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Turner constructed the "1831 Confessions" as a means, as a guide, by which his life

and his "great work" could be read and understood. These existential exertions, that is,

these efforts  to interpret God’s presence in the world, exemplify Turner’s conception

of the religious life, of living fully engaged in the world.



Section 2, Chapter 7 Coming to Grips with Injustice & Corruption


Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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Methodist Elders Interview Miracle Child

Recognition of Nathaniel's Spiritual Gifts


The Cross Keys Methodist religious leaders became aware of the miracle of the slave boy Nathaniel, from Harriet, his spiritual mother. Benjamin Turner also had taken note of the child. But there was also a formal interview of the child, son of Nancy of the Nile and possibly his master Benjamin Turner. Those at this interview included, according to the "1831 Confessions," Harriet, other "religious persons who visited the [Turner] house," others whom Nathaniel "often saw at prayers," and the host Benjamin Turner.

Harriet told them that the child knew of events before his birth and she also pointed out the birth marks. This board of interviewers took note, Turner told Gray, of the "singularity of my manners," my "uncommon intelligence for a child" and "remarked that I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one as a slave."

The prophecy or forecast of Benjamin Turner and his Methodists would be fulfilled, but not in the manner these Methodists of Turner’s Meeting House had then hoped. These "religious persons," Elders of the church and ministers of the gospel, seemingly, were not adverse to manumission of individual slaves. This Christian community in which Harriet, Nathaniel’s spiritual mother, participated was opened to both slave and free, white and black.

That is, these Methodists headed by Benjamin Turner strove for the Pauline ideal of the Church, neither condemning nor condoning slavery. Slavery was a divinely ordered condition, a spiritual test, that both slave and slaveholder had to endure within the constraints of Christian brotherhood and grace. These were fine sentiments that the young Nathaniel took to heart.

The Elders of Cross Keys received yet another sign of the uniqueness of the slave child in their midst. This second miracle gave further evidence to Harriet’s prophecy that Nathaniel would be a prophet. Turner told Gray, "I have no recollection whatever of learning the alphabet . . . one day when a book was shown me to keep from crying, I began spelling the names of different objects—this was a source of wonder to all in the neighborhood, particularly the blacks." Nathaniel astonished the Turner family by the ease at which he learned to read and write. Many believed his gift of knowledge was indeed another sign of God consciousness in the child.

The acquisition of knowledge without study was a recognized biblical phenomena. In his prophecy of the coming Messiah, Isaiah 11.2-5 lists the seven gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, fear of the Lord, and purity of heart. These could be gained without formal study. They were available to men of God. They also were standards by which to judge one’s self and one’s relationship with the divine. Viewing his life in the spiritual light of these Southampton religionists, Turner was deeply affected by the notion of God in history and in man.

Religion, thereafter, became the principal subject to occupy the boy’s mind. "Restless, inquisitive, and observant," Turner told Gray, "there was nothing that I saw or heard of to which my attention was not directed." In still more wondrous ways, the manifestation of his spiritual gifts "constantly improved at all opportunities." Turner became aware of his spiritual development.

Learning to read the language of man, nature, and God is a thematic motif that runs throughout Turner’s testament. The "1831 Confessions" text is intended as a window. Turner constructed the "1831 Confessions" as a means, as a guide, by which his life and his "great work" could be read and understood. These existential exertions, that is, these efforts to interpret and figure out how to interpret God’s presence in the world, exemplify Turner’s conception of the religious life, of living fully engaged in the world.

Turner, like other Christian slaves, considered Moses the model prophet. For Moses "was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds" (Acts 7.22). According to Joseph Fichtner, Moses, the prototype for all subsequent prophets, "was given all the scientific and military training available" (Forerunners of Christ, p. 20). This spiritual legacy, Turner claimed as his own.

Literacy and broad learning, however, was not a requirement of Methodists leaders or ministers. Though many of the early itinerant Methodist preachers possessed little formal education, "[John] Wesley and [Francis] Asbury . . . did insist that the itinerants read extensively for their own spiritual growth" (The Garden of American Methodism, p. 122). According to F. Roy Johnson, "Benjamin Turner and his foreparents for three generations seem to have been unlettered or almost so" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 18).

In this folk environment, Turner’s literary achievements were indeed miraculous and unexplainable. Here is one of the strange paradoxes of a hierarchical society. As a child, Turner had greater literary attainments than many whites in Southampton, not only the older Turners but also other slaveowners. How could this be, if God had not had his hand in it? Turner’s precocity was the foreshadowing of a great moral dilemma: how to accommodate a God-taught person to slavery and racial oppression.

Sources Consulted

Fichtner, Joseph. Forerunners of Christ: Studies of Old Testament Characters. Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1965.

Johnson, F. Roy. The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection. Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson Publishing Company, 1966.

Williams, William Henry. The Garden of American Methodism: The Delmarva Peninsula, 1769-1820. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1984.

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Nathaniel Turner: 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

 Chapter 6 A Mother's Prophecy / Chapter 8 Growing into Spiritual Manhood

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Garden of American Methodism

The Delmarva Peninsula, 1769-1820

By William H. A. Williams

The book explains the role the rise of Methodism played with people on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia during the years 1769-1820. I is important reading for Methodist history as well as Delmarva history. A growing consensus among historians recognizes this Chesapeake region as the center not only of Methodist growth among African Americans but also as the proving ground for the future of the movement in the new country. Delmarva is celebrated by "the garden of American Methodism." It was home for many years to Francis Asbury, the "father of American Methodism" and fostered perhaps the strongest sectional opposition to slavery in the early US church.

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