Chapter 15 Climbing Jacob Highere and Higher

Chapter 15 Climbing Jacob Highere and Higher


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. 15 Coming to Grips with in Justice & Corruption


Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, Higher & Higher

Turner’s Spiritual Perfection or Sanctification

By Rudolph Lewis


Turner meditated on the heavenly things he had seen and the words of the Holy Spirit. He appeared to have made some progress in coming to an understanding of his spiritual experiences. For the Holy Spirit returned shortly after the vision. Turner told Gray, it “appeared to me, and reminded me of things it had already shown me.” The Holy Spirit seemed to have gone over with Turner what he had experienced. Turner’s four-year period of keeping of the faith under two masters (Sam Turner and Moore). 

Nathaniel Turner resisted the temptation for flight and of disobedience to the Spirit. By these spiritual acts, Turner, had, in the Wesleyan sense, been justified. This spiritual preparation was of such success that the Holy Spirit multiplied Turner’s spiritual gifts. Turner told Gray, the Holy Spirit revealed to him “the knowledge of the elements, the revolution of the planets, the operation of the tides, and changes of the seasons.” This was Turner’s fifth encounter with the divine, five times within a period of eight years, 1817-1825.

In ancient Greek cosmology, the “elements” were considered  earth, air, water, and fire. But such a definition does not provide the full cosmic sense of the religious term. The biblical perspective of the “elements” can be found in the Wisdom of Solomon (Freedman, p. 444):

For he [God] gave me sound knowledge of existing things,/ that I might know the organization of the universe and the forces of its elements,/ The beginning and the end and the midpoint of times,/ the changes in the sun’s course and the variations of the seasons./ Cycles of years, positions of the stars, natures of animals, tempers of beasts,/ Powers of the winds and thoughts of men, uses of plants and virtues of roots—/Such things as are secret I learned, and such as are plain;/for Wisdom, the artificer of all taught me (7.17-22). [my italics]

In the Christian context, Wisdom corresponds to either the Christ, or the Holy Spirit. In effect, God through the agency of the Holy Spirit gave Turner extranatural powers in which to command the powers of nature. In pedagogical terms, Turner had completed his masters with honors; he then readied himself for doctoral work.

Gaining power over the elements, Turner understood he was caught up in a process of “sanctification.” Turner told Gray, “I sought more than ever to obtain true holiness before the great day of judgment should appear.” Turner wanted to be the person the Holy Spirit wanted him to be. With respect to individual spiritual growth, “holiness” and “sanctification,” terms to indicate “Christian perfection,” began in the Methodist movement. John Wesley (1703-1791), according to Donald G. Bloesch, “envisaged salvation as a process beginning with seeking for salvation, leading to justification and sanctification, and culminating in entire sanctification or Christian perfection” (The Holy Spirit, pp. 125-126).

John Wesley’s “way of salvation” corresponds to the spiritual process through which Turner was led by the Holy Spirit. To restate Bloesch’s list. Wesley’s three step process included “preventing grace,” “justifying grace,” and “sanctifying grace.” According to Ted A. Campbell, “Prevenient grace is the appropriate heading under which Methodists have described all the ways in which God works with human beings before they believe in Christ.” This is grace that comes before “faith in Christ.” 

What Bloesch called “seeking for salvation” and Wesley called “preventing grace” correspond to the spiritual events in which the Holy Ghost commanded Turner to “Seek the kingdom of heaven.” These two initial revelations Turner misread, expecting its intent implied his personal freedom was near, when it was indeed salvation in his grasp. “Prevenient grace leads us to repentance, sorrow over sin and the realization that we are unable to save ourselves” (Methodist Doctrines: The Essentials, p. 55).

Turner’s wilderness experience corresponds to the dividing line between the first and second steps in the Methodist way of salvation. In his sermon, “The Wilderness State,” John Wesley considered the wilderness experience as indicative of a spiritual problem or illness. In the quest of sanctification one must come to grips with “temptation, fear, false security, boasting of spiritual accomplishments, forms of religious depression.” 

Turner had lived the good life—prayed, meditated on the scriptures, fasted, treated his fellow servants with respect—and as an outcome he expected that God would reward him with freedom from the bonds of slavery. In Methodist doctrine, goodness nor works nor status are sufficient to be justified by God. Turner’s real trial had yet to begin.

Disappointed and frustrated, Turner ran away from his master Samuel Turner. He had not yet learned that man is not saved or justified by his own abilities, or his piety, or puritan practices. By God’s grace “are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2.8-10). The Holy Spirit stopped Turner and counseled patience, obedience, and faith. This justification creates “the experience of assurance as related to the earlier experiences of awakening and repentance.” The Christian gains a sense of “direction” in his life. 

On returning, Turner remained in obedience to God’s command, though forced into an undesired “marriage,” sold on the auction block, and separated from his family. In spite of these attacks against his humanity, Turner never attempted again to escape or abandon that which God had destined for him.

Turner sought to be sanctified, to find holiness, before “the great day of judgment.” On his return, the Holy Spirit led Turner to understand that the vision of the warring spirits was an eschatological sign. In the New Testament, there are related and varying expressions of the meaning and intent of “judgment.” In all instances, judgment occurs in history. For some, it is a day when one “makes a permanent decision to accept Jesus Christ or reject him” (McKenzie, p. 468). For others, judgment is always present.

In Revelations 19.2, judgment is the downfall of a world power. In 2 Peter (2.6, 2.9, 3.7), it is the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah. In some traditions, the final judgment would occur when Christ comes out of the clouds on a white horse with an army of angels to do final battle with Satan, which would end history. In this scenario, the final judgment occurs outside of history. Likely, Turner still did not know the full implications of the eschatological imagery of the warring spirits. He probably expected a judgment in which Christ came as divine warrior to bring closure to history, an end to physical and spiritual bondage—a liberation of both Christian slaves and slaveholders. Such millennial thinking and reading of celestial signs had existed in America since 1780 (Juster, par. 1).

Through his spiritual exercises and the agency of the Holy Spirit, Turner arrived at the desired state of sanctifying grace or sanctification. For, in the “Confessions,” Turner said he was “made perfect.” He had reached Christian perfection. Turner told Gray, “And then I began to receive the true knowledge of faith. And from the first steps of righteousness until the last, was I made perfect” [my italics]. Turner’s “knowledge of faith” is related to a knowledge of God or Christ, that is, the acceptance of the gift of divine grace. “It is an insight which is the fruit of revelation, faith, and experience,” according to McKenzie. 

It is “more than speculative or theoretical knowledge” (Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 486-487). In Matthew 13.11, “knowledge of faith” concerns itself with the mystery of the “kingdom of heaven.” In his phrasing, Turner added “true” to suggest that there existed a “false knowledge of faith.” Likely this was an oblique reference to the religionists of Turner’s Methodist Church who had created a “white only” Christian worship.

Thus singled out, Turner was “redeemed,” set free by his faith in God’s righteousness, that is, the Spirit of the Lord was ever with him, guiding him. Turner’s redemption, his striving for “holiness,” was a greater freedom than any promised by Benjamin Turner or dodged by Samuel Turner or denied by Thomas Moore.

The state of holiness is a “perfecting perfection” rather than a “perfected perfection.” Wesley himself never claimed to have attained this higher state, though various of his followers made the claim. He argued that sanctification is both a process and an event. Before the moment of the experience of perfect love we are moving toward it, and after this moment we continue in it. He once described sanctification as a “progressive work, carried on in the soul by slow degrees, from the time of our first turning to God” (Bloesch, p. 126).

This holiness, this sanctifying grace ends in absolute perfection or glorification, but this takes place beyond the pale of death” (The Holy Spirit, pp. 124-125). Though his perfection was not a “perfected perfection,” Turner received powers from the Holy Spirit that he would not have had simply as a “free man.” Nathaniel Turner, however, continued to grow in his spirituality, which rose eventually to the height of Christian martyrdom.

Turner’s “perfection” proceeded from his certainty of his relationship with the divine. In such a state, the individual is “‘born again’ to a new life in Christ,” according to Ted Campbell. In Sermon 40 “Christian Perfection,” Wesley explained that holiness “does not imply as some men seem to have imagined an exemption either from ignorance or mistake, or infirmities or temptations. . . . we may, lastly, observe, that neither in this respect is there any absolute perfection on earth. . . . none which does not admit of a continual increase. . . . he hath still need to ‘grow in grace’, [2 Peter 3:18] and daily to advance in the knowledge and love of God his Savior [see Philippians 1:9]” (Maddox, p. 34). 

One is not immune to sin (e.g., sins of omission). There are numerous “spiritual problems or illnesses that the believer might face . . . .temptation, fear, false security, boasting of spiritual accomplishments, forms of religious depression” (Methodist Doctrine, p. 59).

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update 22 December 2011




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