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Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Section 2, Chapter 12  Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption


Satanís Advancing Kingdomó1821-1828

Black Oppression Heightens in Southampton


According to reports oft-repeated, Nathaniel Turner had a "wife" named Cherry, spelled, at times, C-h-a-r-y. Turnerís "marriage" has been accepted without question, even though there is no reason nor sound evidence to establish its truth. The "Confessions" is silent on the issue. Marriage, so-called, of Christian slaves, however, was a shadow of the sacred bonding sanctified by God.

With respect to Turnerís "marriage," the polemics of race have, however, seized Turnerís domestic and personal life and have attempted to resolve it outside of scholarship. In his efforts to correct William Styronís characterization of Nathaniel Turner as a closet homosexual, John Henrik Clarke, an African American historian, declared with certainty that "Nat Turner had a wife he dearly loved." The Styron debate generated more hostility than clarity.

In his introduction to William Styronís Nat Turner, Clarke substantiates his claim by citing the abolitionist T.W. Higginson (Clarke, p. vii-viii). Higginsonís primary source, however, was the Virginia newspapers, whose source of information did not result from objective disinterested investigative reporting. For their information, the Virginia newspapers depended on letters from slaveholders in Southampton, parties not altogether dependable for their accuracy with respect to Turner. An extensive unsigned letter, analyzing the Southampton affair, was printed in the Richmond Whig, dated 26 September 1831.

That Turner had a "wife" was discovered first in the Whig. Supposedly this unnamed woman was whipped to retrieve Turnerís papers of hieroglyphic characters. Thomas R. Gray, to whom Turner dictated his "Confessions," some believe, was the author of this letter. If he was indeed the letter writer, it was thus Thomas Gray, a slaveholder, who publicly began the wife rumor (Foner, pp. 24-29). Clearly, Clarke cited an individual who knew no more about the subject than he. Clarke and his colleagues relied unquestioningly on Turnerís enemies to create their progressive mythic view of Nathaniel Turner.

Ideologues have set standards for Turner that have little or nothing to do with his religious life as he saw it. Turnerís manliness did not turn on whether he had a wife or children. Surely, it is of little import and beyond our apprehension to know whether Turner loved Cherry "dearly." Any reading of the "Confessions" can assure us that Turnerís primary interest was not a domestic one. By his own account, his focus at this stage of his life was on his own salvation and coming closer to God. In obedience to the charge to seek the "kingdom of heaven," it is doubtful that Turner sought to find the "kingdom" in marital bliss. Turner may have indeed been like other Methodists seeking the righteous life.

It is not too unlikely a scenario that Nathaniel Turner voluntarily abstained from sexual union and "marriage." Francis Asbury often spoke of his religious work standing between him and marital bliss. Celibacy was often the fate of itinerant ministers committed to advancing the methodist connection. In a 25 January 1809 journal note, Asbury felt it "quite probable" he would "die in celibacy" (Clark, pp. 423, 591).

I could hardly expect to find a woman with grace enough to enable her to live but one week out of the fifty-two with her husband: besides, what right has any man to take advantage of the affections of a woman, make her his wife, and by a voluntary absence subvert the whole order and economy of the marriage state, by separating those whom neither God, nature, nor the requirements of civil society permit long to be put asunder? it is neither just nor generous. I may add to this, that I had little money, and with this little administered to the necessities of a beloved mother until I was fifty seven: if I have done wrong, I hope god and the sex will forgive me (Clark, p. 423).

Seven years later, in 1816, after his final sermon in Virginia, Asbury died at seventy-one.

There are more essential questions than the sexual ones raised by William Styron. For example, would such a man as Nathaniel Turner, without coercion, desire to marry and produce children over which he had no power and be under the constant fear of them being sold? How could such desires move him closer toward the salvation and liberation he sought? Could such mundane matters as domestic bliss, such a spiritual conundrum, command his attention? Oneís impulse is to say, No, unlikely. If Turner did "marry," indeed, which I am willing to allow with reservations, it was between 1821 (when he ran away and returned) and 1823 (before the death of Samuel Turner). For the legend says that Turnerís "wife" was traded at the death of Samuel Turner.

If we allow Turner had a "wife," we are obliged, at least, to consider how such a circumstance could have come about or why was Turner silent on this topic in his "Confessions." Turnerís silence can only be read as meaning that he felt that his personal life was irrelevant and at best secondary to his public life as an apostle of the living God. Clarke assumed, it seems, that somehow in the midst of the hell that was slavery that Nathaniel Turner was granted some romantic interlude. If Tom, his grandfather, found Cross Keys too much of a hell to endure, despite his "wife" Harriet, why would Nathaniel Turner believe a domestic life for himself be other than the sham marriage of his spiritual grandparents?

To say that Turner loved his wife "dearly" is very bourgeois and fine. But that was not a probable scenario. Of course, Nathaniel Turner treated Cherry with respect (Luke 20.21). he was that kind of man. Yet, in antebellum Virginia, the motive for slave marriages often began with the masterís coercion and the masterís economic interest. Considering his hostility toward Nathaniel Turner and his personal greed, Sam Turner most likely forced his educated Christian slave into an undesired "marriage" with a fellow servant. Had not his father Ben Turner forced Natís mother Nancy, as the story goes, into a sexual liaison with one of his male slaves? What or who could stop Samuel Turner from walking in his fatherís shoes. As a Virginia slaveholder, to command oneís women, free as well as slave, was a mark of manhood, a rite of sexual passage.

In such a short span, a radical swing from "running away" to "marrying" suggests that Turner was pressured into "marriage." The following scenario seems quite probable. When Nathaniel Turner returned of his own volition, after thirty days, Samuel Turner tested Natís sincerity, his submission. Rather than another flogging, Samuel Turner cynically "chastened" Nathaniel Turner with an alliance not of his choice. At that moment Nathaniel Turner was vulnerable. The voice of God had spoken to him thrice already. God had commanded him to return to his earthly master. He was in a spiritual dilemma. He was given no choice. He had to obey the Spirit of God. He was at Samuel Turnerís mercy and he received none.

The wheels of Sam Turnerís calculating reason were spinning. A "married" Nathaniel Turner, Sam Turner figured, would not run away from a "wife." If there were children, it would cause Turner to pause in stealing himself. The beauty of such an agreement was that Natís children would be like money in the bank. Sam Turner thought about deception more than wisdom. Though he wore the mask of piety as trustee of Turnerís Methodist Church, Sam Turner lacked honor and respect for himself and his servants. He was shameless in his hypocrisy.

There was never a worse evil or a thing more hateful to God than that hypocritical evil, because the Devil himself arranges it and makes that thing appear to him as if it most often seems very good at first but later becomes very evil and then full bitter in the end (Boenig, p. 139)

According to tradition, Cherry, of course, had nothing to say on the matter, yea or nay. By civil law, Samuel Turner had full power over his slaves; as a Christian, he had a greater duty to his fellow servants in Christ. Economics (Mammon) won out over morality (God).

For Turner, it became apparent, Cross Keys Christians used the Christian sacrament of marriage as a linguistic mask for Methodist slave breeding! Nathaniel Turnerís pious sensibility revolted; yet his self-discipline was greater and he obeyed the Spirit. What persuasion does a Christian slave have to counter such religious perversity? What appeal did Nathaniel Turner have? Could he have gone to the Elders of Turnerís Methodist Church and pleaded for their intervention? Would they have condemned Sam Turnerís as an abomination and a blight on the community? The record shows none did. In Cross Keys, controlled and coerced immorality of Christian slaves was not immorality at all, Sam Turner and other slaveholders reasoned.

For what Sam Turner planned for Nathaniel Turner and Cherry had become the norm, the moral standard of the day. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Virginia slaveholders set out consciously to harness the procreative power of their Christian slaves for the economic enhancement of Christian slaveholding families. They were crucial natural resources in the maintenance of civilized life and prosperity. At a hearing of the Virginia legislature, a year after Turnerís death, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, nephew of the master of Monticello, spoke a truth that Turner experienced as a Christian slave.

In the 1832 speech Randolph exposed the domestic manipulations of Christian slaves by Virginia slaveholders. "The exportation [of slaves] has averaged 8,500 for the last twenty years," Randolph argued. "It is a practice and an increasing practice, in parts of Virginia to rear slaves for the market" (The Negro in Virginia, p. 179). Randolphís 20 year-period included the years 1812-1832. Breeding and trading Christian slaves thus became widespread in Virginia during Natís tenure with his second master Sam Turner, that is, 1809-1822.

Without the slightest modesty, many Christian slaveowners spoke quite openly and candidly about their economic planning of their human resources. In an agricultural periodical, a Virginia planter provided this sage advice, "Your negroes will breed much faster when well clothed, fed and housed." Another "Virginia planter boasted to Olmsted that his slave women were Ďuncommonly good breeders; he did not suppose that there was a lot of women anywhere that bred faster than hisí. Every infant, he exulted, was worth two hundred dollars at current prices the moment it was born." The cost of raising the child was far less then its capital value. (Stamp, pp. 244-250).

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