Prophet & Apocalypse Now
What Manner of Man
Though often viewed through a bloody lens, Nathaniel Turner, in
great contrast to Will Francis, was not a decisive combatant, neither
cold-blooded murderer nor a mad, blood-thirsty killer. Turnerís war against
the slaveholders of Cross Keys did not arise out of mere personal loss or
disinheritance. That may have indeed been Willís primary motive.
over-riding argument of the "Confessions," however, is that Turnerís
motivation came from sources other than individual loss. His steps toward
salvation, nevertheless, did begin with loss. Undoubtedly, retributive slaughter
played some psychological role, for such acts are as old as mankind, as old as
Abraham and Joshua. In a similar righteousness, Turner and his men dealt
ruthlessly with evil in Cross Keys to purify it of its abominations and
The source of Turnerís war was not in clinical
"madness," as his detractors argue. Its source came about by the
outrageous violations of Christian law by Christian slaveholders. However we
wish to wiggle, we can not escape the religious character of Turnerís war. He
was not an abolitionist as Christian slaveholders and black abolitionists have
argued; he was not a modern revolutionary, as socialists have argued.
a man of peace, inclined toward contemplation, a reluctant warrior and military
soldier. He had no interest in war in terms of individual power, though he
studied the science of warfare.
A soldier on the field of battle must come face to face with
bloody death; the death of others as well as oneís own death. How does one
take that all inóthe slaughter of Godís creation? The soul is challenged.
Killing and being killed filled Turner with dread. Turner himself must have, at
moments, wondered whether he was living through a nightmare. In a prophetic
state, most likely, such boundaries of reality are erased.
Turnerís world was
not bifurcated into a weekday/Sunday mode of consciousness. He woke up every
morning ready to do Godís will. Turner insisted until the end God commanded
him "to fight the Serpent," to slaughter Godís "enemies."
Intellectually and spiritually, Turner knew the biblical
justifications for violence, as well as slaveholders knew the biblical
justifications for slavery. For a prophetic corrective runs through the Bible
and slavery time in America seemed "particularly appropriate" in a
time of mass injustice in which the divine in his own righteousness had to
punish those who had broken his covenant. Biblical study of the gospels and
Revelations clearly painted a picture of Christ as a warrior.
But it was Turnerís
nature, his heart, his personal purity that held him back from even the thought
of bloodletting. The killing of children and babies was especially repugnant to
his sensibility, though some grew to become slaveholders.
Nat Turner was a spiritual child of Abraham, who reluctantly
yet willingly sacrificed all. We must all face these life and death challenges.
If it means sacrificing our sons, we must still obey. Such men, as Abraham, who
are willing to suspend the ethical, in obedience and in faith, God loves (Pailin,
p. 11). For such men proceed directly to his kingdom. To such apostles the gates
of heaven are flung open with joy and celebration.
Turner hesitated. The planning of death and destruction
overwhelmed him. Turner told Gray, "It was intended by us to have begun the
work of death on the 4th July lastómany were the plans formed and
rejected by us, and it affected my mind to such a degree, that I fell sick and
the time passed." In a manner, Turnerís hesitation can be likened to
Jesusí passion in the Garden of Gethsemane, his hesitation to face his own
death and that of others. Turner had no passion for murder. During the war,
Turner carried only a ceremonial sword, more a symbol of Godís wrath than a
functional instrument of death.
Signs of the Apocalypse
Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is
that His justice cannot sleep forever; that considering
nature, and means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune,
an exchange of situation is among possible events;
that it may become probable by supernatural
Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on Virginia," Query XVIII
On 12 February 1831, the sign for the beginning of the
"great work" came in a solar event, an eclipse. Turner and his men
made numerous plans and then rejected them in turn. Then they set a date, 4 July
1831, and Turner again hesitated. And then, Turner told Gray, "the sign
appeared again [13 August 1831], which determined me not to wait longer."
It was as if Turner said, "Your will, Lord; not my own." God would not
hold back his wrath.
Though symbolically significant, in a political sense, the
July 4th day celebration was not what God wanted to emphasize, that
is, natural theology and the moral superficialities of calculating reason. His
message was not about nations and their relations, but about people and their
relationships with each other and their God.
The "Confessions" provides no description of Nat
Turnerís final sign to make war against the slaveholders of Cross Keys. This
thirteenth encounter with the divine was neither a voice nor the appearance of
the Holy Spirit. Turnerís second apocalyptic sign, was yet another solar
event. F. Roy Johnson wrote a detailed description.
August 13 the sun rose with a pale greenish tint, which
soon gave place to curlean blue; and this also a silvery white. In the
afternoon it appeared as an immense circular plane of polished silver; and
to the naked eye, there was exhibited upon its surface an appearance that
was termed a Ďblack spotí. The sun shone with a dull, gloomy light and
the atmosphere was moist and hazy (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection,
There were no ready-made scientific explanations to satisfy
and console the people of Cross Keys. But Turner understood. God was talking to
him, urging him toward obedience.
These were an agrarian, back-country people, Christian slave
and Christian slaveholder, who looked onto the world through a lens of religion
and myth, a world in which God operated in the world, by divers wonders.
"The darkening of the sun is one of the phenomena of the apocalyptic
judgment (Is 13:10; 30:26; Mt 24:29; Mk 13:24; Apc 6:12; 8:12; 9:2),"
according to McKenzie (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 852). In Matthew Jesus
speaks as follows.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the
sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall
fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then
shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the
tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the
clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matthew 24.29-30).
Nature too was Godís book and the prophet was as versed in
its interpretation as he was of the Bible. "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye
gazing up into heaven. This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven,
shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (Acts
1.11). God will come in his own time in manners not yet revealed.
During the National period of the United States, millennial
lore continued to be common, "from learned divines to ordinary
farmers," according to Susan Juster. "Far from being the preserve of a
small number of biblical scholars and theologians, prophetic exegesis was a
vernacular genre in eighteenth-century North America, a way of interpreting
past, present, and future events according to the narratives of biblical
history" ("Demagogues or Mystagogues?" par. 1).
before Turnerís Rebellion, a similar solar event occurred which had a similar
On May 19, 1780, all of New England was plunged into
darkness. At mid-morning, the sky turned an eerie yellow. Within an hour, it
had become so dark that people had to dine by candlelight. In the afternoon,
the clouds took on a "higher and more brassy color" with
occasional flashes that resembled the Northern lights. . . . For some, it
heralded the immanent appearance of Christ in the Second Coming; for others
less certain of their ability to read celestial signs with such precision,
it was at least a warning that "these are the latter days" (Juster,
The Dark Day of 1780 resulted, it was later discovered, from
man-made causes, the burning of fields to "provide a fertile coating of
ashes." It had meaning otherwise, nevertheless to many of the faithful.
Some read the atmospheric changes as a sign of an end to English oppression and
the birth of a new nation (Juster, pars. 1-3). In Turnerís religious rhetoric,
however, there are no political or nationalistic overtones.
The following Sunday, 14 August 1831, Nathaniel Turner preached to
a great crowd of people outside of Barnes Methodist Church, near Hartford
County, North Carolina, while Reverend Richard Whitehead, a Cross Keys
slaveholder, preached inside. People came from wide and far, an average radius
of ten to fifteen miles. Moses Daughtery of Nansemond County walked twenty miles
to hear "Prophet Nat" preach (Johnson, p. 179).
Traditionally, in the western Tidewater, August was the month
of Revival, a time in which members of one church visited another neighborhood
church, often taking their families and slaves with them. After the sermon,
there was eating, drinking, a renewing of acquaintances. Revival services would
last for a week. Undoubtedly, Turnerís Trusted Four encouraged a large turnout
for this sermon.
Those slaves who came to hear Nathaniel speak were eager to hear
Turnerís interpretation of the peculiar atmospheric changes, he a man close to
God. According to Johnson, "Nat gained many sympathizers this day, and they
signified their willingness to conspire with him by wearing around their necks
red bandanna handkerchiefs" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p.
The Spirit chose instead of a historical, political event, a
time of spiritual revival, to chasten his people. The July 4th
holiday justified Americaís hypocritical Enlightenment which left a
half-million men, women, and children in bondage, in the worst possible
condition. The public face of Americaís civil religion as represented in the
founding documents of the nation was not that which the Spirit wanted to
In August by tradition, however, God, religion, and Christian revival
were on peopleís mind. It was a season in which some discovered that true
religion concerns itself with the individual soul, that which is in the
individual heart and that soulís relationship to God.
The Revival Season was a time of spiritual questioning and
rebirth, a time of conversion and repentance. Yet it was a time of ripeness.
Vegetable gardens burst the basket edges with beans, tomatoes, squash, grapes,
and more. The crop was made and all waited for the harvest. For Christian
slaveholders, August was a time of rest and repose, a time of ease, of letting
the guard down.
Though Turner had proclaimed the Coming of the Lord for three
years, the slaveowners of Southampton paid no heed to Turnerís prophecies and
sermons. No more than they did a fly on the ceiling. In the early 1800s,
premillennial exegesis of the Bible was the fashion among ministers and
theologians (Juster, par. 5). Turner, however, stood outside of respected
clerical circles. Like Jesus, he came from the common folk. His family was not
all saints, wealthy, and well-educated.
For the prosperous landholders of Cross Keys, all was right
with the world. They loved God, and treated, so they believed, their slaves
rather well. At least, some argued, Virginia treated slaves better than Georgia
and Louisiana. The great scholar W.E.B. Du Bois
sustained this mythic view of
Virginia: "The climate, the staple tobacco crop, and the society of
Virginia were favorable to a system of domestic slavery, but one which tended to
develop into a patriarchal serfdom rather than into a slave consuming industrial
society" (The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, p. 12). Du
materialist analysis can not account for what goes on in the hearts and souls of
Christian slaves. Yet Du Bois was correct. Virginia slaveholders found themselves
righteous in the eyes of the Lord. But Godís reckoning is different than manís.
Virginiaís Christian slaves, especially those of Cross
Keys, held a decidedly different view of their oppression. Patriarchy did not
provide security to families, sufficient protection from the elements, needed
nutrition, hope for the children of Christian slaves. The Cross Keys slaves that
were Turnerís followers did not want just more of the same. There was
considerable room for development and improvement and all of that had gone
Matter of fact, things had gotten worse. Most did not belong to the
great, well-managed plantations of hundreds of slaves, but rather to middling
slaveowners, with less than thirty slaves. Many inherited estates that were
beyond their abilities and means. These estates, however, involved the ownership
of men, women, and children. Jeffersonian patriarchy was not the norm for Cross
Slaveowners in Cross Keys had become brutal and cruel.
Christian slaves needed more than their owners were willing to provide for body
and soul. The spiritual well being of Christian slaves, living in hovels, was
denied for the luxurious comfort of the master and his children. Sam Turnerís
generation had spiritually isolated their fellow Christian servants with the
building of Turnerís Methodist Church, which excluded blacks, free and slave.
The blacks of Cross Keys wanted Nathaniel Turnerís "kingdom of heaven."
They wanted the Moses of Exodus, beloved of God. They prayed for a hero, a
deliverer. God answered their prayers. Christ sent his messenger, Nat Turner, to
speak for him, to act on his behalf.
According to F. Roy Johnson, Turnerís August 14th
"text carried insurrectionist implications." Of course, it was only in
retrospect that Southampton slaveowners and their sympathizers came to that
conclusion. At the time, every thing seemed as it had always been. But there was
another drama afoot to which they were blinded.
Several lines of Turnerís
Revival Sermon have been preserved in folklore, though it is not contained in
the "Confessions." Turner related a vision to the amassed Christian
slaves, "And I saw, and behold a white horse, and he that sat on him had a
bow; and a crown was given unto him. And he went forth conquering and to
conquer" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 76).
This vision was
an evident improvisation on Revelation 19.11: "And I saw heaven opened, and
behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and
in righteousness he doth judge and make war." The "Faithful and
True" and he that had a "bow and crown" both refer to Jesus
Christ, the warrior monarch. There are numerous such images of Christ in
Christian literature and song.
Any king worthy of worship asserts his "sovereignty
through battle with the forces of chaos, which continually threaten his
creation. This divine activity stretches from creation, across the pages of
history, and ahead to the eschatological completion" (Wood, p. 166).
As a warrior king, Christ also occurs in another popular and well-known legend.
In his resurrection, Christ liberated from the jaws of Hell the first human
souls to be saved. Among those who ascended to Godís celestial realm included
Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Rachel (Ciardi, pp. 50-55).
From the Christian slaveís view, if Christ could defeat Satan in Hell, then
their liberation was assured.
Such language, according to Leo D. Lefebure, "draws upon
the ancient tradition of the Israelite holy war" Nat evoked Jesus, as many
before him, "as the divine warrior who does battle for his people" (Revelation,
the Religions, and Violence, p. 70). Turner did not, however, need to rely
on the esoteric world of the book of Revelation. For as George Aichele pointed
out, the gospels lend themselves to social and political interpretations. They
lend themselves, as F. Roy Johnson might say, to "insurrectionist
The "violence of Jesusí arrest has a great deal to do
with the kingdom of God," according to Aichele. "Jesus is eventually
scourged and crucified as the ĎKing of the Jewsí by the Romans (Mark 15.26).
He died in the place of Barabbas, one of Ďthe insurgents who had done murder
during the uprisingí (Mark 15.7). Markís story suggests that the Romans
perceived Jesus as a violent man and a political danger. Markís entire
sequence from Jesusí arrest until his death is steeped in violence"
("Jesusí Violence," p.83).
There was scriptural evidence enough and
oppression sufficient to support Nathaniel Turnerís use of violence. As represented
in the "Confessions," Turnerís argument and his use of violence in
Cross Keys situate him solidly within the Judaeo-Christian tradition of holy
* * *
* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mannís previous
New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, in which he
provides a sweeping and provocative
examination of North and South America
prior to the arrival of Christopher
Columbus. Itís exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that itís
anything but exhausting to read. With
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, Iím
proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer),
Mann has written nothing less than the
story of our world: how a planet of what
were once several autonomous continents
is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless
scientists and researchers; he visited
the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
wide-ranging yet personal feel as we
follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the
prose is masterful. In telling the
improbable story of how Spanish and
Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he
takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
ďsouthern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.Ē We learn how
the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar
cane have disrupted and convulsed the
planet and will continue to do so until
we are finally living on one integrated
or at least close-to-integrated Earth.
Whether or not the human instigators of
all this remarkable change will survive
the process they helped to initiate more
than five hundred years ago remains,
Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * *
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
Mammyís behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folksí domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own familyís 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
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
update 13 February 2012