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Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

 

 

Sec. 3, Ch. 17  Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption

The Transfiguration of the Holy Spirit

 

 

Face to Face with God 

At some indefinite time between 1825 and 1828, Nathaniel Turner had yet another vision. In contrast, to the vision of the white and black spirits, this second revelatory vision was exceedingly more complex in its structure and description. In this revelation, God revealed himself fully. That is, Turner came face to face with God. 

In those early days of 19th-century America, a vision of the divine among Methodist religionists seemingly was not a rare spiritual event and usually signified a spiritual crisis. This vision modified and honed Turner’s millennial perspective and moved Turner closer to a holy war in Cross Keys, one, however, not led though sanctioned by Christ and his spiritual army.

Before our analysis of Turner’s face to face encounter with Christ, a review of three other instances would be instructive and provide some religious context for our examination of what happened in Cross Keys, Virginia. 

Again let us draw on the religious experiences of Jarena Lee and other religionists of the era as a means of fleshing out that of Turner. 

In her testament of religious experience (1836), Jarena Lee reported a vision of Christ. Hers came while praying at the bed of a young "coloured man" who did not know Christ but was near death.

There appeared to my view, though my eyes were closed, the Saviour in full stature

nailed to the cross, just over the head of the young man, against the ceiling of the room. I cried out, brother look up, the Saviour is come, he will pardon you, your sins he will forgive . . . his eyes were gazing with ecstasy upward . . . his lips were clothed in a sweet and holy smile . . . I held him by the hand his happy and purified soul soared away, without a sign or groan, to its eternal rest (Andrews, p. 44)

Now, of course, science might provide another callous interpretation than the spiritual one she portends. And, of course, there may be other spiritual interpretations than hers. In any event, though a member of Bethel AME, Lee operated independently of the church in her exhorting, preaching, healing, and providing solace to women and their families. Her vision came forth by her personal spiritual striving, a life and death crisis oriented around the notion of God’s grace and forgiveness. And this "personal spiritual striving" was key to the Second Awakening.

In her Memoirs (1846), Zilpha Elaw was ceased by a vision of Christ soon after she came in contact with Methodists. Her experience also involved a desire for a forgiveness of sins. While singing "one of the songs of Zion," Elaw "distinctly saw the Lord Jesus."

As I was milking the cow and singing, I turned my head, and saw a tall figure approaching, who came and stood by me. He had long hair, which parted in the front and came down on his shoulders; he wore a long white robe down to the feet; and as he stood with open arms and smiled upon me, . . . . the beast of the stall gave forth her evidence to the reality of the heavenly appearance; for she turned her head and looked round as I did; and when she saw, she bowed her knees and cowered down upon the ground . . . . I write as before God and Christ, and declare, as I shall give an account to my Judge at the great day, that every thing I have written . . . has been written with conscientious veracity and scrupulous adherence to truth (Andrews, pp. 56-57).

For Elaw, this vision of her "condescending Saviour" was the means of her conversion. Since that "happy hour" her soul was "set at glorious liberty." Elaw’s whole being and view of her life was altered: "all the former hardships which pertained to my circumstances and situation banished; the work and duties which had previously been hard and irksome now becomes easy and pleasant; and the evil propensities of my disposition and temper were subdued beneath the softening and refining pressure of divine grace upon my heart" (Andrews, p. 57).

In her A Brand Plucked From the Fire, Julia A. J. Foote asserted she had a vision of the full Trinity and an angel and other holy figures. Like Lee and Elaw, Foote encounter male figures of authority who attempted to dissuade her of her knowledge of things divine.

The angel led me to a place where there was a large tree, the branches of which seemed to extend either way beyond sight. Beneath it sat, as I thought, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, besides many others, whom I thought were angels. . . . Finally, the Father said to me: "before these people make your choice, whether you will obey me or go from this place to eternal misery and pain." . . . . I cried out, "I will obey thee, Lord" (Andrews, pp. 202-203).

The Father led Foote to a "quantity of water, which looked like silver." Christ then took her hand, led her into the water, stripped her of her clothing and washed her. After this operation she felt as if she had turned into an angel. "The holy Ghost plucked some [fruit]" and gave it to her; after which they sat and ate. Christ wrote on paper with a golden pen, rolled it up, and placed it in her bosom. Foote was thus "prepared" to preach the gospel (Andrews, p. 203).

The meaning of the Christ visions of Lee, Elaw, and Foote can readily be understood. In all three cases, these female prophets longed for a religious and righteous life. All three were prevented from progressing on the gospel highway by male religionists who objected to their sex daring to interpret the scripture and claiming direct authority from Christ. These three female prophets suffered the same  lack of dignity and integrity as Turner, humanity trampled by a warped logic. 

That is, Christian religionists (white males) obstructed the mission Christ assigned his apostles. 

Turner’s vision of Christ, however, was neither as personal as that of the three female prophets nor as simplistic in its construction and intent. Turner’s vision contains a greater symbolical content of theological material with broader concerns than those of the female prophets.

The Holy Spirit, with whom Turner communed, transfigured itself. In the "Confessions," Turner did not use the term "transfigure." But transfiguration seems to be the implication in his phrasing. Turner told Gray, "and the Holy Ghost was with me, and said ‘Behold me as I stand in the Heavens’." Turner’s "behold" suggests a visual image of the divine. In the New Testament, transfiguration refers to an event in the life of Jesus as reported in the gospels (Matthew 17.2; Mark 9.2; and Luke 9.31). 

Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus into a high mountain "and he was transfigured before them" (Mark 9.2). In this instance, Jesus’ body took on a "luminous quality of glory." In the "Confessions," the Holy Spirit is transformed into a divine cosmic representation of the Christ. The transfiguration of the Holy Spirit is unique and peculiar to Nathaniel Turner.

In the gospel transfiguration, the disciples John, James, and Peter observed Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets. Similarly, in Turner’s transfiguration vision, the Christ does not appear alone. Turner told Gray, "I looked and saw the forms of men in different attitudes—and there were lights in the sky to which the children of darkness gave other names than what they really were—for they were the lights of the Saviour’s hands, stretched forth from the east to west, even as they were extended on the cross on Calvary for the redemption of sinners."

The spiritual human form of Christ must have appeared monumental in the heavens, inspiring simultaneously awe, faith, and confidence. Turner described Christ only in terms of his stature and spiritual presence. Facial features, color, and hair texture, seemingly, were meaningless trivia, not worthy of note. This vision of the transfigured Christ contrasts significantly with that of the vision of the warring spirits. In Turner’s visionary iconography, the "forms of men in different attitudes" replaced the battling spirits. Rather than angels (warring spirits), "men in different attitudes" become by contrast the significant element of this vision. 

It is a dramatic turn.

Turner’s spiritual iconography also corresponds to that of the "Emanuel Prophecies" in which Isaiah, like Nathaniel Turner, came face to face with God:

"I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft. . . . All the earth is filled with his glory" (Isaiah 6.1-4).

There are three elements in Isaiah’s vision: the distant majestic God, his throne (symbol of his authority), and his hovering angelic host in veiled deportment.

In its elements, Nathaniel Turner’s vision has the same tripartite structure as that of Isaiah’s visionary palate. In both instances the divine attitude is dominant. In Nathaniel’s vision, in the foreground, Christ stands, ready for action, while in Isaiah’s God reposes. Like Jehovah, Christ is distant, yet ever present, ready to engage his people through his messengers. As the throne is the symbol of authority for Isaiah’s God, the Cross is the symbol of Jesus’ authority and glory. Instead of angels, the third aspect of Turner’s cosmic icon represents "forms of men in different attitudes." 

In the gospel transfiguration, there also appeared "men in different attitudes," namely, Moses and Elijah conversing with the transfigured Jesus. In Turner’s vision, instead of angels, Christ has unidentified men as his spiritual guard ready to carry out his every command. This verbal iconography, with its symbolic elements of grace and universality, contained the promise of universal salvation.

A Double Vision of Christ

This paradoxical icon displays Christ standing before the Cross while, in the background, also hanging on the Cross. It is a double vision of the Christ. It proposes a choice opened to Christ and to man: a readiness for active engagement or a merciful passive tolerance. This cosmic vision possesses an atmosphere of tension and conflict. The image of "forms of men in different attitudes" suggests there is a heavenly host, men rather than angels, ready to carry out the commands of God. These messengers of the Lord can bring blessings and punishment. 

For as John Wesley warned us, "Before I can preach love and grace, I must preach sin, law, and judgement." The Cosmic Cross, the Suffering Christ, his heavenly army offer both the "kingdom of heaven," a time when all is made right; and the end of the world, that is, the coming of "the great day of judgment," a time of "wailing and gnashing of teeth." The life of man will be weighed in the balance.

In a brief aside on his night vision, Turner added a curious remark, probably a literary allusion: "lights in the sky to which the children of darkness gave other names." The phrase "children of darkness," as in the vision of black and white spirits, lends itself to be misinterpreted in terms of race (skin color). Again, that would be a mistake. If we want to get at the 1825 Nathaniel Turner, such secular interpretations will not bring us closer. 

Turner’s "children of darkness" were not Christian slaves or blacks. This phrase refers to spiritual darkness, rather than skin color. With this phrase, Turner sets himself apart from the old pagan world. Turner made reference to nonbelievers, maybe Babylonians or Chaldeans. He may have also had in mind either Greeks or Romans, who also ascribed names to the constellations in the heavens.

Many of the constellations we recognize today still have Greek and Roman names: the Northern Cross (Cygnus); the Southern Cross (Crux, part of Centaurus). The Southern Cross, however, is not visible from the latitude of Southampton. For Turner, the authors of these "other names" were blind to true divinity. For Turner, the Cross Keys Christian slaveholders were a type of pagan, persons who put their faith in things of this world. Bereft of the Holy Spirit, theirs was a religion merely of ritual and ceremony. These religionists were unwilling to defend the sacred words of the Master of the world.

That Turner should have such astrological knowledge surprises us. Again, we should read this knowledge as a sign that Turner was an extraordinary individual—slave or free, rich or poor, white, black, or mulatto. Again, we have a biblical parallel. As it was asked of Jesus, we too can ask, "How hath this man acquired learning never having studied?" (John 7.15). Possibly, like in Foote’s vision, Christ wrote with a gold pen on a piece of paper, rolled it, and place it in his bosom. Turner said, with the same certainty as Jesus, "It cometh from God" (John 7.16-20). 

We can speculate on other possibilities for sources of Turner’s knowledge. Newspapers or books on mythology and the stars or an astrological chart or an almanac may have been available to him among the family libraries of his owners. He was literate, knew the Bible by heart, according to legend. Turner may have overheard others involved in such discussions or some combination of all these possibilities. As an expert on the content of the Bible, Turner must have also been aware of the astrological material in Daniel and Revelations.

Lee, Elaw, and Foote were certain of the meaning of their Christ visions. Their revelations convicted them in their faith and the grace of Christ. 

Nathaniel Turner painted a different scenario. Though his knowledge was "perfected," Turner was still unable to interpret fully his heaven-sent visions. Turner’s knowledge, as that of all men, was far distant from God’s wisdom. The continued cryptic mode of his revelations suggest that even though Turner had been sanctified, the Spirit continued to teach Nathaniel, to guide him on the gospel highway. Humility is a necessary virtue for he who would serve God fully; man must be ever reminded of his weakness and ignorance. The apostle must be ever mindful he is nothing compared to God. 

Moreover, by this stage, Turner was exceedingly careful to avoid imposing narrow and personal meanings on his revelations. Turner understood as did other apostles "no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. . . .but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost" (2 Peter 20-21). In respectful reverence and attendance, Turner "prayed to be informed of a certainty of the meaning thereof." The Holy Spirit quickly responded to Turner’s prayer in the bright workaday world of slavery. Next Chapter 18

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