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Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

 

 

Sec. 3, Ch. 20 --Christian Salvation in Cross Keys

 

Make Way for the Lord—1828-1831

 

In 1828, three significant events moved Turner closer to his ultimate destiny, his ultimate test. First, Turner confronted his third master, Thomas Moore. Nathaniel was honest and open. He told Moore what was in his heart. Turner explained to Moore that he was to have been freed when he came of age. That was seven years before in 1821. Turner asked for his freedom, or an arrangement for his freedom. According to a Jerusalem resident, in a letter to the Richmond Whig (September 26, 1831), Moore whipped Turner "for saying that the blacks ought to be free, and that they would be free one day or other" (Foner, p. 27). 

This was, at least, Turner’s second flogging. The previous one was while he was slave to Sam Turner, his half brother. Apparently, Moore believed Africans were slaves by nature and could rise no higher than that status. Clearly, Moore decided not to participate in their elevation. After this flogging Turner did not run away. He made no attempt to escape. If one were religious, one would be inclined to suggest that God stepped in.

Thomas Moore died in 1828, shortly after Nathaniel’s flogging (Johnson, pp. 51-53). The oral record is silent on the cause of Moore’s death. Seemingly, in Southampton, among both blacks and whites, life-expectancy was in the low-50s, with men dying often in their mid-forties or before. Tidewater Virginia was indeed the longest settled region of the Old Dominion. 

Yet the western sections of the Tidewater were not fully settled until the middle of the 18th century. In the early 1800s, Southampton was still not that far from wilderness, from the frontier. The lifestyle for many was elemental and rugged. It might have been something that he ate that was disagreeable. Or maybe it was conscience and guilt that killed him. or maybe it was indeed the hand of the Lord, making a way for the fulfillment of Turner's promise.

Many slaveowners feared that without slavery Virginia would collapse into a barbarous life, the wilderness overwhelming civilized life. Such dangers from the forest as snakes, bears, and other wild animals were still the norm during the 1820s and 1830s. In addition, there were problems of diet, sanitation, healthcare, and medicinal treatments. Then there were the slaves themselves, an alien element in their midst, and their uses of superstitions and poisons to eliminate their enemies (Johnson, p. 56). The causes of non-violent deaths always left some doubt in the minds of a people who still lived experientially in a religious and mythic world.

Moore, like Samuel Turner, made no provisions for Nathaniel Turner’s freedom. Moore’s wife, Sally Francis, was "named administratix of his estate. Nat and five other slaves—Moses, Lucy, Olive, Somia, and Inarchy—were left to their young son Putnam Moore," a child about six years old (Johnson, p. 63). Johnson’s account do not provide the ages of the "five other slaves." Assuredly, some of them were children or teenagers and would again be sold. A year after his death, Sally Francis, Putnam’s mother, married Joseph Travis, a carriage maker. In some fashion, Travis gained ownership of Moses, a slave youth inherited by Putnam. After Travis’ murder, Moses was convicted as an "insurgent", sold on the auction block, and then transported.

Slaveholding was a short career for Putnam Moore. His stepfather Travis and his mother were the first two to be killed in the Rebellion. At nine years old, Putnam, living in the Travis household, was also hacked to death. These three slaveholders were the first to be sacrificed in Turner’s holy war. Though a slaveholder, Travis was not legally Nathaniel’s master; he, however, seemed to have been known more as an artisan than a plantation owner. Travis, however, was in the legal line of ownership for Turner as well as a number of Turner’s Christian soldiers. 

So Nathaniel was gracious toward him and failed to kill him when he gave the first blow of the Rebellion. In practice, Sally Francis, the mother of Putnam, managed Nat and, according to Gilbert Francis, Sally was one of Nat Turner’s childhood playmates and one of his teachers (Interview with Director of Southampton County Historical Society, August 2000).

There were sufficient conditions in Cross Keys to drive any man mad. The immoralities and perversities committed within Cross Keys were indeed sufficient enough to drive persons mad and worst to reduce them to beasts. From the perspective of an oppressed people longing ever so much to establish moral order and respectability in their private lives, the wildest images of Sodom and Gomorrah were not so far from their everyday imagination. Turner himself had had three slavemasters within a period of five years; his last master, six years old. As a Christian apostle, of course, he was morally indignant, especially in that the agents of this evil called themselves "Methodists."

By this time, Turner, however, had spiritually developed beyond mere petty revenge. He had become a man who took full responsibility for his life in the world. He had worked out his world view. In his mind and soul, he was already free, greater than any American-made freedom. Since 1825, at the beginning of his ministry, Turner was, existentially, a member of Christ’s "kingdom of heaven." For Turner, his treatment as property to be inherited and sold from one slaveholder to another, without regard for his rights as a human being, was yet another sign, symbolic of Satan’s expanding realm.

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