Chapter 14 On the Gospel Highway

Chapter 14 On the Gospel Highway


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Sec. 3, Ch. 14  On the Gospel Highway: The Visions Begin—1825


Christian Salvation in Cross Keys

Or God’s Plan for Black Liberation


Shout, O Children! Shout, you’re free! For God has bought your liberty!


Negro Spiritual, early 19th century


In 1825, Turner received another revelation. His last encounter with the divine was in the wilderness. That had been in 1821. For four years, the Holy Spirit was silent while Nathaniel Turner suffered under the Christian tyranny of two masters, Sam Turner and Thomas Moore. On previous encounters, the Holy Spirit manifested itself as a presence, as a disembodied voice speaking commands, advising. 

These revelations required Turner to change his perspective, “Seek ye the kingdom of heaven”; or change a behavior, “Return to your earthly master.” Turner’s third revelation came as a vision. The visual mode may signify Turner’s spiritual progress, of his having risen to a higher plane of consciousness or spirituality. Visions would thereafter be the chief mode of Turner’s revelations, though sometimes accompanied by speech.

“Auditions” (speech) and visions are the two principal modes through which man receives revelations (divine communications), that is, new meaning and value into history. Though rare, visions do appear in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament. In Amos and Jeremiah, the objects of the vision come from everyday experience, for example, a bowl of fruit (Amos 8.1) or an almond twig (Jeremiah 1.11). In other prophetic visions, there appears an “invisible reality,” as in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. Visions, rather than the speech of God, inaugurated the careers of Amos and Jeremiah. 

Visions that appear in Zechariah 1-6 and Daniel 7-8 have a high literary quality and tend to bring attention to themselves as “veiled language” (McKenzie, p. 915). Because of the literary character of his visions, Judaism excludes Daniel as one of its fifty-five prophets in that his revelations was never intended to be declaimed to the people. Nevertheless, Christian slave religionists, rightfully, reinstated Daniel to the status of prophet in tale, “Daniel Saw the Stone” and song “This Old Time Religion” (Work, p. 99, 120 ).

Visions are just as rare in the New Testament, as they are in the Old. In Luke (1.11, 22 and 2.13), there is the appearance of an angel. In Acts (16.9, 18.9, 23.11, 27.23), Paul received revelation by both vision and speech. According to McKenzie, the visionary form of the vision of the baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3.16), the transfiguration of Jesus with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17.1), and Peter’s vision about unclean foods (Acts 10.10-16) have been “employed to set forth a revealed truth in concrete symbolic form” (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 915). In “concrete symbolic form,” these visions present problems of interpretation. Even when accompanied by divine speech, the full import of the vision is not always apparent.

From Nathaniel Turner’s perspective, the interpretation of such visions hinged on one’s level of spiritual growth. This estimation seems to align itself with Wesley’s notion of one’s pursuit of holiness. Turner told Gray, “I had a vision—and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streams—and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it’.” 

This vision contains elements of humanity (blood), nature (streams, sun and thunder), and the divine (warring spirits). In such a cosmic drama, thunder and the darkening of the sun announce the presence of the divine, as a warning or as a blessing (Amos 8.9). According to Morton Smith, “religious symbolism is not limited by either/or logic” (Jesus the Magician, p. 161). Though the import of the vision is to some degree in doubt, any encounter with the divine transforms the seer.

The vision of the warring spirits may indeed represent a deepening of Turner’s own personal frustrations. He had been unable to counter the threats against his humanity, his sense of manhood and justice. He had been whipped, forced to marry without choice, sold by the Turners to Moore, and separated from his family with no proffered hope of gaining his freedom. In the “Confessions,” however, Turner was silent about these familial problems in connection with this vision. He spoke only of the “great promise” made to him by the board of Methodist Elders. He expected that that “promise” would be fulfilled.

Some view, however, this image of “white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle” as a sign of an impending race war (Harding, p. 79). That is, they read “white spirits” as white people and “black spirits” as black people, or project this interpretation as one that Turner held. This popular interpretation led Henry J. Young to argue that Turner began consciously to plan his war against the whites in 1825 (Major Black Religious Leaders, p. 57). This ideological mode of interpretation, however, have little to do with Turner or his “Confessions.” 

This nationalistic mode of analysis seem more appropriate for Prosser and especially Vesey. According to Wilson Jeremiah Moses, in his Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, “there seems to be no evidence that Turner had any nationalistic aspirations whatever” (Moses, p. 63). Although the war against Cross Keys slaveholders was indeed a political act, political authority was not what Turner sought.

Of course, Turner possessed a sense of peoplehood, a sense of unity with those who suffered in the same fashion as he. “But race understood as a biological category was not the basis of this solidarity,” according to Eddie S. Claude, Jr.

Instead, race as experienced by blacks was a . . . consequence of a set of practices that demanded conjoint action on the part of persons similarly situated. It merely singled out those who were prone to be treated a certain way or vulnerable to certain kinds of experiences. In light of this, nation language emerged in African American political discourse as a synonym for peoplehood, a way of grounding solidaristic efforts in an understanding of America’s racial, hegemonic order. From about 1800 to the early 1840s blacks generally understood nation language in these terms: the sense of peoplehood that emerged as persons drew on biblical typology, particularly the Exodus story to make sense of and to struggle against the racist practices of white America. The ethical reading of Exodus aided this construction of a national identity and based it in the religious imagination of black Christians (Exodus! pp. 54-55).

Claude recognized incisively that “race,” if it had any meaning for Turner, was seen through the lens of religion. Nevertheless, there are those who still desire to assign Turner to the “(proto) nationalistic tradition to which David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet and Henry McNeil Turner . . . belong” (Witvleit, p. 211).

Contrary to Vincent Harding’s radical racial analysis, these “spirits” were not, for Turner, “African imagery” or racial imagery (Harding, p. 79). It seems most likely that Turner made use of the traditional symbolic meanings of light and darkness. These “opposing spirits, one goodness and light, the other evil and darkness, are warring for the world and for the individual soul,” Jeffrey Burton Russell points out on the use of such symbolism; “those who follow the Lord of Light are the children of light, those who follow the Angel of Darkness are the children of darkness” (The Devil, pp. 212-213). Of course, there is a slight flip of the racist use of light and darkness in Turner’s religious symbolism. The Christian slaves are the children of light and the satanic slaveholders are the children of spiritual darkness. 

This representation can be likened to that battle in heaven between the followers of Yahweh and those of Satan (Budge, p. 78).”The conflict between the two kingdoms, between light and darkness, is so central to the New Testament that it permanently fixed the image of Satan as lord of darkness,” according to Russell. “The New Testament never refers to darkness or blackness as a good color. Yet nowhere does it describe Satan as actually black. Satan is a spirit, not a body. He has the power of changing his shape to suit his purposes, and he can even change himself into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14).” 

For Jarena Lee, Satan appeared ‘”in one corner of the room . . . in the form of a monstrous dog, and in a rage, as if in pursuit, his tongue protruding from his mouth to a great length, and his eyes looked like two balls of fire” (Andrews, p. 31). In Russell’s estimation, “only in the later Apocryphal literature is blackness specifically assigned to the Devil” (The Devil, p. 247). In their letters to newspapers, Southampton slaveowners and also Thomas Gray in his appended remarks referred repeatedly to Nathaniel Turner as “fiend,” meaning a cohort of Satan or Satan himself. That is, Christian slaveowners in their religious imagination saw Satan with a Negro face.

With Turner’s divine encounter, blood as the symbol of sacrifice appears for the first time. It recurs in subsequent visions and other narrative material in the “Confessions.” Blood is a sacred motif in Turner’s testament. The relationship of the blood and the warring spirits seems contrary in that the two elements are different substances that exist in different worlds, namely, the human and the divine. These two planes of reality are placed side by side. Blood, of course, is a by-product of war. Whether this causal relationship is intended is unclear. Blood can be a warning as blood in Moses’ Nile or a blessing as in the Passover. 

The phrasing “blood flowed in streams,” one may ask, was it a literary (metaphorical) way of expressing the intensity of the Turner’s visionary battle among the spirits? Or, should it be taken literally, that is, the “blood” came from the wounds of warring spirits? In Turner’s spiritual understanding, maybe both interpretations were operative. Clearly, in a Christian context, it figured the bloody sacrifice of the Cross, which all Christians allow was nothing less than a spiritual war in which Christ won.

In retrospect, we get the sense the war in the heavens foreshadowed, in a manner, a war that involved Christian slaves and Christian slaveholders. But that type of seeing is a surface vision that skims the depth of Turner’s religiosity. For us to see this holy war as a racial war demeans the seriousness of Turner’s spirituality. Turner and his Christian soldiers operated on a higher plane than race and color and other materialistic factors. Turner, however, at the time, did not make a hasty translation of the vision. He did not know its meaning. Like Jarena Lee, Turner discovered during his wilderness experience, he had been deceived by his own anxiousness, He had not understood fully the import of his vision (Andrews, p. 33). 

Turner had already misinterpreted once the meaning of his revelations and had been led astray, which caused him to run away. This revelation of battling spirits concluded with the Holy Spirit saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.” Even in the speech of the Holy Spirit, the meaning of the vision remains ambiguous.

The referents of the pronouns “such” and “it” are uncertain. The word “bare” is the archaic form of the word “bear,” to carry, as in “to bear the cross.” The simple translation of the revelation was that Turner had to “bear” what he saw, that is, a spiritual war that resulted in the spilling of blood, that is, the death of many. This interpretation, however, does not eliminate uncertainties in the meaning of what Turner saw in the heavens. 

The time element, or more precisely, the timelessness of the statement, creates the fuzziness. The word “must” is used rather than the future auxiliary “will.” So it is unclear whether Turner must endure the emotional experience evoked by the vision, or whether he must endure a future spiritual war that results in a blood sacrifice. The “it,” then, may have referred to the “cross,” a place where sacrificial blood is shed.

Uncertain of the meaning of his vision, Turner was, nevertheless, deeply affected. Turner told Gray, ” I now withdrew myself as much as my situation would permit, from the intercourse of my fellow servants, for the avowed purpose of serving the spirit more fully.” Isolation, in the wilderness or in the mountains, is sometimes what the soul needs to become closer to God. Turner’s preparation involved prayer, fasting, reading of the scriptures, and meditating on the words of the Holy Spirit. Later, looking back on his spiritual experiences, Turner understood clearly that the Holy Spirits was then preparing him to be an apostle of Christ.

Chapter 13 —  On Auction Block Trusting in the Lord 1823 / Chapter 15 — Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, Higher

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update 26 December 2011




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