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Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Section 2, Chapter 13  Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption


Nathaniel Turner on the Auction Block 

Trusting in the Lord's  Liberation—1823


Two years after returning to Sam Turner, instead of life improving for Nat Turner, matters became worse. About forty-five years old, Samuel Turner died in 1822 and left no provision for Nat’s freedom. According to F. Roy Johnson,

His will [Sam Turner’s] provided that Nat’s mother Nancy and two other servants should remain with their mistress Nancy Turner, but Nat and nineteen other slaves were to be disposed of by one James Griffin, executor of the estate.

However, [Sam] Turner did demonstrate a sense of kindness to two of his late mother’s old slaves, giving them life-time rights on the plantation.

Thus it would be necessary to put twenty of the slaves on the auction block, together with other properties, for benefit of the widow and her three minor children—Rebecca Jane, Polly, and John C. Turner. At this time Virginia was sending many of her surplus slaves to the dreaded rice fields of the deep South, and the possibility of such a fate certainly produced no pleasing among the Turner servants (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, pp. 32-33).

Evidently, Sam Turner was incompetent as a slaveholder. His estate was not solvent and capable of sustaining itself. So that his children would have security, Christian slaves had to suffer, to pay the cost of his mismanagement..

Of the twenty Christian slaves, the number sold into the deep South is not known. Placed on the auction block, Nat Turner was sold to a Cross Keys slaveholder, Thomas Moore. His hopes for some righteousness in the end from Sam Turner was dashed. Nat was sold to Thomas Moore for $450. This sale took place in Cross Keys under the purview of Turner’s Methodist Church. 

The twenty-three year old, Nat Turner, however, did not dwell on Sam Turner’s neglect. In obedience to the Spirit, Turner also did not attempt to escape what he was told to endure. Turner was caught up in a spiritual test. For, sometimes, as Old Folks say, one has to go through some things to be made right for God’s work.

The Methodist Discipline of 1796 took a strong stand against the buying and selling of slaves (Williams, p. 163). But that was Ben Turner’s generation. Moore and his wife Sally Francis (about the same age as Nat) were also members of Turner’s Methodist Church and leaders of that new breed of Methodist slaveholders. As parents, they would pay dearly for their moral ignorance and lack of understanding with regard to Cross Key’s Christian slaves. Like Sam Turner, they too did not provide any hope for Nat Turner to obtain his freedom. They had no interest in his spiritual well being.

The Methodists of Cross Keys might have evaded their horrendous destiny. They might have learned a vital lesson from their fellow religionists if they had been willing to listen. "No slave insurrection occurred on the [Delmarva] Peninsula," according to William Henry Williams, because "the strong Methodist presence which demanded patience for now, offered the possibility of freedom soon, and promised paradise for ever" (The Garden of American Methodism, p. 166). Delaware established in law the Methodist prohibition against slave trading. After 1824, the slaveholders on the Delmarva Peninsula, however, manumitted no slave; they began to conform to Tidewater standards.

For most Virginia Methodists, Christian sympathy for the bondsman and his condition by 1825 had died. The Elders of Turner’s church gave their sanction by silence. They ignored their duties as fellow Christians and chose their own well-being to that of the greater community. They did nothing to improve the condition and hope of their slaves, their fellow Christians. The whole neighborhood of Cross Keys stood silently making a farce out of the religion of Wesley and Asbury, men of sound Christian principles. As slave traders the Turners separated families, man from woman and mother from child.

If the Christians of Cross Keys knew anything at all about the gospels, they understood that Jesus taught certain laws to govern the community. One of these was that marriage is indissoluble (Mark 10.1-12). Another was that children were precious to Jesus. In Virginia, there was little embarrassment that much of the flesh peddling involved the trading of children and teenagers, male as well as females. 

This internal slave trade became the general practice and the general moral standard of slaveowners. Such behavior was one of the great cruelties and evils spawned by the American brand of slavery. Other than Delaware, no state forbade "masters to separate husbands and wives when put on the market" (Stamp, p. 252).

But Delaware was not Tidewater Virginia. There is no clear estimation why Turner and Cherry were separated, if they were indeed a couple. None has clarified why Thomas Moore, Turner’s new master, refused to purchase Cherry. Evidently, he felt no moral obligation to purchase her. It seems quite impossible that Moore would not have known that Turner and Cherry were "man and wife." According to Gilbert Francis, Giles Reese bought Cherry for $40 and probably saved her from being "sold down the river" (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, tape 2). Thus Cherry was able to remain in the Cross Keys/Jerusalem area.

In that Cherry was purchased at such a low price, suspicions arise why Thomas Moore did not pay the $40 for Turner’s "wife." Cherry may have had a child and another in her belly. Whose child she carried may have been raised at the time. This scenario seems likely. In that Sam Turner was anxious that Nat Turner "marry," Cherry may have already been pregnant. Turner was forced to front for his master’s sexual improprieties.

And thus, Thomas Moore wanted to have nothing to do with that matter, even though there was a bargain to be had The Turner women possessed enough humanity, it seems, to arrange to keep Sam Turner’s children in Virginia and in Cross Keys by accepting a low bid from Giles Reese for Cherry. The caprice and perversity that was slavery leads one to such speculations. The colored Turners of Southampton, however, are known to be very fair-skinned, even to contemporary times.

Whatever the relationship of the colored and white Turners before the Rebellion, Nat Turner and his Christian soldiers, during the Rebellion, bypassed Giles Reese’s place. Some suspect that Turner did not kill Reese because of his purchase of Cherry. If Moore had purchased Cherry, whether subsequent events, that is, Turner’s massacre of slaveholders, would have been modified is uncertain. Turner’s argument consistently was that no one event or series of social events can be used to account for the "insurrection." 

Clearly, Turner had no emotional tie to Moore similar to that which he had with the Turners. Doubtless, he had less consideration for Moore than he had for Sam Turner with whom he had a blood connection. Moore’s purchase of Turner did, however, unleash a strange course of events that led to an early and tragic end for Moore and his family.

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update 28 June 2008 




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