ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Virginia slaveholders . . . used the Book for an instrument of oppression. They made use of Noah’s curse of Canaan and the Hebrew enslavement of their idolatrous neighbors and their incorporation of slavery into their national life (Gen.9, 12, 14, 20, 26, 47; Ex. 21; Lev. 25) to justify their system of enslaving our ancestors



Nathaniel of Southampton or Balaam’s Ass

God’s Revelations in the Virginia Wilderness

 By Rudolph Lewis


For the captured and chained Africans who crossed the Atlantic and their descendants born in Virginia, the Christian Bible became that instrument and guide which carved out new visions and revelations within the context of the New World called America. After two centuries in the American wilderness, God made these “exiles” into a new people (African Americans) and established with them a new covenant, and a method contrary to their masters to interpret his holy word. For them, the Bible, including the Old Testament, became more than just a history of the ancient Hebrew and Israelite peoples and their relationship with Yahweh.

Over two decades ago ten African-American Catholic bishops testified to the role of culture and social status in determining biblical belief and perspective. They wrote as follows: “The Bible was not for our ancestors a mere record of the wonderful works of God in a bygone age; it was a present record of what was soon to come. God will lead his people from the bondage of Egypt. God will preserve his children in the midst of the fiery furnace. God’s power will make the dry bones scattered on the plain snap together, and he will breathe life into them. Above all, the birth and death, the suffering and the sorrow, the burial and the resurrection tell how the story will end for all who are faithful, no matter what the present tragedy is” (Pastoral Letter, 1984).

Thus, for African-American slaves (our ancestors) the Christian Bible, including the Pentateuch, was a book of liberation as well as one of redemption that protected and defended the slave, the poor, and the powerless. The Pentateuch legislation (Ex.20-23; Lev. 19, 25; Dt. 15, 24) demonstrates definitively God’s concern for the oppressed. The narratives of Hagar, Jacob, and Joseph in Genesis and of Moses in Numbers 12 assure us further that God favors those who are dependent upon divine protection.

Our masters, the Virginia slaveholders, however, used the Book for an instrument of oppression. They made use of Noah’s curse of Canaan and the Hebrew enslavement of their idolatrous neighbors and their incorporation of slavery into their national life (Gen.9, 12, 14, 20, 26, 47; Ex. 21; Lev. 25) to justify their system of enslaving our ancestors. These traders in human flesh cited chapter and verse in developing a racial ideology to show God’s approval of their diabolical deeds and their repressive relationship with their Christian servants, our fathers and mothers.

So when the colonies became a nation under the banner of freedom and brotherhood, the interests and welfare of our ancestors were dismissed. Two natives of Virginia, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (the first and third presidents), shuffled their feet and scratched their heads and did nothing to bring relief to their Christian servants. Against this new oppression (lahats), our ancestors cried out (tsa’aq) to God.

Our gracious God did not forgive these American slaveholders. He would not allow their sacrilegious acts nor their abuse of power to go unchallenged. In the fall of 1800, in answer to our ancestors cry, God sent his people a prophet and a preacher. He was born of a newly arrived African woman bought on the trading block in Suffolk, Virginia. This child was fathered by a Southampton slave owner who raped his mother immediately after purchase. Born of two antagonistic worlds, this child was named Nathaniel (in Hebrew meaning the “gift of God”). He was raised in the household of his father and master, Benjamin Turner, a Methodist slave owner who resided in the Village of Cross Keys, near a town named Jerusalem, the seat of government in Southampton County, Virginia.

While a child, Nathaniel lived a privileged life (for a slave) and given the opportunity, he exhibited his powers of knowledge and insight. He learned to read without being taught. He knew of events that happened before his birth. By all accounts, black and white, Nathaniel as an adult knew by heart the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. This slave-owner community, especially the Christian slaves, became aware of Nathaniel’s divine markings, his promise of freedom, and his mission of liberation. The prophet Nathaniel, our ancestors believed, was their Moses, sent to leave them out of bondage.

Sometime between 1816 and 1819, Nathaniel experienced both a biblical revelation and a visitation by the Holy Spirit. Here, in his own words is how he described these miraculous events. By this time, having arrived to man’s estate, and hearing the Scriptures commented on at meetings, I was struck with that particular passage which says: “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.” I reflected much on this passage, and prayed daily for light on this subject – As I was praying one day at my plough, the spirit spoke to me, saying “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.” This passage on the kingdom can be found at Matthew 6:33 and Luke 12:31.

The intent of my discussion here is not to relate the full history of the prophet Nathaniel and his relationship with the Christian slaveholders of Cross Keys, Virginia. Nor will I provide an exposition in detail of the devastating events of the summer and fall of 1831 that made plain the wrath of God in which both slave and slaveholder in great numbers were slaughtered.

This overview of the Nathaniel Turner story is merely a preamble to a more general argument. My intent is to point out the thematic connection that exists between the story of the diviner Balaam (and his ass) and that of the Prophet Nathaniel. The theme of the above two cited gospel passages asserts man’s dependence on God. This theme of man’s dependence on God, Balaam made explicit when he informed King Balac that he could do nothing, “small or great, contrary to the command of the Lord, my God” (Num. 22:18-19). Balac wanted Balaam to curse the Israelite people whose incursions into Moab threatened Balac’s kingdom.

Like Balaam, Nathaniel too was in the midst of a crisis situation. During the early 1800s in Cross Keys and throughout Virginia, the slaveholders changed from one form of economic activity to another. Because agricultural prices plummeted, Christian slaveholders began a trade in what they called “black gold.” Instead of pigs and crops of the field, they developed an unsavory commerce by the breeding and selling of men, women, and children (our ancestors) for slave markets in the Deep South. It was by these means that they sought to have comfort and wealth for themselves and their children and their posterity.

Self-proclaimed representatives of God, these Christian slaveholders did not assure their Christian servants of just and proper treatment. They separated husband from wife, parents from children. These New World rulers used young Christian slave girls to satisfy their base appetites. Moreover, these Methodist Christians began to racialize the Scriptures and their worship. Their Christian slaves were not allowed to worship or take communion in their churches. The oppression of our ancestors exceeded all bounds that could be justified by the Pentateuch or the New Testament.

In both these stories incredulity plays a devastating role. King Balac did not believe Balaam’s words that it was not in his power to bless or curse. Balac believed he could buy God’s favor. He believed he could influence God by his earthly wealth and power. Similarly, the slaveholders of Cross Keys thought that their successful pursuit of wealth, their building of churches and costly altars would cause God to favor them over those whom they ruled and abused. These good Christians slaveholders of Cross Keys could not fathom that God would choose his spokesman from among their Christian slaves to speak his truth.

In this spiritual reality of man’s dependence on God, freedom and land are sub-themes in both the Nathaniel and Balaam narratives. The Hebrew people in Egypt became a new people, namely, the children of Jacob, or the Israelites. God liberated them from Pharaoh’s rule and slavery. Yet God renewed with them the promise of land that he had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and fulfilled that promise in giving them the victory over the idolatrous and swaggering natives of Canaan.

Through Nathaniel, God promised African Americans freedom. That freedom came within less than forty years after the martyrdom of Prophet Nathaniel. God’s promise to our ancestors was not as restricted as that which he made to the Israelites. There was no physical place that Nathaniel could lead his people. God’s prophet Nathaniel preached a total liberation, as did the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 19:23-24. For African Americans, Canaan Land was/is a spiritual place or reality, like the kingdom of heaven (Mt 6:33 and Lk 12:31). Their freedom and land were to be given and allotted among those who despised and oppressed them.

In great measure all that God promised our ancestors was accomplished. Yet many of my brethren have not/do not give thanks fully to what God wrought for us, nor what God revealed through his servant Nathaniel. Some have given and give thanks more so to Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy than they do to God and his prophet Nathaniel. In these days and times, few appreciate the blessings that God bestowed on Nathaniel and our ancestors. Nathaniel’s powers of invisibility and prophecy are mocked by  the sciences and social sciences of modernism.

Coming under the influence of modern education, too many African Americans have lost their faith in God and of God in man. But I tell you, if the Spirit of God can enter into Balaam’s ass and cause him to see the Angel of our Lord and speak the words of Yahweh, it was indeed a small miracle our Lord performed in the Prophet Nathaniel. Because of doctrine and dogma, our detractors would have us believe that God no longer speaks to man except through biblical revelation. For them, revelation (God’s self-revelation to man) ceased with the first-century Christians.

But those of us who still hold to God’s covenant, we know that God still speaks today to our hearts and minds. He speaks to those who have faith and ears to hear and eyes to see. We still yet have prophets (men and women) among us. The Holy Spirit too is still among us teaching the truth of God’s words and his ways and leading us along the true path. There are growing numbers of African Americans who spiritually understand that Nathaniel was a true prophet, an apostle of the Living Christ, and a martyr in his name. In his work, he was greater than Balaam and his ass and much more clear-sighted in his desire for a universal and just religion.

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Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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Nathaniel Turner, the Bible, & the Sword

A  Reconsideration of the 1831 “Confessions”

 By Rudolph Lewis

Biblical Scholars, Theologians & Other Commentators

on Nathaniel Turner of Southampton

Compiled by Rudolph Lewis


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Zippety Doo Dah, Zippety-Ay: How Satisfactch’ll Is Education Today? Toward a New Song of the South

Dr. Joyce E. King on Black Education and New Paradigms

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The State of African Education (April 200)

Attack On Africans Writing Their Own History Part 1 of 7

Dr Asa Hilliard III speaks on the assault of academia on Africans writing and accounting for their own history.

Dr Hilliard is A teacher, psychologist, and historian.

Part 2 of 7  /  Part 3 of 7  / Part 4 of 7  / Part 5 of 7 / Part 6 of 7  /  Part 7 of 7

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Basil Davidson’s  “Africa Series”

 Different But Equal  /  Mastering A Continent  /  Caravans of Gold  / The King and the City / The Bible and The Gun

West Africa Before the Colonial Era: A History to 1850

By Basil Davidson

African Slave Trade: Precolonial History, 1450-1850

By Basil Davidson

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s 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. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s 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, I’m 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.

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 “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” 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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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly). Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.—Booklist

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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)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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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

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

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

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update 3 October 2011




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