Chapter 9 Coming to Grips with Injustice & Corruption
Christian Martyrdom in Southampton
of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
* * *
The Methodist Promise of Freedom
The Road to Religious Integrity Blocked
Interviewed by Benjamin Turner and his fellow
Elders, the young Nathaniel believed he would escape the chaos
of slavery. He expected he would be a free man when he came of
age. Someone very close to Nathaniel impressed him with the belief
that he would not be a bond slave for life. Maybe, Harriet, his
spiritual mother, was the one who gave him that assurance.
At about twenty-one years old, he remembered,
Turner told Gray, "the remarks made of me in my childhood,
and the things that had been shewn me—and as it had been said of
me and my childhood . . . that I had too much sense to be raised
and if I was, I would never be of any use to any one as a
slave." What Turner was "shewn" was not made
apparent. The implication seems to be that he had been shown his
Nathaniel Turner did not believe that these
assurances were made lightly. When a man of authority, such as Benjamin
Turner, utters words concerning a promise of freedom, they ring
like prophecy. Benjamin Turner, with the power to free Nathaniel, headed
the list of those in whom the child had "the greatest of
confidence." That is, Nathaniel Turner expected his
rumored father Benjamin Turner as
a Methodist would provide for his freedom. Harriet’s
spirituality and her hope for her child of prophecy sealed Turner’s
impression. Harriet may also have had a verbal promise from Benjamin
Turner that Nathaniel would receive his freedom. Benjamin Turner intuitively
understood that Nathaniel his son had to be freed if there were to be
peace and justice in Cross Keys.
Methodists had established means by which
Christian slaveowners could accommodate themselves to freeing
their Christian slaves. Organized by geographical districts
(conferences), the Methodists, however, were inconsistent in their
efforts against slavery. The Baltimore and Philadelphia
conferences took more staunch positions against both slavery and
the trading of slaves than their more southern religionists. A
member of the Virginia Conference, Benjamin Turner was familiar
with the conference conflicts and the Methodist moral struggle
Greater than any other aspect, Methodist
doctrine on the evil of slavery set them apart from the Anglican
(Episcopal) churches. The Virginia Conference, south of the
Rappahanock, with its high concentration of slaves in southeastern
Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, did not altogether
capitulate to slaveholding. Though sporadic, now and again,
"the conference could extract a promise of emancipation from
a ministerial candidate, or suspend a deacon for ‘trying to buy
Negroes’, or refuse ordination of a slaveholder" (Slavery
Certainly, Benjamin Turner and his son Samuel were
familiar with Wesley’s denunciation of slavery. Benjamin Turner,
evidence suggests, attempted to come to grips with Wesleyan
Methodism; his son Samuel, however, overemphasized the economic
aspects. Surely, both were familiar with Wesley’s stance on
slavery and racial oppression. In his
Upon Slavery (1774),
John Wesley presented his strongest indictments against slavery
and the slave trade: "It is far better to have no wealth,
than to gain wealth at the expense of virtue. Better is honest
poverty, than all the riches bought by the tears, and sweat, and
blood of our fellow creatures" (John Wesley & Slavery, p. 95).
Admittedly, Wesley was not a Virginian and
never personally dealt with the dilemma of being a slaverholder,
of inheriting the slaves of one’s father. But, clearly, as
Methodists, Benjamin Turner and his son Samuel understood that slavery
was a moral evil to be deplored, and if not an evil, it,
nevertheless, spawned a host of evils. That was the view probably
of most Virginians. Methodists knew their religion required each
to work actively against slavery and to improve it in all
instances within reason.
Benjamin Turner must have known also of the
Methodist practice of "delayed manumission schedule
agreements," which would have been a reasonable alternative
for Nathaniel, a child with a "superior intellect," who
as an adult could manage for himself. Benjamin Turner may have indeed
kept his promise to free Nathaniel. That promise, however, was
not carried out by his son Samuel. If true Samuel Turner was
unfaithful to his father and beastly to his half-brother.
The Turners knew that some Southampton
slaveholders, conscientious of their religion’s principles, had
already freed their slaves. For Southampton possessed an unusually
large number of emancipated Christian slaves, greater than
neighboring Sussex or Greensville counties. From 1820 to 1830, the
number of free Negroes in Southampton increased from 1306 to 1745,
an increase of over 33% (Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, p. 15). In 1830 Sussex and
Greensville contained 866 and 332, respectfully. Nansemond another
border county, closer to Norfolk, had fewer free Negroes with its
1698 (Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion, p. 63).
In order to follow a Methodist schedule,
generally, "all slaves were to be manumitted after serving
seven to ten years" (The
Garden of American Methodism, p.161). Or for a child, about
a generation. By either calculation, Nathaniel would have been
scheduled to become a free man between the ages of nineteen and
In that Samuel Turner, trustee of Turner’s
Methodist Church, ignored his spiritual and intellectual
strivings, the young Nathaniel believed deeply that Benjamin Turner’s
promise would not be honored. The young Nathaniel thus turned his
attention and sentiments to a segment of the plantation economy he
had heretofore only viewed at a distance. He aligned himself with
slaves less gifted than himself. In a way, he sensed a need to
change his sensibility, his orientation. He became fully one of
As Erik Erikson pointed out in
Society, "should a young person feel that the environment
tries to deprive him too radically of all the forms of expression
which permit him to develop and integrate the next step, he may
resist . . . . there is no feeling of being alive without a sense
of identity" (Conscience, p. 68).
Nathaniel felt deprived by his lack of recognition as
a member of Benjamin Turner’s family. He had been abandoned,
disinherited. He was less than. Every African, every Christian
slave, had to work against the ready assumption that his endowment
in matters of the mind fell below that of Europeans or white
Americans. America’s Christian slaves were made to feel lower in
the measure of humanity. In the large arena, Turner had been cut
off from the master’s house and the master’s favor.
Other slave youth had more practical and
immediate concerns. Many suffered from a lack of adequate physical
nutrition. Generally, the daily allowance for an adult slave was
about a quart of corn meal and a half-pound of pork. As a result,
the most frequent slave crime was stealing from the smokehouse.
This crime carried the allotted penalty of thirty-nine lashes and
a branding on the hand.
To keep this aspect of the slave’s oppression
at a distance from his sense of self, Turner
"spiritualized" his poverty. He self-imposed his own
regimen. He fasted often. Turner told Gray, he "was not
addicted to stealing." Yet he joined these slave youth in
mischief, as a planner, as a silent sympathizer with their
suffering. Here, in the early stages of his development, Turner
sharpened his leadership skills. In effect, Nat ordained a
different ethic, set up a different hierarchy of sins. Turner’s
participation, what he did by way of advice in these scavenging
hunts, did not satisfy for him any physical desire.
Early in his youth, thus, Turner realigned
himself spiritually with those without, those who had, like
himself, been abandoned, disinherited. This incident was Turner’s
first critical ethical turn. As a devout Christian slave, his
sense of personal morality must have been challenged. Turner did
an epistemological twist that came down on the side of what was
just. This "stealing" was not a violation of the Mosaic
law. Christian slaveholders were not following the edicts issued
by Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount. They did not feed the hungry.
"stealing" recurs unashamedly just before and during the
Rebellion. At Cabin Pond, Hark brought his master’s pig and
Henry, his master’s brandy. These liberated goods symbolized
their freedom and their independence of their master’s training
and control. During the revolt, Christian slaves liberated not
only food and brandy, but clothes, money, and especially, weapons.
They paid a dear price.
John Wesley taught Methodists how to live in
society with one another. He cautioned them, that industry
required grace. As Christians, they should not only "earn all
you can" and "save all you can," but also
"give all you can." Those who do not give "grieve
the Holy Spirit of God, and in a great measure stop his gracious
influence from descending on our assemblies."
Wesley spoke of
both the poor and the slaves within Methodist communities:
"Many of your [brothers and sisters], beloved of God, have
not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a
place where to lay their head. And why are they distressed?
Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what
your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply
their wants" (Trinity,
Community, and Power, pp. 20-21).
In this adolescent period, Turner learned well
the injustices that existed in Cross Keys slavery. For Turner, as
it was with Jesus of Nazareth, the spirit of the law mattered more
than outward piety. The slaveowners of Turner’s Methodist Church
were pious, yet ungenerous. What came from the heart of a fellow
servant, respect in the fullness of his humanity, began to matter
to Nathaniel. He was a man of discipline; he could fast, go without,
like a John the Baptist.
But, as the ancients have known for ages,
if you want people to love you, forego that which they desire.
During this adolescent stage of his spiritual development, the
"austerity" of Turner’s "life and manners"
was a means of exhibiting his "superior judgment to both
whites and blacks," to make plain his worthiness for becoming
a good Christian citizen.
Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion.
New York: Grove Press, 1966.
Cohn, Walter E.
Conscience: Development and
Self-Transcendence. Birmingham, Alabama: Religious Education Press,
Mathews, Donald G.
Slavery and Methodism: A Chapter in
American Morality, 1780-1845. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.
Meeks, M. Douglass. "Trinity, Community, and
Power." In M. Douglas Meeks, ed.
Trinity, Community, and Power: Mapping Trajectories in Wesleyan
Theology. Nashville, Tennessee: Kingswood Books, 2000.
Smith, Warren Thomas.
John Wesley & Slavery.
Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986.
Williams, William Henry.
The Garden of American Methodism:
The Delmarva Peninsula, 1769-1820. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly
Resources, Inc., 1984.
* * *
Martyrdom in Southampton
Theology of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
8 Growing into Spiritual Manhood /
Chapter 10 The Revelations Begin
* * * * *
Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion
By Herbert Aptheker
The first full-length study of
the bloodiest slave uprising in U.S. history, this
meticulously researched document explores the nature of
Southern society in the early 19th century and the
conditions that led to the rebellion. Aptheker's book
includes Turner's "Confessions," recorded before his
execution in 1831.
is a controversial figure. Many credit his book, American
Negro Slave Revolts, originally published in 1949 and
still in print, with bringing about a sea change in the
history of American slavery. The prevailing view prior to
Aptheker's work was that the slave population was largely
docile. Black slaves accepted their fate with resigned
complacency, and eruptions such as the Stono and Nat Turner
rebellions were aberrations, or so many believed. In
American Negro Slave Revolts, however, Aptheker cataloged
all manner of slave insurrections¾large and small,
threatened and executed¾ spanning American history from the
seventeenth century to the Civil War.
* * *
* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous
New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, in which he
provides a sweeping and provocative
examination of North and South America
prior to the arrival of Christopher
Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that it’s
anything but exhausting to read. With
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, I’m
proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer),
Mann has written nothing less than the
story of our world: how a planet of what
were once several autonomous continents
is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless
scientists and researchers; he visited
the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
wide-ranging yet personal feel as we
follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the
prose is masterful. In telling the
improbable story of how Spanish and
Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he
takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
“southern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.”
We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have
disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue
to do so until we are finally living on one
integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth.
Whether or not the human instigators of all this
remarkable change will survive the process they
helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago
remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * * * *
Life on Mars
By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection.
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
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10 May 2012