Chapter 11 The Holy Spirit in the Wilderness

Chapter 11 The Holy Spirit in the Wilderness


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The Christian message is a universal one. God is a benevolent spirit that infuses all humanity. In God’s righteousness, “no

one can be completely whole unless the rights of all are respected” (Prophecy in Israel, p. 165). At this stage of his spiritual

development, Nathaniel still thought his religion was a matter of simple piety and personal discipline; contriteness for sins, primarily, those

of envy and pride. He exceeded all in these observances. He believed he had paid the price for personal salvation and his freedom. 



Section 2, Chapter 11 Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption

Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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The Holy Spirit in the Wilderness

 Turner’s Return to His Spiritual Mission


Though a high official of Turner’s Methodist Church, Samuel Turner was not close to the Christ ideal. We can induce this from the facts stated in “1831 Confessions” and the record of those who owned Nathaniel, first his likely father Benjamin and then others in the Cross Keys community. Nathaniel Turner’s second master Samuel Turner, and likely his half brother, had forgotten how to give, if he indeed ever knew how. Admittedly, Samuel was probably having difficulties managing his inheritance, a kind of half loaf, in the midst of an economic downturn. But worst, as an Elder of God’s Church, Samuel Turner did not know how to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. He lacked grace and generosity. As a Christian slaveholder, he did not know how to deal justly with Turner as a fellow Christian in faith. He misread Philemon.

Even as a man of reason with strong economic concerns, Samuel Turner seemed to have been at personal odds with Nathaniel, as if he had a vendetta to settle. When he “arrived to man’s estate,” Nathaniel was probably not altogether surprised at Samuel’s deepening moral corruption. Nathaniel had endeavored to live an upright life with an enduring patience.

When Nathaniel came of age, he was anxious about his future. He went to Samuel and demanded his freedom and requested baptism at Turner’s Methodist Church. His brother could have said no and left it at that. Samuel did not handle the situation well. Seemingly, Samuel Turner took Nathaniel request as a personal affront, as if he had been waiting for it, viewing it as a potential threat to his power. The outcome of this confrontation, at least some elements, has general agreement. Samuel Turner, dead in the Spirit, placed Nathaniel Turner under an overseer. Nathaniel Turner then was sent to the whipping post and flogged.

For the twenty-one-year old Nathaniel, the religious grounding of faith and reason was shaken. The beauty and truth of religion, he had known, had shriveled. In Samuel Turner’s generation, Christian grace became the dirty economic rag of greed and deceit. Turner found himself in the clutches of a man who believed in nothing but brute strength, a man who would entertain no challenges from his Christian brother and slave. Trapped like a beast, Turner found himself surrounded and despised by men, Christian slaveholders who would do anything for profit, to maintain their dominance, to influence the minds of others, to obscure the intent of the Law of God, nature, and man. A man’s word. nor God’s had little value for the Christian tyrants of Cross Keys.

Frustrated in his personal desire, like the prophet Jeremiah, Turner became disillusioned. And, like Jeremiah, Nathaniel Turner’s temper flared. Jeremiah “questioned his call,” according to Teresa Fry Brown. “Jeremiah had a crisis of faith. . . . and wondered where God was . . . cried often, lived alone and thought himself a failure” (“Prophets! How Far Are You Willing to Run?” p. 47). In his moment of spiritual weakness, Turner ran away, stole himself. Like Tom, his spiritual father, Nathaniel Turner removed himself from the tyranny of the Turners. 

Nathaniel Turner took his destiny into his own hands. He ran into the forests and swamps of Southampton and concealed himself from his pursuers. On running away, Turner had concluded he had misunderstood the meaning of his two revelations. In spiritual turmoil, Tuner dismissed the voice of the Holy Spirit as a fancy of his own “fertile imagination.”

With his fellow servants and religionists, Nathaniel Turner generated many discussions on the Spirit’s harking on the notion of seeking the “the kingdom of heaven.” What was it indeed, this “kingdom”? Was it something other-worldly or this-worldly? Or both? Turner believed that religion had to do with God in this world and only secondarily the afterlife. For him, the revelation hinged on the “promise” made to him personally by those who knew God: Harriet and Benjamin Turner. That is, that he was unfit for slavery, that he would gain his freedom. The promise that Christ made, however, was one he had made to all who would hear. Christ promised the “kingdom” to all, legally slave or legally free..

The Christian message is a universal one. God is a benevolent spirit that infuses all humanity. In God’s righteousness, “no one can be completely whole unless the rights of all are respected” (Prophecy in Israel, p. 165). At this stage of his spiritual development, Nathaniel still thought his religion was a matter of simple piety and personal discipline; contriteness for sins, primarily, those of envy and pride. He exceeded all in these observances. He believed he had paid the price for personal salvation and his freedom. 

At this time, Turner wanted God to liberate him, in an instance, miraculously, raise him from that drudgery and depression that was slave life. He had lived so that God could use him. He had expected salvation and freedom to be rolled together neatly and presented ceremoniously. His new life in Christ, however, got off to a rocky and unexpected start.

Seeking his own redemption, Turner wandered off into the wilderness surrounding the hamlet of Cross Keys. As with Moses, God had a different plan for him. Like Moses, Nathaniel needed to be taught by God a new patience as well as grace, if he were to be God’s instrument of righteousness. Turner evaded patrollers, their dogs, and their guns. Like Jonah in the whale’s belly, Turner was effaced in the nearby woods and swamps. 

God shielded Turner from his pursuers. Under every bush and by every bog, the slaveholders looked feverishly for Nathaniel, but did not discover him. This escape and disappearance retains its quality of supernaturalism. This disappearance in the wilderness was the fourth miracle that Turner reported in the “1831 Confessions.”

In his soul’s torment, Turner was alone in the dark wood, immersed in feelings of loss, in need of solace and comfort. Jeremiah’s narrative and its minor theme of betrayal and loss may have given Turner curious comfort. Jeremiah was God’s prophet and he prophesied for the Lord. Like Turner, Jeremiah was punished when he expected to be rewarded. Jeremiah was lowered into a well with no water and left there to die in the mud. Satan sometimes attempts to undermine our faith and spirit and places us in the mud (The African Presence in the Bible, p. 73). 

In the muddy swamps of Cross Keys, Turner would have understood Jeremiah’s reproach. “Righteous art thou, O Lord, when I plead with thee: yet let me talk with thee of thy judgments: Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are all they happy that deal very treacherously” (Jeremiah12.1). Turner kept running. Help, however, was on the way. As the Virginia Negro knew, in his wisdom of the centuries, man can’t run from God.

Ever which way Nathaniel  turned, the Spirit of the Lord stood in his path. The Spirit of God stopped his flight, made him acknowledge his egoism, his eager desire to impress his fellow servants with his genius and heavenly gifts. “The Spirit appeared to me,” Turner told Gray in his “1831 Confessions,” “and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master—‘For he who knoweth his Master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes, and thus have I chastened you’.” 

This revelation corresponds to Luke 12.47. Much of the 12th chapter of Luke, according to McKenzie, “emphasizes the total renunciation demanded of the followers of Jesus” (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 526). God’s concerns were greater than Nathaniel’s individual freedom from bondage. The “things of this world,” our self-interests, are that which separate us from God. The “kingdom of heaven” is not identical to personal freedoms, privileges, or rights.

Of course, Turner was “fit for the kingdom.” In the beatitudes (Matthew 5.3-10), Jesus indicates that “ancestry, wealth or culture—carries no influence.” Those most fit included the “poor, the meek, those who hunger and thirst and are persecuted” (Spirituality of the New Testament, p. 29). The “kingdom” concerns itself with a greater justice, which includes, first and foremost, obedience. Neither angel nor saint can do as his own mind determined. 

Nathaniel gradually began to understand God was calling him to a special mission, a special destiny, in a particular place, that is, in Cross Keys. But what? Nathaniel had to wait on God; as did the Old Testament prophets, Job and Abraham, who waited until old age to receive God’s full promise. As the Old Folks say, God does not always come when you want him, yet he is always on time. The duty of the Christian is to watch and pray.

His spiritual education incomplete, Nathaniel did not yet understand that God was not working for him, but rather through him, so that a greater freedom for all could come into being. Turner’s destiny was different than that of Tom, his surrogate grandfather. As some reports have it, Tom eventually found a home in Liberia and disappeared historically into the forests of an alien world on the other side of the Atlantic. 

After thirty days, Nathaniel Turner, however, returned to Samuel Turner in Cross Keys a new man, a man born again in faith of Christ’s saving grace. Turner’s wilderness experiences have been memorialized in the spiritual “Come Out of the Wilderness,” sometimes published in United Methodist Hymnals as “Turner” (“African American Spirituals,” pp. 161; 167). Turner trusted in God. But his fellow servants murmured against him: that if they had his sense, they would serve no master. The “Master” that Turner had to serve fully, was not his earthly master, Samuel Turner, but Christ himself.

Turner’s wilderness experience with the Holy Spirit was a spiritual lesson. Nathaniel Turner can teach us something here about how to come closer to God and how to go about doing God’s work. Turner’s return to a difficult situation and its hardships on faith that he would yet be in God’s favor corresponds to the beginning of Wesley’s stage two, namely, justifying grace. This state of grace goes beyond a knowledge of doctrines. For even Satan knows that Jesus is Christ. Wesley believed, according to Ted Campbell, “The faith by which we are justified involves not merely knowledge about Christ; it involves heartfelt trust in Christ” (Methodist Doctrine, p. 56). 

Devotion to the divinity, to Christ,  Nathaniel discovered, did not guarantee material prosperity nor freedom from one’s earthly master. There was a greater bondage than that of the body. To bring forth the “kingdom of heaven” required sacrifice by the apostles of Christ. Earthly honor or power was not that which characterized those who desired authority in the body of Christ.

The bursting of spiritual bubbles, of self-justification was not a too uncommon phenomenon for beginning religionists. In her “The Life and Religious Experience” (1836), Jarena Lee, who was first awakened by the Reverend Richard Allen, reported such an experience. Jarena, the exhorter, was moved by a particular biblical passage, Acts 8.21: “I perceived my heart is not right in the sight of God.” She had a few spiritual successes, felt convicted and justified. She then received a religious visit from William Scott, “a man of full stature in Christ Jesus.”

He told me the progress of the soul from a state of darkness, or of nature, was threefold; or consisted of three degrees, as follows:—First, conviction for sin. Second, justification from sin. Third, the entire sanctification of the soul to God. I thought this description was beautiful, and immediately believed in it. He then inquired if I would promise to pray for this in my secret devotions. . . . I began to call upon the Lord . . . Now there to be a new struggle commencing in my soul . . . . I began now to feel that my heart was not clean in his sight; that there yet remained the roots of bitterness. . . . (Sisters of the Spirit, p. 33).

Jarena Lee concluded she still had work to do, that she had more praying to do. Like Jarena, Nathaniel too had been tempted by Satan into disobedience.

Nathaniel wanted more than what the Turner family and other Christian slaveowners were willing to offer or possibly could offer. With respect to their Christian slave, these were men who operated on two stops: deceit and greed. At this stage, Nathaniel Turner was just beginning to know that man’s justice was a mere shadow of God’s righteousness. Turner arrived thus at an existential crossroads. Like Kierkegaard at twenty-two years old, Turner did not know what the divinity wanted him to do (“Master of Irony Demystified,” p. 238). 

Despite his misgivings and fears, Turner obeyed the Holy Spirit and returned to Cross Keys to live under the tyranny of Sam Turner. To do the work of the Lord, Nathaniel had to first trust the Lord and obey him in all things. There was still much more that Nathaniel would have to undergo before he reached the holiness and the freedom he sought. Unknown to him, at the time, Nathaniel Turner would have only nine more years before he raised himself above bitterness and the horrors of this world..

Sources Consulted

Andrews, William L. ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Campbell, Ted A. Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.

Crites, Stephen. “Master of Irony Demystified,” Rev. of Josiah Thompson, Kierkegaard (Alfred A. Knopf), The Journal of Religion, 55 (April 1975), pp. 235-246.

Grossouw, W. K. Spirituality of the New Testament. London: B. Herder Book Company, 1961. 

Lee, Stephen M. Lee. “African American Spirituals: A Synoptic Analysis of Seventy Hymnal Inscriptions in Six Protestant Hymnals.” The Journal of Interdenominational Theological Center. Vol. XXVII, Numbers 1 and 2, Fall 1999/Spring 2000, pp. 137-178.

McKenzie, John L. Dictionary of the Bible. Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965.

Tucker, Gene M. “The Role of the Prophets and the Role of the Church.” In David L. Petersen, ed. Prophecy in Israel: Search for an Identity (Issues in Religion and Theology 10). Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987, pp. 159-174.

Watley, William D. and Raquel Annette St. Clair. The African Presence in the Bible: Gospel Sermons Rooted in History. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 2000.

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Nathaniel Turner

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

Chapter 10 The Revelations Begin / Chapter 12 Satan’s Advancing Kingdom

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Sisters of the Spirit

Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century

Edited by William L. Andrews

Andrews, a University of Wisconsin English professor, has collected the spiritual autobiographies of Jarena Lee, Zilpha Elaw and Julia Foote, who preached the gospel from 1836 to 1879 and were pioneers as women, preachers and blacks at a time when slavery was ending in the U.S. These memoirs chronicle difficult childhoods, religious conversions in revival camp meetings and adult lives dedicated to saving souls across black and white America. While some readers may find the evangelical language slow going, these texts remain important documents of racial and feminist radicalism in American religious life.—Publishers Weekly

Sisters of the Spirit… should interest a wider audience. . . . These fascinating accounts can stand on their own. . . . Mr. Andrews has made them even more accessible by providing a comprehensive introduction and helpful footnotes… but he does not intrude on the text itself.—New York Times Book Review

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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update 28 June 2008




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