A Defeat Sweeter than Victory

A Defeat Sweeter than Victory


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Sec. 5, Ch. 31 — Blood on the Cross

A Defeat Sweeter than Victory

If you deny us your [Methodist] name, you cannot seal up 

the Scriptures from us, and deny us a name in heaven. 

Richard Allen, 1760-1831 AME Church founder


Nathaniel Turner’s influence might have ended at the gallows if he had not managed to bring about the publication of his “Confessions.” In this spiritual testament, Turner cast his essential self and spirit into words that must be read in religious and theological terms. Turner was not given a full opportunity to present his life, reasoning, and spiritual influences. The law for Christian slaves limited his freedom of speech was. Turner was not fortunate as John Brown. Virginia gave Brown a month between sentencing and execution and allowed him pen and paper to write letters. 

Turner was not allotted free correspondence to provide in detail his life and sentiment and all that happened in Cross Keys. And his relationship with God and man, beyond the seeming. But Turner gave us enough, if we read skillfully in addition the folklore and the religious context of Cross Keys. However, we have not taken good advantage of that which he left behind. Race and race-thinking have so dominated the discussion of Turner’s life and his holy war so much so that the public has not been able to get a true grasp of Turner’s religious issues and concerns.

Turner symbolically stripped the “Confessions” down to the essentials for the sake of expediency and to assure publication of his Testament. It thus became necessary to provide background to flesh out the world of Turner’s birth and youth and his religious consciousness. Much of this material is found in folklore and letters to Virginia papers. 

The works of Gilbert Francis, F. Roy Johnson, and Henry Irving Tragle, in a manner, provide the corpus of Turner’s life. These tales, however, must be critically examined to get at the truths they convey. Here are some “facts” gleaned from the folklore and letters to the Virginia papers.

1) Turner’s first master, Benjamin Turner, was his father; Nancy, his birth mother, was raped immediately after purchase. 2) Turner’s grandmother and grandfather, Harriet and Tom, were his “parents” and his first spiritual guides. 3) Like his white father, Nathaniel Turner was heavily influenced by Methodist doctrine. That is, Turner was not a Baptist, as has been claimed by most historians. 4) Turner had three masters within a period of eight years. 5) Turner was thoroughly versed in the Christian bible and biblical exegesis. 6) Turner did not make war on all whites, which included the white Turners; and 7) Turner planned his capture and martyrdom. 8) Fearing Turner would be viewed as a Christ figure, Southampton slaveholders desecrated his body.

Many of these truths have never been put together in a systematic reading to provide a full portrait of Turner’s religiosity. Turner’s detractors have been overly influential.

A careful reading of the “Confessions” and Methodist history in Virginia reveals that Turner, during his childhood, underwent a form of slavery modified by Methodist principles. If his religiosity was earnest as Gilbert Francis suggested, Ben Turner tried to develop a Pauline view of slavery in Cross Keys. In such a religious perspective, slavery was viewed as a moral and spiritual test for both slave and slaveholder. These Methodists held out freedom for the slave. After Ben Turner’s death, spiritual matters worsened for Christian slaves in Cross Keys. 

Historically, after 1810, there was a downturn in Virginia’s economy and slaveholders began to sell their slaves into the deep South. Slave trading and slave breeding became the major industry in many sectors. Nathaniel Turner, nevertheless, attempted to hold Sam Turner, Ben Turner’s son, to the promise of freedom made to him when he was a child. Nathaniel Turner was ignored. These Christian slaveholders created a dual religion: a Christianity for slaveholders and one for slaves. All these matters created a moral and spiritual crisis in Cross Keys that led to a holy war.

Though many have argued the contrary, Turner’s war did no dishonor to himself or orthodox Christianity. Like other Methodists, Turner’s religion was not based singly on the New Testament but the entire Christian bible. In both testaments, nevertheless, injustice and evil, at least, in the end time, are reined in by divine violence. Thus, with the scriptures, Turner’s war can be justified and be viewed as ethical and high-minded. 

Turner, however, did not use such a justification, directly. This theological view of the use of violence, however, is not held by all. For instance, in his World Justice article entitled “A Critical Analysis of the Notion of a Just War,” Rene Coste concludes that “for Jesus Christ, non-violence was the general rule of behavior, both on the collective and on the individual plane” (Coste, p. 293). Turner’s visions revealed that Christ makes exceptions: all things are not forgivable or reconcilable by acts of fraternity and humility.

According to Coste, a reading of Matthew “provides us with a dynamic ideal—we might say a command—of non-violence” (“A Critical Analysis,” p. 293). Jesus presented himself as “gentle and humble-hearted (11.29). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus condemned the old law of retaliation. Jesus says, “If someone slaps you on the right, turn and offer your left” (5.38-39). And again in Matthew, Jesus says, “All who take the sword die by the sword” (26.52). Such a reading of Matthew is just, if considered conditional.

Collective violence such as African slavery in America, the Jewish holocaust, and other acts such ethnic and political cleansing, must be counted as exceptions to the rule. That we should stand silently and do nothing in the face of collective violence is unreasonable and unnatural. We have seen too many mass murders and holocausts to conclude that we should meet these occasions by turning the other cheek. 

At least a measure of violence is necessary to bring to an end the extermination of people merely on the basis of some external marking. Coste also would encourage “legitimate defence . . . in very strictly defined conditions . . . excluding all vengeance and hatred” (“A Critical Analysis,” pp. 293-294). On these bases was Turner’s war just from a Christian ethical view.

The memory of Turner among the people of Southampton continued long after Turner’s death in folklore and fireside stories. The machinations of slaveholders and their sympathizers, inside or outside of the South, failed to defuse the explosive aspects of Nathanoel Turner’s righteousness. According to Johnson, “After the 1831 Southampton County massacre the people of this and neighboring counties were especially apprehensive upon the arrival of each August—the time of unrest and the time of insurrection.” 

Hearing reports of uprisings, whites and their “trusted Negroes rushed to swamps, where they remained until the scare was over.” These fearful people, Johnson concluded, were thought “to have developed ‘August madness’” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 181).

“August madness” was an unfortunate yet necessary outcome of Turner’s apostleship. From their racial fantasy,  slaveholders would not be awakened, except by violence. Turner’s ultimate desire was a world of righteous men, who lived beyond the superficial restraints of tradition, race, color, and geographic origin. He invoked an American religious spirit, that is, egalitarian and structured, governed by the just. This was the world Jesus taught in his notion of the “kingdom of heaven.” 

In his religious struggle against the slaveholders of Cross Keys, Turner experienced that first-century religious consciousness. As an apostle of the gospel, he attempted to revive the original intent and spirit of Jesus’ teachings and that of the New Testament. Christian slaves in Cross Keys responded to his message. That message was swamped by the propaganda of both abolitionists and pro-slavery sympathizers.

Turner’s detractors have placed too much emphasis on the material conditions of slavery, rather than its day-to-day religious reality. Turner’s Methodist Church of Cross Keys became strictly a congregation of slaveholders. The Elders of the church, after the death of Benjamin Turner, set up and refused to modify their policy of separation and oppression, but extended it beyond reason or accommodation. The Elders of the Church rejected Wesley and Asbury. 

They rejected the Pauline view of slavery. This new generation of Methodists of Cross Keys promoted and sustained slave trading and slave breeding of Christian children, and other abominations that undermined Christian morality and community. The abuse of children and the rape of women, the sins of Christian slaveholders were as plain as day, in the faces of the children of Christian slaves. The most responsible slaveowners kept their silence, tolerated no argument to the contrary.

The Cross Keys Methodists wanted absolute control over the lives of their Christian slaves. For Christian slaves conscious of the importance of a personal relationship of man and God, the satanic tyranny of Cross Keys slaveholders went too far. They locked their Christian slaves and freemen into an intolerable situation They refused to accommodate fellow human beings within the universality of the Christian spirit. This was the central conflict that Turner conveyed in the “Confessions,” which was indeed the central tension in the Christian gospels.

Christian slaves resorted to righteous violence to set matters right. Such wars are never desirable or preferable. They occur as a necessity and grudgingly. However peaceful and well-meaning a people are, they can be goaded into violence. My view, however, is not the environmentalism of New England abolitionists nor that of Aptheker and the Marxists. 

The material conditions did not determine the Rebellion. From Turner’s perspective, it is the moral implications of those material conditions that led Christ “to lay down the yoke.” The source of the war on Christian slaveholders rose out of a great faith in God’s righteousness and a willingness to sacrifice all in obedience to God’s command.

Turner was morally indignant toward and disillusioned with the Christian leaders and Christian teachings of Turner’s Methodist Church. But even that was not Turner’s justification. Turner said that Christ, he who sat at the right hand of God, directed him to kill men, women, and children who were slaveholders in Cross Keys. The slaughter was not for Turner’s indignation nor for his “disillusionment.” Turner’s prophetic claim, however, has never been accepted. 

This “madness” of prophecy is a norm and universal. That is, that God speaks through man to other persons (Overholt, p. 168). This fact is put forth not as an excuse or an apology for Turner. When his life is reported, however, it should be placed in its proper religious and moral context. Unavoidably, the problem returns to racialism: the difficulty of viewing a Christian slave in America as God’s voice.

Turner was not only a symbol of fear and dread, of God’s wrath. He was and continues to be also a symbol of hope and Christian manhood. His inspirational influence has extended beyond Cross Keys. In his 1845 Narrative, Frederick Douglass, a Delmarva Methodist, studied religion in his youth. Ordained a minister, Douglass recalled hearing of Nathaniel Turner in his childhood.

For the young Douglass, Turner was a marker in his determined search for righteous manhood and Turner’s influence, I suspect, first led him toward the ministry. Though he became an enlightened intellectual, Douglass retained a faith that God did operate in history in establishing that which was just. During the Civil War, in encouraging the Colored Soldiers of the Union Army, Douglass again evoked the name of Nathaniel Turner, in this instance, as a symbol of courage, devotion, and sacrifice.

During the black consciousness movement of the late 1960s, Nathaniel Turner again surged into the national consciousness to inspire many young militants and revolutionaries. Herbert Aptheker’s Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1966) was one of the central texts that supported the new militancy. It lay beside Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth as one of the key black texts thought necessary to establish the full actuality of black manhood and to bring forth radical racial change in America. 

After publication of William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, white and black intellectuals fought again over what was the significance and meaning of Nat Turner and his Rebellion. All believed they knew the real Nathaniel Turner. They quibbled over fables and inaccuracies. Each wanted to use Turner as his own blood-stained banner.

In the 200th year of his birth, black intellectuals are again revisiting the life and “Confessions” of Nathaniel Turner, that enigmatic radical figure of American letters. We hope that this exposition will contribute to clarifying some of the mistaken aspects of Turner’s life. His critical response to Christian oppression still unmans us. Contemporary Christianity pales besides his utmost commitment, faith, and obedience to God. 

Like Abraham, Nathaniel Turner may yet have much to instruct us with regard to faith and the suspension of the ethical norm. I have portrayed Turner as honestly and fairly and thoroughly as information and reason would allow. This interpretation encourages a Turner criticism that regards with the utmost seriousness the religious world that created Turner and the one to which he responded as a Christian slave.

Hopefully, this portrait will not be the final word on Nat Turner and his significance as an American Christian. Turner yet may have something to say with respect to an American Christian theology. Certainly he remains an untapped resource for “African-American theology.” For many black theologians believe, as Albert B. Cleage, Jr. wrote in 1972, “We must free the Black church from slave Christianity” (Black Christian Nationalism, p. 175). 

If this severance is indeed what has occurred in the last forty years, the black church may have thus faltered. The implied argument of this exposition of Turner’s life is that Turner and his fellow Christian slaves in Cross Keys attempted indeed to call back “the original teachings of Jesus.” The black church seems only rarely willing to undergo the Cabin Pond experience, as in the martyrdom of Martin King. 

We applaud any further interest and efforts to explicate Turner’s Christian views. My sincere hope is that this appreciation of Turner’s religious life, is worthy of his sacrifice.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

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

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

*   *   *   *   *

If you like this page consider making a donation

online through PayPal

*   *   *   *   *

Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


*   *   *   *   *

The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

*   *   *   *   *

The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

*   *   *   *   *


*   *   *   *   *






update 28 June 2008



Home   Nathaniel Turner Page  Christian Martyrdom in Southampton Lynching Index 

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.