Sec. 4, Ch. 25 --Wrestling with Spiritual
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.
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).
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
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
Declaration of Sentiments (1833) was one of
"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
Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 241). For
Christian slaves to adopt the Society’s pacifist strategy was to raise the bar
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’."
his Kansas war, Brown dined with Emerson and Thoreau and gained tremendous
financial support and encouragement from the so-called Secret Six:
Sanborn of Concord, Theodore Parker, the fiery Unitarian preacher;
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
* * *
* * * *
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.
* * *
John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the
in secret, launched in the dark, John
Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal
moment in U.S. history. But few Americans
know the true story of the men and women who
launched a desperate strike at the
slaveholding South. Now, Midnight Rising
portrays Brown's uprising in vivid color,
revealing a country on the brink of
explosive conflict. Brown, the descendant of
New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin
against America's founding principles.
Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to
take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for
battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by
his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and
a guerrilla band that included former slaves
and a dashing spy. On October 17, the
raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the
nation and prompting a counterattack led by
Robert E. Lee. After Brown's capture, his
defiant eloquence galvanized the North and
appalled the South, which considered Brown a
terrorist. The raid also helped elect
Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfil
Brown's dream with the Emancipation
Proclamation, a measure he called "a John
Brown raid, on a gigantic scale."
* * * * *
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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Negro Digest /
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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update 9 March 2012