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Sec. 4, Ch. 23 --Wrestling with Spiritual Wickedness

Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis




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. 

The 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 infidelities.

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. 

Turner was 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 just;

that His justice cannot sleep forever; that considering numbers,

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 interference.

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, pp. 74-75).

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). 

A half-century before Turnerís Rebellion, a similar solar event occurred which had a similar religious response.

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, par. 1).

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. 76).

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 emphasize. 

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 Boisí 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 neglected. 

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 Keys.

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 tendencies."

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 wars.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

Iím a big fan of Charles Mannís previous book 1491: 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 his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of 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, ďglobalizedĒ entity.

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.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

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.     

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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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Boisí Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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