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Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

 

 

Sec. 4, Ch. 26--Wrestling with Spiritual Wickedness

 

What Price SalvationóMurder & Mayhem?

 

What was the outcome of fifteen, sixteen hours of the "great work" that God required of Nat Turner? Though Christian slaves of Cross Keys got their licks in for the first time, all suffered. The killings rubbed heavily against Turnerís natural sensibility and his puritanical life. He was both victim of and scapegoat for the evils of Cross Keys. Turner did not desire the burden that Christ placed on his shoulders. Such "enthusiasm" was contrary to his solitary and contemplative nature. 

In his personal behavior, he was priestly. "It is notorious," Thomas Gray wrote in 1831, "that he was never known to have a dollar in his life, to swear an oath, or drink a cup of spirits." Nathaniel Turner of Cross Keys was a gentle spirit, an ascetic; at worst, a mystic capable of reshaping the world imaginatively to suit his sensibility. Nevertheless, Turner had faith in Christ and feared God.

But Turnerís fate was not to live his life just for himself. At twenty-one, he sought to save his life, to run away from the fray to obtain his personal freedom. But the Spirit denied him such leisure, and thus he returned to his earthly master. With the aid of the Spirit, as did Jesus, Turner placed his life into the hands of the divine. In faith, his death and the death of others became his project, to make a sacrifice, to project himself and his followers and his view of the world toward God and his judgment (Rowan, p. 9). 

For one to live the true religious life, one must imitate Christís greatest virtue, righteous indignation. And that must be followed by self-denial. "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mark 8.34-38). One can not, must not, live silently in the midst of evil and do nothing. For the progress of the soul, conditions at times demand a means the enemy can understand, namely, a violent and bloodletting exorcism. Though abhorrent, that was the nature of things, divinely ordered.

Nathaniel Turnerís legendary ineptitude in taking a life troubles many political militants. Styronís Confessions (1969) makes mischief of Turnerís "softness." Though responsible for a river of blood, mostly of women and children, Turner was squeamish about killing by his own hand. This paradox can be understood only in the context of sacred violence, like Abraham being required to kill his son Isaac. Turner had a great love for humanity, including his fellow Christian slaves. 

Only on his third attempt was Nathaniel able to deliver the death blow, and then, seemingly, clumsily and awkwardly. That he killed Margaret Whitehead was significant; yet it is unlikely that this killing implied any sign of the loosening of sexual repression, as suggested by Styron and a few other Virginians.

Turnerís murder of Margaret Whitehead probably did have symbolical aspects in Turnerís subconscious world. Margaret was about the same age as Nancy of the Nile when she was wrenched from Africa. Bought on the auction block, Nat Turnerís mother was brought to Cross Keys, and raped by Benjamin Turner. The African Nancy, the teenage child before her kidnapping, had the same innocent joy for life and hope for her happiness as Margaret of Cross Keys. 

Cherry, Nathanielís purported youthful wife, was forced into a "marriage" not of her choosing and forced to be a breeder for Samuel Turner. In matters or race, religion and sex, Styronís imaginative reasoning on their connections in the 1830s seems absurd in the actual context of Turnerís religious world and his ascetic orientation and religious consciousness.

Styronís ironic speculations are entertaining and, at their worst, systematic. His imaginative conclusions have nothing to do with the Nathaniel Turner we know with certainty in the 1831 "Confessions." Moreover, no report exists of any sexual untowardness with respect to white women in any rebellion of American slaves. That notion is a post-Reconstruction fabrication. Despite his squeamishness in killing with his own hand, Turner asked his Christian soldiers to dip their hands in the enemyís blood. His killing by his own had was thus what a leader had to do. 

Turnerís singular murder symbolized a strike at the very heart of the slaveholderís racial oppression: the double standard with respect to women. Christian slave women were "breeders" rather than "ladies" deserving of regard. In addition, by his murder of Margaret Whitehead, Turner, as Godís chosen, sanctified all the other killings that came before and after. His men required of Turner no further demonstration of his loyalty or his commitment..

There is no question that Turnerís holy war was a bloody mess. As the Richmond Whig reported 29 August 1831, "whole families, father, mother, daughters, sons, suckling babes and school children, were butchered . . . thrown into heaps, and left to be devoured by hogs and dogs, or to putrify on the spot" (Johnson, p. 133). This Cross Keys Christian community sacrificed greatly at the altar of slavery, as would the entire South and the rest of the nation. 

"Turnerís practical impact was small," according to Rosemary Reuther, "but the psychological impact was great. The terror he [Turner] evoked was not simply due to the few deaths he caused, but the consciousness that he expressed thereby of being the divinely appointed agent of apocalyptic wrath, to which white society, in its guilt, could only respond in fear and fury" (The Radical Kingdom, p. 225).

Although Turnerís "insurrection" was confined to a small Southampton community, the specter of its duplication in every slave community became a palpable threat in the minds of slaveholders throughout Virginia and the South. Most American slaves were owned by such medium-sized farms as those of Cross Keys. In such communities, whites numbered as high as a hundred or so. 

In Jerusalem, there were 175 inhabitants. In such a small population, the slaughter of fifty-five men, women, and childrenóten men, fourteen women, thirty-one childrenóa third to a half of the population of Cross Keys, was great and traumatic, white bodies "chopped to pieces with axes, the trees, fence and house top covered with buzzards preying on carcasses" (Johnson, p. 133). Doubtless, Turnerís war was tragic, but not one-sided and thoughtless.

Contrary to popular beliefs, Turner did not make war on all whites. Without exaggeration, we can say, Turner spared Jerusalem. Both blacks and whites of Southampton attest that Turner spared Wiley Francis, Giles Reese, John Clark, Thomas Gray and their families. These exceptions provide massive evidence of Turnerís humanity. With the help of the Holy Spirit, Turner also awakened Brantley from the dead and gave him a new life in Christ. Turnerís healing and baptism of Brantley is usually disregarded in almost every assessment of Turner. 

Those who have claimed that Turner intended to kill all whites should also scan the surnames of those murdered. Only one was named Turner, namely, Elizabeth. Her relationship to Turnerís masters is unclear. If indeed vindictive, Turner would have gone after Samuel Turnerís family and his children and his sisters. But that did not happen. Turner had an ethic against spilling the blood of his own kinsmen.

Turnerís holy war invoked, however, a count-terror that, in contrast, slaughtered and tortured Christian slaves indiscriminately. On the 24th of August 1831, John Hampden Pleasants of the Richmond Light Dragoons arrived in Southampton and witnessed the "temper of the [white] population . . . to inflict immediate death upon every prisoner." He talked with one fellow "of intelligence who stated that he himself had killed between 10 and 15. He justified himself on the ground of the barbarities committed on the whites" (Johnson, p. 110). 

Though the primary task of the State military apparatus, about 800 soldiers including the militia of several counties, was to arrest the Southampton Rebellion, its actual role was the protection of slave property from wanton destruction. With the loosening of such repressed attitudes, the military found it necessary to threaten swift military justice against roaming bands of whites. None of these murderers were arrested nor morally reprimanded by the Virginia newspapers. If Turnerís holy war did nothing else, it unveiled beastly attitudes concealed behind masks of Christian civility.

In fear for white lives, however, the military imprisoned over fifty Christian slavesómen, women, and children. Twelve, among them the boy Moses owned by Joseph Travis, were auctioned and "sold down the river." Seventeen Christians, lovers of freedom, were hanged, including a woman, Lucy Barrow, who brazenly and defiantly, rode her coffin to the gallows. A short period later, three free Negroes were executed for supposed involvement in the Nathaniel Turner affair. Other acts of white terror, including hangings, were carried out in adjoining counties, such as Sussex and Prince George (Brawley, p. 146}.

By Sunday, 30 October 1831, when Nathaniel Turner was taken into custody, seventy-five to a hundred Christian slavesómen, women, and childrenóhad been indiscriminately slaughtered in fierce revenge and retaliation. The toll on Christian slaves in the counter-terror was high; yet their deaths were more ennobling. "Indeed," according to F. Roy Johnson, "some of the insurgents considered themselves martyrs. 

Governor Floyd, reflecting upon General Eppesí report, stated: ĎAll died bravely indicating no reluctance to lose their lives in such a causeí, and again he declared Ďsome of them that were wounded and in the agonies of Death declared that they were going happy for that God had a hand in what they had been doing" (Johnson, p. 111).

During the summer and fall of 1831, the Christian hope of black slaves had little consideration in the calculus of public opinion. In critical contrast, the general public, North and South, disregarded and applauded the evils committed by Virginia whites. To an astonishing degree, the murderous slaughter of the rabid counter-terror was forgiven, understood under the circumstances. 

One is ever shocked and disturbed on reading the temporary accounts of reactions to the Rebellion in Southampton. Virginia papers in Richmond and Norfolk printed letters from the highest levels of Virginia society that advocated a black holocaust, of exterminating the whole population of blacks if a Nat Turner Rebellion ever repeated itself (Tragle, p. 147; Foner, p. 111).

Truth was the foremost fatality of Turnerís war. Turner and his Christian soldiers did not have the full freedom to tell their story. Other than the "Confessions" of Nathaniel Turner, all the direct court testimony of the Christian slaves tried, hanged or sold on the auction block were whitewashed, wiped out. The stories of Christian slaves were hushed and then silenced by the hand of the law. There was no roving independent reporter interested in the real truth of the Rebellion, from the Christian slaveís point of view except, maybe, Thomas Gray. 

These Christian men, women, and children, in the mind of most whites, had no independent reality worthy of respect or consideration. Freedom of the press was limited to those who had wealth and power. These propagandists, North and South, came together in publications and speeches to put the worst light on Turner and the horrific events of Southampton County, Virginia. To put it mildly, the national media sacrificed truth to melodrama and amusement.

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