of
being sold at least once in the course of a 35-year lifetime’
and on average ‘would witness 11.4 sales of members of his
family of origin and of his own immediate family’ . . . . ‘the
threat of sale was sufficiently large to affect the life of
every slave" (Ancient
Slavery and Modern Ideology, pp. 76-77). What
awaited them was not a better life, but the sweaty drudgery of
the rice fields of South Carolina, the mosquito-infested
turpentine swamps of Georgia, or the semi-tropic sugarcane
bayous of Louisiana.
Du Bois, W. E. B.
The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of
America, 1638-1870. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Egerton, Douglas R.
The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1892. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina
Finley, Moses I.
Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980.
Francis, Gilbert, and Katherine Futrell.
Insurrection—1831. Southampton County Historical Society Living Library, 4 tapes.
Johnson, F. Roy.
The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection.
Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson Publishing Company, 1966.
Maxwell, John Francis.
"The Development of Catholic Doctrine Concerning Slavery"
(Part I). World Justice, XI (December 1969), pp.
Williams, William Henry.
The Garden of American Methodism:
The Delmarva Peninsula, 1769-1820. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly
Resources, Inc., 1984.
Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects
Administration in the State of Virginia, compilers.
Negro in Virginia. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1994.
* * *
Martyrdom in Southampton
Theology of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
Methodist Elders Interview Miracle Child /
Chapter 9 Methodist Promise
* * *
The Negro in Virginia
By Virginia Writers' Project
The Negro in Virginia
examines the life of Afro-Americans in
historic Virginia. As a part of the
Virginia Writers' Project of the WPA.
This compilation of works provides a
comprehensive look at the lives of
Virginians from slavery to the Great
The Negro in Virginia, a product
of that state's black unit directed by
Roscoe E. Lewis and one of the
outstanding achievements of the Writers'
Project, attained publication.
Roscoe Lewis evinced a keen interest
in the tales of former slaves, both in
this and in his later research
activities. His efforts to obtain slave
narratives continued after the Writers'
Project was terminated. At the time of
his death in 1961 he had begun a
systematic analysis of the more than two
hundred life histories he had collected.
On 8 November
1936, an all-black unit of the Virginia Writers'
Project under the direction of
Roscoe E. Lewis was formed. The objectives of
the Virginia Negro Studies project, based at Hampton
Institute and consisting of 16 workers, were to
provide employment for educated African Americans on
relief and to collect and publish material on
African-American life in Virginia from Jamestown to
the present. Lewis, a chemistry and later social
sciences professor at Hampton Institute, had been
interested in African-American oral history for some
time and was an excellent choice for project
director. During the next year more than 300
ex-slaves were interviewed. The interviews plus
research in libraries and courthouses resulted in
the publication of
The Negro in Virginia in 1940. About half of
the interviews have been lost. The rest are located
at various repositories throughout Virginia. Weevils
in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-slaves,
first published in 1976 by the University Press of
Virginia, represents an attempt to assemble all
extant Virginia ex-slave narratives. Altogether 20
percent of the personnel of the Virginia Writers'
Project was black.—LVA
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update 28 June 2008