ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Christian Martyrdom in Southampton
A Theology of Black Liberation
By Rudolph Lewis
Sec. 3, Ch. 18 Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption
A Eucharist: Blood on the Corn
Dew from Heaven
Blood on the Corn
While “laboring in the field,” Nathaniel received a daylight “vision.” This revelation was his seventh encounter. In this third vision, Turner saw “drops of blood on the corn,” like “dew from heaven.”
In the Bible the word “corn” is used to refer to cereal crops such as wheat. “Israel then shall dwell in safety alone; the fountain of Jacob shall be upon a land of corn and wine; also his heavens shall drop down dew” (Deuteronomy, 33.28 This divine substance was something special, refined.
In this instance, Christ sends down from heaven the dew of blood.
Though nearer and more apparent, the language of God remained an enigma. Was this vision a symbol of the Eucharist?
Rather than wheat, kernels of corn were crushed and ground by slaves to make bread. That was their lot, unleavened bread fried in a pan or bake in the fireplace ash. Is this then the body and blood of Jesus represented in a natural setting? According to McKenzie, the “Eucharist is a participation in the body of Christ, in which Christians are all one; the many are one body, for they partake of one loaf [1 Col. 10:170]” (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 251).
Or did it mean more? Regarding this miracle, Turner told Gray, “I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood.” Some Southampton whites confounded Turners revelatory vision with the charge that Turner fabricated the incident, the “dew from heaven” by spitting pokeberry juice.
Disregarding the symbolism and the symbolical value of Turners Christian images, other Turner critics have subsequently sustained this denigrating view that Turners basic mode of operation was one of deceit (Cromwell, p. 209). But, as in other such attacks, there is no evidence to sustain their prejudice. Such are the ways of unbelievers. Jesus too was accused of sleight of hand, magic, and deviltry (Jesus the Magician, pp. 158-161).
Fourth Revelatory Vision — Eighth Encounter
Turners vision at the plow was followed by yet another vision. This was his eighth encounter with the Holy Spirit. In this fourth revelatory vision, Turner saw mirrored the representations he “had seen in the heavens.” These signs occurred neither in the sky nor in the field, but in a dark wood. In this wilderness experience, the bloody images yet recur. Turner told Gray, “I then found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters, and numbers with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood.”
In this vision, Turner again attempted to read the word of God in a natural setting. Holy words written on the leaves of the trees correspond to the leaves of the bible in which Gods words also can be found. But here God writes afresh without any intermediaries or translators. With the hieroglyphics, numbers, and “form of men in different attitudes” (a recurring image), Gods message, however, became more arcane, more obscure, and possibly, as a result, gained greater and greater authority, assuring Turner that these messages were not mere projections of his own mind.
That a Tidewater slave would have knowledge of hieroglyphics in 1825 takes on the character of the extra-natural. Decoding of the Rosetta Stone was only a recent discovery. That Gray did not question Turner on the use of the term “hieroglyphics” seems significant. As a resident of Cross Keys, Gray must have been familiar with the incident and thus allowed it to pass without commentary.
In addition, in a letter printed in the Richmond Whig (September 26, 1831), an anonymous Southampton resident thought to be Gray claimed he had in his possession, some papers, given up by his wife, under the lashthey are filled with
hieroglyphic characters, conveying no definite meaning. The characters on the oldest paper appear to have been traced with blood; and on each paper, a crucifix and the sun, is distinctly visible; with the figures 6,000, 30,000, 80,000, etcThere is likewise a piece of paper, of a late date, which all agree, is a list of men; if so, they were short of twenty (Foner, p. 27).
Possibly, in Cross Keys, “hieroglyphics,” in popular use, signified any unknown script. Other possible sources of information available to Turner included newspapers, itinerant ministers or other learned people traveling through the region.
There is one other possible source: the one Turner furnished usnamely, the Holy Spirit. It followed biblical traditions. Two memorable biblical stories contain major instances of divine writing. On the mountain Moses received directly from God the Ten Commandments. With his fiery finger, God wrote the moral laws in stone tablets. Implicit, in this event was the establishing of a covenant, which comprised blessings and atonement. In Daniel 5.1-30, the king of Babylon held a feast and a “hand appeared and wrote three words on the wall, which Daniel interpreted.” It prophesied “the downfall of powers hostile to His people” (McKenzie, p. 173).
Turners divine writings had a similar import.
The Blood of Christ — A Divine Reversal
Turner unable to read Gods hieroglyphic message, the Spirit came again and assisted him in translating Gods scripture inscribed in an African language, indicating Gods antiquity. This was Turners ninth encounter.
Turner told Gray, “the Holy Ghost . . . revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shewn me.” The “dew from heaven” on the corn and leaves was the blood of Christ, “shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners.”
The blood of Christ “was now returning to earth again.” In this divine reversal, crucified flesh, its essence, blood, became Spirit; and the spirit of that crucified flesh returned now to earth as blood. This transformation of spirit into blood, in a manner, is a reenactment of the conception of Mary and the birth of Jesus Christ, God become human, man. This return of holy blood, a divine reversal, can not but be at once a blessing for some and a warning to others.
Clearly, it was intended as a type of consecration, an anointing, in which a people are made holy.
God had heard the praises of Christian slaves in song and prayer and their souls calling out to him and he had responded. They had done well. And Christ had offered salvation to all. “Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5. 4) and “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5.6). Christ identified with the American Christian slave.
There is always a message of salvation in the blood of the Crucified One.
In Turners vision in the field, the symbols seem apt: Christs blood fell on the corn. The slaves used corn to make bread; thus, in the harvest, their bodies too were caught up in the body of Christ, even though the Cross Keys Christian slaveholders barred them from Turners Methodist Church. Shut out from communion with their earthly masters, the Spirit of Christ was still available to the poor and the oppressed.
This array of related revelations, written in the blood of Christ, established with a new people a new covenant, which was an old covenant, that is, that Christ was the Savior of all. As in Hosea, Christian slaves were once told, “You are not my people. But in that very place they will be called children of the living God” (Romans 9.26). That was indeed the true Christian promise. These visions of the blood of Christ was a “renewal” of an orthodox view of the gospel that had somehow gotten lost in the American landscape.
In the night vision, the hands of the Cosmic Christ stretched from east to west. His arms were opened to embrace all who would come. Everyone would have an equal place in his kingdom. This vision was in great contrast to the practice of the Christian slaveholders of Cross Keys, who barred their slaves from this sacrament of thanksgiving in Turners Methodist Church.
These oppressors of Christian slaves viewed the this-worldly status of their servants as a mirror of the world to come, of Gods kingdom. They had created their own religion and called it “Christian.” They desecrated the divine. For them, slavery was an eternal status allotted to the African, the spawn of Cain. These Christian slaveholders, seemingly, suffered no fear of the afterlife.
In contrast, Turners “Confessions,” contains, as in the gospel, no “nationalistic messianism.” Turner preached an apocalyptic hope, for all, a time in which the righteous would be “admitted as living people in the divine kingdom” (Colleen, p. 29). All were welcomed in Turners “kingdom of heaven,” all were invited to the wedding of God and man, the manifestation of the true church in this world. Next Chapter 19 —>>
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Im a big fan of Charles Manns 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. Its exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that its 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, Im 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, globalized entity.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 30 December 2011