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To keep this aspect [lack of food] 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.



Section 2, Chapter 9 Coming to Grips with Injustice & Corruption


Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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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 freedom papers.

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 against slavery.

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 and Methodism, p. 38).

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 Thoughts 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 twenty-two.

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 them.

As Erik Erikson pointed out in Childhood and 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.

In the "1831 Confessions," this "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.

Sources Consulted

Aptheker, Herbert. Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion. New York: Grove Press, 1966.

Cohn, Walter E. Conscience: Development and Self-Transcendence. Birmingham, Alabama: Religious Education Press, 1981.

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.

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Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

Chapter 8 Growing into Spiritual Manhood  / Chapter 10 The Revelations Begin

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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.

Herbert Aptheker 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.

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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.”

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Ancient African Nations

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