Garden of Gethsemane: Escape or Martydom

Garden of Gethsemane: Escape or Martydom


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Sec. 5, Ch. 28 — Blood on the Cross


Garden of Gethsemane: Escape or Martyrdom?


Nathaniel Turner’s moral dilemma can be more fully appreciated by a closer look at his second wilderness experience, or his so-called escape. For seventy days Turner endured the isolations and deprivations of the wooded wildness of Southampton. Turner’s miraculous disappearance sketches out in greater detail the complexity of Turner’s character and the religious design of his life. 

Turner’s motives and intent during this period, from 22 August (the end of the Rebellion) to 30 October (his “capture”), have been somewhat skewed by Drewry, Johnson, and others. Nathaniel Turner’s spiritual war against the abominations of Cross Keys did not begin nor end with these dates. His concerted struggle against the Christian slaveholders of Cross Keys began as early as 1828 and continued beyond his death.

Wilderness experiences in the biblical context were times of testing and preparation. “Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil” (Matthew 4.1). For Turner, the prime temptation was one that promised freedom and power to escape his responsibility for the holy war. In the bible, Satan tempted the Son of man “to abandon his vocation of suffering” (Achtemeier, p. 1134). 

Beyond settled life and government control, the wilderness is a dangerous place. The wilderness is also “the place where man meets God, particularly in a crisis” (McKenzie, pp. 195-196). In his crisis, running away from Sam Turner, Nathaniel also had an encounter with the divine. That encounter with the Holy Spirit led to his justification and then his sanctification. And God gave him power over the elements. Turner’s final wooded sojourn followed the pattern.

Turner was alone in the forests and swamps of Cross Keys stripped down to nothing but his Bible and his ceremonial sword. Turner, however, had not yet completed his mission. This period of wandering reveals the depth of Turner’s faith and the strength of his convictions. For seventy days, he lived the life of the hunted. His compatriots were wild cats, bears, moccasins, mosquitoes, ticks, and other vermin of the region’s swamps and bogs. 

Undoubtedly, his lifelong ascetic practices served him well. The gnawing question, for him, was whether he could obey Christ until the very end. Would he turn the clock back to 1821, when he attempted to escape. Or would he go forward boldly into eternity, joyfully awaiting the judgment. This 70-day period—August 22 to October 30—was Turner’s final spiritual test, that which would deliver him to “perfected perfection.”

All who have considered Turner’s feat of disappearance have been amazed that he was able to evade capture within such a small area with hundreds, if not thousands, of men looking for him. Turner’s disappearance for exactly 70 days must be read in a religious light. As Turner pointed out in his dark woods vision, the reading of numbers is important to understand the divine message. “The significance of 7 in the Bible is fairly obvious; it means totality, fullness, completeness,” according to John L. McKenzie. “The number seven is important in ritual actions.” 

The number 70 also has its special resonance throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Daniel 9.1-27, it signifies a nearing of the end, of a time, of an era (Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 173, 794). In that Turner managed his disappearance exceedingly well, one suspects that Turner was just as attentive in arranging his own capture and the time of his capture.

How Turner managed his miracle or, according to some, this “trick” was questioned strenuously in the fall of 1831. Others have subsequently chimed in. Turner, nevertheless, claimed he lived by day in a “cave,” a hole dug in the marshy ground in the environs of Cross Keys. Turner told Gray, “I scratched a hole under a pile of fence rails where I concealed myself for six weeks, never leaving my hiding place but for a few minutes in the dead of night to get water which was very near . . . . I began to go about in the night and eaves drop the houses in the neighborhood . . . afraid of speaking to any human being, and returning every morning to my cave before the dawn of day.” 

Turner reconnoitered by night and slept secluded during the day. His expressed need to know what was going on indicates that his interest was still restricted and focused on Cross Keys. His movement was back toward Cross Keys not away from it. Seemingly, he stayed within a two-mile radius of the Travis place on which he had lived the last three years.

The seasonal climate of the region must be a factor in determining whether such a feat was humanly possible. Most think that it was not possible for Turner to remain in two caves for seventy days. And with good cause. Usually, September and October are the months of the rains. The morning dew is heavy. These months are damp, cool, brisk, especially at night. This period is also the season of hurricanes, of flooding, more so for Southampton, in that the numerous swamps are less spread out than in Sussex and Greensville counties. 

Even if a drought did occur during those seventy days in 1831, living one night in such conditions was not a task to be taken on without some trepidation. Unless many assisted him, which was highly unlikely, this deed was nothing less than miraculous. Only with the blessings of the Holy Spirit was Turner then able to accomplish such a feat. At least, that is the implied argument of the “Confessions.”

Two Negroes who lived in the vicinity “discovered” Turner and his cave and ran away when he begged “concealment.” That is how the “Confessions” reads on the surface. But a measure of deception, or misdirection, exists in Turner’s testament. Surely, that was impossible to avoid when the primary linguistic mode used was symbolical. 

Moreover, Turner wanted to assure the publication of the “Confessions.” None would have believed that he engineered his own death, if he had said it in plain words. They would have indeed thought him “mad.” Moreover, Gray then may not have been so agreeable in his complicity. The divine had indeed ordered that some matters were to be kept secret.

Turner had a special agenda apart from his own personal freedom—a mission from Christ. This tale of Turner’s discovery must be read more carefully. Turner was “discovered,” but he allowed himself to be discovered. For six weeks he evaded capture without incident when thousands of men were combing the woods. By early October, the army and the militia disbanded and most thought he had long left the region. That Turner would ever be captured was doubted by many (Aptheker, p. 56). 

That he evaded a great force in arms demonstrated again his aptitude. Turner wanted to be caught by local forces rather than the state militia. He engineered his sighting to rekindle interest in his capture and sustained the local terror. In that he felt a deep need “to atone,” which is a public act, Turner thus needed to be “discovered.” The last two weeks was a cat and mouse game that operated on a spiritual level. The “discovery” moved him closer to his desired martyrdom.

Because of the hardships of being hunted like an animal in the woods, many have put forth their own versions on how Turner was able to sustain himself and evade capture. According to Turner, he moved from his cave “under a pile of fence rails” to another cave he dug “under the top of a fallen tree.” There he remained until he was “taken a fortnight afterwards by Benjamin Phipps.” 

Newspapers in Virginia carried conflicting accounts of Turner’s means of disappearance. Norfolk’s The American Beacon (2 November 1831) reported that Nat was “taken about 12 o’clock on Sunday, in a Cave, that he had just finished and gotten into.” (Tragle, p. 133). According to this report, Turner constructed the last cave the day he was arrested. Johnson placed the cave “two miles northwest” on the “farm of Dr. Musgrave” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 143).

In a letter to The Richmond Enquirer (15 November 1831), Elliot Whitehead, a resident of Suffolk, Virginia, a town about twenty miles east of Jerusalem, also questioned Turner’s time frame for the construction of the caves. Whitehead reported that Turner told him that he did not move to his next cave immediately after leaving the one under the rails.

Nat says he remained in his first hiding place five weeks and six days, that after being discovered there he retreated to some fodder stacks in a field of Mr. Nathaniel Francis’s, where he remained until Wednesday, the 28th October [actually the 28th was on a Friday], when he was routed from thence by Mr. Francis, and narrowly escaped being shot by Mr. F. who put twelve buck-shot through his hat. He then made for the woods where he made a small cave or hole under the top of a large pine tree that had fallen, not more than a mile and a half from Mr. Travis’s, where the first murders were perpetrated [my italics] (Tragle, pp. xiii, xviii, and 139).

This account differs in time and other particulars. In the “Confessions,” Turner admitted having had “many hair breadth escapes,” but he did not mention the Francis incident or the shooting. He did not elaborate because Gray’s time did “not permit” him “to relate” them. Possibly, the Francis incident did occur, though Whitehead’s time might be in error.

Clearly, Whitehead’s report on the events of Cross Keys/Jerusalem is a mixture of fact and fancy. For the Francis incident, nevertheless, has been repeated often in various forms. Another letter writer to The Richmond Enquirer (8 November 1831) added a different version of the Francis event: “He [Turner] had been seen several times within the last fifteen days by negroes, and about three days before he was taken, Mr. Francis found him in one of his stacks and fired a pistol at him, but he succeeded in making his escape” (Tragle, p. 138). After the Rebellion, rumors and half truths flew about and were reported as “news.” This letter arms Francis with a pistol; while the other report, with a shotgun.

Whitehead’s depiction of the event has an air of the extraordinary. But such were the times. The Suffolk writer contended that Francis “put twelve buck-shot” through Nathaniel’s hat.” That twelve buck shots could pass through a single hat of a man running away seems a feat exceedingly miraculous, not only on the part of Turner but also of the shooter, Francis. Supposedly, Nathaniel stumbled as the shot passed overhead. The “Confessions,” I must reiterate, does not mention this Francis incident. Yet there is still another account.

F. Roy Johnson accepted the pistol version. But he too added his own coloring. Johnson brushed aside Turner’s assertion about the two caves as an outrageous exaggeration. In his appended remarks, Gray, however, did not question the veracity of the caves, which suggests that he believed Turner was truthful throughout his testament. For Johnson, Turner was nothing less than a trickster, a con man, a liar, however exceedingly skilled. “Nat had hidden on several plantations long familiar to him,” according to Johnson. “However, his chief place of concealment was a fodder stack on the Nathaniel Francis farm. 

Here Francis discovered and shot at him.” Johnson, however provided no proof or evidence for his version of Turner’s escapades. To sustain his truth, Johnson simply added: “Tradition claims that Francis’ pistol ball cut a hole through his hat and the hat was shown as a curiosity after his capture” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 142). Johnson’s scenario may indeed possess a kernel of truth that needs to be ferreted out.

Though he strayed from the facts, F. Roy Johnson appropriately questioned Turner’s ability to sustain himself for seventy days in the wilderness. Jesus only remained there 40 days. Of course, Johnson did not believe Turner was a prophet, a man of God, with extranatural powers. Johnson believed that all that appeared miraculous could be explained by reason. Turner was exceedingly crafty and skilled in the arts of deception. Johnson, in effect, did not believe it humanly possible to hide out in caves for seventy days. 

For him Turner was an arch deceiver, deluded, and possibly insane. To sustain this view, Johnson pointed out that Nathaniel Turner had a “grandson” that was institutionalized for insanity (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 179). At times, Johnson poured out the same kind of venom which generally characterized much of Nat Turner scholarship.

Turner’s wilderness experience, Johnson believed, aptly, was extremely significant in establishing Turner’s full identity. That Turner was a mountebank, Johnson is mistaken. Undoubtedly, this period needs a greater consideration. Johnson emphasized two elements. One of them I alluded to before, that is, the question of the weather. Johnson pointed out that the “autumn nights were growing chilly.” Another factor, according to Johnson, was fear. “The ‘General’ assuredly was aware of the firm repressive measures which had been taken by the whites.” 

Johnson believed that fear was the most important factor. “Heads were to be seen posted at key points, and skeletons lay in some woods” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 143). Here, Johnson absurdly imagined that the dead would cause Turner a terrifying, bug-eyed fear. Johnson’s accounts regrettably tend toward the minstrel in his estimation of Turner’s religious consciousness and experience.

Undoubtedly, fear, weather, hunger, and, possibly, carelessness were factors that affected Turner’s thinking while in the wilderness of Southampton. Whether he had extranatural powers or not, he was still human and subject to human frailties. Ten years before, Turner had survived such dire deprivations for thirty days. He was seasoned in such adversity. 

His whole life was one of a practiced austerity. Turner had prepared himself a lifetime for just this moment when events were their worst. The physical and psychological discomforts he endured through the seventy days were not, evidently, beyond his manageability. With certitude, one cannot say that such factors led to his capture.

A key to Turner’s capture may lie, however, in an assertion and yet another tale “collected” by F. Roy Johnson. “Nat,” according to Johnson, “meditated on giving himself up.” Two other purported events led Johnson to this belief. Supposedly, at Nathaniel Francis’ house, Lavania Francis and her mother heard a knock at their door. They, however, refused to answer the door or to awaken Nathaniel Francis. “Nat acknowledged afterwards,” according to Johnson, “that it was he who had knocked intending to give himself up, because he believed that Francis, a lifelong acquaintance, would be more merciful than anyone else” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, pp. 142-143). The source of Johnson’s tale is uncertain and questionable. In addition, the “Confessions” does not sustain Johnson’s scenario.

Johnson’s belief that Nathaniel Francis would be merciful seems far-fetched on four accounts. First, by Johnson’s own account, Nathaniel Francis tried to kill Turner. Two, Turner had killed some of Francis’ kinsmen. Three, as a slaveholder, Francis barely escaped Turner’s “great work.” And four, Francis would have had little interest in the bounty on Turner’s head. In spite of these objections, there still may be a kernel of truth in Johnson’s re-creation of events before Turner’s “capture.” 

With respect to this issue, Johnson, I believe, is on the mark. Turner did meditate “on giving himself up.” Turner had not yet completed his mission. Turner had not fulfilled his fervent need “to atone,” to bring a closure to a religious drama in which he was the leading character.

Virginia needed Turner alive in order to bring all the pieces together. The great fear was that there was a broad and concerted conspiracy on the scale of Prosser and Vesey. For his own reasons, Johnson discounted the possibility that Turner headed a broad-based conspiracy. In Johnson’s view, Turner initially “sought to devise a plan to escape the country.” Turner, however, “gave up the idea,” Johnson believed. “He could not travel by day, and he observed the patrols were too vigilant by night” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 143). 

Johnson was guessing, trying to piece events together to conform to an intellectual prejudice. His tale falls short of a full appraisal. After the collapse of the Rebellion, 23 August 1831, Turner had three to four days before the militia became fully organized to escape the area. That time period could have gotten him easily to the Dismal Swamp, if escape were his intent. In addition, the night patrols late September into October decreased significantly and became less of a barrier for Turner’s escape.

The “Confessions” is silent on any planned escape. The sense that we get is that Turner was waiting for something. He was listening to what people were saying, how they were responded to his holy war. His engagement of Cross Keys continued as intensely as before. This was his audience. Turner accepted willingly his destiny as prophet, that role required engaging the world in which he lived. Throughout his testament, Turner presented himself implicitly as a Christ figure. In taking up the Cross, Turner, by implication, understood and expected he would have to sacrifice all, martyr himself. 

At the end of the Rebellion, Turner knew that the drama could not end except in his own death. He knew he had to suffer the same fate as the men he led into war. That he too must be scourged and publicly humiliated as his Savior. For Turner, to run away from a struggle he had carried on unceasingly for three years, and now run away  to the Dismal Swamp would have been the ultimate betrayal of his fellow Christian soldiers, who awaited him in heaven.

In regard to his 12th of May 1828 revelation, Turner told Gray, the Spirit said, “the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.” Gray stopped Turner’s narration and asked, “Do you not find yourself mistaken now?” And Turner answered with a question, “Was not Christ crucified?” Turner thus expected his “public murder,” hanging from a tree, would bring his holy war to a close. “He who loses his life for Christ’s sake and for the gospel’s sake will save it.” As he had attempted to show slaveholders how to live the Christian life, he would now show how to die like a Christian. 

Based on his words and acts, Turner readied himself as early as 1828 for his own death. He “took up the yoke” then that Christ had laid down and gave up all thoughts of escape. An 1831 attempt to escape for personal comfort would have been a spiritual betrayal of the highest order. It would have been contrary to all the principles by which he had lived his life. For Turner to desire escape would have been a rejection of God.

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update 14 December 2011




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