Sec. 5, Ch. 27 -- Blood on the Cross
Insurrection or Holy War?
And your name it might be Caesar sure,And got your cannon can shoot a mile or more,
But you can't keep the world from moving around
Nor Old Nat Turner from gaining ground.
Folk Saying, ca. mid-19th century
However much perceived as "fanatical," Nathaniel Turner,
the man unveiled in the "Confessions," was a man of conscience who
chose death and martyrdom to a convenient, comfortable, self-serving freedom.
After more than a century, his calm self-assurance in the midst of torture and
human slaughter has extended itself into our contemporary world, possessing
still the power yet to fascinate and overwhelm us.
If Turner were indeed
"mad," as his detractors have argued, it was the indignant madness of
Christian manhood. If one would not stand up against the abominations of Cross
Keys slavery, what indeed would one stand against? Turner intended
to pay for his purported crimes with his own life.
In the very first lines of his narrative, Turner asserted his
readiness "to atone at the gallows" for having "laid the
groundwork of that enthusiasm, which . . . terminated so fatally to many, both
white and black." Like Wesley, Turner was not inclined toward emotionalism
bereft of the divine logos. Turner did not rush into a holy war. His
relationship with Christ began when he was seventeen years old.
At that time,
the Holy Spirit urged him, "Seek ye the kingdom of heaven." That was
his spiritual program for the last fourteen years of his life. Pure emotionalism
could not have sustained itself over such a period. The decision to make war on
Cross Keys came about ever so gradually and reluctantly. Turner did not rush
toward his death nor the death of others.
At his trial, November 5, 1831, Turner made a statement
seemingly at odds to that which he made in the "Confessions." When he
was brought into the slave court and arraigned "for making insurrection,
and plotting to take away the lives of divers free white persons," Turner
"pleaded Not guilty; saying to his counsel, that he did not feel
so" (Foner, 52-53).
Turner was "Not guilty" yet he was ready
"to atone." Though he expressed no regret for the slaughter of the
slaveowners, Turner willingly accepted the responsibility for the actions of
those who followed him. If there was no guilt, why atone? Turner’s seemingly
contradictory response to his moral dilemma can be understood only in the
context of his Christian consciousness.
The legalistic, secular language used by the Court causes the
linguistic confusion. Turner had no independent legal status and thus he gave no
credence to the farce of the slave court.. Turner did not discover his
identity, his humanity in the laws of Virginia and so he refused to be
categorized by its terminology. The Court and Turner spoke two different
languages: one, political and legal; the other, religious and symbolical. In the
"Confessions," Turner addressed Gray, "Sir, you have asked me to
give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late
insurrection, as you call it."
Like the slave court, Gray used the term
"insurrection" to describe Turner’s religious war against Cross Keys
slaveholders. Turner chose not to characterize that which he and others had done
by the legal term. Thus, Turner spoke incisively and truthfully when he said he
was not guilty of "insurrection."
"Insurrection" implies a revolt or a rebellion
against political authority. Turner’s Rebellion was only incidentally an
attack on political authority. Turner was not a proto-John Brown. His war had a
religious source, not a political one. Turner’s war had to do with the moral
world in which Christian slaves and Christian slaveholders interacted. Most
commentators on the deeds of Southampton, however, have tried to stuff Turner
into the Napoleonic or Toussaint L’Ouverture mold of "revolutionary"
Turner's objections to the term "insurrections" signaled, as the
rejection of July 4th signaled, to his reader that his war was
outside the traditional political arena. Turner rejected such political terms as
"insurgent," "insurrectionist," and
"revolutionary." Turner’s war was of a magnitude that such terms
failed to encompass the strivings of Christian slaves.
In the "Confessions," Turner turned his narration
immediately away from the tones of politics to those of religion and to the role
played by the divine in his birth. What Gray called "insurrection,"
Turner offered such terms as "great promise," "great
purpose," "fight the Serpent," "great work," and
"work of death." In Turner’s lexicon, these were religious terms.
Clearly, Turner did not use the term "holy war." But that is indeed
the implication of his narrative. Clearly, he believed he operated under divine
sanction. The general view, however, continues to be that Turner was driven
unconsciously by material external forces— political, economic, social,
international (Aptheker, pp. 7-32).
Though negative materialistic factors existed, Turner used
none of these as a means to explain the "history" of the
"insurrection." As far as we know Turner was willing to accommodate
slavery in the Pauline sense. Turner’s primary impulse was a moral and ethical
one. Clearly, in the "Confessions," the recurring underlying question
that Turner posed was, What is just and Christian?
Slaveholders in Cross Keys
had perverted the new covenant of Christ, committing intolerable abominations.
From his religious perspective God was indeed just. As an ascetic, Turner wanted
no compromise with the Law, the Ten Commandments. He felt no guilt for the
sacrifice God required of him. For he who "loses his life for [Christ] sake
and for the Gospels’ sake will save it" (Mark 8.34-38).
* * *
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Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
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Carter G. Woodson and
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collaborative text set the tone for later
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update15 December 2011