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Turner told Thomas Gray, editor of the "1831 Confessions," "As I was praying one day at my plough,

the Spirit spoke to me, saying ‘Seek ye the kingdom of heaven and all things shall be added unto you’."

The "kingdom of heaven" appears in Luke as the "kingdom of God" (12.31).



Section 2, Chapter 10 Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption

Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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The Revelations Begin: 1817-1821

Turner's Calling to Christian Prophecy


Before the death of Benjamin Turner, his first master, Nathaniel Turner had been heavily influenced by the religiosity of his spiritual mother, Harriet. She had taken note of the birthmarks and his knowledge of events before his birth. She had him interviewed by the Elders of Turner’s Meeting House. 

This Christian board of interviewers headed by Benjamin Turner found that this precocious child unfit for a slave, for slavery. This statement of freedom Nathaniel felt was binding. This grounding event was central to all of Turner’s spiritual hopes and desires. This Methodist estimation of his spirituality quickened the religious spirit in him. Religion thus became his primary interest and study.

By 1817, Nathaniel Turner, Benjamin Turner’s spiritual son (if not his son by blood), had begun his religious life in earnest. He was then a post-adolescent, nearing manhood. At one religious meeting, Turner told Gray, he was "struck" with a "particular passage" in Matthew: "Seek ye the kingdom of heaven and all things shall be added unto you." The phrase "kingdom of heaven" is present only in Matthew (6.33). Turner’s "kingdom of heaven" was a sign of his emphasis.

The message is that in Jesus, Son of God, God has drawn near with his eschatological Rule to dwell to the end of time with his people, the church. This message summons the reader to perceive that God is uniquely present and at work in Jesus and that, in becoming Jesus’ disciple, one becomes a child of God, lives in the sphere of his end-time rule, and engages in mission to the end that all people may find God in Jesus and becomes Jesus’ disciple. (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 615).

If a Turner theology existed, the "kingdom of heaven" and Jesus’ parables on the "kingdom" would be the cornerstone of his conception of the "true" religious life.

Spring 1817, Turner received his first revelation. Many a Negro, even those not slaves, I suspect, has had a "revelation" behind the plow in the hot Virginia sun, walking barefooted behind a mule, row after row, morning till night, burdened under a waning hope for the future. Such conditions have been known to lead some to the pulpit. This scenario was a popular joke among African-Americans as late as a half century ago. Turner was not one of these trickster called to a life of comfort. Turner was not only "called" by God, he was also chosen by God. Turner was called to speak for God.

In the "1831 Confessions," Turner does not use the term "revelation." He made clear, however, that his concern was fundamental truth. In this sense, it is God who reveals. The knowledge that "results is a gift rather than a product of human or demonic ingenuity" (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 868). Revelations can occur in dreams or while one is awake; day or night. The mode God uses may be speech, visions, writings, natural or extranatural events.

Such revelations begin with one or few persons, for what is commonly known does not need to be revealed. The prophet, apostle, or other agent who receives such revelations may be obliged to transmit them to others, as, for example, Amos [3:7-8] or Paul [Gal. 1:15-17]. On the other hand, they may be instructed to keep some revelations hidden, whether because it would be altogether wrong to utter them [2 Cor. 12:1-4] or because they are intended for another era [Dan. 12:9; 2 Esd. 14] or even without a reason being offered [Rev. 10:4] (Harper’s Bible Dictionary, p. 867).

God can speak to his human agent directly or through intermediaries, such as angels or through nature. For Christians, God speaks through Christ, the Holy Spirit, or one of his saints, living or dead. Turner’s revelations came through the Holy Spirit. In one vision, Turner, however, came face to face with the Cosmic Christ.

Turner told Thomas Gray, editor of the "1831 Confessions," "As I was praying one day at my plough, the Spirit spoke to me, saying ‘Seek ye the kingdom of heaven and all things shall be added unto you’." The "kingdom of heaven" appears in Luke as the "kingdom of God" (12.31). With the emphasis on this scripture, Nathaniel Turner felt God had recognized his soul’s turmoil. Turner, like many of his generation, believed that God still operated in the world. God was more than an anthropomorphic projection or an intellectual notion. Prophecy and miracles, for Turner, was not limited to the apostolic age. The way of God and his speaking to man can not be proscribed. Unlike the deists, God had not withdrawn from the world to leave man only the scriptures and devices.

Even in his early years, Nathaniel was an excellent student of the bible. The scriptures supported a belief that God was not limited in space nor time. God was transhistorical, in him past, present, and future merged. As he was available to the ancients, so he is today. Nathaniel was fully steeped in this biblical world. According to blacks and whites of Southampton, Nathaniel Turner knew the scriptures by heart, from cover to cover. He can be seen in a graphic holding the bible in one hand and a sword in the other The legend has it that if one read a passage, Nathaniel Turner could cite book, chapter, and verse (Nat Turner: Great Lives Observed, p. 138). The New Testament as well as Methodist doctrines provided Turner in great depth and understanding of the process of Christian preparation and trials.

After his first revelation, another gospel passage must have gained greater relevance in Turner’s imagination: "The Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said" (John 14.26). This New Testament verse mirrored Turner’s prophetic destiny. An apostle requires preparation, grace, and knowledge (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 325).

Raised in a Methodist environment, Turner was familiar with the teachings of John Wesley and the hymnals of his brother Charles Wesley. These Methodist sources structured and affected the manner or tenor of Turner’s revelatory experiences. By 1780, John and Charles recognized a "process by which women and men actually live out the life of grace" (Methodist Doctrine, p. 53). Generally, "grace" is understood as the "saving will of God." In Romans 3.24 and Titus 3.7, "grace" is the means by which "men are made righteous." Also, in Romans 5.2, "grace is a store to which we have access through Christ" (Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 324-325). In the afterlife, it is God’s grace that assures our entry into the celestial community.

With this first revelation, Turner was at the initial stage of the Methodist process of salvation. The Holy Spirit was preparing Nathaniel to go beyond his previous spiritual accomplishments, his superior abilities. John Wesley recognized three stages in God’s grace. According to Ted Campbell, "John Wesley sometimes organized his understanding of the ‘way of salvation’ under the three headings of ‘preventing grace’ (God’s grace coming before we believe in Christ), ‘justifying grace’ (God’s grace enabling us to believe in Christ) and ‘sanctifying grace’ (God’s grace leading us to holiness)" (Methodist Doctrine, p. 54).

If, by chance, Turner was unfamiliar with Wesley’s teachings directly, another source existed most assuredly that could have shaped Turner’s notions of Christian salvation. John and Charles Wesley’s Collection of Hymns for the Use of People Called Methodists (1780), the first Methodist hymnal, was "organized to show the experience of believers." 

According to Ted Campbell. "Subsequent Methodist hymnals typically have a long section, often entitled ‘The Christian Life’, in which hymns are arranged according to the ‘way of salvation’, from repentance to faith and justification to sanctification" (Methodist Doctrine, pp. 53-54. Nathaniel reflected on his revelatory experience, uncertain of its significance, and prayed.

In 1819, two years later, the Spirit revealed itself again. "I had the same revelation." That is, the Spirit again urged Turner to "seek the kingdom of heaven." Turner told Gray that the repetition of this Matthean passage "fully confirmed" him that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty." For Turner, with these two revelations, God’s signs began to accumulate and converge in his consciousness. 

In his meditations, Nathaniel had available for consideration Jesus’ teaching on the role of the Holy Ghost in spiritual growth: "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth; for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak; and he will show you things to come" (John16.12-13). 

Everything Jesus had to say or wanted to say was not said or recorded in the four gospels or even in the epistles. He yet had communications to give to his people that had not been heard by any man. The "1831 Confessions," sustains the argument that Christ periodically refreshes his message according to circumstances. After this second revelation, Nathaniel  related his spiritual experience to his fellow servants, who "believed and said my wisdom came from God."

As a result of his "communion of the Spirit" (a regimen of meditation, prayer, reading the scriptures, and fasting), he expected, Turner told Thomas Gray, "something was about to happen that would terminate in the fulfilling the great promise that had been made to me." Nathaniel’s use of the phrasing "the great promise . . . made to me" is vague. Does he refer to his personal freedom or his destiny of prophethood? Or both? 

Certainly, Nathaniel believed his austere life, his life of piety, of moral restraint—freeing himself from the bondage of sin—would free him from the bondage of Southampton slavery. He linked salvation and liberation. His hope for salvation, his prostrated humility, and obedience to his earthly masters, however, came to nothing, so it seemed, at moments. Turner’s linking of salvation and freedom is as old as Paul and his counsel to Philemon.

Sources Consulted

Achtemeier, Paul J. and et al, eds. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. New York: Harper and Row, 1985. 

Campbell, Ted A. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.

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

McKenzie, John L. Dictionary of the Bible. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965.

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Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

Chapter 9 Methodist Promise of Freedom / Chapter 11 The Holy Spirit in the Wilderness

*   *   *   *   *

Nat Turner Great Lives Observed

By Eric Foner

Table of Contents—Nat Turner and the Southampton Insurrection: Contemporary accounts. Trial and execution. The confessions of Nat Turner.Americans react to the insurrection. Virginia reactions. Southern reactions. The slaves and Nat Turner. Reactions in the North. The abolitionist response. The attack on the abolitionists. Virginians demand action by the State legislature. Nat Turner and the Virginia debate on slavery. Virginia and other states strengthen their slave codes. The attack on freedom of discussion, and emergence of the proslavery argument.—Nat Turner in history: John Brown and Nat Turner. Thomas Wentworth Higginson: this extraordinary man. The Civil War and slave rebellion. A pioneer Black historian and Nat Turner. Nat Turner remembered: the 1880s. William S. Drewry on Nat Turner, 1900. 1931: the 100th anniversary of the Turner insurrection. Nat Turner remembered: the 1960s. The folk memory of Nat Turner.—Bibliography (p. 178-181)

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