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Turner, unlike William Lloyd Garrison, was not a political propagandist, a secular intellectual, nor did he consider

the bible a source of propaganda, as was also the case with Denmark Vesey. For Turner, the scriptures were God's truth

among men; they are important for understanding man’s relationship to God.



Section 1, Chapter 1

Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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Scholarship, Sacred Documents, & Folklore

An Overview of  the Response to Turner's World


In the great sweep of American history, few, if any, can be likened to Nathaniel Turner, the leader of the 1831 bloody Rebellion of Southampton County, Virginia. His band of seven in hours grew to seventy. On foot and horseback in clouds of dust, Turner and his men, from house to house, swept through the Cross Keys community and slaughtered numerous Southampton slaveholding families, mostly women and children. These deeds were done in the name of religion and the true faith. And it was this profession that made the whites of Virginia uneasy in their skins.

Considered in the whole, a century and a half later, Turner, a devout Christian slave, continues to stand apart, in estimation, distinctly from other early 19th century revolutionaries, such as Gabriel Prosser of Virginia (1775-1800) and Denmark Vesey of South Carolina (1767-1822). Prosser and Vesey seem more accessible and defensible. Commentators on American leaders of slave revolts tend to find  Turner more opaque and controversial.. In short, Turner has fallen short of full admiration, even by those who consider his deeds heroic.

Historians and romancers of history have rendered the character and temperament of Prosser and Vesey more to their liking and imagination than that of the "notorious" Nat Turner. Born in the midst of the Revolutionary War, the young Prosser, slave of Thomas Prosser, was thought handsome, though he missed two front teeth (The Negro in Virginia, p. 195). Hired out by his master to Richmond merchants, the leader of the insurrection plot of 1800 in Richmond, Virginia, was a twenty-four-year old, six-foot-two blacksmith.

"Like the artisans and free blacks among whom he labored, he [Prosser] found that his dreams stood him on the radical edge of a democratic movement that was securely rooted in bourgeois ideology: his wish was to pull down ‘the merchants’ and ‘possess ourselves of their property’," according to Douglas R. Egerton. "As an artisan he [Prosser] was a radical, but as a slave artisan, he was a revolutionary" (Gabriel’s Rebellion, pp. 30-31).

The stately, brilliant, hot-tempered, and older Vesey was the architect of the 1822 Charleston, South Carolina plot. "In 1800, Denmark drew a prize of $1500 in the East-Bay-Street Lottery, with which he purchased his freedom from his master, at six hundred dollars, much less than his real value" (Hamilton, Negro Plot, p. 57). Vesey was about thirty-three years old when he received his freedom. Between 1800 and 1822, Vesey, as a free person of color, made his livelihood as a carpenter within Charleston society.

Similar to Prosser, Vesey was an artisan in a large urban trading center. Richmond and Charleston were both slave ports, cities of international trade. Probably over two-thirds of African captives transported to America disembarked at ports in Virginia and South Carolina. Richmond and Charleston also possessed a great variety of people from different European nations, classes, and vocations in which floated numerous ideas based on Enlightenment thinking, especially from Jacobin France and the Isle of Hispaniola.

As in any great trading center, there were numerous people always coming and going. In great contrast, Turner lived in the small isolated rural hamlet of Cross Keys in Southampton County, Virginia. It was a backwater community in which numerous families had lived in the same country for generations. In such places tradition is long-lived and sustains itself against all external influences and attacks. Centuries pass in such places and changes in religion, manners, and mores are nearly imperceptible..

Individually, Prosser, Vesey, and Turner also differed in their responses to religion. Gabriel Prosser’s religiosity has been strenuously questioned. According to Gayraud S. Wilmore, the young Gabriel Prosser was not "a student of the Bible." But Prosser was, Wilmore insists, "strongly drawn to lead an insurrection among the slaves by religious convictions," (Black Religion and Black Radicalism, p. 75). Wilmore derived his intuitive conclusion, most likely, from the incidental fact that Prosser was born within a Christian slave community. That Prosser had convictions, we are certain; that they were "religious," we doubt. Certainly, Christian slaves were among Prosser’s conspirators (The Negro in Virginia, p. 112). Nevertheless, some scholars oppose Wilmore’s moderate view.

In his history of the Richmond conspiracy, Douglass Egerton discounts Prosser’s use of religion as a means of organizing his Rebellion. In their court testimony, Prosser’s fellow conspirators did not maintain the notion that Prosser was a religious man. Egerton states that Gabriel refused "to cast his appeals in terms of West African religion" and also rejected the use of "messianic terms." Nevertheless, all tend to agree Prosser had a soft place for those denominations and sympathizers who took strong positions against slavery. "Gabriel warned that ‘Quakers, Methodists, and French people’ were not to be harmed" (Gabriel’s Rebellion, pp. 51-52).

Whatever Prosser’s religious stripe, scholars generally agree, as Wilmore wrote, "The Gabriel plot was probably the first well-planned, consciously revolutionary attempt in a long history of slave revolts on the mainland" (Black Religion and Black Radicalism, p. 76). That Virginia produced one more great leader, in the person of Gabriel Prosser, was not surprising to those who were intimate with the genius of men such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.

Vesey was a Methodist class leader of the African Church in Charleston (Wilmore, p. 83). In contrast to Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey used the Bible to substantiate the legitimacy of his Rebellion. According to James Hamilton, Jr., in his 1822 account of the servile plot, Vesey removed "the scruples of the religious, by the grossest prostitution and perversion of the sacred oracles." Vesey inflamed and confirmed "the resolute, by all the savage fascinations of blood and booty" (Hamilton, Negro Plot, p. 57).

According to witnesses (his fellow conspirators) at the Charleston trials, all of Vesey’s conversations were about the connection of religion and slavery. He often played on the analogy of the African slave and the children of Israel in bondage (Harding, p. 115). Turner, I should note here, never made any direct reference to Israel or to Jews in his "Confessions." His rhetorical mode is primarily narrative and focused singularly on the New Testament. According to Hamilton, Vesey used religion as a tool for organizing his revolt. From the Christian slaveholder’s point of view, Vesey did not preach "true Christianity," the religion of white Southerners, more precisely, the Christianity reserved for Christian slaves.

Though caught in slavery’s web, Prosser and Vesey, were modern men, minds molded by the Enlightenment, a culture that stretched from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. Historians and novelists have been attracted by this aspect of their characters. Enlightenment philosophers and theologians promoted a critical view of religion, and emphasized reason over revelation, a natural theology rather than a biblical one.

Though God was still in the picture for most philosophes, he stayed vaguely in the background, desiring human good. Religion was fine as long as it . . . didn’t make, in the name of "revelation," higher claims than human reason itself could assert. Miracles . . . were out of the question since nothing could disrupt the order of nature, not even God. The so-called miracles recounted in the gospels were simply "ridiculous," snorted Voltaire, and the story of Jesus’ resurrection a "fantasy." The Christianity approved by the Enlightenment—and adopted by a remarkable number of influential clergy, . . . was an ethical system and no more. Kant summed up the eighteenth century when he declared religious beliefs a matter of moral judgment by one’s own conscience and posited Jesus as model of moral perfection (Rosenthal, pp. 20-21)

This philosophical outlook is often viewed as the mark of the modern man, one who distances himself from bloody religious wars and religious intolerance (Runes, p. 92). Vesey and Prosser have been honored by such appellations as "civilized" and "modern." Deservedly, these two revolutionary conspirators have received a place among the great revolutionary martyrs of the 19th century, alongside John Brown of Harpers Ferry.

With respect to religion, Nathaniel Turner (1800-1831) differed radically from Gabriel Prosser and even Denmark Vesey. Turner alone possessed all the markings of a biblical prophet and an apostle of the "Crucified Christ." Like most Christians in Virginia, Turner believed in revelation, divine intervention in history, miracles, the resurrection, heaven and hell, judgment day. All these elements are easily recognized in his "1831 Confessions." Though Garrisonian abolitionism may have been in his purview, a reform some have argued was the motivation for the Southampton rebellion, Turner, as a Christian held in bondage, would not settle for anything less than the "kingdom of heaven," a community of the righteous in the world.

Turner, unlike William Lloyd Garrison, was not a political propagandist, a secular intellectual, nor did he consider the bible a source of propaganda, as was also the case with Denmark Vesey. For Turner, the scriptures were God's truth among men; they are important for understanding man’s relationship to God. In addition, according to Turner, he had direct encounters with the Divine, numerous times over a fourteen-year span. Beyond institutional builders, such as Richard Allen, much less protean, Nathaniel Turner was probably one of the most remarkable religious figures of the 19th century, in his words and in his deeds.

As a Christian slave, Turner’s religious grounding, though similar, was incisively different from these institutional leaders. Turner was not a churchman, an institutional builder, nor a "black religious nationalist (Ogbonna, p. 51). It was yet his intense desire  nevertheless to become a member of the established Methodist church in Cross Keys. His rejection by the white slaveholding Methodists was probably more of a spur to rebellion than abolitionist propaganda or the revolutionary fervor stirred by Toussaint L'Overture in Haiti. Turner became disillusioned with the religious leaders and unbiblical teachings of Turner’s Methodist Church. Nathaniel Turner received a higher calling.

Thus, when the theological implications of the "1831 Confessions" in its environment are considered seriously, Turner, spiritually and intellectually, seems more attuned, more than the whole of his generation, to the first-century Christian gospel message, its universality and its eschaton. In the isolated backwater hamlet of Cross Keys, Turner preached but he was more than just a preacher. Nathaniel Turner was a God-taught prophet, and, possibly, an apostle, a messenger, to Cross Keys slaveholders, according to the "1831 Confessions" and the folk testimony of the Christian slaves of Cross Keys.

As a Christian slave, Nathaniel Turner was not a champion of ethnic thinking, as many have claimed. Turner’s religious perspective made no appeal to "African religions" or "African nationality." According to Gayraud S. Wilmore, Nathaniel Turner "discovered that the God of the Bible demanded justice and that to know him and his son, Jesus Christ, was to be set free from every power on earth." His "conversion and development as a slave preacher are basic to any true understanding of what motivated him to insurrection," (Black Religion and Black Radicalism, p. 89).

Wilmore, a Christian theologian, was probably the first to point out this developmental aspect of Turner’s religiosity. A closer look at the peculiarity of Turner’s religious environment and his spiritual development within that society can rescue Turner’s life from fantasy and misapprehensions.

Sources Consulted 

Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1892. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Hamilton, Jr., James. Negro Plot: An Account of the late Intended Insurrection Among a Portion of the Blacks of the City of Charleston, South Carolina (Boston 1822). Excerpted in Patricia W. Romero. I Too Am America: Documents from 1619 to the Present. New York: The Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture, 1969, pp. 53-58.

Harding, Vincent. There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Ogbonna, Jeffrey and Green Ogbar. "Prophet Nat and God’s Children of Darkness: Black Religious Nationalism." Journal of Religious Thought, 53/54 (1997), pp. 51-72.

Rosenthal, Peggy. The Poet’s Jesus: Representation at the End of a Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Runes, Dagobert D., ed. Dictionary of Philosophy. Totowa, New Jersey: Littlefield, Adams & Co., 1974.

Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religions and Black Radicalism. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1972.

Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Virginia, compilers. The Negro in Virginia. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1994.

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Slave leader's Bible given to museum18 February 2012For a century, the descendants of one of Virginia's oldest families have kept a Bible that connected them to Nat Turner, the slave who led the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. Maurice Person, a descendant of people who were killed during the Turner rebellion, and his stepdaughter, Wendy Porter, decided to give the small Bible to the National Museum of African American History and Culture."It didn't have the home it deserved. It needed to be in a place where it could be seen," Porter said.

Members of Person's family and the Francis family were among the estimated 55 white Virginians killed by Turner and his followers. One of the family members, Lavinia Francis, was hidden by the Francises' house slaves. The gift launched an investigation by museum experts to pinpoint the Bible's origins. They knew its provenance—kept in the courthouse after Turner's trial and execution in 1831. When Virginia's Southampton County Courthouse was being renovated in 1912, an official asked the Person family whether it wanted Turner's Bible. Person's father, Walter, accepted the book and displayed it on the family piano for many years. Later, the family put it in a safe-deposit box. . . .

Even with the ownership clear, the museum did its due diligence. A photograph of the Bible, identified as Turner's, was taken in 1900 and is part of the archives at the University of Virginia. An affidavit in 1969 by Harriet E. Francis, a descendant of Lavinia Francis, is also part of the university archives.

Nora Lockshin, a paper conservator for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, examined the paper, leather, ink and arrangement of the pages. The book, which is a little larger than pocket-size, is missing both covers, part of its spine and one chapter. Its pages are yellowed, and there are watermarks and mold. Because of its age, it cannot be opened flat. "The paper is in good shape, and it is a good, strong rag paper," Lockshin said. She enhanced the 1900 photograph, matching the page in the photo to a page in the book. "It matched the pattern of stains." With the Turner Bible, Bunch said, the museum will tell many stories about the resistance to slavery and the compassion of slaves.—NewsLeader 

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Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

Chapter 2: Holy Man, Hoax, or Fiend?  / Chapter 2 Holy Man, Hoax or Fiend

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Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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