Chapter 3 The Confessions and Folklore

Chapter 3 The Confessions and Folklore


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Turner’s jailhouse statements require today a skilled reader. One who knows something about

the bible and biblical stories, someone who knows something about gospel faith. It might

indeed need an audience that believes in God as people believed in God in 1831.



Section 1, Chapter 3

Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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The “Confessions” and Turner Folklore

The Need for Another Scholarly Reevaluation


The most authentic account of Turner’s life is in The Confessions of Nat Turner, published in 1831 and edited by Thomas R. Gray, a poor Southampton slaveholder and lawyer. In his book on Turner’s holy war, F. Roy Johnson insinuated the existence of a closer relationship between Turner and Gray than appeared on the surface. According to Johnson, Turner’s insurgents bypassed Gray’s place in their “great work” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 95).

Despite the difference in estate, one might speculate that it was nevertheless a sympathy of souls. About the same age as Turner, Gray was disinherited by his father; abandoned, in a fashion, to fate. The theme of disinheritance runs throughout the “1831 Confessions” and other accounts of Turner’s life; to such a degree, the act of disinheritance is indeed the primary spiritual motif of Turner’s testament. That is, one might argue, as is seen in numerous biblical tales from Cain to Esau, widespread social disinheritance fueled “insurrection.”

Undoubtedly, Gray, like Turner, had his own criticisms of Cross Key’s patriarchal slavocracy, a society which bred both of them. Jointly, Turner and Gray exposed that which was unique and peculiar in their environment. As a result of his poverty, of his coming down in the world, Gray became a lawyer to make a living (Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, pp.38-39). Gray foresaw that there would be a literary market for a religious “fanatic” such as Nat Turner, who combined in his person the volatile elements of race, religion, and violence.

In his comments on Turner’s “1831 Confessions,” nevertheless, Gray made clear he did not sympathize with Turner’s “great work” or his reasoning. For a Virginia slaveholder with a financial agenda, Gray, nevertheless, performed a great service to Turner, whose desire it was to leave an account of his life as a Christian slave. In his appended remarks on Turner, Gray, doubtless, had full faith in Nathaniel Turner’s religious integrity and sincerity, defended and marveled at it. These qualities of Turner, indeed, both fascinated and horrified Gray.

Unlike the later Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative, the “1831 Confessions” contains few details of Turner’s familial life. Much of what we know of Turner’s personal life has been culled from folklore from both blacks and whites of Southampton and material made up whole cloth by those with political or ideological agendas. In his testament, for instance, Turner did not include the names of his mother, father, or grandmother.

Different from Douglass, Turner did not make use of his mother’s rape or those of other Christian slave women nor did he sentimentalize his grandmother’s abandonment in old age—all done in order to make abolitionist propaganda within the autobiographical form. Turner’s “1831 Confessions” is silent on, stripped down of, all these mundane political issues. From a religious perspective, Turner was concerned about justice and Christian grace.

Aware of spatial and time limitations, Turner consciously economized and compacted his testimony by the literary use of biblical allusions and Christian symbolism. An audience reading Turner’s “1831 Confessions” in 1930 or 1960 or 2000 is not like the one that might have read it in 1831. Turner’s jailhouse statements require today a skilled reader. One who knows something about the bible and biblical stories, someone who knows something about gospel faith. It might indeed need an audience that believes in God as people believed in God in 1831.

Turner’s testament is not truly a “confession,” in the criminal or psychological sense of the term. This labeling was derived from Gray the lawyer. Turner’s jailhouse testimony precedes modern psychology in which one tells all. From Turner’s perspective, his was not truly a confession. Turner’s primary interest was the divine and what God required of him. Technically, one may properly call it a testament, a gospel, or a witnessing of the Lord’s work in the world.

Turner restricted his “1831 Confessions” to God’s work in his life, and only incidentally on family ties. To satisfy the appetite of his captors, Turner, however, did provide details of the killings and the course of the Rebellion. But even these specifics, graphic and bloody as they are, sustain Turner’s argument of God’s work in the world. For blood is also a motif in the “1831 Confessions.” It is a covenant. It is that which binds an agreement, an understanding. “It is the blood which witnesses to the Word and finally seals its testimony” (Written in Blood, p. 83).

This ancient ritual of commitment and marriage is not for the skittish, literary esthetes, the self-seeking. Because of his religious development, Turner became aware of, what Tillich called, “the paradoxical character of the divine activity” (Perspectives in 19th & 20th Century Theology, p. 133). In this sense, the “1831 Confessions” is not only a witnessing of the divine in history, but also a theodicy, a justification of God for the spiritual  horrors of slavery and the ensuing “insurrection.”

To construct a coherent view of Turner, both the “1831 Confessions” and folklore are necessary. Undoubtedly well-thought out before his capture, the “1831 Confessions,”  Turner’s testament, must be the grounding of all that is said about Turner. In that few other written records exist, the extant folklore must conform to what Turner himself provided or implied in the “1831 Confessions.”  If the tales do not, they must provide substantial footing to be considered true. Restricted by circumstances, time, and inclination, Turner’s narration yet represents his mind and motivation and his divine direction.

Though the “1831 Confessions” may contain historical events, it, however, is not an autobiographical or historical narrative. As in the Bible, these elements only sustain its truth. Though Turner’s testament, at this stage, is certainly apocryphal; yet it aligns itself with canonical texts. The New Testament, especially the Gospel of Luke, seemed to have been extremely important to Turner, but also John’s gospel and the letters of Paul.

Turner believed, as many today, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New and the God of today will be the same God tomorrow. Though the veracity of Turner’s account of miracles has been dismissed without serious regard, the “1831 Confessions” certainly from Turner’s perspective, is sacred history; transhistorical instances of God in the world, that can be likened to such spiritual testaments as the Book of Jeremiah or the Acts of the Apostles.

Sources Consulted 

Coleman, Robert E. Written in Blood: A Devotional Bible Study of the Blood of Christ. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1972.

Johnson, F. Roy. The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection. Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson Publishing Company, 1966.

Tillich, Paul. Perspectives in 19th and 20th Century Theology. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1967.

Wood, Peter H. “Nat Turner: The Unknown Slave as Visionary Leader.” In Leon Witwack and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

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Nathaniel Turner: 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

Chapter 2: Holy Man, Hoax, or Fiend? / Chapter 4 The Social World of Cross Keys

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The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831

A Compilation of Source Material

By Henry Irving Tragle

This case book on the most significant slave revolt in American history adds an important dimension to the study of slavery in the United States. Tragle has not only collected all the extant primary documents (the trial record, newspaper accounts, letters, diaries and other contemporary sources, most of which are published here for the first time), he made several trips to Southampton County to retrace the steps of the rebels and to interview the present inhabitants, both black and white, on the local traditions surrounding Nat Turner.—University of Massachusetts Press

The most important single work ever published on the Turner rebellion. Tragle’s research is an example of historical detective work at its best.—Eric Foner, New York Review of Books

Tragle’s methods are as important as what he has found. So much can be done, he reminds us, with such non-narrative sources as tax records and manuscript census returns, or by means of a patient reworking of familiar soil.—Gerald W. Mullin, The Journal of American History. 489 pages.

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update 28 June 2008



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