Biblical Scholars

Biblical Scholars


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



My grandmother, who was very religious, and to whom I was much

attached – my master, who belonged to the church, and other religious

persons who visited the house, and whom I often saw at prayers,

noticing the singularity of my manners, I suppose, and my uncommon

intelligence for a child, remarked I had too much sense to be raised –

and if I was, I would never be of any service to any one – as a slave . . .



Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Biblical Scholars, Theologians & Other Commentators

on Nathaniel Turner of Southampton

Compiled by Rudolph Lewis



Below are comments culled from a number of works on black religion and black activism in America. All in some way attempt to situate and characterize  the life and career of Nathaniel Turner. Though important in their varied perspectives, all fall short of rendering a full integral portrait of Nathaniel, the prophet and holy man of Southampton. These comments below tend to tell us more about the writer than the inward religious life of Nathaniel Turner. More often than not these comments are contradictory or mistaken in an accurate historical representation.

Moreover, these evaluations also fall short of insightful theological investigation for they do not place Turner truly in the crux of the salvation history of African Americans. These comments do not really “feel” Turner. The authors are unable to enter the religious life and perspectives of African-Americans of the era, as they are unable to enter the religious life of the authors of the Spirituals. And when they attempt to do so they fall into a mindless romanticism or worse they import Africanisms as a means of translating the religious experience of 18th and early 19th black Christian slaves. 

In short, these commentators do not relate Turner’s intellectual response to his social and religious reality nor speculate on the pressing questions he more than likely put to the dominating book of his time, namely, the Christian Bible, and how it spoke or did not speak to the dire situation of Christian slaves in southeastern Virginia. A prime example of my criticism of the treatment of Turner can be found in W.E.B. DuBois’ Toussaint L’Ouverture &  Nat Turner”  (chapter 9 Negro Church, 1903).

Most of the commentators below look at Turner as an object of contemplation and reflection — a poor benighted slave, noble in intent but, on the whole, ignorant theology, really, a “crazy nigger” with little of an intellectual or theological nature to say to us. They look at Turner, for the most part, through the eyes of white academia (or with the eyes of white academia looking over their shoulders) and its rules of certainty and scientific logic. Turner is thus reduced to a specimen of rebellion, to be taken apart, diced into tiny pieces for closer observation.

These commentators below are by and large black intellectuals. Mechal Sobel, I believe, is the exception; but also, Rosemary Reuther, who, however, is more reserved in her views of Turner than any of the other commentators. Yet from an African-American perspective much of it is an unfavorable species of wild speculations which run after every fad of the time. In the minds of some, Turner is an abolitionist; in others, he is a mad man; still others, see him as mere body responding to Walker and Garrison; for others still, he is a black political revolutionary. For most, Turner is a black man who gave all in the struggle against American slavery, his actions evidence of the wretchedness of the slave system and symbolical of the manliness of black manhood.  

Despite the shortcomings of the Turner commentators below and their attempts to sabotage Turner’s Christian martyrdom, these accounts are indeed useful for Turner scholarship. For these accounts need to be placed in a more critical context. I place them before those unable to gather such research; without such information, it is difficult to have an informed discussion, to know just what is the problem in Turner scholarship — to know what is at the stake.

Readers may also note that in my writings of Turner I use Turner’s full name “Nathaniel,” rather than the abbreviated nickname “Nat,” which I believe was just another means of belittling or making small  of a black man who was a very serious minded individual, in essence, a holy man. To appreciate him fully and in his integrity, I encourage the use of his full name, specifically, the first name, which carries biblical meaning and significance.

The commentators will be presented in alphabetical order. I have summarized some of the comments and in places I have added by my own reactions to the writers comments on Turner. For a fuller exposition of my own view of Turner I direct readers to my manuscript Nathaniel Turner: Christian Martyrdom in Southampton.

Nathaniel Turner Commentaries & Sources


 Lerone Bennett, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, 1619-1962. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc. 1967.

(At the time of the writing, Bennett was history editor for Ebony magazine.)

“A mystic with blood on his mind, a preacher with vengeance on his lips, a dreamer, a fanatic, a terrorist, Nat Turner was a fantastic mixture of gentleness, ruthlessness and piety, of middling stature, black in color, in demeanor commanding and bold, Nat was five feet, six inches tall, a little dumpy perhaps, running to fat around the middle, with a mustache and a little tuft of hair on his chin” (p. 118).

“With maturity and increasing recognition came understanding, Nat became convinced that he was destined to lead his people out of bondage. Like Gabriel, like Denmark Vesey, he found food for insurrection in the bible. He immersed himself in religion; he even prayed at the plow. He saw visions and heard voices. One day he had an unusual vision; he saw black and white spirits wrestling in the sky, the sun grew dark and blood gushed forth in streams.

“Ordinary things appeared to the mystical slave in a strange light. While plowing the field, he saw drops of blood on the corn. on the leaves in the woods, he found hieroglyphic characters and numbers. he concluded that the day of judgment for slaveholders was nigh” (p. 119)

“On November 11, the dark buddha-bellied man call The Prophet dangled from the end of a rope in a town called Jerusalem. Author W.S. Dreary said Nat prophesied that it would grow dark and rain after his execution. ‘It did actually rain.’ Drewry wrote, ‘and there was for some time a dry spell. This alarmed many whites as well as Negroes’.” (p. 125)

A Commentary on Bennett’s “Nat Turner”: Though Bennett’s comments are well-written and hint at the complexity of Nathaniel’s character, they nevertheless misrepresent and fall short of an actual representation of Turner’s character. Such phrases as ” a mystic with blood on his mind,” “fanatic,” “fantastic,” and “vengeance on his lips” have little or nothing to do with the Turner found in the 1831 “Confessions.” Here, we have an imposition. Bennett’s portrait of Turner does not differ from one that would be presented by a slaveholder of 1831 or anyone who wanted to present had a demeaning view of Turner.

Bennett does not present certain facts. It is not clear whether Turner was “black” in complexion. The wanted poster described him as “yellowish” in complexion. That Turner had a “buddha” belly at his hanging after 70 days in the wilderness seems highly unlikely. That Turner found “food for insurrection in the bible” like Vesey and Prosser is not historically accurate. Turner is very much unlike Prosser and Vesey in his motivation for revolt.

Bennett fails to explore the symbolism in Turner’s religious imagery and fails to question how a backwoods Christian slave would have knowledge of hieroglyphic letters and numbers. In short the portrait we find in Bennett is superficial and borders on minstrelsy.

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Slave leader’s Bible given to museum—18 February 2012—For a century, the descendants of one of Virginia’s oldest families have kept a Bible that connected them to Nat Turner, the slave who led the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. Maurice Person, a descendant of people who were killed during the Turner rebellion, and his stepdaughter, Wendy Porter, decided to give the small Bible to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.”It didn’t have the home it deserved. It needed to be in a place where it could be seen,” Porter said.

Members of Person’s family and the Francis family were among the estimated 55 white Virginians killed by Turner and his followers. One of the family members, Lavinia Francis, was hidden by the Francises’ house slaves. The gift launched an investigation by museum experts to pinpoint the Bible’s origins. They knew its provenance—kept in the courthouse after Turner’s trial and execution in 1831. When Virginia’s Southampton County Courthouse was being renovated in 1912, an official asked the Person family whether it wanted Turner’s Bible. Person’s father, Walter, accepted the book and displayed it on the family piano for many years. Later, the family put it in a safe-deposit box. . . .

Even with the ownership clear, the museum did its due diligence. A photograph of the Bible, identified as Turner’s, was taken in 1900 and is part of the archives at the University of Virginia. An affidavit in 1969 by Harriet E. Francis, a descendant of Lavinia Francis, is also part of the university archives.

Nora Lockshin, a paper conservator for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, examined the paper, leather, ink and arrangement of the pages. The book, which is a little larger than pocket-size, is missing both covers, part of its spine and one chapter. Its pages are yellowed, and there are watermarks and mold. Because of its age, it cannot be opened flat. “The paper is in good shape, and it is a good, strong rag paper,” Lockshin said. She enhanced the 1900 photograph, matching the page in the photo to a page in the book. “It matched the pattern of stains.” With the Turner Bible, Bunch said, the museum will tell many stories about the resistance to slavery and the compassion of slaves.—NewsLeader 

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James H. Cone. For My People, Black Theology and the Black Church: Where Have We Been and Where We Are Going. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984.

(Cone is Charles Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.)

“It was Nat Turner [and others] . . . who helped young radical preachers articulate a black version of the gospel” (p. 60).

According to Cone, black “cultural nationalists” and “revolutionary nationalists” of the 1960s and 1970s viewed Turner as their “saint” (p. 46)

—————-. A Black Theology of Liberation . Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1997.

“For the pre-Civil War black church, salvation involved more than longing for the next life. being saved was also a present reality that placed persons in a dimension of freedom so that earthly injustice became intolerable.Tthat was why Nat Turner, a Baptist preacher, had visions of God that involved  his own election to be the the Moses of his people, leading it from the house of bondage” (p. 127)

“Black Power is Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Gabriel Prosser planning a slave revolt” (p. 26).

—————-. Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of  Liberation, 1968-1998. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

“after 1831, over two thousand slaves escaped yearly (p. 19) [see Miles Fisher, Negro Slave Songs in the United States. New York: Citadel Press, 1953; references to Turner can be found on pages 27-28; 66-67; 108; 181-185]

“Must every black take Nat Turner’s option in order to affirm his humanity? I do not think so.” (p. 128)

A Commentary on James H. Cone’s “Nat Turner”: Cone’s remarks are dated by the black consciousness movement of the 1960s and the 1970s in which he and others used Nathaniel as a political icon or tool for ideological perspectives that had little or nothing to do with Turner or his times. There is no evidence that Turner was a black “cultural nationalist” or “revolutionary nationalist” and surely there is nothing in Turner’s 1831 “Confessions” that can be read as an argument for “Black Power.” All these interpretations are impositions or readings that have more to do with the individuals of the 20th century who have gone through over a century of Jim Crow and racial oppression of the most insidious kind.

The most theological statement about Nathaniel made by Cone come in his A Black Theology of Liberation (1997) in which he raises the question of the meaning of “salvation” for Turner and others of his time. But Cone ignores statements made in the “Confessions” and immediately assume that Turner had an Old Testament orientation — Turner is characterized as a Moses. But Turner never mentions Moses nor even quotes from the Old Testament. Nathaniel however quotes from the gospels, Luke specifically and references Matthew and John, but also the Acts of the Apostles (with respect to his emphasis on the Holy Spirit) and probably also the epistles.

Worst, Cone does not have his facts correct. There is no historical evidence nor in the “Confessions” that demonstrate that Turner was a “Baptist preacher.” Such a characterization devalues Turner. All evidence points to Turner being trained as a Methodist, like Cone himself. And moreover, Turner is much more than a mere preacher, he was a holy man, a Christian prophet, as much so as was Paul and Peter of the New Testament. At least, that is how he seems to characterize himself, with his emphasis on the Christ.

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Noel Leo Erskine. King Among the Theologians. Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1995

(Erskine is associate professor of theology and ethics, Candler School of Theology, Emory University. This writer is also author of Decolonizing Theology.)

‘The philosophy of Black Power has its roots in the teaching of Black Church leaders such as Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Bishop McNeil Turner, and Marcus Garvey” (p. 84).

“Other Black Church leaders such as Nat Turner provided a theological baseline for Cone’s explication of an ecclesiology that accommodated Black Power” (p. 93).

A Commentary on Erskine’s “Nat Turner”: Erskine seems to have been exceedingly and not very creditably influenced by James H. Cone’s writings on Nathaniel Turner. Ecclesiology is indeed a subject that is found in the “Confessions.” Nathaniel’s argument is not, however, toward a “black church.” One can argue more reasonably that the conflict in Cross Keys centered on the trustees’ rejection of Nathaniel’s petition to become a member of Turner’s Methodist Church. That is, Nathaniel believed that the white religionists stood between God and his people. He may have settled for a black congregation, but we must keep in mind that he also reached out to whites, specifically, Brantley (the slave driver) and brought him to Christ and baptized him.

These ecclesiological acts all appear in the 1831 “Confessions” and neither Cone nor his disciple Erskine responds to them.

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James H. Evans, Jr. We Have Been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

(Evans is president and Robert K. Davies, Professor of Systematic Theology at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Crozer Theological Seminary)

“. . . the messianic revolutionary, manifested in the angry Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple, was the backdrop to the interpretation of the significance of the revolt of Nat Turner” (p. 82).

“The Mosaic liberator, manifested in the resolute standing over against the political forces of his day, was the backdrop to the interpretations of the significance of the exploits of Harriet Tubman” (p. 83).

A Commentary on James H. Evans, Jr.’s “Nat Turner”:  The ecclesiological argument suggested by Evans is worth exploring. But he does not elaborate. He leaves us hanging. The money changers are indeed suggestive of Cross Keys slaveholders who were trustees and elders of Turner’s Methodist Church and who were in addition involved in slave breeding and slave trading, violating all kinds of moral and ethical laws in contradiction to the Christian spirit. Also, Evans, however, does not undertake to come to grips with Nathaniel’s revelatory experience. That is, Turner, contrary to Evans and others, does not make use of an interpretive mode that argues metaphorically from biblical figures (Christ or Moses) to the present or present acts. Clearly, Turner argues that his actions were motivated by divine revelatory experiences. When we deny his own words, we deny the reality of his own religious experience.

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Curtis W. Freeman, James William McClendon, Jr., C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva. Baptist Roots: A Reader in the Theology of a Christian People. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1999.

(Curtis W. Freeman is professor in the Department of Christianity and philosophy at Houston Baptist University in Texas; James Wm. McClendon, Jr. is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Fuller theological Seminary in Pasadena, California; C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva is a graduate student at Duke university in Durham, North Carolina, where she is studying Theological Ethics.)

“Crazed killer or legendary hero? What is often lost in the denigration and celebration of Nat Turner (1800-1831) is the supremely religious character of the man who inspired the slave rebellion of 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. . . . As he searched the scriptures, Nat discovered that proslavery preachers had overlooked warrants against enslavement (e.g. Exodus 21. 16; Deuteronomy 24:7). Although he was never officially received into or ordained by any organized church, Nat Turner identified himself as a Baptist preacher. In 1827 he baptized himself and a notorious white sinner in the water of Person’s Mill Pond. . . . Turner and his followers marched toward Jerusalem. . . . ‘to slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women’ (Ezekiel 9:6). This was the same biblical text cited by the militant Anabaptists at Munster three centuries earlier. . . . Along with Anne Hutchinson, Turner contributes to the mystical and prophetic streams of Baptist theology, though he joined many others in rejecting nonviolence” (p. 241).

A Commentary on Curtis W. Freeman, James William McClendon, Jr., C. Rosalee Velloso da Silva’s “Nat Turner”:  These three writers mean well, especially in their stress of Nathaniel’s “supremely religious character.” Desiring to make their argument biblically based they go too far and thus imposed on Turner what cannot be sustained by the “Confessions.” They fall into the old stereotyped view that Nathaniel is somehow to be classified and grouped with Old Testament prophets (e.g. Ezekiel) or related to Mosaic texts (Exodus and Deuteronomy). In trying to establish this biblical argument, they assume that Nathaniel made use of such passages as motivations for his acts. It is indeed a spurious argument against slavery and a spurious argument for the slaughter that Turner committed in Cross Keys.

First, the 1831 “Confessions” is not an anti-slavery document. The enslavement that the document mentions that troubles him is his own and the grounding of his resentment about his own enslavement is that he is not suited to be a slave and goes to some extent to demonstrate it. 

Secondly, the biblical passage from Ezekiel may be helpful in there is biblical precedent for the kind of slaughter committed by Turner. Yet it does not explain his selectivity: he and his men killed only those connected to slavery and Turner’s Methodist Church.

Thirdly, these three writers also again overlook the prime motive Turner provides for his holy war, namely, a Christian revelation. So the Bible is not his motivation for war, nor for the mode of killing  that Nathaniel used to justify his acts, his holy work– it is Christ himself.

These three writers also commit the logical error of assuming as proof that if an act occurs next to some object that the act is associated with that object. That is, Turner used a pond next to a Baptist church and thus he was a Baptist. That is such nonsense.  To drag up Munster and Anne Hutchinson into the argument is clearly pedantic, which says more about the writers than it does  Turner and his circumstances. 

But we can say that he was a Methodist in that he preached outside a Methodist church the week before the revolt. The truth of the matter is that he was raised in a Methodist community, studied as a Methodist, and sought membership in a Methodist church. And it was that Methodist church Turner’s, founded doubtless by his slave master/father, that denied his entrance and his humanity that was at the crux and rationale for the revolt. We can go further and say all those who were killed were probably members and leading members of Turner’s Methodist Church. Of course, the exceptions not involved in the slaughter, though  member of the church, were his own blood relations, that is, the white Turners, descendants of his father, Benjamin Turner.

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Charles V. Hamilton. The Black Preacher in America. New York: William Morrow and company, 1972.

“In 1831, the Reverend Nat Turner attempted to lead a group of slaves in a violent revolt against slavery in Virginia” (p. 58)

“Reverend Nat Turner who felt commanded by God to lead a violent revolt against slavery” (p. 68).

A Commentary on Charles V. Hamilton’s “Nat Turner”: In the two quoted statements above Hamilton says more or less the same thing. The primary emphasis is on the word “reverend” with a capital “R.” But I suppose we should not be surprised of such a tactic by the co-writer of the book Black-Power:The Politics of Liberation  writing a book on the black preacher. But such deference and respect in this instance seems misplaced. He was not tied to that which became the “black church.” He indeed had ecclesiological arguments. The masses of African-Americans have always had realistic, reserved, and ambiguous views of the “black preacher.” That is the black preacher is not held in awe nor is he given the deference of the Catholic priest.

But Turner was more than an exhorter or a preacher — he was indeed a holy man, a prophet of Christ. If we do not speak of him in those terms, we miss what he meant to the masses of blacks of his era and region — for they believe he was a man who truly spoke with God and possessed powers of no ordinary man or ordinary preacher.

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Vincent Harding. “Religion and Resistance Among Antebellum Slaves, 1800-1860,” in African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture. Timothy E. Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau, editors. New York: Routledge, 1997.

(Vincent Harding is Professor of Religion and Social Transformation at the Iliff School of Theology; Timothy Fulop is Assistant Dean of Faculty and Lecturer in the History of Christianity at Columbia Theological Seminary; Albert J. Raboteau was Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion, Princeton university, holds Ph.D. from Yale University in Religious Studies, considered a historian of religion.)

The “central theme of Turner’s Confession” was “a black avenged Messiah, urged into action by nothing less than the repeated calling of God. Here was religion and resistance that would not be separated” (p. 116).

“When asked later about this ‘Spirit’, the 31-year-old prisoner made it clear that he stood self-consciously in the prophetic tradition, for he said that he had been visited by ‘The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days’.

“Eventually the young mystic became fully confirmed in his sense of ordination to some ‘great purpose in the hands of the Almighty’, and he went through his own Wilderness experience–thirty days in the forests of Virginia as a runaway slave. Then the Spirit drove him back for his great encounter with the future” (p. 116).

Turner “ate a last supper with some of his followers and went forth to carry out his own version of the work of Christ, using the weapons of the Old testament, drenching the ground with blood. for neither age nor sex was to be spared. And when asked if he thought himself mistake as he faced execution at the end, Turner’s response came fittingly enough, ‘Was not Christ crucified?’ To the charge of dastardly crime, his plea, of course, was ‘Not Guilty’.” (p. 117).

“Obviously Nat turner was one of those religiously charismatics who arise in a variety of settings, from the walls of Munster to the fields of Southampton County. He was not a ‘preacher’ in any formal sense of the word, and evidently belonged to no structured church group. But he was an ‘exhorter’, and he clearly convinced his fellow slaves by the power of his message and the strange sense of his presence that he was the anointed one of God for their deliverance–a deliverance for which slaves never ceased to yearn.

“No other explanation will open the intricacies of Nat Turner. Thus when they were wounded and waiting to die, it was said of his companions that some of them ‘in the agonies [sic] of death declared that they was going happy for that God had a hand in what they had been doing. . . . They still believed that ‘Prophet Nat’ was sent from God” (p. 117).

“The religion of Nat Turner, the religion of black rebellion became part of their tradition” (pp. 117-118).

A Commentary on Vincent Harding’s Nat Turner: Although Vincent Harding has written often about Nathaniel of Southampton, each successive writing has not brought him any closer to bringing forth the reality of black life in the Cross Keys-Jerusalem region of Southampton, Virginia. His reading of the 1831 “Confessions” too often is a stilted paraphrasing of Turner’s words rather than getting at the gist of Turner’s religious world beneath the text. The truth of the matter is that like many academics Harding has no heart-felt sympathy for Turner’s Christian slave world and thus, for instance, he resorts to a loose analogy of a peasant rebellion in 16th century Germany to that which occurred in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. An understanding of that class war or its leadership by Thomas Muentzer will not bring us closer to understanding the familial war that took place in an isolated village of southeast Virginia. 

To appreciate and understand Turner, we must do so along the lines he sketched out in the 1831 “Confessions.” With his emphasis on a promise unfulfilled, the central theme of his Confessions seems to be one of disinheritance, rather than as Harding asserts, “a black avenged Messiah.” And it seems that it was indeed his response, his urge to action, to his disinheritance that activated his religious consciousness. 

Here was a boy, a man, a human being of extraordinary talents and abilities. His father and master Benjamin Turner assured him and his “mother” that he would be freed at twenty-one, for he was one not suited for slavery, one of such high intelligence. At the death of his father, his half-brother Samuel inherited the major portion of Benjamin estate. And Samuel  assigned Nathaniel the lowest jobs on the farm, that of plowboy and field hand. Nathaniel was not given a chance to exercise his skills or his intelligence and after years of endurance and patience Nathaniel when he reached the age of twenty-one, his half-brother Samuel denied him the freedom he was promised. 

Nathaniel’s initial act was one of indignation, then came the threatened punishment (whipping) and then he ran away.  It must have created a sensation —  even more so in that Samuel Turner was a trustee of Turner’s Methodist Church and probably everyone in that community knew of the familial ties between Nathaniel and Samuel.  And probably some knew of Benjamin’s promise to his son Nathaniel and of Samuel’s betrayal, which, though a secondary theme, is a significant one.

As far as Turner’s religion, Harding’s use of such terms as “mystic” and “religious charismatic” and “exhorter” and “religion of rebellion” obfuscates rather than bring us closer to Turner’s religious experience. Surely, this kind of language is not that which is derived from the 1831 “Confessions.” This kind of linguistic plating of Turner’s character and actions distorts what any truly interested party could gather in the meaning or connotation of such language. The ultimate questions in this regard is whether one believes in God and whether God acts in history, not only yesterday, but today, and whether God calls on individuals today as he did in biblical history and whether God as he did of old called on Nathaniel of Southampton to do his bidding. 

Unlike Harding’s assertion that Turner “clearly convinced his fellow slaves” that “he was the anointed one of God for their deliverance, the 1831 “Confession” puts forth a different perspective. What we see in actuality is a man uncertain, constantly checking with other Christians about his religious experience. It seems that it was they who convinced him, rather than his convincing them on the truth of his religious experience: “I often communicated to them, and they believed and said my wisdom came from God.” It was only when his fellow Christian slaves confirmed his religious experience that Turner began to believe that he had been chosen for a divine purpose. 

Still, in this instance, he misread God’s message, which was biblically based, “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.”

It is significant that he quotes a passage from the New Testament – a saying of Jesus which occurs in both Matthew and Luke. At this stage of his development, he believed that God’s purpose was the same as his, namely, his freedom: “I now began to prepare them for my purpose, by telling them something was about to happen that would terminate in fulfilling the great promise that had been made to me.” But his freedom did not come, and worse he was threatened with punishment — and that was a great emotional swing: from the great heights of expectation down down to a hellish kind of humiliation. And when his personal freedom did not come, he ran away. 

And the Spirit questioned his sincerity, the depth of his faith. Whatever the occasion, the life outside of God is misery and not freedom, for without salvation freedom  is yet slavery to desire. Those outside of God are against God and deserving of punishment.  Thereafter, Turner is continuously cautious of his interpretation of scripture, the urgings of the Spirit, and of divine signs. He says, “I wondered greatly at these miracles, and prayed to be informed of a certainty of the meaning thereof.” This reluctance to make war on the congregants of Turner’s Methodist Church continues even into the holy war itself, in his reluctance to take a life even thought he has been given divine warrant.

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James H. Harris. Preaching Liberation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995

(Harris is Senior Pastor at 2nd Baptist Church and Professor of Pastoal Theology, Virginia Union University.)

“The African American preacher was sometimes radical and revolutionary, as evidenced by Rev. Nat Turner” (p. 39)

“Nat Turner . . . felt he was called for messianic purposes, to set at liberty the oppressor slaves (see Luke 4:18). Henry T. Young, in his book Major Black Religious leaders, argues that David Walker’s Appeal had influenced Turner in his liberation theology of action” (p. 46).

“Nat Turner was a revolutionary who desired to transform the system of evil represented by slavery. His actions were suicidal, and he obviously equated slavery with death” (p. 44)

“Nat Turner epitomizes the prophetic revolutionary preacher who was discontented with conditions of slavery . . . Turner’s hatred of the dehumanizing and sanctimonious institution of slavery, couple with revelations from God, propelled him to seek freedom violently. . . . He was a self-made preacher who was extremely intelligent and religious and seriously bothered by the institution of slavery’ (p. 45).

“Jungian psychology would suggest that the ‘structured unconscious’ played a role in the visions of Turner” (p. 46).

“Moreover, Turner’s acts of violence were akin to what Franz Fanon described as a ‘purgatory’ through which oppressed people had to pass before they could achieve a fresh sense of identity” (p. 46).

Nat Turner “interpreted slavery as death.”

A Commentary on James H. Harris’ “Nat Turner”: Harris’ terms of “radical” and “revolutionary” are indeed misleading. Of course, Nathaniel’s holy war was a radical act and seemingly revolutionary. But such terms tells us little or nothing about the intrinsic man; moreover, such terms identifies Nathaniel with characters that are so much unlike him driven by modernist motives so unlike his biblical and religious influences. One could as easily argue that symbolically Nathaniel was possibly attracted but rejected revolution by his changing the date of his revolt from July 4th to the period of the August religious revivals, for which he had grown to view as highly hypocritical.

Without sound evidence, Harris accepts Henry T. Young’s theory that David Walker “influenced Turner in his liberation theology of action.” Turner’s action may indeed be described under the rubric of “liberation theology,” but his theology has little or nothing to do with that which was expounded by James H. Cone and later exponents of “Black Theology.” Of course, there is absolutely no proof to substantiate Young’s claim that Turner had familiarity with Walker’s Appeal. Moreover, Young’s argument is gross: he views Walker as mind and Turner as body.

Harris’ use of Jung and Fanon in his analysis of Turner does not seem insightful and moreover seem an evasion of Turner’s own report in the 1831 “Confessions.” Harris prefers scientific explanations (psychoanalytical theories) for religious visions and motivations for revolt. Harris’ further argument that Turner “interpreted slavery as death” again is highly speculative and cannot be substantiated by the 1831 “Confessions.” Matter of fact, Turner in the “Confessions” makes no concerted verbal attack on the institution of slavery, basically because, biblically based, Turner found no concerted argument in the scriptures against the institution.

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Dwight N. Hopkins and George Cummings. Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991.

(Hopkins is a professor at the Divinity School, University of Chicago)

“For the Rev. Nat Turner, a black Baptist preacher, ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ symbolized the gathering of his prophetic band of Christian witnesses in preparation for armed struggle and guerilla warfare against slavery” (p. 22)

Dwight N. Hopkins. Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

“Finally, the Baptist Rev. Nat Turner exhibited the most graphic traits of the mystic, prophet, and possessed leader. Handling new religious language steeped in symbolic and metaphorical discourse tinted with encoded significance only Rev. Turner could decipher, he eventually confessed the following when captured and put on trial: ‘I reflected much on this passage [‘Seek ye the kingdom of heaven and all things shall be added unto you’.] . . . As I was praying one day at my plough, the Spirit spoke to me . . . [It was the same] Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days’. After two years of contemplation and prayer, he concluded that he ‘was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the almighty’. Turner brought together a radical biblical understanding from the perspective of the bottom of society, the third person of the Trinity, and prolonged and profound prayer with an acceptance of a vocation directly ordained by the Christian God. because Christ had laid down the heavy burden of a yoke, Turner believed that ‘I should take it on and fight against the Serpent’.

“Individual and group actions exemplified the divine right to resist. Along with seizing sacred domains and the divine right to resist–both employed in the dynamic of co-creating the black self in concert with the sacred presence–the third manifestation of methods of the black self was creating a syncretized religion in the Invisible Institution.

“‘Stealin’ the meeting’, what enslaved religious blacks called the secret (reinterpreted) Christian gatherings–commonly termed the Invisible Institution–were the institutionalized location out of which the future black theology of liberation emerged. Such surreptitious congregations often reached huge numbers. the intricate dynamic of ‘stealin’ the meaning–its types, content, and forms–located the syncretistic or hybrid reality of African American religious experience. In the Invisible Institution, a novel substance was molded from remnants of African indigenous religion, everyday common folk wisdom, and a reinterpreted Christianity. Only in secret communion with God could black folk both speak freely about the God that had liberated the Hebrew people and act out the self that they created away from the presence of white power” (p. 135)

A Commentary on Dwight N. Hopkins’ “Nat Turner”: Hopkins like others mistakenly identifies Turner as a “Baptist preacher.” And like others such as Charles Hamilton insist on addressing Turner as “Rev.” But such an approach again is shallow respect and ultimately does not bring us closer to the real Nathaniel of Southampton. Hopkins again like others have concluded that Turner’s focus was on the institution of slavery rather than on aspects of slavery as it manifested in Cross Keys and Turner’s Methodist Church.

But Hopkins has no real interest in the life and career of Turner. The above quoted material is the full extent of his writing on Turner. With such brief remarks it is unavoidable in being superficial. Yet there are serious problems in the applicability of certain of his arguments. His remark about Turner “Handling new religious language steeped in symbolic and metaphorical discourse tinted with encoded significance [that] only Rev. Turner could decipher” is incredulous. I find it odd that Hopkins as a theologian can interpret religious language 2,000 years old in several different foreign tongues and cultures, but find it too formidable to translate the religious language of a Christian slave which in in English and is less then two centuries old. His problem seems one of intellectual laziness or at best a serious disinterest in Turner’s religiosity and spirituality.

But Hopkins charge of “symbolic and metaphorical discourse tinted with encoded significance” is derived from his assumed theory that Turner imported something to the text that was not already in the scriptures. This import theory suggests that Turner as a first generation American had made use of elements of tribal African culture as a mean of interpreting the New Testament and the Christian religion. But Hopkins cannot and does not sustain his “syncretized religion” argument, that is, that in the “Confessions” there are elements of West African tribal religions. Moreover, Turner himself made the point that he had nothing to do with “conjure” and such cultural imports.

Hopkins also like other desires to make use of Turner as an icon of favorite ideological assertions such as a Cone’s “black theology of liberation” and Albert J. Raboteau’s “Invisible Institution” (slave religion as opposed to regular Christianity). That is, what we see in the 1831 “Confessions” is “the syncretistic or hybrid reality of African American religious experience.” The problem with the enterprise of establishing a lineage for such ideological assertions is that too often we end up violating the integrity of another’s life and religious reality, in this instance, Nathaniel Turner.

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Eric Lincoln, ed. The Black Experience in Religion. Garden City, NY: William Morrow and Company, 1972.

Nat Turner’s “spiritual leadership included an important commitment to black protest” (p. 155).

A Commentary on Eric Lincoln’s “Nat Turner”: Lincoln’s comment is so brief and dated that it is difficult to get any foothold to make a coherent response to his view of Turner. Nevertheless, we can say that Lincoln’s “commitment to black protest” has little to do with the struggle that took place in Cross Keys, Virginia in the ten-year period of 1821 and 1831.

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Olin P. Moyd. Redemption in Black Theology. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1979.

(Moyd is the pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, Counselor for CCB; adjunct faculty of St. Mary’s Seminary and University.)

“It is clear that Nat Turner felt that he was being obedient to the will of God which with the will of his master when he led the bloody insurrection of 1831. Of course, this raises the question of whether obedience which leads to such actions is really the will of God or whether it is merely the whim of men who finds himself in a situation of oppression. Whatever we might think, Nat Turner was assured that his violent expression against the oppressors evolved out of the will of God. Black religionists and Black people in general do make room in their thought for violent retaliations against oppression as obedience to the will of God. And the Old Testament is filled with incidents in which rebellion by the oppressed were seen as fulfilling the will of God; and in the New Testament, in a moment of disgust in the synagogue, Jesus himself used a whip to teach a lesson” (p. 180).

A Commentary on Olin P. Moyd’s “Nat Turner”:  Moyd raises forthrightly the skeptical perspective with respect to Nathaniel’s call and commands received from God. Doubtless, these are the centering aspects surrounding the person and career of Nathaniel of Southampton, whose claim was that God spoke to him Nathaniel as God had spoke to the prophets of old. I for one am unable to argue the contrary in either case. I unlike others have as much faith in Turner’s veracity as I have in that of the prophets of old. That God would command slaughter 3,000 years ago and would not do so 200 years ago is incredulous. In short, I have no reason not to believe Nathaniel’s truth.

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Roi Ottley. Black Odyssey: The Story of the Negro in America. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1949.

(Ottley was a distinguished Negro journalist and author of the highly successful and influential New World A Coming,1945)

“Nat Turner, a mystical Cross Keys slave known as the ‘Black prophet’, decided the time had come to lead his people out of bondage. An intelligent and even gifted man, he was thirty-one years old–short, black, and calm, with a hairless bullet head set on broad shoulders. he had a mustache, a thin Van Dyke beard, and bore a nasty scar across one temple, one back of his head, and a big knot on the bone of his wrist, all produced by blows. Nat’s mother, transported from Africa to Virginia, had attempted to kill him as a child to save him from the fate of a slave, and his father after countless attempts had escaped to Africa” (p. 139).

“He set the time for Sunday midnight, August 21, 1831. Not to arouse suspicion, he planned a barbecue feast after evening church services. While the slaves ate, he quietly outlined his plans which were simple enough. they called for the slaughter of all whites–complete extermination” (p. 140).

A Commentary on Roi Ottley’s “Nat Turner”: The term “mystic” or some form of the word is probably one of the words most often  ascribed to Turner’s character. It is not suggestive of his spirituality or his closeness to God. When ascribed to Nathaniel, it is use to suggest a mental or psychological state brought on by imposed physical hardship or punishment coupled with a level of religiosity. It is like a nightmare produced by a late night heavy meal. In short, the use of the term mystical is a means of discounting Nathaniel’s receipt of divine revelations.

It has been oft-repeated that Nathaniel’s mother, recently imported from Africa where slavery was an ordinary state of affairs, decided to kill her son for fear he would be a slave. This scenario is a species of abolitionist nonsense. Ottley can not sustain such a claim. Just as likely, Nathaniel mother’s action can be explained as a result of the sight of the child, which was of a pinkish or yellowish complexion. The sight of the child stirred the hatred and anger that she still held for the man who raped her — her owner and master and Nathaniel’s father, namely, Benjamin Turner.

Another oft-repeated assertion is that Turner ordered “complete extermination.” On the contrary, there is considerable evidence that this slaughter was selective. None of Nathaniel’s white relatives were killed; no non-slaverholders who did not work directly for slaveholders were killed. Giles Reese, a slaveholder (owner of Cherry, purportedly Nathaniel’s wife), was not killed; his farm was bypassed. In addition, Gray, the editor of the 1831, his farm was also by-passed.

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Benjamin Quarles. The Negro in the Making of America. New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1969.

When these statements were written, Quarles was professor of history at Morgan State College.)

“No revolt equaled that of Nat Turner in its consequences. A slave preacher in Southampton County, Virginia, Turner’s actions were inspired by his interpretation of the Old Testament and his belief that he was God’s chosen instrument to lead the slaves out of bondage. Turner’s preparation consisted of prayer and looking for a sign from on high rather than in the listing of a larger force. . . . ‘The Prophet,’ as Turner was called by the slaves, was caught and sent to the gallows, along with nineteen other culprits” (p. 82).

A Commentary on Benjamin Quarles’ “Nat Turner”: The term “slave preacher” does not in any way adequately categorizes Nathaniel of Southampton and moreover the term is misleading. It was late in his life before he was engaged in preaching; furthermore, as Quarles and others point out the Christian slaves of his time referred to him reverentially as a “prophet” was respectfully considered a holy man by his habits of speech, thought, and behavior. That is he received a deference that far exceeded that was usually extended to a preacher.

Another misleading statement is that Turner was especially influenced by the Old Testament. But there is nothing in the “Confessions” that one should make such a conclusion. One may take the statement that he was spoken to by “The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former day.”  But the term “Spirit” is found most often in the New Testament; as far as prophets, one can include Jesus as well as Paul and Peter, in that number.

Another assertion that has been imposed upon Turner is that he Nathaniel was “God’s chosen instrument to lead the slaves out of bondage. Such an egoistic statement is nowhere to be found in the 1831 “Confessions.” Nowhere does Turner cast himself as a Mosaic figure either before or after the Rebellion. if we would stick to Turner’s actual words we would approach closer the reality of his life and his actions. Such a misstatement by Quarles leads him to show his dislike and distrust of religion and the religious, specifically, the gibe — “Turner’s preparation consisted of prayer and looking for a sign on high rather than in the listing of a larger force.” Turner’s scheme was not so grandiose as that of Gabriel Prosser and we should fuse Turner with Prosser nor Vesey and especially not Touusaint. This confusion is the great error made by the great W.E.B DuBois in his “Toussaint L’Ouverture &  Nat Turner” (chapter 9  Negro Church, 1903).

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J. Deotis Roberts. Liberation and Reconciliation: A Black Theology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1994 (revised edition). 

(Roberts is Distinguished Professor of Philosophical Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.)

 “Violence, I believe, is inconsistent with the Christian ethic. Here I condemn violence that is covert and overt, violence of blacks against blacks, and violence of white against blacks. . . .  I understand Nat turner’s insurrection and Bonhoeffers’ plot to assassinate Hitler as springing from righteous indignation—as the only obvious path to freedom and justice for millions” (p. 102).

“If violence of this type is ever consistent with Christian ethics, it will need to be programmed and measured. It should be a means rather than an end. It should be used only after all better alternatives have been duly tried and it should be used only because it is the lesser of two evils” (p. 103)

“Some blacks have been embittered by suffering, like Nat Turner; others have been mellowed by it, like Martin Luther King, Jr.” (p. 50).

“Religious nationalists, like Cleage [who includes Turner in his pantheon of saints], may reject the inclusiveness of the Christian family ideal” (p. 34)

“The so-called white Christian had fed to our black fathers and mothers the opiate of obedience, servitude, and humility, but long before Nat Turner, the prophet of revenge, hate, and revolt, awakened whites to the incendiary possibilities of the Bible, blacks understood its message of ‘deliverance to captives’. (p. 34)

“In the study of Nat Turner’s Confessions, one discovers a religiously motivated but blood thirsty path to ‘revenge and revolt’. . . . white men as well as black may misread and misuse their Bibles. . . . Black men, therefore, may likewise see what they desire to see in the Bible” (p. 50)

A Commentary on J. Deotis Roberts’ “Nat Turner”: In his equivocating argument about the use of violence in encountering outrageous oppression, Roberts has made an insightful and proper connection between Bonhoeffer and Nathaniel Turner. I have also made use of Bonhoeffer in my own arguments. But Roberts’  reconciliation is an unsatisfactory one. He paints an unsympathetic portrait of Turner and fails to explore Nathaniel’s christocentric struggle with slaveholder Christianity and Virginia slavery. Ultimately, he seems to countenance Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators and demeans Turner and his fellow conspirators. Part of the the problematic with his analysis is that Roberts compares and contrast Turner with two black leaders that are far from Turner’s reality, namely, King and Reverend Albert Albert B. Cleage, both contemporaries of his own time and both dealing with Jim Crow laws and social, political, and cultural racism.

Nathaniel Turner of Southampton was born and raised in a social and cultural atmosphere of absolute racial oppression which had degenerated to the breeding and selling of Christian slaves, which involved the worst moral crimes including adultery, rape, and the break up of Christian families — the selling and separation of mother and child; and worst, the refusal of Christian slaveholders to grant joint worship and the Christianization of their own slave and slave children. I am not one, nevertheless, to make arguments about the severity of Hitlerian Germany in relation to that of American slavery. 

Maybe some Christian Germans and Jews had it worse than our fathers and mothers of the early 19th-century America slavocracy. Yet whether more severe or not, it was sufficiently severe for bloody revolt. Roberts’ characterization thusly, “Nat Turner, the prophet of revenge, hate, and revolt” must be viewed indeed as a capitulation to white sentiment of his own era and therefore must be rejected. 

And clearly the statement noted above was no slip of the pen for he reinforces those comments by demeaning Turner and his war against the devils and their evil by these further comment which characterizes Turner’s war as “a religiously motivated but blood thirsty path to ‘revenge and revolt’.” Turner is viewed as some wild man or some wild animal, thoughtless and without conscience. Roberts, of course, would not use such terminology to describe Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators. But of course “white violence” is of a different nature and character than “black violence.” 

Roberts could not retain respectability, seemingly, by no other means than giving it to Turner with both barrels. Turner is not viewed as a prophet and disciple of Christ, but rather as a “prophet of revenge, hate, and revolt”; not as a “Christian soldier” who acted out of righteous indignation under the command of Christ, but as one who was “bloodthirsty.” Such analyses will not do and do not serve us or our liberation well.

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Rosemary Ruether. The Radical Kingdom: The Western Experience of Messianic Hope. New York: Paulist Press, 1970.

(Ruether is a professor of theology at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois.)

“Turner’s practical impact was small, but his psychological impact was great. The tenor he evoked was not simply due to the few death he caused but to the consciousness that he expressed thereby of being the divinely appointed agent of apocalyptic wrath, to which white society, in its guilt, could only respond in fear and fury” (p. 225).

A Commentary on Rosemary Ruether’s “Nat Turner”: Ruether’s remarks about Turner are very measured and reserved, as they should be. Matter of fact, she refrains from making any statement about Turner’s character or his religion. The remarks she does indeed make seem to be an accurate representation of Turner’s “impact” on southeastern Virginia and the rest of the South.

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Theophus H. Smith. “The Spirituality of Afro-American Tradition,” in Christian Spirituality: Post Reformation and Modern. Editors Louis Dupre and Don E. Saliers. New York: Crossroad, 1989.

“Turner demonstrably and more self-consciously Christian than his fellow slaves, also eschewed the common, magical folk practices of conjuring as sub-Christian. ‘I always spoke of such thing with contempt’. his interviewer records in Turner’s ‘Confessions’.

“Nonetheless, the evidence represents him as a seer and prophet, given to mystical or shamanic visions and dreams. Turner’s mystical experiences gave rise to explicitly Christian symbolic interpretations (e.g. blood found on corn in the fields was Christ’s blood ‘returning to earth again in the form of dew’), and also supported his [p. 383] conviction of divine retribution against slavery. He had a remarkable vision in which ‘white and black spirits were engaged in a great battle with blood flowing in streams’.

“Unusual as a literate slave, Turner like Vesey was a compelling Bible preacher. Together they represent two stages in the black religious tradition of conjuring God for freedom. Stage one, represented by Vesey, features magical conujurational practices alongside or in concert with the use of biblical and Christian theological elements. Stage two, represented by Turner, features ostensibly the repression of magical conjure but (precisely thereby) the return of conjurational impulses via Christian symbology and theological discourse. (This hypothesis applies Freud’s concept of ‘the return of the oppressed’ to psychospiritual phenomena.)

“The discussion of spiritual-political dynamics below describes the results of generations of black religionists practicing Vesey’s and Turner’s facility of conjuring with Scripture and conjuring with God for freedom. ( Such practices may be represented by the formula ‘conjuring God with Scripture for freedom’. . . . In this section we have been concerned with showing the extending of conjure from its folk roots as ‘magical shamanism’ [Joyner] to a mode of faith and prayer” (p. 383).

A Commentary on Theophus H. Smith’s “Nat Turner”: To satisfy his own thesis, cultural, and anthropological interests, Smith insists on making Turner a conjurer or conjure man despite Turner’s protestations. With such ideologues, to argue to the contrary will take us nowhere as does his thesis. He will have the import theory or nothing. Theology and biblical studies and ethics have no interest.

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Mechal Sobel. Trabelin’ On: The Slave Journey to An Afro-Baptist Faith. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. 

(Sobel is assistant professor of History at the University of Haifa, Israel.)

“Nat Turner, a member of this large group of lay preachers, had an uncommon ability to communicate his convictions to others. Turner’s neo-African understanding of spirit power provides an insight into the plantation African/Baptist faith at its most powerful level. Through this faith Turner developed into a charismatic leader, and he and his followers derived the strength to be ready to sacrifice their lives.

“The primary source of information on Turner’s spiritual development is The Confession [sic] of Nat Turner . . ., published in 1831 and advertised as a confession ‘fully and voluntarily made to Thomas R. Gray’. This highly interesting document raises many questions, the first of which concerns reliability” (p. 161).

“The language reportedly used by Turner raises difficult problems. . . . It is probable that Turner used a different rhythm and language than Gray used and in trying to faithfully portray Turner’s visions and power, Gray superimposed his own style” (p. 161).

“Perhaps Turner did talk of verbal ‘intercourse with his fellow servants’, of ‘cutaneous eruptions’ of [p. 161] ‘zeal’, ‘austerity’, and studiousness’. He knew how to red and write, and he had a Bible and knew it well. The language of the King James version is very eloquent, and he may well have used it as a second language for sermons and for a final confession to a white lawyer (p. 162).

“Turner had contact with both white and black Christians. His childhood master Benjamin Turner, belonged to the Methodist church; church people visited Benjamin Turner’s home and Nat Turner saw them at prayer” (p. 162).

“Turner was marked from birth as a person of spiritual potential. This was a  very African tradition, a tradition his mother Nancy, who had been taken from Africa only some five years before his birth, was not very distant from.. (His father may have also have been born in Africa.) Nat Turner had birthmarks on his head and chest, which both of his parents described as signs of greatness, noting also that at the age of three or four he seemed to have knowledge of events that had occurred prior to his birth. They concluded that spirit was shown to be working through him. Turner grew up with this conviction” (p. 162).

“But clearly he was in contact with Baptist meetings, either on the plantation or at the local Barnes’ Baptist Church” (p. 162)

“Turner consciously rejected Voodoo. . . . However, he communicated with spirit, served it, and learned mysteries from it in a traditional African fashion” (p. 162)

“Turner explained himself as a Jonah. He had been seeking to run away from his God-given call to special leadership. He had been thinking of his selfish desires, but he returned to slavery to do his heavenly Master’s will by preparing for insurrection’ (p. 163).

In reference to the vision of white and black spirits, Sobel wrote: “It is this decisive revelation of the racial violence to come that his own voice (or his inner voice) seems to break into Gray’s narrative” (p. 163).

“Turner now walked with spirit; he was given the ‘true knowledge of faith’ and was ‘made perfect’. (His new wisdom recalls that of the Dogon, for whom spirit provided a full knowledge of all natural phenomena.) In his completion, the spirit came to Turner as the Holy Ghost, closer to Christ, but not Christ himself, although he saw the stars as Christ’s hands stretched out for the redemption of sinners” (p. 163)

“He had been in contact with spirit many years before he was called on to be baptized. His was not the usual Baptist dialogue with God”

“Notwithstanding this idiosyncratic behavior, the unbaptized Turner brought about the conversion of Ethelred T. Brantley, a white man, who began to bleed from his skin. This was seen as another significant sign of Turner’s power. After fasting and praying for nine days (the same number used by Voudouists prior to initiation), Brantley was cured” (p. 164)

“Clearly, in not accepting Turner for baptism, the church did not consider his soul-travels a proper conversion experience. Local Baptists did not accept his baptism of himself” p. 165)

“Turner’s Baptist faith was of a most unorthodox type, unconsciously reflecting influences of the Voodoo that Turner consciously rejected. Visions of spirit, and not of Christ, brought him the truth. With spirit, he could cure disease and prophesy the future. Although the Baptists accepted faith healing and prophesy as God-given roles, they believed Turner used individual power beyond permissable limits. As a result, the church played a negative role in the working out of his destiny. Had he been absorbed within the black Baptist church, his visionary travels might have taken him in another direction” (p. 165).

“His famous answer confirmed his identity: ‘was not Christ crucified?’ Turner saw himself as a black Christ dying for his black brothers and sisters” (p. 166).

“Turner had seen himself as Christ baptized by the spirit; carrying his yoke; awaiting crucifixion” (p. 166).

“Quasi-African Voodoo existed side by side with Christian promise. Nat turner (who claimed not to believe in Voodoo) did believe in his own invulnerability” (p. 166)

A Commentary on Mechal Sobel  “Nat Turner”: Sobel makes a racialist analysis of Turner’s life, career, and his “Confessions.”  Sobel has no evidence for his conclusion that Turner’s mother was brought “some five years before his birth” nor that Turner’s” father may have also have been born in Africa” These are wild speculations. The problem he is trying to resolve is the “mother” to which Turner refers in the Confessions, who is basically Americanized. Sobel is not fully familiar with Turner folklore and thus does not realized that the mother is a surrogate mother and not the African woman who gave him birth. The best evidence is that is birth mother arrived the same year of his birth, that is, 1800 — only about nine months before his birth, which means that she was raped and impregnated immediately after she was bought by Benjamin Turner.

Sobel also does not provide nor does he have evidence that Turner had religious meetings with Baptists. His conclusion that Turner was an “unorthodox Baptist” is more claptrap. Moreover, there is no evidence of a black Baptist church  in Southampton until after the Civil War. That is, there was no black Baptist church in Cross Keys in 1831, visible or invisible, and there certainly is no evidence that Turner sought to be baptized in the white Baptist church, which probably attracted non-slaveholding whites. All of Sobel’s imagining are absurd. In that region, the blacks did not begin to be organized into churches until the 1870s.]

Sobel, in effect, is attracted by the import theory. Sobel is pressed to sustain his Afro-Baptist thesis by making use of Turner without regard to Turner’s own integrity. Though voodooism is not apart of the regional culture, Sobel insists that it was. Though Sobel’s research on black Baptists made be useful, his work on Turner is useless and tends towards minstrelsy.

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Kenneth M. Stampp, “A Troublesome Property,” from The Peculiar Institution (Chapter 3), pp. 86-140.

“No ante-bellum Southerner could ever forget Nat Turner. The career of this man made an impact upon the people of this section as great as that of John C. Calhoun or Jefferson Davis. Yet Turner was only a slave in Southampton County, Virginia– and during most of his life a rather unimpressive one at that. He was a pious man, a Baptist exhorter by avocation, apparently as humble and docile as a slave was expected to be. There is no evidence that he was underfed, overworked, or treated with special cruelty. If Nat Turner could not be trusted, what slave could? That was what made his sudden deed so frightening.

“Somehow Turner came to believe that he had been divinely chosen to deliver his people from bondage, and he persuaded several other slaves to assist him. In due time he saw the sign of which he had waited, and early in the morning of August 22, 1831, he and his followers rose in rebellion. They began by killing the family to whom Turner belonged. As they marched through the Southampton countryside they gained additional recruits, making a total of about seventy. (Others seemed ready to join if the rebels came their way. The slave Jacob, for example, proclaimed “that if they came by he would join them and assist in killing all the white people.”) Within two days they killed nearly sixty whites. They could have killed more. They left undisturbed at least one poor white family, “because they thought no better of themselves than they did of Negroes.” To justify the killings, members of Turner’s band declared that they had enough of punishment, or that they now intended to be as rich as their masters. One rebel demonstrated his new status by walking off in his late owner’s shoes and socks. “The Nat Turner rebellion lasted only forty-eight hours. Swiftly mobilizing in overwhelming strength, the whites easily dispersed the rebels. Then followed a massacre during which not only the insurrectionists but scores of innocent bondsmen were slaughtered. Others, charged with feloniously consulting, advising and conspiring … to rebel … and making insurrection and taking the lives of divers free white persons of this Commonwealth,” were tried before a court of oyer and terminer during the months of September and October. Some were executed, others transported. Most of those transported had not actively participated in the rebellion; the had merely expressed sympathy for the rebels. “Nat Turner himself was not captured until October 30, more than two months after the uprising. He was brought to trial on November 5, convicted the same day, and hanged six days later. Thus ended an event which produced in the south something resembling a mass trauma, from which the whites had not recovered three decades later. The danger that other Nat Turners might emerge, that an even more serious insurrection might some day occur, became an enduring concern as long as the peculiar institution survived. Pro-slavery writers boldly asserted that Southerners did not fear their slaves, that a rebellion of the laboring class was more likely to transpire in the North than in the South; but the fear of rebellion, sometimes vague, sometimes acute, was with them always. “Though it was the most disastrous (for both slaves and masters), Nat Turner’s was not the first insurrection. Several earlier conspiracies, which narrowly missed being carried into execution might easily have precipitated rebellions much more extensive than that of Turner. These uprisings and conspiracies began as early as the seventeenth century and kept Southerners apprehensive throughout the colonial period. The preamble to the South Carolina statute of 1740 defining the duties of slave patrols stated that many “horrible and barbarous massacres” had been committed or plotted by the slaves who were “generally prone to such cruel practices.” On the eve of the American Revolution a Charlestonian wrote about a “disturbance” among the bondsmen who hand “mimicked their betters in crying Liberty.” In 1785, a West Florida slaveholder was dismayed to learn that several of his slaves were involved in an insurrection plot: “Of what avail is kindness and good usage when rewarded by such ingratitude … [?]” Such incidents set the pattern for the ninetieth century. “The new century opened with the Gabriel Conspiracy (August, 1800) in Henrico County, Virginia, in which at least a thousand slaves were implicated. The warnings of two bondsmen and a severe storm enabled the whites to forestall a projected march upon Richmond. A decade later some five hundred slaves in St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, armed with cane knives and other crude weapons, advanced toward New Orleans. But the planters and a strong detachment of troops put them to flight. In 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free Negro in Charleston, planned a vast conspiracy which came to nothing after it was given away by a slave. These and other plots were invariably followed by severe reprisals, including the indiscriminate killings of slaves as well as mass executions after regular trials. The heads of sixteen Louisiana rebels were stuck upon poles along the Mississippi River as a grim warning to other slaves. After the Vesey conspiracy. Charlestonians expressed disillusionment with the idea that by generous treatment the slaves “would become more satisfied with their condition and more attached to the whites.” “The shock of Nat Turner caused Southerners to take preventive measures, but these never eliminated their apprehension or the actual danger. Hardly a year passed without some kind of alarming disturbance somewhere in the South. When no real conspiracy existed, wild rumors often agitated the whites and at times came close to creating an insurrection panic. The rumors might be entirely unfounded, or they might grow out of some local incident which was magnified by exaggeration. Even the historian cannot always distinguish between the rumors and the facts. Most of the stories seem to have had a foundation in at least a minor disturbance, limited perhaps to a single plantation where the slaves suddenly became insubordinate or to a whole neighborhood where they showed signs of becoming restive. Whether caused by rumor or fact, the specter of rebellion often troubled the sleep of the master class. “The Turner rebellion itself produced an insurrection panic that swept the entire South. A Richmond editor wondered whether the southern press was trying to give the slaves “false conceptions of their numbers and capacity, by exhibiting the terror and confusion of the whites, and to induce them to think that practicable, which they see is so much feared by their superiors.” In eastern North Carolina the panic caused the arrest of scores of slaves and the execution of more than a dozen. A South Carolinian reported that there was “considerable alarm” in his state too and that some slaves were hanged to prevent a rumored uprising. The excitement spread into the Southwest where it was feared that the bondsmen would become “troublesome.” A Mississippian, confessing “great apprehension,” noted that “within 4 hours march of Natchez” there were “2200 able bodied male slaves.” He warned: “It behooves [us] to be vigilant — but silent.” “That there was no slave conspiracy comparable to Denmark Vesey’s and no rebellion comparable to Nat Turner’s, during the three decades before the Civil War, has been explained in many ways. The explanations, however, do not sufficiently emphasize the impact which the Turner rebellion had on the slaves themselves. The speed with which it was crushed and the massacre that followed were facts soon known, doubtless, to every slave in Virginia and, before long, to almost every slave in South. Among the Negroes everywhere, news generally spread so far and so fast as to amaze the whites. The Turner story was not likely to encourage slaves to make new attempts to win their freedom by fighting for it. They now realized that they would face a united white community, well armed and quite willing to annihilate as much of the black population as might seem necessary. “In truth, no slave uprising ever had a chance of ultimate success, even though it might have cost the master class heavy casualties. The great majority of the disarmed and outnumbered slaves, knowing the futility of rebellion, refused to join in any of the numerous plots. Most slaves had to express their desire for freedom in less dramatic ways. They rarely went beyond disorganized individual action — which, to be sure, caused their masters no little annoyance. The bondsmen themselves lacked the power to destroy the web of bondage. They would have to have the aid of free men inside or outside the South. “The survival of slavery, then, cannot be explained as due to the contentment of slaves or their failure to comprehend the advantages of freedom. They longed for liberty and resisted bondage as much as any people could have done in their circumstances, but their longing and their resistance were not enough even to render the institution unprofitable to most masters. The masters had power and, as will be seen, they developed an elaborate technique of slave control. Their very preoccupation with this technique was, in itself, a striking refutation of the myth that slavery survived because of the cheerful acquiescence of the slaves.”

Commentary on Kenneth Stamp’s Nat Turner: Stamp mistakenly identifies Turner as a Baptist when there is no evidence that he had any association with Baptist as a theological view or with individual Baptists, or with a Baptist church in Cross Keys. A baptism does take place in the 1831 Confessions and its an event that is significant in biblical history as well as the Nathaniel of Southampton story.  As far as cruelty, according to Stampp,  there is, “no evidence.” But slavery as constituted in Cross Keys was the very expression of cruelty. In the midst of rape, adultery, the breeding and sale of slaves, the break-up of families and perverse treatment of familial ties that was Cross Keys and Turner’s Methodist Church, that Turner was humble and pious (sensitive soul) in the midst of such a hellish phantasm of sins and cruelties make him even the more special and extraordinary

The image of Moses or Messiah resides also in Stampp’s scoff: “Somehow Turner came to believe that he had been divinely chosen to deliver his people from bondage.” Nowhere in the 1831 Confessions can be found the thought that Nathaniel thought himself “divinely chosen to deliver his people from bondage.” Turner more than likely was more convinced than convincing, more questioning than exhorting, with respect to or by his fellows. I think that more than likely Turner and his six holy men knew quite well that they “themselves lacked the power to destroy the web of bondage. They would have to have the aid of free men inside or outside the South.” Turner’s mission was not a war of total liberation, but one mission in a plethora of missions.

Stampp discounts a savage indiscriminate attack on all whites. The houses of the poor and other sympathizers or potential sympathizers went undisturbed. The dreams of men in such times are wild indeed — freedom from punishment and rich as their Christian masters. But who does not mock the aspirations of black slaves?

This social and moral blindness of this local group of Methodist slaveholders made them overreach generation after generation — the hypocrisy and the setting aside of themselves as above judgment made them objects of judgment indeed. To be judged by the judged with such swift and murderous deeds was indeed traumatic, the lives of slaveholder and slave so insidiously entwined.  Turner’s fearless strike against structured evil — undermined white supremacy’s sense of security. It is indeed a bit of Southern angst — one so close to one’s bosom who will betray you eventually and ultimately.

What indeed is extraordinary is not the masters “elaborate technique of slave control,” but rather that African men and women retain their overall dignity and humanity throughout their struggles with disinheritance, denial, and threats of death. There was never “cheerful acquiescence of the slaves”  though this myth salved a many a white conscience.

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Gayraud S. Wilmore. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Introduction of the Religious History of Afro-American People. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1983.

(Wilmore is Professor Emeritus of Church History, Interdenominational Center; retired in 1990 as Professor of Church History at Johnson C. Smith Seminary, Atlanta. During the 1960s, he was executor Director of the United Presbyterian Commission on Religious and Race.)

“The most important thing to know about Nat Turner is that he is the prototype of an important group of slave preachers who discovered a secret about the Judeo-Christian faith that white Christians had attempted to conceal from the slaves for more than two hundred years. Nat Turner, like others before him whose names are buried forever under the debris of the citadel of slavery, discovered that the God of the Bible demanded justice and that to know him and his Son, Jesus Christ, was to be set free from every power on earth. Nat Turner discovered his manhood by unveiling the God who liberates. His fanatical attempt to authenticate that manhood in blood was the inevitable consequence of the fanatical attempt of white men to deny it. Styron’s frequent Biblical quotations and references to his inner life never lifts this essential fact about the man to the level of significance” (p. 64).

“At a very early age, it was obvious to everyone who came into contact with him that Nat was a precocious child. This belief was fortified in the mind of his mother and father by certain birthmarks which, according to African custom, indicated the unusual mental capacities associated with a ‘witcheth man’, a conjurer” (p. 64).

“His paternal grandmother had a decisive influence on him. She was a member of the Methodist church called Turner’s Meeting House, where slaves of the Turner family had worshipped with their masters and mistresses from the late colonial period. Benjamin Turner believed in promoting religion on his plantation and conducted prayer meetings for the family. The slaves were included in these meetings and it was in such an atmosphere of evangelical piety that Nat came into a knowledge of the faith. He also was supported in a belief that everyone shared that God had ordained him for a special vocation. Surrounded by such influences his childhood was exceptional for a slave. Opportunities were given to him that were denied to other” (p. 64).

“The text of Luke 12;31 . . . struck Nat Turner as having peculiar relevance during this period. We cannot know precisely what meanings he attached to these words, but the context is highly suggestive in light of his subsequent development as a messianic figure. The nations of the world seek material things, and these indeed are needful to life, but the followers of Jesus shall not only receive them in abundance, but much more, when the kingdom of God shall come in secrecy and in great power. Hence, Luke 12:35, 39-40, 49-51 reads . . .” (p. 65).

“The context of this remarkable passage, which made such an impression on Turner, tells us that the messianic vocation that will usher in the kingdom of prosperity and power is symbolized not by peace, but the sword. When dubious about what spirit had prompted Nat to concentrate upon this passage, Gray questioned him about it. He replied without hesitation that it was the spirit of the prophets of the Old Testament. At the beginning of his ministry he had already perceived a close relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the great prophets who had called down the wrath of God upon his disobedient people and their enemies” (p. 65).

“This is all the more remarkable when we remember that such an interpretation of Jesus was far from the interpretation given by the missionaries. For them Jesus was the meek and mild exemplar of the faith–the lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world whose obedience to his Master, God the Father, was the model for the slave. We can well imagine that this was the picture painted by Benjamin Turner in his frequent prayer meetings. Nat Turner’s appropriation of another kind of Lord, his recognition of the meaning of Jesus and the kingdom in relation to the prophets of God’s justice on behalf of the oppressed, adumbrated the black theology which developed among black preachers from Henry Highland Garnet to Martin Luther King, Jr.–Jesus as the protagonist of radical social change” (pp. 65-66).

“There is no reason why we should not assume that ‘the master’s will’ meant nothing less to nat than the will of Christ. He did say that ‘the reason of my return was that the Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world and not to the Kingdom of Heaven’. He had, in other words, been disobedient to his calling. Instead of remaining on the plantation and waiting for the day of the lord, about which he had been secretly preaching, he had yielded to impatience, to the temptation to escape alone. He had evaded the terrible work God had called him to do and had thought selfishly of his own freedom and the material success that awaited him in the North” (p. 66).

“We have Turner’s own rendition of the parable about being ready for the parousia–the second advent of Christ–which is found, interestingly enough, in his favorite chapter of the New Testament, Luke 12. The faithful and wise steward in the parable is the one who remains at his post and watches for the Lord’s coming. He is to be rewarded by being made ruler over the entire household” (pp. 66-67).

“Nat Turner had become weary–waiting for the sign that the Day of Judgment had come. he had weakened under the burden that head been his as a leader of the slaves and had run away, only to be driven back by the relentless spirit that pursued him. His was the classic dilemma of the prophets of the Old Testament from Moses to Amos. They could always find an excuse for refusing the mantle of the prophetic calling. But in the end–contrary to their own preferences–they were drawn irresistibly to the awesome responsibility” (p. 67).

“Remembering the destiny toward which Nat turner was drawn with increasing rapidity by that time, one thinks of Stephen (Acts 7.54ff), who gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand, before he was stoned to death. We can only say that the great founders of the world’s religions, and some of their most renowned disciples, had experiences similar to Nat Turner’s. The world has been puzzled by their visionary experiences, but the power of their lives was sufficient to convince millions that wonders most persons are too spiritually blind to see were in fact revealed to prophets and mystics” (pp. 67-68).

When Turner received the unmistakable sign that he should prepare for the great work–the apocalyptic struggle with the serpent, which to him must have symbolized the system of slavery. The white slaveholders who have been first in this world would now become last in the kingdom. And the slaves, who had been last–as Scripture clearly prophesied–become first” (p. 68).

“Thus, from David Walker to Nat Turner, black religion in the United States–strongly fortified by the prophets of the Old Testament and New testament apocalyptic–provided blacks with spiritual resources with which to resist oppression, if with tragic resources. The southern whites who observed the slave preachers at close range knew about the possible amalgam of African religion and radical Christianity. They sensed the ability of those men and women to inspire revolt and threw up the ramparts of repressive legislation and the lynch law against them” (pp. 71-72).

Commentary on Gayraud S. Wilmore’s Nat Turner. Wilmore with his emphasis on the significance of Nathaniel Turner’s religious words, thoughts, and actions probably comes closer to capturing the real Nat Turner than probably any writer, surpassing at great length the speculations of Vincent Harding. Wilmore walks with Turner only part of the way. “His [Nathaniel’s] fanatical attempt to authenticate [his] manhood in blood was the inevitable consequence of the fanatical attempt of white men to deny it.” This charge of fanaticism was raised by Christian slaveholders and their public defenders in 1831. So Wilmore does not move us forward in this sense. The other element that is Old School is the abolitionist argument of inevitability. In this argument Turner cease to be subject; he is reduced to an object of forces beyond his control. 

The Bible as a means of control and liberation is important in the life of Nathaniel as it were for all Christians of Cross Keys-Jerusalem area of Southampton. But also is the family and the nature of family during slave life in Virginia. Getting family relationships straight is important and significant in understanding the underbelly, perverse aspects of Virginia slavery. In Southampton County, more so than the surrounding counties (Sessex, Greensville, etc) had a higher free population and a higher number of mulatto and mixed parentage children. In short, there was a passion for rape and adultery, and hypocrisy in this Christian county more so than any other in the region.

Wilmore seemingly accepts the traditional view that Turner’s parents were both Africans and that his father escaped to freedom. But the fact is that Turner was a light-skinned Negro with an African mother. His biological father was his master Benjamin Turner, who was also the founder of Turner’s Methodist Church. As a child Nathaniel was taken from his African mother and given to an older slaver, an older Christian African-American slave woman. Nathaniel refers to her alternately in the Confessions as his mother and grandmother, but more importantly as his spiritual mother, the one who taught him about Christ and the other prophets. 

Ben Turner gave the child to Harriet and Tom to be raised. (Harriet and Tom were house slaves who had probably also been owned by Ben Turner’s father.) This scenario of taking the child from the mother and giving it to older slaves to raise was not unusual. Disatrously, Wilmore aligns Turner with conjure, despite Nathaniel’s protestations: That Nathaniel was a special child was “fortified in the mind of mother and father by certain birthmarks which, according to African custom, indicated the unusual mental capacities associated with a ‘witcheth man’, a conjurer” (p. 64). This error judgment is derived from the mistaken view that Turner was raised by his African mother. Frederick Douglass makes it plain that he was not and neither was Nathaniel. 

The reading of birthmarks is not a practice peculiar to African cultures. Harriet was a Methodist and member of Ben Turner’s Meetinghouse, a Christian arrangement in which blacks and whites, slave and slavemasters worshipped together. This was indeed the biblical way, both Old and New Testaments. But Virginia (American) slavery introduced a new element, the segregation of religious worship. Turner’s Methodist Church closed itself to black and slave worship and limited itself to white Methodists, and seemingly white slaveholding Christians.

Wilmore captures an element of the religious drama occurring in Cross Keys and at Turner’s Methodist Church, but he overlooks that these churches are families churches and they are owned by families. Wilmore thus falls into the general figure of Nathaniel as a messianic figure, as a liberator of the slaves. There is however no evidence in the 1831 Confessions that Turner was in a global perspective of the inherent evil of slavery. And that his war was directed toward freeing the slaves or abolishing the institution of slavery. What we have here is a punitive religious war rather than a war of liberation — to slaughter the Satan, the Serpent, that had been loosen in Cross Keys and at Turner’s Methodist Church. 

This Satan was not the institution of slavery, as Wilmore suggests, but rather the structure of evil as it existed in Cross Keys and Turner’s Methodist Church — a community that gave into rape, adultery, and hypocrisy to breeding and sale of slaves and break-up of families, the disinheritance of families to the segregation of religious worship, of standing between Christian slaves and their salvation. Christian manliness, yes, required righteous indignation and war.

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Theo Witvliet. The Way of the Black Messiah: The Hermeneutical Challenge of Black Theology. London: Meyer Stone Books, 1987

Nat Turner as “proletarian” leader.

“Nat Turner, with his outspoken preference for the gospel account in Luke, saw Jesus as the liberator of the poor and those without rights and regarded the eclipse of February 1831 as the sign of Christ’s second coming and the signal for violent revolt. He thus belongs in a (proto) nationalistic tradition to which David Walker, Henry Highland Garnett, and Henry McNeal Turner also belong” (p.211).

Commentary on Theo Witvliet’s Nat Turner: Witvliet seemingly believes that naming a thing is sufficient — that saying Turner was a proletarian made a plowboy into an industrial worker. The argument is so absurd one should deal with it only slightly. Wilvliet’s second argument that Turner was a “(proto) nationalist” has no basis in the 1831 Confessions, which contains no appeal to race or nation. Nathaniel is indeed outside of that tradition, his appeal purely religious and biblical, a local emphasis rather than a global one.

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Henry J. Young. Major Religious Leaders: 1755-1940. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979.

(Young was senior research director for the Center for Parish Development in Napersville, Illinois. Formerly an assistant professor of philosophy and theology and editor of the Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta. He has a Ph.D. degree in systematic theology from Hartford Seminary Foundation in Connecticut.)

Theology of Nat Turner (title of section)

“It is believed that Nat Turner got a copy of the Walker Appeal when it was being circulated in Virginia, and having read the above section he saw himself as the fulfillment of Walker’s prophecy that God was going to send a messiah to liberate the slaves from oppression and bondage. Believing that he  was the messiah, Nat Turner gave himself to constant fasting and prayer in preparation for the great task of liberating the slaves.” (p. 54)

“Turner realized the task of liberating the slaves from bondage was a very difficult one and that it required maximum preparation spiritually and strategically. Therefore, at every point he attempted to follow God rather than his intuition and insights. It is evident that he made every attempt to be as careful and sure about his actions as possible. As long as he felt that his actions were in conformity with God’s will, he was not troubled” (p. 54).

Liberation Theology (title of section)

“Nat Turner was not a theoretician, because he did not develop a theological system, and he did not reflect on the nature and meaning of theology, Walker’s Appeal, as we have observed, constituted the theoretical foundation for the Turner revolt. It gave the rationale and justification for revolutionary activity, and Nat Turner put the theory into practice. Nat Turner was, as Lerone Bennett, Jr., said ‘David Walker’s word made flesh’. Therefore, Nat Turner’s liberation theology should be interpreted as a theology of action.

Nat’s commitment to the liberation of the slaves from bondage was tested when he ran away for thirty days” (p. 55).

On Turner’s vision of black and white spirits in the heavens, Young wrote: “This vision said to Nat that his effort was to be put toward the liberation of the slaves through bloodshed and violence” (p. 56).

“There were essentially three approaches used by the abolitionist for liberation. There were moral suasion, political action, and physical violence. Nat Turner was not an exponent of moral suasion nor political action, and physical violence. Nat turner was not an exponent of moral suasion nor political action. He felt led by God to liberate the slaves with physical violence only. David Walker advocated moral suasion in the Appeal when he called upon America to repent and free the slaves. Walker appealed to the moral conscious of America in hopes of avoiding a revolt such as Nat Turner’s. And since Walker’s Appeal did not persuade the slaveholders to free the slaves, Nat Turner chose not to write another appeal of moral suasion but rather to put the already existing one into action” (p. 56).

Contribution (subsection)

“The Nat Turner revolt raises complex theological questions. What does it have to say about the problem of the ethics of violence? Was he ethically right in what he did? Is violence ever legitimate before God? Who sets the limits, man or God? From Nat’s perspective, God sets the limits, he determines what man must do to be saved” (p. 58)

“the Nat Turner revolt was a response to violence” (p. 58)

“The following questions can be asked: Does the end justify the means? Should one use violence to fight violence? Does the Christian faith stand in opposition to violence regardless of the situation? How is one to understand the ethics of violence in light of the Christian faith?” (p. 59)

“When looked at theologically, the problem of violence in light of the Nat turner revolt becomes a question of survival. The institution of slavery was so severe and rigid that it gave Turner no alternative other than violence. Mora suasion was used as a liberation strategy by Richard Allen, David Walker, and others, but it failed to convince the slaveholders that slavery was sinful in the light of God and therefore should be abolished. Slavery had become so embedded in the matrix of America until the slaveholding states were insensitive to the moans and groans of the slaves’ (p. 59).

“But rather than repent and abolish slavery, the slaveholders made slavery severe and inhuman, thus encouraging the physical violence of Nat Turner.

“This raises a serious question about the possibility and power of moral suasion as a strategy used for eliminating slavery, oppression, and man’s inhumanity to man. Not only did the slaveholders refuse to take seriously the prophetic utterances of Richard Allen’s and David Walker’s, but even after the Nat Turner revolt they refused to free the slaves, this refusal significantly contributed to the start of the Civil War” (p. 60)

A Commentary on Henry J. Young’s Nat Turner:

That the source of slave insurrections and betrayals was the work of Northern abolitionism and its moral and intellectual posturing has been repeated by both slave sympathizers and  slavery apologists as if it were an unquestioned fact. That Christian slaves had something to say about freedom and responsibility, decency and respectability, especially their own, plays little or no role in the estimations of either Southerners or Northerners. This devaluation of the Christian slave perspective continues to be generated by scholars, both black and white.

This historical mythmaking is sustained by academics who are willing without substance to indulge  in a connection between David Walker’s Appeal and Turner’s 1831 Confessions — it is the belief that one action flowed out of the other, with a kind of certainty and inevitability. That is Henry J. Young’s view. He wrote: “It is believed that Nat Turner got a copy of the Walker Appeal” This belief by Young and others devalues the possibility that the circumstances and motivations for the holy war may have been stimulated by local and immediate concerns and interests rather than the global concerns expressed by David Walker’s Appeal

But to Gray’s question about a “concerted plan,” Turner responded “but can you not think the same ideas, and strange appearances about this time in the heavens might prompt othersto right wrongs. There is no evidence that Turner was familiar with any Northern abolitionist propaganda, including Walker’s Appeal (which is a red herring, leading nowhere) and there is nothing in the 1831 Confessions that approximates in the least abolitionist rhetoric. Nowhere in no instance by text or report that Turner declared that he was about “the great task of liberating the slaves.” As they say, all politics are local, not necessarily with global intent.

Grandiose terms like “liberator of the slaves” or “a liberating Black messiah” are not derived from anything Turner is rumored to have said or from the 1831 Confessions. If Turner saw himself in such a light, he would be indeed as the slaveholders argued “a fanatic,”  “a mad man.” There is nothing in the text of the 1831 Confessions that Turner’s action was directed toward slavery as an  institution. There is not even in the 1831 Confessions that slavery is an evil., a position that was indeed the abolitionist’s central cry. 

Nowhere in this document does Turner speak of slavery as an evil. He however does wrestle with themes like disinheritance and betrayal — maybe these themes themselves inhere to the structure of American slavery in general. Clearly, Turner restricts himself to the familial concerns (of blacks and whites) in a backwoods, isolated village, a near wilderness in western Tidewater Virginia.

Unless we accept Young’s reductionist view, we must conclude as did Gray that Turner had “intelligence” enough and “quickness of apprehension” enough to determine what was possible for seven unarmed yet committed men. Turner’s holy war, most likely, was intended as a punitive act against a certain class and family of Christian slaveholders, rather than the military conquest of the  whites in Southampton and certainly not Virginia. 

posted 20 October 2007

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Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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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 / African Slave Trade: Precolonial History, 1450-1850 


John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk

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Nat Turner Before the Bar of Judgment

Fictional Treatments of the Southampton Insurrection

By Mary Kemp Davis  

This Virginia rebel, she argues, has been re-arraigned, retried, and re-sentenced repeatedly during the last century and a half as writers have grappled with the social and moral issues raised by his infamous 1831 revolt. Though usually lacking a literal, the novels Davis examines all have the theme of judgment at their center, and she ingeniously unravels the “verdict” each author extracts from or her plot. Davis begins by dismantling the historical scaffolding that surrounds her subject. She decodes Virginia governor John Floyd’s “official’ assessment of the revolt, which, she says, exemplifies the dialogism between the earlier texts about the rebellion and the incipient novel tradition. She also considers three classes of documents that triangulate the trial trope: court records, selected newspaper accounts, and Thomas Gray’s seminal work, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831).

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Malcolm X

A Life of Reinvention

By Manning Marable

Years in the making-the definitive biography of the legendary black activist. Of the great figure in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins’ bullets at age thirty-nine. Through his tireless work and countless speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands of black Americans to create better lives and stronger communities while establishing the template for the self-actualized, independent African American man. In death he became a broad symbol of both resistance and reconciliation for millions around the world.

Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement. Filled with new information and shocking revelations that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a sweeping story of race and class in America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.

Reaching into Malcolm’s troubled youth, it traces a path from his parents’ activism through his own engagement with the Nation of Islam, charting his astronomical rise in the world of Black Nationalism and culminating in the never-before-told true story of his assassination. Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change, capturing with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.

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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 Rebellious Slave

Nat Turner in American Memory

By Scot French

“Nat Turner was neither the first nor the last American slave to rise in arms against his oppressors,” French writes. “Yet he stands alone in American culture as the epitome of the rebellious slave, a black man whose words and deeds challenged the white slaveholding South and awakened a slumbering nation. A maker of history in his own day, Turner has been made to serve the most pressing needs of every generation since. In remembering Nat Turner, Americans must boldly confront–or deftly evade, at their peril–the intertwined legacies of slavery and racism in a nation founded on revolutionary ideals of freedom and equality.”

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Nat Turner

 A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory

Edited by Kenneth S. Greenberg

In Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory, Kenneth S. Greenberg gathers twelve distinguished scholars to offer provocative new insight into the man, his rebellion, and his time, and place in history. The historians here explore Turner’s slave community, discussing the support for his uprising as well as the religious and literary context of his movement. They examine the place of women in his insurrection, and its far-reaching consequences (including an extraordinary 1832 Virginia debate about ridding the state of slavery). Here are discussions of Turner’s religious visions—the instructions he received from God to kill all of his white oppressors. Louis Masur places him against the backdrop of the nation’s sectional crisis, and Douglas Egerton puts his revolt in the context of rebellions across the Americas.

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Creating Black Americans

By Nell Irvin Painter

Painter draws on early stories and official histories, biographical accounts and legends, well-known events and little known incidents. One person highlighted is Olaudah Equiano, one of the earliest of the African slaves to write his account. As one might expect, Painter’s pieces on Sojourner Truth and others of her generation are particularly good. Painter also draws on the official history of the quest for civil rights. She looks at famous court cases, like the Dred Scott decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (which made ‘separate but equal’ a legal standard), Brown v. Board of Education (which knocked down the same ‘separate but equal’ as being unworkable), and other political and legal events in the quest for civil rights, even those sometimes viewed as separate from the Civil Rights Movement proper, which is also highlighted in good detail.

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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

Browse all issues

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


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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 22 July 2012




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