Bearing the Cross to Jerusalem

Bearing the Cross to Jerusalem


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. 29 — Blood on the Cross


Bearing the Cross to Jerusalem


Nathaniel Turner wanted more than just a judgment day of mass murder. He was not out for personal, petty revenge. One can not even say that was true of Will Francis, the Executioner. His biographer F. Roy Johnson also knew that it took time for a lesson to sink in. Though his men may have lacked discipline necessary for a more killing machine, Turner himself was a master of self-control, his mind difficult to know. 

Turner staged a divine drama in which slaveowners were forced to live as they had forced Africans and their Christian slaves to live. From 22 August 1831 until his death 11 November 1831, Turner directed the course of events. Turner had disappeared for two reasons: 1) to sustain the terror and misgivings among Christian slaveholders; and 2) to prepare himself for his “atonement,” his martyrdom, in the public realm. In this scheme, he was most successful. After more than a century and a half he chills white sentiment in Southampton, Virginia, and throughout America.

On the spiritual and psychological levels, Turner’s disappearance had an even greater impact than the actual fifty-five persons murdered in Southampton. The living are not so concerned with the dead when they feel their own lives are at the stake. During Turner’s seventy days, a single gun shot was enough to fill the neighborhood with apprehension and anxiety. Many women, expecting “Ole Nat” was coming, “ran into the swamps with their children” (Johnson, p. 144). 

Again, we see God’s “divine reversal.” Nathaniel Turner’s terror forced Christian slaveholders to live the same experiential hell that was the daily diet of the Christian slave—the uncertainty, the horror, and terror that these black captives endured moment by moment, year in and year out. Turner pressed the faces of Christian slaveholders against the mirror of their lives. Their blindness with regard to their slaves’ spiritual aspirations caused the remaining slaveholders of Cross Keys, many a sleepless night.

Turner considered the means by which to turn himself in and to whom. F. Roy Johnson also believed in the truth of this scenario. Johnson, however, was mistaken about Turner’s ultimate intent and goal. Turner had experienced the slaughter of Cross Keys slaveholders—men, women, and children he had lived among. He observed the death of his men on the battlefield, silently spied upon the counter-terror and the massive armed forces tramping over the county, waited out the trials and hangings, and the dispersal of the armed forces. Turner was the last of the seven men who had left Cabin Pond, two had died on the battlefield and four hanged. His aim was not to lose himself in the Dismal Swamp.

When interest in his capture waned, Turner made his presence known. It was then then that he with deliberation chose the person to whom he would surrender himself. Rather than Francis, Turner chose Benjamin Phipps, a non-slaveholder, as his captor. The traditional story of Turner’s inadvertent capture must be rejected, even though that is what Turner contended in his “Confessions.” Consider the situation that makes Phipps inadvertent capture unlikely.

Anyone walking in a forest, especially in autumn can be heard at great distances, not only because of the natural silence but also because of fallen leaves and the noise they make under footfall. In addition, Turner was an experienced woodsman and that he should be come upon unexpectedly is unlikely. So one must conclude that the preposterous tale of surprise was part of a ruse in order to get his story told more broadly and from his perspective, as we see in his “Confessions.” It was a case of “hoodooing the hoodoo man”— the “hoodoo man” in this case being the state apparatus that had characterization goals with regard to Turner, his Christian soldiers, and his holy war.

Turner’s choice for his captor was sound. A non-slaveholder, Benjamin Phipps was a white man with little means and in great need of the thousand dollars on Turner’s head. Symbolically, it was the right approach. Phipps and other poor whites were also oppressed and misused by slaveholders. Turner captured alive was exceedingly important for the State of Virginia. The State bounty on Turner’s head would be paid only if Turner was delivered alive. 

Because of Phipps’ need, there was little likelihood that Turner would be killed on the spot. The poorer whites must have also noted that none of their class was killed during the “insurrection.” 

Phipps and his people, a class below the medium-sized landowners, would assure that Turner arrived in Jerusalem alive. For as Johnson pointed out, “the trials of Nat’s confederates had not satisfied the public curiosity as to the origin and purpose of the conspiracy—leaving everything ‘wrapt in mystery’” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 146).

Turner also wanted a record of his life as a Christian slave. He wanted the public to know the role God had played through him in the world. He had been waiting most of his life to tell his story. It was also an aspect of his desire “to atone,” to live the righteous life. Turner wanted to justify his faith, to justify God’s work in history. This calculated view, of course, runs against the current view that Gray, the slaveowner and lawyer, initiated the project of the “Confessions.”

The coupe de grace for him was to find an audience in which to establish his identity as a Christian prophet. Having sufficiently prepared himself spiritually for what he had to endure, Turner, after seventy days, turned himself in.

There were dire and immediate circumstances in which Turner had to endure before he reached his Calvary. Certainly, he had his fears. His disappearance of seventy days was a period not unlike that which Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane. The mockery and the abuse from slaveowners and their sycophants had to be undergone. According to F. Roy Johnson, “Nat was soundly whipped. He “was taken to Cross Keys and from thence ‘from house to house, grinning and refusing to repent’.” 

Turner must have been exceedingly hurt and disappointedly the vile responses of some Christian slaves, those who knew better. But, of course, Turner understood the lie that some had to live to go on to the next day. According to Johnson, “The Negroes who had lost relatives and friends and some of their personal liberties because of his misguided leadership, also treated him with scorn.” There were still other more horrendous stories of torture. In one story, Nat “was rolled down a hill in a barrel punctured with nails” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 144).

Before Turner arrived Monday, 31 October 1831, in Jerusalem, “The news of his journey was broadcast ahead, and people of the countrysides turned out to taunt and revile” him. “Some beat on him with sticks, and others jabbed him with pins.” Persons in the gathered mob burned him with hot irons, gashed him with knives, and thrust hot coals in his mouth, according to other reports. “The fanatical black preacher,” Johnson wrote, “assuredly held his spirit aloof with the conviction that he was a martyr” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, pp. 144-145; 180). 

Nathaniel Turner suffered much from Cross Keys to Jerusalem as did Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha Hill, the place where criminals were crucified. “Whatever the treatment, a Petersburg citizen said that the rebel leader arrived in Jerusalem in a state of extreme debasement—dejected, emaciated and ragged” (Johnson, p. 180). Through it all Turner retained his integrity and dignity.

By the time he spoke to Gray in Jerusalem, Turner had gone through hell. He had only two things undone: his testament and his death. He completed the “Confessions” with this existential state of mind: “I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.” Like his fellow Christian soldiers, Turner believed he was assured a place within the celestial community. “Clothed with rags and covered with chains,” Turner, according to Gray, dared “to raise his manacled hands to heaven, with a spirit soaring above the attributes of man.” Turner prayed to be delivered from this shore of mortality.

Shamed and found guilty by slaveowners, Nathaniel Turner, God’s apostle to America, would have found solace in the following prayer and song: “Let me not be ashamed, O Lord, for I have called upon thee: let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave” (Psalms 31.17). Turner and Gray completed “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in three days, 1-3 November 1831. Only the trial and the execution remained. The trial was Saturday, 5 November 1831. “The execution was ordered to be held Friday, November 11, between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon . . . . A value of $375, something less than the price of a prime slave, was placed upon the condemned to be paid to the Putnam Moore estate. . . . two of Nat’s condemned confederates were hanged upon the appointed day with him,” according to F. Roy Johnson (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 149). 

After sentencing, Virginia gave John Brown a month to get his affairs in order. Seven days after his sentence was delivered, with two Christian free men, Nathaniel Turner, however, was taken from prison to a nearby tree, where he gave up the ghost. Turner’s atonement was a symbolical reenactment of Jesus’ crucifixion.

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