The Gift of Healing and Apostleship

The Gift of Healing and Apostleship


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. 19 –Christian Salvation in Cross Keys


The Gift of Healing & Apostleship


The relevance of Paul’s mission to the Gentiles gained new meaning in Turner’s religious consciousness. Turner had a message from God in which he wanted to share with all who would hear. His religion was not just for the Christian slaves, for the blacks. Turner had no black theology, no black theology of liberation. For Turner, Jesus Christ was the liberator of all mankind. Until the very end, Turner persisted in his desire to be admitted into Turner’s Methodist Church so that he could share the good news. 

Nathaniel Turner’s great desire was that his masters would revitalize their waning relationship with God. Although the Christian slaveholders demurred, Turner’s holiness, however, “had a wonderful effect” on one white man who lived in the Cross Keys religious community. In Turner’s ministry, his spiritual drama, Ethelred T. Brantley served the symbolic role as the worst of slaveholders, a man who had fallen both economically and spiritually.

With Brantley we again have the recurring theme of disinheritance. Brantley had not responded well to his social downfall. He had been a lifelong resident of the Cross Keys community. His grandfather had owned a plantation. Like Gray and John Clark, fate seemed to have made havoc of Brantley’s life. His family had come fallen in the world. Brantley had lost the simple faith and endurance of his grandfather. 

He had become a drunkard and a cruel overseer, possessed by the hatred of the slaves he drove and abused. In the hands of Nathaniel Turner, guided by the Holy Spirit, Brantley, Turner told Gray, “ceased from his wickedness, and was attacked immediately with a cutaneous eruption, and blood oozed from the pores of his skin, and after praying and fasting nine days, he was healed.”

Brantley’s poisonous blood was unlike that which fell on the corn in the field or on the leaves in the woods, the “blood that cleanseth” and makes holy. Without the Spirit of the Suffering Christ, Brantley’s blood became corrupted flesh, the work of Satan, the father of American slavery. Turner caused the poison to be expelled. Like Jesus, Turner cast out demons, the ones that had enslaved Brantley and led him into his ghastly behavior toward Christian slaves. The blood that “oozed from the pores” of Brantley’s skin was a sign of his spiritual liberation. 

The expulsion of corrupted blood was only a sample of what could be accomplished when one communed with the Spirit of the Lord. As an apostle of Christ, Nathaniel Turner wrought a miracle that promised salvation even for Brantley’s masters, if they too repented. The way was opened to all in atonement. In purifying the heart of a wretched overseer, the worst of men, Turner, symbolically, opened up the possibility for all to be saved, regardless of status, including slaveholders.

Like the Jewish officials of ancient Jerusalem, those of Turner’s Methodist Church, however, were dead to the Spirit, fully in league with Mammon. They felt threatened in their authority, in their control over the biblical text, in their tyranny over God’s servants. The Cross Keys church refused Turner’s request for baptism. They refused to relent. They swept the whole affair from their collective mind as the antics of slave theater. 

Earlier on Turner, during his wilderness experience, had quoted Luke 12, more precisely the Holy Spirit made reference to verse 47. With respect to the slaveholders of Cross Keys, verse 48 seem appropriate under the circumstances: “Much will be required of everyone to whom much has been given! And even more will be demanded of the one to whom more has been entrusted” (Fitzmeyer, p. 991). Christian slaveholders were asleep at the reins.

Their opposition to allowing either Brantley or Turner to be brought into the congregation was irrational and un-Christian. They placed their house of worship off limits to Christian slaves and to whites who associated with them or those willing to accept them as fellow Christians. They refused to confirm their servants as full members in the body of Christ. Unawares possibly, the Christian slaveholders were indeed making war on the divine. They stood between God and his people. That is a dangerous place to be.

But God was not yet finished with Brantley, the tormentor of slaves, nor with the slaveholders of Virginia who had become exceedingly pleased with their self-righteousness, their self-justification. But God was patient: “He did this by showing how glorious he is when he has pity on the people he has chosen to share in his glory” (Romans 9.22). The Holy Spirit would thus again provide these slaveowners—the deaf, dumb, and blind—a sign to remonstrate, to make apparent, that God is no “respecter of persons.”

Confident of his influence and security, Turner defied the Elders of Turner’s Methodist Church and staged a counter baptism, and revealed a faith abandoned. The Turner/Brantley baptism was a revelation of a multiplicity of signs, given for the benefit of all in the Cross Keys community. This holy sacrament, in effect, mirrored other biblical events: John the Baptist and Jesus, of the old and the new, at the Jordan River, outside Jerusalem (Matthew 3); or, maybe, Jesus and his disciple Simon Peter, unsteady on the water. 

It was a call for all to repent and be reborn, especially those who were Methodist slaveholders. If all were in Christ, slavery could be made just a word, mere form. This Spirit baptism may indeed be the highest moment in Turner’s epic life—a pregnant moment—namely, the readiness of white slaveholders for atonement and redemption

This counter baptism sought to substitute itself as the true baptism. In a symbolical mode, Nat Turner aggressively attacked and challenged Turner’s Methodist Church as the true authority of the scriptures and as God’s representative here on earth. Nathaniel Turner’s baptism was a symbolic spiritual cleansing of the hearts and minds of Christian slaves, not unlike that which Jesus performed at the temple in Jerusalem. In ancient Jerusalem, God’s holy place had become “a den of thieves.” 

In Cross Keys, the body of Christ, his church, had indeed become a gang of robbers and thieves, peddling the flesh of Christian slaves—young girls and babies, for the most foul service. These Methodists had become men stealers, robbing with great violence the continent of Africa of its people. Moreover, they partook of the worst kind of robbery, a spiritual one.

They attempted to rob Christ of those who came to him in prayer and praise. These they tried to deny him, to rob men and women of their humanity, that which belongs to God, and young girls and children of their natural dignity and integrity. In such a way had Nathaniel Turner’s mother come to America; such was the way she became the mother of the child Nathaniel. These pious men and women of Turner’s Methodist Church were intruders into the “kingdom of heaven,” not the real owners that they had made themselves out to be. These so-called Christians did not bring salvation and grace, but rather oppression and separation. 

The slaveholders, like the farmers in Jesus’ vineyard parable, were not willing to share any of the fruits of the vineyard, of God’s kingdom. (Aichele, pp. 80-83). The Cross Keys Christians of Turner’s Methodist Church sought to hold the kingdom solely for themselves, their children, and their kin with the lash and gun and with denials and threats of death.

Anticipating a miracle from Nat Turner, the Christian slaves “gathered,” according to F. Roy Johnson, “at Person’s Mill Pond, not far from Meherrin Baptist Church and two miles west of the Moore plantation to witness the spectacle” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 59). Much confusion has issued from this historical event and its setting. Turner’s choosing a pond near a Baptist church has been read by nearly all as a rejection of the Methodists for that of the Baptists. Such speculation was mere fancy. That Turner staged this baptism near a Baptist church as far as any can know is incidental, a matter of convenience. 

Yet since Ulrich. B. Philips’ Negro Slavery (1900), historians have repeatedly, and uncritically, though mistakenly, tied Turner to the Baptist denomination, for no other reason than this particular event. Philips depended at best on an unsubstantiated account reported in the Richmond papers. But none has proof that Turner was a Baptist or information that he consorted with Baptists.

Moreover, the reasoning of the Baptist advocates is spurious and does Turner an injustice. Linking Turner to the Baptists is a tactic similar to that of linking him with Africa and magic and conjure. In the background of all of this is the question of ordination, which was not available to Turner. Many think the Baptists were adverse to ordination. This estimation sprang from prejudices and class attitudes many have had toward the Baptists, that is, their purported emphasis on the Bible and emotionalism in worship services and her man an apostle. 

The revivalist rhetoric and emotional states of Methodist and Baptist worship were not as distant as some believe. Moreover, the Baptists have never been anxious to call Turner one of their own (Freeman, p. 241). In addition, the “Confessions” do not identify Turner as a “Baptist preacher” or make any statement that associate him with the Baptist religion.

Turner’s “Methodist connection” resulted from his personal ties, choice, and its structuring of his own spiritual development. His “fidelity to Methodism” was not unlike that of Richard Allen who, as a Delaware slave, was awakened by the Methodist message and then, as a freeman and a Methodist preacher, was courted and proffered ordination by the Anglicans. Allen retained his faithfulness to his first awakening.

Allen valued Methodism’s openness to religious feeling, its simple doctrine, its reliance on ‘spiritual or extempore preaching’, which suited an ‘unlearned’ people better than dry scriptural exegesis. Methodism also emphasized discipline, vital to a people assailed by poverty and vice. To Allen, frugality, temperance, industry, and the other classic Methodist virtues represented more than a means to eventual salvation; they provided a formula by which blacks could lift themselves up from their impoverished, degraded state, a possibility his life exemplified. This formula was reinforced by concrete structures—regular preaching, weekly classes, quarterly love feasts, cathartic revivals—that helped keep individuals on the narrow path, while providing a desperately needed sense of community and belonging (Campbell, Songs of Zion, p. 11).

As far as we know Turner was not courted by the Baptists. To suggest such fickleness on his part is again to undervalue and underestimate the man’s religious sincerity. He continued until hid death to identify himself with the Methodist religion of his master and his spiritual mother, Harriet. Though refused, Turner repeatedly pleaded to be admitted to the Cross Keys Methodist church. Such grace may have precluded an “insurrection.”

The “Confessions” does not provide details of Turner’s sacrament of baptism. Nor does the Book of Matthew for that of Jesus. As it was with Jesus, the usual assumption is that Turner’s baptism, at a natural body of water, was one of immersion. In both cases, we are uncertain whether it was an “immersion,” “pouring,” or a “sprinkling.” All forms of baptism, however, are acceptable in Methodism (Campbell, Methodist Doctrine, p.74). So even if there had been an immersion, it would not have signified that Turner on that day renounced Methodism and became a Baptist. 

That Turner became a Baptist does not make any sense religiously or politically. Turner told Gray, “We went down into the water together [Turner with Brantley], in the sight of many who reviled us, and were baptised by the Spirit—after this I rejoiced greatly, and gave thanks to God.” Doubtless, Turner’s baptism disturbed the local Methodist church

Turner’s sacrament, however, rose above denominational schisms, as Jesus’ baptism superseded that of John the Baptist. Julia Foote also enjoyed a non-denominational baptism. Hers is a most beautiful vision. By the hand, the Father led her

all the others following, till we came to a place where there was a great quantity of water, which looked like silver, where we made a halt. My hand was given to Christ, who led me into the water and stripped me of my clothing, which at once vanished from sight. Christ then appeared to wash me, the water feeling quite warm.

During this operation, all the others stood on the bank, looking on in profound silence. When the washing was ended, the sweetest music I had ever heard greeted my ears. We walked on the shore, where an angel stood with a clean, white robe, which the Father at once put on me. In an instant I appeared to be changed into an angel (Andrews, p. 203).

Turner’s historical baptism was no so grand and colorful as that of Foote’s vision. Turner’s wording of his baptism reminds us of those uttered by Jesus to his apostles: “You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1.5,8; 11.16). Like Foote’s vision, Turner’s baptism was beyond any man-concocted ritual. Water was not sufficient, no matter the mode used.

Though not quite as colorfully detailed as Foote’s baptism vision, Turner’s baptism had the same symbolical significance. Before the baptism, “Nat prophesied,” according to F. Roy Johnson, “that a white dove would descend from heaven and alight upon his shoulder” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 58). In the New Testament, the dove has specialized meanings:

. . . the dove is the offering of the poor for the redemption of the firstborn (Lk 2:24); it was sold in the temple courts for sacrificial purposes, a practice to which Jesus objected vigorously (Mt 21:12; Mk 11:15; Jn 2:14, 16). It is a symbol of guilelessness (Mt 10:16). the dove is the visible symbol of the spirit in the baptism of Jesus (Mt.3.16; Mk 1:10; Lk 3:22; Jn 1:32). The figurative language of the OT suggests that the primary force of the symbol here is love, the love which the Father through His beloved Son communicates to all who believe in the Son (McKenzie, p. 203).

Some who were there at the millpond swore they saw the dove light on Turner’s shoulder. This was Turner’s tenth encounter with the divine. In this traditional tale, symbolically, the dove and Turner, in his holiness, partake of the same divine essence. In this public ritual, Turner thus emphasized the cleansing of sins and redemption. In this event, Turner was publicly sanctified, authorized, by the Holy Spirit. Foote interpreted her spiritual baptism in a similar fashion; that is, she was anointed an apostle of the Lord.

Because of his association with Nat Turner, Brantley lost his position as a driver of Christian slaves. The acceptance of Christ did not guarantee wealth and prosperity in Cross Keys. The entire slaveowner community ostracized Brantley and drove him out of Southampton. God’s revelations made apparent by his prophet Nathaniel Turner did not move slaveowners to humility. These Christian slaveowners refused to countenance the possibility a Christian slave could be the conduit for God’s holy word. Such a man as Turner could not be the defender of sacred words.

This Christian drama of the baptism symbolized how far Cross Keys slaveholders had separated themselves from God. Nat Turner, like the Good Samaritan, saw another man, ill, down and out in luck and faith. Turner saw a neighbor in need and he went to him in love. He was merciful with the worst of men in Cross Keys. Turner delivered him from both physical and spiritual sickness and brought him back to the living God and the love of Christ. Nathaniel Turner requested no payment for his services. What Brantley received from Christ through Turner was greater than any reward either would have received from Turner’s Methodist Church.

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update 14 December 2011




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