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Benjamin's founding of a church was a kind of repentance for his sins --

rape, adultery, and enslavement of his own flesh and blood

 

 

A Bio-Religious TIMELINE for 

Nathaniel Turner

(1800-1831)

Compiled by Rudolph Lewis 

1800

January-February

Nathaniel Turner's mother (about sixteen or seventeen years old girl, recently arrived from the coast of Africa, named Nancy by her buyer and owner Benjamin Turner) arrives in Cross Keys and becomes pregnant immediately. Reason and respect for humanity forces us to conclude that after being kidnapped and transported to Virginia, the female captive was bought and then raped by her owner Benjamin Turner. In short, Nathaniel had an African mother and a white American father.

October 2

Nathaniel Turner is born in Cross Keys, Virginia, and named by his owner and father Benjamin Turner. His African mother startled by his pinkish color and reminded  of her rape by Benjamin Turner, with indignation, attempted to kill the child. Benjamin Turner thus placed the child into the hands of Harriet and Tom (middle-aged and seasoned slaves, probably inherited slaves from his father). They became the surrogate parents (or grandparents). 

Nathaniel is a Biblical Jewish name, meaning roughly "gift of God" or "God has given." This name occurs only in the New Testament in the Gospel of John: His "initial unbelief was overcome by a demonstration of the superhuman knowledge of Jesus, so that he confessed that Jesus was the Messiah" (John 1:45-51) and (2) this biblical Nathaniel "saw the apparition of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee" (John 21:1). Nathaniel, however, is not usually listed among the Twelve Disciples. According to John L. McKenzie (Dictionary of the Bible, p, 607), this situation put before us by John creates an "exegetical problem." Nathaniel is "most easily identified with Bartholomew, but some scholars suggest that he is the same as Matthias." Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot (Acts of the Apostles 1:23-26).

The aspects of "superhuman knowledge" and experiencing a vision (or "apparition") of Christ were  central to the identity Nathaniel Turner sketched of himself in the 1831 Confessions.

1803

Harriet, Nathaniel's spiritual mother, concludes that her stepchild is a miracle child, for he knows of events that occurred before his birth. He thus becomes a marvel for the religious of Cross Keys who generally have a biblical sense of the world. One should also keep in mind that this is an agrarian society in which there is great attention paid to natural and unusual events, which are usually ascribed to God working in history. This perspective is one that is shared by the descendants of both Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans. This view is indeed Common Ground. That is, we should keep in mind that the Rationalism and the Scientism of the Modern period had not yet taken root among the masses of America, though religious skepticism had began to take a foothold among the more educated, like Thomas Jefferson.

1805

Harriet and Tom discover that Nathaniel knows how to read though he had not been taught. His literary talents improve quickly and measurably.

1808

Harriet sets up an interview with the white religionists of Turner's Meeting House which had been recently founded in the home of Benjamin Turner. Though Benjamin Turner was a  Methodist, probably second-generation, one might speculate that Benjamin's founding of a church was a kind of repentance for his sins -- rape, adultery, and enslavement of his own flesh and blood. These sins reached the high level of crimes found in the Old Testament and in the "Old Patriarchs." To state that Benjamin Turner was in need of some act or acts of repentance in such a small and isolated community in which everyone knows every one's personal sins ("business") would not, however be reckless speculation. Such secret pains must indeed be reckoned and publicly amended.

In any event the elders of Benjamin Turner's Meeting House concluded that because of the child's intelligence and quickness of perception he would never be suitable as a slave. Harriet and later the child was led to believe that Nathaniel's freedom would be granted at age 21.

1809

Maybe aware of the approach of his own death or as a means of putting his sins at arm's length or displacing his sins, Benjamin transfers the ownership of Nathaniel to his white son Samuel Turner.

1810

Benjamin Turner dies. Tom, Nathaniel's spiritual father, runs away and escapes the slavery regime and disappears into the black hole of history. Nathaniel is doubly abandoned. Further he is no longer the pampered slave but is assigned to the fields as a plow boy. Patiently, he endures as his powers of insight increases and his knowledge of the Bible expands.

1817

In the midst of his formal study of the Scriptures with the Methodist society in Cross Keys, Nathaniel experienced his first revelatory message from the Holy Spirit, namely, "Seek ye the kingdom of heaven." 

This sentiment in which Jesus encourages his followers to "seek the kingdom" is found at Matthew 6: 33 and Luke 12: 31. Mark and Luke, however, always used the "kingdom of God" rather than the "kingdom of heaven" used by Matthew. Jesus, it seems, taught that the "kingdom" was at once to come and at hand. Those who are "in Christ," who share his vision were already apart of that which would appear to all. The point here is that here in this initial revelatory experience we already have the suggestion of the apocalyptic. Of course, the Apocalypse, which is emphasized heavily in the Book of Revelation, becomes a major theme as Turner approaches his thirty-first birthday. Images of the Apocalypse began to appear regularly by 1828.

1819

Nathaniel received his second revelation from the Holy Spirit, again, "Seek ye the kingdom of heaven."

Clearly, Nathaniel is struggling to know the significance of these scriptural words and their application to his own social and religious context. From Turner's narrative, it is evident that he associated the words of this parable by Christ, this biblical inspiration, with the childhood promise  and his own quest and personal desire for freedom from slavery to improve his status and situation.

1821

Nathaniel asked Samuel Turner for his freedom and is whipped. He runs away, disappears in the wilderness of Southampton. Most believed he had escaped to freedom as Tom, his spiritual father before him. But Nathaniel returns after thirty days stating that the Holy Spirit reminded him of the Lukean passage that servants (disciples) should be obedient to Christ (their God) or they would be beaten with many stripes (Luke 12:47). Essentially, disciples of Christ cannot follow their narrow, selfish interests. They had a higher calling to sacrifice. 

We should keep in mind that Jesus too, like John the Baptist,  had a wilderness experience before he began his public ministry (Matthew 4:1ff; Mark 1:12 ff; Luke 4:1 ff).

1822

On his return from the wilderness, Samuel Turner forced Nathaniel into a "marriage" with a young slave woman named Cherry. Of course the sacrament of marriage had no standing in Virginia slavery, which at this time was involved in the nefarious business of breeding Christian slaves and thereafter selling them to the developing states of the deep South. Keep in mind, contrary to the popular belief, in his  1831 "Confessions" Turner makes no mention of a wife nor of any progeny. The myth however continues he himself had a wife and children. We must then conclude that this so-called marriage  is bogus a creation of whites,  a cynical scheme concocted and promoted by Samuel Turner, his white family, and co-religionists. 

This marriage had two purposes.  One, Samuel Turner wanted to assure that Nathaniel in his return would be properly obedient. Nathaniel's agreement to this "marriage" would be a sign of that obedience. Two, like his father Benjamin before him, Samuel Turner had "jumped the fence" and had been involved in an extramarital relationship with one of his slaves, namely, Cherry. The "marriage" was a means of covering, concealing his indiscretion -- his sins. At this time, Samuel is the main trustee of Turner's Methodist Church in Cross Keys.

1823

In his early or mid forties, Samuel Turner dies. The precarious situation of the Turner family is thrown into disarray. Southern Virginia is in the midst of an economic downturn. Middling-sized slaveowning estate -- thirty or so slaves or less -- are most affected. Samuel's widow and her children are in need of some economic assurances. In short, they cannot afford to be slaveowners. They do not have enough capital and thus to maintain a respectable lifestyle they are forced to place their slaves on the auction block.

Nathaniel and Cherry are sold to different owners. That is, they are now owned by persons who are not a part of the Turner family, yet to members of the Cross Keys community. Nancy, Nathaniel's  mother, however remained in the ownership of the Turner family. It must be noted that unlike Frederick Douglass we have little direct knowledge of Turner's family and personal ties. 

There are however black Turners in Southampton who still claim kinship with Turner. But nothing certain has been sustained. 

We cannot be certain that Nathaniel had any children by Cherry or by any other woman. From what he relates in the 1831 Confessions, Nathaniel comes off as rather monkish. He may have indeed chosen the Paulean religious route and refrained from any sexual contact with women. One practical aspect of this decision was that he did not want to produce children for the slave market. Another was that children and family made one more reserved in what actions that one might give oneself over to.

At Samuel Turner's death, Cherry had probably one child and possibly another in her belly. Nathaniel was purchased by Thomas Moore, who refused to purchase Cherry, a situation which caused some consternation for the white Turners and caused them to sell Cherry and her children to Giles Reese for a mere forty dollars.

During the revolt, it is significant to note that, Turner and his fellow conspirators by-passed the farm of Giles Reese. This may be viewed in two ways. One that Turner was discriminate in his killing of whites in Cross Keys. Two, Turner was thankful that Reese saved Cherry and her children from being sold south out of the community.

1825-1828

Placed on the auction block by his blood relations and his freedom and family connections again denied, Nathaniel's religious experience intensifies and deepens. He experiences a series of visions which he shares with both black and whites, the free and the enslaved. Many assured him that these visions were truly from God; others, especially, the slaveowners claim that they were fabricated by Nathaniel's overactive imagination.

First Vision: Nathaniel observes a cosmic battle of black and white spirits. This vision, it is my view contrary to most black theologians and historians, has been interpreted from a racial, rather than from a religious perspective. The racial perspective views the vision as the coming of a race war: black spirits (black people) warring against white spirits (white people). But such an interpretation limits the religiosity of Turner's vision. Nathaniel was not a proto-nationalist as some have claimed. 

The color symbolism here must be interpreted in the traditional symbolism of black as evil (spirits) and white as holy or sanctified  (spirits). Thus what he observes then is the traditional religious battle of Good versus Evil. Turner and his fellow spirit become the representatives of the white spirits or the spirits of goodness. This interpretation will be sustained by future visions in that Nathaniel becomes a stand in for Christ, who stand above and beyond race for he is not a respecter of persons--all are one in Christ.

Nathaniel thereafter receives power over the elements

Second Vision: The Holy Spirit who had been his conscious companion since he was seventeen years old now transfigures itself into the Cosmic Christ, hovering in the heavens. To see God, to have a vision of the Christ is a significant event. One becomes blessed; one has thus established a special relationship with God. One has been thus truly called to service.

Significant passages from the New Testament are instructive in this vision. For Nathaniel's second vision must be liken to Paul 's conversion experience. There are four instances in which Paul's experience is recounted: (1) Galatians 1:11-17, "where the experience is seen to involve two elements: the revelation of Jesus as God's Son and the commission to preach him to the Gentiles"; (2) and three times in Acts (9: 1-19; 22: 3-16; and 26: 4-18). One feature was crucial: Paul "had seen the Lord (1 Corinthians 9:1); the Risen Christ had appeared to him (1 Corinthians 15:8)." 

Harpers Bible Dictionary (1985, p. 760) points out other significant aspects of Paul's conversion that relates to Nathaniel's conversion experience: "This vision led to the conviction that the crucified Jesus was the messiah. It also showed that the events of the end of history had started to unfold, that in these last days God was accomplishing his divine purpose through the crucified Christ, as power working in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Of course Paul's life and Nathaniel's life it is not the same in all its points. Nathaniel was a victim of persecution and Paul was a persecutor. But both had a vision of Christ appearing in the heavens in broad daylight. But we should see Turner's second vision as his call to preach, and most likely a call to preach not only to blacks but more specifically to white slaveholders who like Saul stood between Christ and his people. In the language of Acts, the slaveholders were "persecuting'' Christ in that they impeded or tainted the true worship of Christ.

Third vision: Nathaniel experienced the fall of blood falling from the heavens like a mist and landing on the leaves of corn. Against this revelatory experience must be viewed in the specific religious context of Cross Keys. After the death of Benjamin Turner and under the subsequent regime of Samuel Turner, blacks and whites, the free and enslaved no longer worshipped together, but rather were forced to worship separately. There was, in short, segregated worship among the Turners that developed after the death of Benjamin Turner, a worship which did not represent the true worship of Christ, of God who is no respecter of persons.

This vision of "blood on the corn" is thus a divine substitute for the Eucharist celebrated in Turner's Methodist Church. Corn rather than wheat was the main staple of the poor and the enslaved. That corn was made holy by the blood of Christ and in that it was ingested by them they thus partook of the holiness of Christ and thus became his people. This act thus in a symbolical manner countered the act of segregated worship practiced by the Methodists of Cross Keys. In a symbolical sense, the enslaved went to the head of the worship line and thus were indeed closer to the divinity.

Fourth Vision: Nathaniel experienced the fall of blood on the leaves of trees and hieroglyphics written in blood. This blood represented again the images of white and black spirits engaged in a cosmic battle. This revelatory experience must be read in a religious and spiritual context and read in a symbolical manner. Tt is from the pulp of trees that paper was and is made. And here we find hieroglyphics (a special writing--indicative of divinity) and religious material (cosmic figures -- angels in battle). We thus have a present-day revelatory writing given to Nathaniel that was relevant to his own times and his own particular situation. In essence, it is not so different from the divine inspired writings of Paul's pastoral letters and other writings of the New Testament.

Turner further demonstrated his divine given powers by his cure of a drunken slave driver, a brutal white man named Ethelred Brantley. Brantley refrained from drink, fasted as advised by Turner. He was cured of his plague of boils by the prayers and the hands of Turner. This act of reaching out to a white man, the worst of men within the community, must be also read symbolically in a religious context. Turner's discipleship was not merely a racial one, but universal in the truest sense of the Christian spirit.

After this miraculous event, Turner requested admission into Turner's Methodist Church for Brantley and himself. Their petition was rejected, seemingly, at once on a class and racial basis. Thereafter, Turner performed a baptism in a pond near a  local Baptist church. The location of this baptism have led many to conclude that Nathaniel was of the Baptist faith. But there is nothing in the record to sustain such a conclusion. 

Nathaniel lived within a Methodist community and was Methodist in training and it was in the Methodist church that he sought admission. With this baptism, it would be more correctly to state that Nathaniel rose above all denominational prejudices and restrictions. For God belongs to no particular denomination. He is neither Jew nor Gentile; Catholic nor Protestant; neither Methodist nor Baptist.

Fifth Vision: What is significant about this event is the reported theophany. Unlike Paul, Nathaniel had no sins which he had to wash away. He had not voted for the execution of Christians; neither had he hunted them down and persecuted them. But like Jesus, Nathaniel's baptism was an opportunity for the "self-revealing of God," to show that he had indeed been chosen. Those present at this baptism attested that they observed a dove come out of the heavens and settled upon Turner's person and that a voice came out of heaven, saying that "this is my beloved son." See the follow Gospel passages: Matthew 1:17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21ff; John 1:31-34.

1827

Turner asked Thomas Moore to free him and he is whipped. It is a repetition of what had occurred seven years before with his half-brother Samuel Turner. Nathaniel however this time did not run away

1828

Thomas Moore died and Nathaniel is inherited by the six-year old Putnam Moore, the son of Thomas. Putnam is among the first to be murdered during the revolt. 

May 12

Sixth Vision: The Holy Spirit related a cosmic vision of Christ "laying down the yoke" of salvation and issued a command for a holy war: Nathaniel  "heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching, when the first should be last and the last should be first." 

1830

Nathaniel was at the household of Joseph Travis, who had become the stepfather of Putnam Moore through his marriage to Putnam's mother.

1831

February 12

Seventh Vision: Turner reads an eclipse (a natural event) as an apocalyptic sign from God to take up arms and destroy the enemies of Christ: "And on the appearance of the sign, [the eclipse of the sun last February] I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons. And immediately on the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence, [Henry, Hark, Nelson and Sam]."

July 4

Initially, this was the planned day for the beginning of the holy war. But Nathaniel is sickened by the thought of what he had to do. This too might be also read symbolically on a number of levels. As all know, the 4th of July is a U.S. political holiday -- in which the colonies sought independence from England. But Turner's was was not one of political independence or of secular importance, one that sought political freedom. His war was of a religious cast, of religious judgment and punishment.

August 13

Eighth Vision: There is another solar event, the darkening of the sky at midday. Nathaniel reads this as another entry of God into history, signaling to commence the holy war.

August 14

The time for the holy war is set at a sermon outside Barnes Methodist Church, which seems to have been south of Cross Keys about twenty miles or so. Those who would lend their support were suppose to wear red bandanas. Typically, in this region, August was the month of religious revivals in which the religious visited each others churches.

August 21

Seven men dined at Cabin Pond: Nathaniel, Henry Porter, Hark Travis, Nelson Williams, Sam Francis, Jack Reese, and Will Francis

August 22

Empty-handed, seven men set out to make a holy war. Turner spares numerous white families in his war. Attacks were primarily against the owners of slaves and those who defended them.

August 23

Nathaniel's army dissembles after killing 55 white men, women, and children. Nathaniel disappears. An army is set out to bring him to justice. There are numerous sightings of him as far away as fifty or more miles, near Richmond and south into North Carolina.

October 30

Nathaniel allowed himself to be "captured" after 70 days. He is scourged and brutally abused in his transfer to the jail in Jerusalem.

November 1-4

Nathaniel and Thomas Gray compile the "Confessions."

November 5

At his trial, Nathaniel pleads his innocence but is found guilty as an insurgent and is sentenced to be hanged.

November 11

Nathaniel is hanged. He hurries the hangman and dies at noon.

November 12

Christian slaveowners and their sympathizers (doctors and surgeons) desecrate and dismantle Turner's bodyskin from flesh; flesh from bones.

December 1831: The Confessions Nat Turner published in Baltimore, Maryland, by Thomas R. Gray

*   *   *   *   *

Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

*   *   *   *   *

Nathaniel Turner, the Bible, & the Sword

A  Reconsideration of the 1831 “Confessions”

 By Rudolph Lewis

Biblical Scholars, Theologians & Other Commentators

on Nathaniel Turner of Southampton

Compiled by Rudolph Lewis

 

Nathaniel of Southampton or Balaam’s Ass

God’s Revelations in the Virginia Wilderness

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Related files:  Bible & Sword   The Uncertain Identity   Biblical Scholars & Theologians   1831 Confessions  Turner TimeLine   Nathaniel Turner    Introduction to Denmark Vesey

  The Confession of John Enslow  The Confession of Bacchus Hammet