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Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Sec. 4, Ch. 25 --Wrestling with Spiritual Wickedness


Ranking Sacrifices

Nathaniel Turner & John Brown


Though both are deserving of praise for their sacrifices, many have wrongly compared John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame to Nathaniel Turner of Cross Keys. These two leaders were indeed similar in that they both made attacks on Virginia slavery. This seeming likeness exists, however, only on the surface. Otherwise, their lives, mission, and ends were in great contrast. 

Their motivations and their temperament varied widely. In certain quarters, however, both have been viewed as effective and successful symbols of American social reform. Matters of competency in their leadership thus becomes subjective and personal. With such great men, ranking becomes a meaningless endeavor.

Nevertheless, several weeks after Virginia’s "public murder" of John Brown, a writer for the weekly Anglo-African (31 December 1859) argued strenuously that Brown was a greater leader than Turner had been. If the nation did not embrace and honor the former, the writer contended, the nation would be destroyed by the other ( Nat Turner: Great Lives Observed, pp. 128-129). 

With a rather sanitized view of Brown’s career, the American public of the North did honor and glorify Brown in song and legend; but, undeservedly, at the same time, diminish Turner. In her book Fools, Martyrs, Traitors (1999), Lacey Baldwin Smith paints a more realistic portrait of John Brown, his anti-slavery efforts, and the attempts of New England Abolitionists to sanctify him for their cause.

Born 1800, about five months before Nathaniel Turner, John Brown did not begin his campaign against slavery until he was in his mid-fifties. As a Connecticut Calvinist, Brown’s religious instincts were probably always anti-slavery. Clearly by 1831, Turner had abolitionist sympathies and favored "immediate abolition." Brown, however, never joined William Lloyd Garrison’s campaign. Organized after Turner’s holy war, the American Anti-Slavery Society’s Declaration of Sentiments (1833) was one of Christian pacifism. 

"Those who signed this document explicitly rejected as un-Christian ‘the use of all weapons’ either by abolitionists or by slaves," according to James Brewer Stewart. "Instead, members of the society promised to rely on the conversion experience, or ‘moral suasion’ as they called it, to convince their fellow Americans to cast out sin by espousing immediate emancipation" ("Abolitionists, the Bible, and the Challenge of Slavery," p. 37).

A tanner by trade, John Brown understood, however, "no amount of moral persuasion could induce the South to forgo slavery and that short of a civil war in which the North would crush the South, slaves had no hope of freedom except insurrection, in which ‘only slave self-help would be effective’" (Smith, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 241). For Christian slaves to adopt the Society’s pacifist strategy was to raise the bar of freedom. 

For a Christian slave to convert a slaveowner who did not consider his property fully human was a near impossibility. Initially, Nat Turner attempted such an approach with Sam Turner and Thomas Moore. On the whole, Virginia slavery was a one-way conversation. Communication attempts broke down into slaveholder-initiated violence, a wretched eternity for the slave at the whipping post, and a likely death.

Entrenched in the abominations of slavery, Turner began to organized his war on slaveholders as early as 1828. After numerous failed business adventures, Brown first actions against slavery and slaveowners occurred after receiving an invitation by his grown sons to join them in Kansas. In 1856, Brown made the abolition cause his own and joined his sons to defend Kansas against slavery sympathizers in Missouri. 

After proslavery forces leveled Lawrence, Kansas, John Brown, his sons, and his followers committed, 24 May 1856, "the cold, calculated retaliatory murder of five proslavery settlers (not one of whom owned a slave) who lived down the road from Brown’s Station," according to Lacey Baldwin Smith. The national press—New York Herald and New York Tribune—did not however associate Brown with the massacre and after his defeat at Osawatomie made him into a national celebrity (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, pp. 237-239).

Because of his religious character, Brown’s great hatred of the South led him to view Virginia as the "very heartland of Satan’s domain." Extremely persuasive in his three-year campaign against slavery, Brown told his newly won abolitionists friends that he intended to "preach the truth of the two pillars upon which he had built his faith and was willing to stake his life: the Declaration of Independence and the Golden Rule," according to Lacey Baldwin Smith. Brown’s convictions about the evils of slavery became so intense, he "informed Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Better that a whole generation of men, women and children should pass away by a violent death than a word of either should be violated in this country’." 

After his Kansas war, Brown dined with Emerson and Thoreau and gained tremendous financial support and encouragement from the so-called Secret Six: Franklin Sanborn of Concord, Theodore Parker, the fiery Unitarian preacher; Samuel Howe, a professional crusader; the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, temperance campaigner; George Stearns, wealthy businessmen; and Gerrit Smith, a wealthy philanthropist (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, pp. 240-241). As it was with a white Jesus, a "white liberator" always played well in the American press.

John Brown’s strategy to "launch an attack on Africa" centered itself in the mountains of western Virginia, hundreds of miles from the greater body of Virginia’s Christian slaves. His plan was "to seize and hold a triangular-shaped town surrounded by the Potomac on one side and the Shenandoah on the other and populated by 1,251 free blacks, 88 slaves, and 1,212 skilled white workers from the North employed by the federal government" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 246). As military tactics, it was all wrong. Brown’s willfulness and conviction, however, made the difference. 

Desperate to accelerate the pace of reform, the Secret Six supported Brown’s liberation scheme financially. "So, on the evening of Sunday, October 16[, 1859], with a ‘fervent prayer to God’ and 200 Sharp’s rifles, 200 revolvers (with the wrong size ammunition) 15 sabers, 52 bayonets, and 950 pikes, a small cannon, and ten kegs of gunpowder, twenty-two men set off to do war on slavery and the Commonwealth of Virginia" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 247)

That his plan was critically designed for failure did not dissuade Brown attempting to fulfill a desire to make his life well-lived in a cause pleasing to God. :

It made no difference that Frederick Douglass had told him only two months before he launched the attack on Harpers Ferry that the basic concept of his plan was flawed; no slave would hear his trumpet call to arms and freedom. Practical men, like Abraham Lincoln, realized that "the indispensable concert of action cannot be attained. The slaves have no means of rapid communication; nor can incendiary freemen, black or white, supply it." It made even less difference that Brown had failed to send out messengers of good tidings to alert the slaves or that no one had reconnoitered the area for an escape route (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, pp. 246-247).

As many expected, Christian slaves did not rally to Brown’s banner. God did not intervene, as Brown hoped. His twenty-two men were defeated by military forces led by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart. Brown’s debacle ended in the death of twenty-four men: seventeen died in battle, which included ten of Brown’s men and two of his sons; six of the raiders were hanged along with their captain (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 248).

In Brown’s failed efforts, in John Greenleaf Whittier’s words, to tear slavery "root and branch from the soil of this domain" (Abolitionists, the Bible, and the Challenge of Slavery, p. 36), abolitionists saw an opportunity to transform Brown into more than his parts and his failures. In 1836, "William Channing had written, ‘One kidnapped, murdered Abolitionist would do more for the violent destruction of slavery than a thousand [Abolitionist] societies" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 251). But in 1859, others too understood the possibilities for abolitionist propaganda.

In that spirit Henry Ward Beecher advised: "Let no man pray that Brown be spared! Let Virginia make him a martyr. Now, he has only blundered. His soul was noble; his work miserable. But a cord and a gibbet would redeem all that, and round up Brown’s failure with a heroic success." When Brown read these words in the New York Herald, he wrote beside the passage the single word "good" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 251)

Weeks after the raid Brown wrote his wife, "I have been whipped as the saying is, but am sure I can recover all the lost capital occasioned by that disaster by only hanging a few moments by the neck; and I feel quite determined to make the utmost possible out of a defeat" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 249). Brown had several opportunities to escape his disaster, but preferred a glorious fate at the gallows. He transformed himself into a martyr.

John Brown’s ideological notions have no sounding board in Nathaniel Turner’s religious view of the world. Brown was a New England abolitionist. He "did not die to guarantee himself a place in paradise—he was too good a Calvinist to think he necessarily merited a seat among God’s elect," according to Lacey Baldwin Smith. "He was a political and revolutionary martyr and the aggressor" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors , p. 249). As a Methodist, Turner, in Christian obedience, died indeed "to guarantee himself a place in paradise." 

Though not a pacifist in the manner of Paul and Peter, Turner died a martyr for Christ, not an idea, not for an ideology directed against slavery. Turner considered July 4th, birth date of the Declaration of Independence, to begin his holy war, but rejected it as unworthy. Clearly, Turner had a problem with the morality of slavery. But unlike Brown, Turner did not have a national agenda with respect to abolitionism. Brown was inspired by the Christian bible; Turner was directed by divine visions, the Holy Spirit, and Christ himself.

Turner’s tactical goals also differed from that of Brown’s. By his testimony, Brown wanted to free slaves in Virginia as he had freed eleven in Missouri. According to his courtroom statement, he merely wanted to give them safe passage to Canada. In his "Confessions," Turner told Gray: "it ‘twas my object to carry terror and devastation wherever we went." Turner’s object was not to free slaves but to punish Christian slaveholders. 

From his cot in the Virginia courtroom, Brown told the Northern press: "I never intended murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, pp. 256-257). The thousands of dollars of munitions Brown carried to Harpers Ferry belied that tale. In addition, Brown and his twenty-two men had also seized the federal arsenal.

Turner intended murder and honestly admitted responsibility for the murders and expressed a willingness "to atone" for those deeds. According to Lacey Baldwin Smith, Brown’s courtroom speech was a "tissue of fabrications and half-truths that should not . . . have ‘deceived a child’" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 257). Brown felt no guilt for the lost of life. In his immediate goals, Turner, of course, was successful. Brown was not. The "Confessions" stood as Turner’s testimony and defense. His details were corroborated by Thomas Gray. Otherwise, in court, there were no histrionics comparable to Brown’s courtroom speech. Turner’s response was extremely brief in face of a hostile press.

To seize and hold was never part of Turner’s tactics or goals. Holding an arsenal would have been only a temporary demonstration of discontent, of propaganda, at best. They could have gotten more guns and taken more white lives. But Turner was not as Higginson painted in 1861, a "bloodthirsty beast" anxious to exterminate all whites. Neither did Turner possess Brown’s wild belief that Christian slaves, in surrounding counties in Virginia and North Carolina, would rush to his banner. 

Evidently, despite the "objections," Turner himself felt no urgent need to press on to Jerusalem. Turner seemed intent to allow the drama to play itself out. Brown seemed to have responded similarly when he was cornered. According to Smith, "the old man seemed paralyzed; he did nothing, waiting for God to act" (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 248).

According to some, Turner and his men could have seized the Jerusalem arsenal (Nat Turner: Great Lives Observed, pp. 28-29). The capture of Jerusalem, the county seat, however, would not have brought any ultimate military advantage, nor would have freed any slaves. John Brown’s attempt to hold the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry failed, except in a symbolical sense. What happened to Brown would have happened to Turner. So Turner’s defeat, then, is not the point. At best, Turner and his men, with hostages, could have held Jerusalem for days. But very few if any Cross Keys slaveholders live in Jerusalem. 

At most, Turner and his compatriots could have continued guerrilla warfare for months, if that had been sought from the beginning. Unlike Brown’s crusade, Turner’s struggle against the abuses of slavery was not abstract, but exceedingly concrete and specific, as were his visions and revelations. He restricted his divine work to the slaveholders of Cross Keys.

Turner nor his Trusted Four believed that the immediate outcome of their bloody acts would be the ultimate liberty of Christian slaves. Nevertheless, they believed they would have their reward in heaven.

Turner nor his Trusted Four believed that the immediate outcome of their bloody acts would be the ultimate liberty of Christian slaves. Nevertheless, they believed they would have their reward in heaven. In contrast to John Brown’s idealism, which contained matters of economics and politics, Turner’s "kingdom of heaven" involved, first and foremost, the hearts and souls of men—in short, human dignity. Turner did not possess Brown’s sense of self-promotion, self-justification, and self-deception. Brown sought self-redemption by his acts. (Fools, Martyrs, Traitors , p. 251). Nathaniel felt redeemed before the "insurrection" was actuated. 

As God’s stand-in, Turner’s destiny was to wield the sword of righteousness against the abominations of Cross Keys. Turner’s intent was, as with the writers of the Gospel, in the words of Krister Stendahl, "to revive and revitalize the biblical meaning of judgment (krisis) as that establishment of justice which by necessity means mercy to the wronged and loss for those who have too much" (Paul Among the Gentiles, p. 100). The blasphemy of Cross Keys slaveholders was that "too much" element.

As a Christian slave, Nathaniel Turner operated under different constraints than John Brown. Secrecy and security were important to Brown, but even more so for Turner. The everyday punishment of the Christian slave was a life and death situation. Turner, as well as other Christian slaves, could be whipped and even killed for not only talking about a rebellion, but also for even thinking in such terms by word or gesture. Turner did not possess the capacity to roam from Kansas to Boston to Virginia making mischief. Turner did not seek his help from New England financiers but Christ and the Holy Spirit.

According to some reports, however, Turner had some liberties. "As a preacher and leader among the blacks Nat obtained more freedom of movement than that permitted the ordinary slave," F. Roy Johnson believed. "He could travel about Southampton County and into neighboring counties on weekends and to more distant places during the holiday seasons. It was reported he traveled as far afield as Richmond" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 62). This legend, I suspect, contains much exaggeration, wild tales that rose during the wave of terror, the madness, in the Rebellion’s aftermath.

As with all martyrs, the impact of Turner and Brown was not felt in numbers and measures of blood spilt, but in psychology and perspective. "The suspicion that a Nat Turner might be in every family, that the same bloody deed could be acted over at any time and in any place" (Nat Turner: Great Lives Observed, p. 113). In Brown, the America public discovered that there were not only Christian slaves willing to die to remove the evils of slavery, but there were also common, everyday white men who had such conviction and courage. 

Both Turner and Brown could have escaped punishment for their deeds. But they chose not to do so and face the music of heaven. Turner had opportunities to kill and to leave Cross Keys and did not. Both Brown and Turner prayed and moved slowly toward a desire for martyrdom.


Foner, Eric, ed. Nat Turner: Great Lives Observed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall,1971.

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

Smith, Lacey Baldwin. Fools, Martyrs, Traitors: The Story of Martyrdom in the Western World. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1999.

Stendahl, Krister. Paul Among Jews and Gentiles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976.

Stewart, James Brewer. "Abolitionists, the Bible, and the Challenge of Slavery." In Ernest R. Sandeen. The Bible and Social Reform. Philadelphia: Scholars Press, 1982, pp. 31-57.

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