Insurrection or Holy War

Insurrection or Holy War


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. 27 — Blood on the Cross

Insurrection or Holy War?

And your name it might be Caesar sure,And got your cannon can shoot a mile or more, But you can’t keep the world from moving around Nor Old Nat Turner from gaining ground.

Folk Saying, ca. mid-19th century


However much perceived as “fanatical,” Nathaniel Turner, the man unveiled in the “Confessions,” was a man of conscience who chose death and martyrdom to a convenient, comfortable, self-serving freedom. After more than a century, his calm self-assurance in the midst of torture and human slaughter has extended itself into our contemporary world, possessing still the power yet to fascinate and overwhelm us. 

If Turner were indeed “mad,” as his detractors have argued, it was the indignant madness of Christian manhood. If one would not stand up against the abominations of Cross Keys slavery, what indeed would one stand against? Turner intended to pay for his purported crimes with his own life.

In the very first lines of his narrative, Turner asserted his readiness “to atone at the gallows” for having “laid the groundwork of that enthusiasm, which . . . terminated so fatally to many, both white and black.” Like Wesley, Turner was not inclined toward emotionalism bereft of the divine logos. Turner did not rush into a holy war. His relationship with Christ began when he was seventeen years old. 

At that time, the Holy Spirit urged him, “Seek ye the kingdom of heaven.” That was his spiritual program for the last fourteen years of his life. Pure emotionalism could not have sustained itself over such a period. The decision to make war on Cross Keys came about ever so gradually and reluctantly. Turner did not rush toward his death nor the death of others.

At his trial, November 5, 1831, Turner made a statement seemingly at odds to that which he made in the “Confessions.” When he was brought into the slave court and arraigned “for making insurrection, and plotting to take away the lives of divers free white persons,” Turner “pleaded Not guilty; saying to his counsel, that he did not feel so” (Foner, 52-53). 

Turner was “Not guilty” yet he was ready “to atone.” Though he expressed no regret for the slaughter of the slaveowners, Turner willingly accepted the responsibility for the actions of those who followed him. If there was no guilt, why atone? Turner’s seemingly contradictory response to his moral dilemma can be understood only in the context of his Christian consciousness.

The legalistic, secular language used by the Court causes the linguistic confusion. Turner had no independent legal status and thus he gave no credence to the farce of the slave court.. Turner did not discover his identity, his humanity in the laws of Virginia and so he refused to be categorized by its terminology. The Court and Turner spoke two different languages: one, political and legal; the other, religious and symbolical. In the “Confessions,” Turner addressed Gray, “Sir, you have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it.” 

Like the slave court, Gray used the term “insurrection” to describe Turner’s religious war against Cross Keys slaveholders. Turner chose not to characterize that which he and others had done by the legal term. Thus, Turner spoke incisively and truthfully when he said he was not guilty of “insurrection.”

“Insurrection” implies a revolt or a rebellion against political authority. Turner’s Rebellion was only incidentally an attack on political authority. Turner was not a proto-John Brown. His war had a religious source, not a political one. Turner’s war had to do with the moral world in which Christian slaves and Christian slaveholders interacted. Most commentators on the deeds of Southampton, however, have tried to stuff Turner into the Napoleonic or Toussaint L’Ouverture mold of “revolutionary” hero.

Turner’s objections to the term “insurrections” signaled, as the rejection of July 4th signaled, to his reader that his war was outside the traditional political arena. Turner rejected such political terms as “insurgent,” “insurrectionist,” and “revolutionary.” Turner’s war was of a magnitude that such terms failed to encompass the strivings of Christian slaves.

In the “Confessions,” Turner turned his narration immediately away from the tones of politics to those of religion and to the role played by the divine in his birth. What Gray called “insurrection,” Turner offered such terms as “great promise,” “great purpose,” “fight the Serpent,” “great work,” and “work of death.” In Turner’s lexicon, these were religious terms. 

Clearly, Turner did not use the term “holy war.” But that is indeed the implication of his narrative. Clearly, he believed he operated under divine sanction. The general view, however, continues to be that Turner was driven unconsciously by material external forces— political, economic, social, international (Aptheker, pp. 7-32).

Though negative materialistic factors existed, Turner used none of these as a means to explain the “history” of the “insurrection.” As far as we know Turner was willing to accommodate slavery in the Pauline sense. Turner’s primary impulse was a moral and ethical one. Clearly, in the “Confessions,” the recurring underlying question that Turner posed was, What is just and Christian? 

Slaveholders in Cross Keys had perverted the new covenant of Christ, committing intolerable abominations. From his religious perspective God was indeed just. As an ascetic, Turner wanted no compromise with the Law, the Ten Commandments. He felt no guilt for the sacrifice God required of him. For he who “loses his life for [Christ] sake and for the Gospels’ sake will save it” (Mark 8.34-38).

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update15 December 2011




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