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Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

 

 

Sec. 3, Ch. 16 Coming to Grips with Injustice & Corruption

 

Turnerís MessageóWatch & Pray: 1825-1828

 

 

Turnerís 1825 revelations made a decisive turn in his spiritual life. His phrase "true knowledge of faith" signified that his spiritual preparation had come to fruition. He was no longer just waiting, wandering, wondering what to do. His new spiritual state gave him direction. The mystery of Christ had been made known to him by the Spirit of God (Ephesians 3.3-5). 

Others have recognized the importance of 1825 from a martial and racial perspective, but few have considered this period in terms of Turnerís spiritual growth. F. Roy Johnson, however, did recognize that 1825 was an important religious moment for Turner. For Johnson, Turnerís "made perfect" meant that he had become a man "qualified to preach the word of the Christian God" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 57). Johnsonís estimation, however, comes by halves.

Turner did preach; he also exhorted. These two terms, however, are distinctive. In the Methodist lexicon, they indicate a hierarchical structuring or recognition of authority. In Jarena Leeís spiritual autobiography, the author recalled a religious moment at Bethel AME in Philadelphia during a sermon delivered by Rev. Richard Williams on Jonah 2.9 in which he "lost the spirit."

I sprang, as by an altogether supernatural impulse, to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken.

I told them that I was like Jonah; for he had been then nearly eight years since the Lord had called me to preach his gospel to the fallen sons and daughters of Adamís race, but that I had lingered like him, and delayed to go at the bidding of the Lord, and warn those who are as deeply guilty as were the people of Ninevah (Andrews, p. 44)

In her exhortation, Lee revealed how these terms were used spiritually to disinherit those called by God. Lee was allowed to exhort, but not preach. Exhortation usually followed what was considered "true preaching." Exhorters were limited "to pleas for close attention to the message preached, repentance, and acceptance of the present opportunity for salvation," according to William L. Andrews. "Exhorters were not licensed to speak from or interpret a biblical text" (Sisters of the Spirit, p. 239, note11).

In Turnerís Methodist Church of Cross Keys, Turner was not allowed even to exhort. To license Turner to preach was beyond their Christian reach. Lee was not able to preach because she was a woman.

To this it may be replied, by those who are determined not to believe that it is right for a woman to preach, that the disciples, though they were fishermen, and ignorant of letters too, were inspired so to do. To which I would reply, that though they were inspired, yet that inspiration did not save them from showing their ignorance of letters, and of manís wisdom; thus the multitude found out, by listening to the remarks of the envious Jewish priests. If then, to preach the gospel, by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively?

Turner was denied a license because he was a slave. Christian slaveholders refused to give him license to tell them how to interpret the scriptures to instruct them in how to be a Christian. Cross Keysí Christian slaveowners ignored Turnerís aspiration for ordination.

Limiting Turnerís identity, his life, by the use of such terms as "preacher" or "exhorter," however, discourages a full appreciation of Turnerís religious experience and his spirituality. For Turner, preaching nor exhorting was an avocation or a career choice. Turner received his authority from Christ and the Holy Spirit. Like Paul, in early Christian tradition, Turner was a Christian apostle. His mission came not through merely scripture or church body, but through the Master himself. 

There are, according to John W. Wenham, supporting K. H. Rengstorfís assertion, "only two grounds for apostleship, an encounter with the risen Lord, and a personal commission from him" (Christ and the Bible, p. 116). Turner qualified on both accounts. In the 1825-1828 period, Turnerís mission was to carry the good news of the "kingdom" to all who would hear and heed.

Turnerís Cross Keys religious message began as a millennial one. That is, the Messiah would come again, and the righteous would "inherit a renewed earth" in which all, living and dead "can participate immediately in a heavenly world" here on earth. That is, an elect will be given a second chance to live their lives again. This elect, however, would operate on a different basis than that of Turnerís Methodist Church. This "renewed earth" would include both free and slave, black and white, to all who gave themselves to Jesus, to his humility and holiness. 

God was going to set matters right, and soon.

Turnerís messianic appeal swayed many in Cross Keys. His message was within the general tenor and religious talk of the times. In the 1820s and 1830s, Lyman Beecher and Charles Finney also moved American religious thought toward the "prospect of millennial perfection" (OíLeary, pp. 94-95). By some reports, Turnerís popularity expanded beyond Cross Keys, that he was the most popular preacher among the Christian blacks in the western Tidewater. Given free rein and a horse by his mistress Sally Francis Moore, Turner traveled according to legend into neighboring counties of North Carolina and Virginia. After the Rebellion, additional reports had Turner preaching in Petersburg and Richmond (Foner, pp. 27, 30).

Though short and dumpy, as Lerone Bennett pointed us, Nathaniel Turner, however, was more than a simple-minded backwoods Negro preacher. Clearly, Turner was no enlightened skeptic, no disbeliever, no bourgeois nationalist. He may have been a "buddha-bellied" dreamer, as Bennett described him (Before the Mayflower, pp. 118-125). Yet, from 1825 onwards, Turner told Gray, "the Holy Ghost was with me." Turnerís physical features were irrelevant, for God is no "respecter of persons." Nathaniel Turner was Godís messenger in the world, and the Cross Keys blacks recognized God in him and responded to his message. For, according to Turner, "they believed and said my wisdom came from God."

Though not grand in physical stature, Turner had charisma. According to Jeffrey Burton Russell, "Charisma is an extraordinary talent, understood as a divine gift that gives the bearer influence over others. Charismatic leaders are able to motivate people to change their lifestyle and beliefs radically. . . In order to be fully present in God, the soul must have no interest in non-godly concerns: family, society, or wealth" (Colleen, p. 31). 

Thomas Gray and the "Confessions" provided evidence that Turner possessed such a soul. In this manner was Turner "made perfect," arrived at Christian perfection. After his 1825 visions, the drudgery of farm work slipped away. Every act and service for his master gained vitalized meaning in the context of the "greater work" for his heavenly Master.

Nathaniel Turner had no bourgeois interest in wife and children, no sentimental interest in family or prosperity. Turner, the prophet of God Almighty, focused all his energies, thereafter, on preserving and enhancing his intimate relationship with the divine and the religious community he developed among the Cross Keys Christian slaves. Turner made them feel the Spirit and yearn for the "kingdom of heaven." All worldly cares or concerns about his personal freedom fell away, like chaff from wheat. Jarena Lee also pointed out how the Lord kept familial concerns from her mind so as not to be "diverted from her work" (Andrews, p. 45). Thereafter, Turner lived fully in the spiritual world of Christ, "behind the various masks he wore in public." (Crites, pp. 237-238).

Because of Turnerís mask of piety and obedience, few, if any, of the Elders of Turnerís Methodist Church feared any mischief would come from his preaching and prophesying. In their estimation, Nat Turner, by example, and by word, taught the new Methodist slave catechism of docility, obedience, honesty, and hard work (Daniel, p. 344). Turner, however, wanted to break the mind frame of his black listeners, broaden their horizons beyond bodily needs. He insisted on the viability of another world, a more just Christian world than the one they then experienced. 

Turner emphasized a quest for salvation, here and now. None had to settle for just crumbs from the masterís table, at least, not in oneís heart. Faith and hope in Jesusí gospel offered a greater reward. By his spiritual leadership and sacrifice, Turner brought many blacks closer to authoring a true Christian worship in America. Together, they prayed for the coming of the "kingdom." Next Chapter 17 

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban NicolŠs Guillťn and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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