Chapter 6 A Mother’s Prophecy

Chapter 6 A Mother’s Prophecy


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Nathaniel Turner’s birth marks were thus signs of God’s presence in him before his birth. Evidently,

Harriet and Tom deeply desired, longed, that some good would come into their lives. Tom would

eventually “run away” and escape Virginia slavery. So Harriet and Tom offered him two approaches to

slavery and oppression. Their feeling that their child was special was sustained several years after his birth.



Section 2, Chapter 6 Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption


Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

*   *   *   *   *

A Mother’s Prophecy—1800-1810

The African-American Source of Turner’s Spirituality


Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you. That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost.—Matthew 18.10-11 

In the “1831 Confessions,” Nathaniel Turner speaks of his parents as his spiritual guides. These parents, most likely, were his surrogate grandparents, Harriet and Tom. It was quite customary to separate mother and child as Frederick Douglass pointed out in his 1845 Narrative. His birth mother “Nancy of the Nile” would neither have so quickly mastered English nor absorbed the Christian tradition to provide the child such religious training and insight. This certainly could not have taken place, of course, if we follow Gilbert Francis’ timeline, that is, of Nancy’s arrival in Virginia on January/February 1800. That Nancy was purchased in 1800, the Africana, the monumental tome of Gates and Appiah, has mysteriously determined another timeline for Nancy’s arrival in Virginia.

The Africana‘s Turner article states that Nathaniel Turner’s African mother was purchased by Benjamin Turner in 1793. But he offers no document to sustain such a date of purchase. For none exists. Moreover, it was very unlikely that a Virginia slaveholder would have allowed a youthful female slave to go seven years, to wait until she was in her early twenties, before birthing a child. This option seems much more incredulous than Francis’ scenario. This Africana date of purchase seemed to have been determined as a means to account for what Turner narrated in his “1831 Confessions” about his parents’ spiritual guidance.

The spirituality exhibited by Turner’s “mother” in the “1831 Confessions”  seems to have been derived from a person older and more seasoned in the culture than his biological mother Nancy would have been, even if she were brought to Suffolk in 1793. Such depth and spiritual conviction could not have been provided by Nancy during these formative years. Thus, I shall proceed with Francis’ assertion that Turner was raised by Harriet and Tom. As can be seen in Douglass’ 1845 Narrative, this process of raising children by surrogate grandparents may occur over a period of six to nine years.

Having absorbed the religious culture in which they lived, Nathaniel’s “parents” had a significant impact on Turner’s earliest memories. Harriet, Turner’s spiritual mother, discovered “certain marks” (birth marks) on the child’s head and breast. Turner’s parents believed these marks bore religious significance and that their child “was intended for some great purpose.” Mechal Sobel believes this mode of interpretation was derived from an “African tradition,” rather than Christian practice in Cross Keys (Trabelin’ On, p. 162).

Sobel probably accepted the view that Nancy is the person to whom Turner referred to in his “1831 Confessions  as mother. His African speculation is intuitive, that is, not based on factual evidence. He assumes Nancy’s incomplete Christian education was supplemented by her memories of Africa. But Sobel can not fix the “tradition” in West African tribal society. The notion of “prophethood” seems to be more a tradition of Asia and the Near East, than one that was endemic to West Africa tribal societies. The notion of prophethood, however, did enter West Africa, by the tenth century through the spread of Islam. But for the Muslims Muhammad was the last of the prophets.

The reading of body signs to determine wisdom and special skills, however, seems universal. Arabian Islamic scholars still relate the legend of wise men acknowledging a large mole between the shoulders of the Prophet Muhammad as the physical proof that Muhammad was a true prophet (Muhammad, p. 30). In Indian folklore, there is a story of the destiny of the prince being foretold by the reading of body signs. Soothsayers of the royal court noted the birth marks on the feet of the infant and divined that “the boy would become a universal monarch or a Buddha” (The Mythology of All Races, p. 195).

For Turner’s parents in Cross Keys, the most immediate source was the Christian Bible and biblical stories, that is, the Judeao-Christian scriptures and tradition. In the “1831 Confessions,” Turner pointed out that his grandparents were in Ben Turner’s Methodist study group. Only Turner’s surrogate grandparents could have possessed such skill in biblical interpretation. Harriet and Tom, then, to be precise were Turner’s spiritual parents. It is worthwhile to note sections of George W. Williams‘ romantic commentary on the relationship of Turner and his mother in W. E. B. Du Bois The Negro Church.

They planted deep the notion that the spirit of God was in him. Harriet, his spiritual mother, was she who first taught him about God and the ways of God. A mother always hopes and sometimes plans for her son to reach the highest realms. In the Christian tradition, good comes into the world through a child being born.

Birth marks indicate visually that there was a consciousness at work even in the womb. In Galatians 1:12, Paul wrote that God had set him apart before he was born. This tradition extended back to the Old Testament. Isaiah wrote, “The Lord called me from the womb” (Isaiah 49.1). And God spoke to Jeremiah thusly, “before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah1.5). Luke also relates “the recognition by the unborn John of the presence of the unborn Jesus [Luke 1.44]” (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 442).

Nathaniel Turner’s birth marks were thus signs of God’s presence in him before his birth. Evidently, Harriet and Tom deeply desired, longed, that some good would come into their lives. Tom would eventually “run away” and escape Virginia slavery. So Harriet and Tom offered him two approaches to slavery and oppression. Their feeling that their child was special was sustained several years after his birth.

When Nathaniel was about three or four years old, Harriet overheard him relate to other children an incident that occurred before his birth. Again, as in the birth marks, the recurring notion of a knowledge existing before birth, beyond natural comprehension. Even in his mother’s womb, Nancy of the Nile’s belly, Turner possessed a consciousness of his familial surroundings. Harriet understood definitively that Nathaniel was no ordinary child.

Here was a miracle. But miracles, as some might say, occur only for those who desire the miraculous. Observant of such a wonder in her child, and sharing it with her fellow servants, Harriet was convinced that her son was a messenger from God. In his presence, Harriet said, Turner told Gray, “I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that happened before my birth.” His spiritual mother’s view that God makes himself known in the world by signs and symbols can be found extensively in Christian scriptures. What child could dismiss such a prophecy proclaimed with such forceful certainty?

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Paul (or the unknown writer) assures us, God bears witness, “both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will” (Hebrews 2.3-4). Clearly, Paul did not place black Christian slaves beyond God’s grace or his miracles. Nevertheless, the secular values placed on race and color undermined and hindered the true expression of Christianity in America.

The notion that God “spoke” to a Christian slave in Southampton defied credulity for Christian slaveholders and other so-called orthodox Christians. Yet the faith of Christian slaves in Cross Keys held up the biblical view, the “blood-stained banner,” that God makes use of whom he wills.

Benjamin Turner (1766-1810), Turner’s master and possibly his biological father, was equally central to Turner’s formative years. Benjamin Turner, unfortunately, at the age of forty-four, died of typhoid. Those ten years (1800-1810) seem to have been Nat’s most care-free years, if such is possible, understanding that one was considered property by law and tradition. Of all the men he knew, Nathaniel revered Ben Turner, who was a father figure, if not biologically, at least, symbolically.

Benjamin Turner was a Methodist and founder of a local Methodist congregation. Gilbert Francis, who lost seven of his kinsmen in “Nat’s Fray,” believed that Benjamin Turner was a “Quaker in sentiment” (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, tape 1). Ben Turner was one of “the old patriarchs,” as the Virginia Negro used to say, with sincere reverence, for such men were thought to be fair and just, even as slaveholders.

According to F. Roy Johnson, Benjamin Turner had “three sons and two daughters—by age, Samuel, Nancy, John Clark, Susanna, and Benjamin B.” With the exception of Nancy, Benjamin Turner drew his children’s names from the Hebrew. His children also “were given educational instruction by private tutors and in small community schools which sprang up at the opening of the nineteenth century” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 18). Of significance, John Clark and Nathaniel, about the same age, were childhood friends. Elizabeth, the wife of Ben Turner, was probably carrying John Clark when Nat was conceived.

Turner, according to F. Roy Johnson, bypassed John Clark’s place during the Insurrection. Johnson viewed this exception as Turner’s recognition of an old childhood friendship. Like Thomas Gray, John Clark, as a man, became the poor son of a deceased slaveholder. Most likely, as children, John Clark and Nathaniel studied together under the watchful eye of Benjamin Turner (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, tape 1).

This domestic situation probably provided a delightful and passing fancy for the master of the manor. John Clark, however, is not mentioned in Turner’s “1831 Confessions.” Though only found in Southampton folklore, this tale seems probable and represents an important key to Turner’s humanity and the depth of intimacy among slave children and the children of slaveowners.

Benjamin Turner’s family rose from an English class of dissenters to become slaveowners. He was a Methodist “enthusiast.” Initially, Southampton was part of an Anglican parish, St. Luke’s. The Anglicans (later, the Episcopalians) proselytized very little among plantation slaves or among the “dissenting” masses. By the estimate of some, the Established Church in Virginia had little or no attraction for “the mass of the English settlers” that came from a class “trained in Dissent” and adverse to the Anglican church. “This dissenting class came to America,” according to Thomas Cuming Hall, “not to write books but to better themselves in an economic sense” (The Religious Background of American Culture, p. 116).

Their hatred of Anglicanism became fallow ground for the seeds of dissenting denominations, such as Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists. These groups made the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and common sense central to their religious experience. Rising in the economic sphere, some of these dissenters used their religion in a “common sense” manner to defend their new privileges as slaveholders, a boon gained through the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).

The religious leanings of the masses were in great contrast to the upper classes and large plantations owners. The eighteenth-century leaders of Virginia were heavily affected and influenced by rationalism and the natural philosophy of the Enlightenment. “As far as one can judge, the educated members of the Virginia generation that later fought the war for independence were all more or less Deists and skeptics like Washington, Jefferson, Randolph of Roanoke, Madison and most of the leaders of thought,” according to Thomas Cuming Hall.

“But with the exception of Jefferson, who belonged to no Christian body, nearly all seem to have gone to the Established Church and most of the leaders seem to have been members in good standing” (The Religious Background of American Culture, p. 120). With the coming of the Revolutionary War, the Anglican church was disestablished in Virginia, an opportunity that opened the way for the spread of Methodism, a radical wing of the Established Church in England.

From 1760 to about 1800 Methodists made great strides in Christianizing the Negro in Virginia. In 1786, the Methodists broke away from the Anglicans, whom they believed corrupted the faith of Christ to establish the Methodist Church in America (American Churches and the Negro, pp. 86-87).

By the first decade of the1800s in Cross Keys, Benjamin Turner, with other Elders, had organized Turner’s Meeting House. According to the “1831 Confessions,” Turner’s grandmother was an active member of this Cross Keys’ Methodist community. From these men and women, Nathaniel Turner, as a child, learned the Protestant gospel, that is, the eternal purposes of God.

Sources Consulted

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 2002.

Du Bois, W.E.B. “Toussaint L’Ouverture, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey & Nat Turner.” In Chapter 9 W. E. B. Du Bois. The Negro Church; Report of a Social Study Made Under the Direction of Atlanta University; Together With the Proceedings of the Eighth Conference for the Study of Negro Problems, Held at Atlanta University, May 26th, 1903. Atlanta, GA.: The Atlanta University Press, 1903.

Francis, Gilbert, and Katherine Futrell. Nat Turner Insurrection—1831. Southampton County Historical Society Living Library, 4 tapes.

Gates, Henry Louis and Kwame Anthony Appiah, eds. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Pennsylvania: Running Press, 2003.

Gray, Louis Herbert. The Mythology of All Races. Volume VI. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1927.

Hall, Thomas Cunning. The Religious Background of American Culture. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1930.

Johnson, F. Roy. The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection. Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson Publishing Company, 1966.

Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, Ltd., 1983.

McKenzie, John L. Dictionary of the Bible. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965.

Sobel, Mechal. Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to an Afro-Baptist Faith. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Weatherford, W. D. American Churches and the Negro: An Historical Study from Early Slave Days to the Present. Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1957.

*   *   *   *   *

Nathaniel Turner: 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

Chapter 5 The Bible and Biblical Typology /

Chapter 7 Methodist Elders Interview Miracle Child

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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

An American Slave, Written By Himself

By Frederick Douglass

One would expect the autobiography of any individual to be bursting with emotion, heartfelt feelings coursing through the sentences, each word blaring the author’s perspective on any institution baring his/her interest. Yet, the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass adheres not to the common stereotype of such work, relying heavily on statements of fact and observation, rather than personal standpoint and beliefs, to illuminate the cruelty and inhumanity which slavery imparts upon its host.

The absence of these common aspects does not detract from the profound nature of his work, as the objectivity lends more credence to his argument in that it is not tainted by prejudice, hate, or anger. He simply describes the world as it was, not as he perceived it to be, recounting his journey from slave to freeman in a manner almost entirely numb, surprisingly detached.—Sandra

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Mahalia Jackson—How I Got Over

How I Got Over

                  By Mahalia Jackson

How I got over How did I make it over? You know my soul look back and wonder How did I make it over? How I made it over Going on over all these years? You know my soul look back and wonder How did I make it over. Tell me how we got over, Lord. Had a mighty hard time coming on over. You know my soul look back and wonder. How did we make it over? Tell me how we got over, Lord. I’ve been falling and rising all these years. But you know my soul look back and wonder. How did I make it over? But soon as I can see Jesus the man that died for me, man that bled and suffered, and he hung on Calvary, and I want to thank him for how he brought me. And I want to thank God for how he taught me. Oh thank my God how he kept me. I’m gonna thank him ’cause he never left me. Then I’m gonna thank God for ‘ole time religion and I’m gonna thank God for giving me a vision. One day I’m gonna join the heavenly choir. I’m gonna sing and never get tired. And then I’m gonna sing somewhere ’round God’s altar. And I’m gonna shout all my troubles over. You know I’ve gotta thank God and thank him for being so good to me. Lord yeah. How I made it over, Lord?

I had to cry in the midnight hour coming on over.

Bt you know my soul look back and wonder How did I make it over? Tell me how I made it over Lord God Lord Falling and rising all these years you know my soul look back and wonder. How did I make it over? I’m gonna wear a diadem in that new Jerusalem.

I’m gonna walk the streets of gold It’s the homeland of the soul I’m gonna view the host in white. They’ve been traveling day and night. Coming up from every nation They’re on their way to the great Coronation] Coming from the north, south, east, and west they on their way to a land of rest and they’re gonna join the heavenly choir. You know we’re gonna sing and never get tired and then we’re gonna sing somewere ’round God’s altar and then we’re gonna shout all our troubles over. You know we gotta thank God

and thank Him for being so good to me. You know I come to thank God, this evening.

I come to thank him, this evening.

You know all, all night long God kept his angels watching over me and early this morning, early this morning God told his angel, God said “Touch her in my name.” God said “Touch her in my name.” I ‘rose this morning, I ‘rose this morning I ‘rose this morning, I feel like shouting I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting I feel like shouting, I feel like shouting I just gotta thank God, I just gotta thank God I just gotta thank God, I just gotta thank Him Thank God for being so good

God’s been good to me.

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Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, et al.

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Full journalistic disclosure requires me to say that many of these women are friends and former comrades. But knowing the movement that we were all a part of also demands that I share my observation: While these pages look back, looking forward from them reveals that there are many useful lessons for today in the strength of these women.—Charles E. Cobb Jr.

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Ancient African Nations

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update 27 July 2012




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