Christian Martyrdom in Southampton
of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
* * * *
Scholarship, Sacred Documents, &
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
"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
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
John Brown of Harpers Ferry.
With respect to religion, Nathaniel Turner
differed radically from
Prosser and even
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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,
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
Egerton, Douglas R.
The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1892. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina
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.
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
53/54 (1997), pp. 51-72.
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.
Negro in Virginia. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1994.
* * *
Slave leader's Bible given
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
* * *
Martyrdom in Southampton
Theology of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
Chapter 2: Holy Man, Hoax, or Fiend?
/ Chapter 2 Holy Man, Hoax or Fiend
* * *
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
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
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
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
* * * * *
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
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Ancient African Nations
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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
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Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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