ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis



Sec. 4, Ch. 24 –Wrestling with Spiritual Wickedness

Leadership & Other Values


Even though his strategy and tactics were extremely efficient, historical critics, such as Benjamin Quarles, have viewed Turner as one lacking in leadership skills (The Negro in the Making of America, p. 82). For some slaveholders, Turner was ignorant of the forces arrayed against him and thus he led his men blindly into a devastating defeat. Such an assertion seems, however, more applicable to John Brown than Nat Turner (Lacey Baldwin Smith, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 146). Many prefer to lay at the feet of Turner the reactionary laws that took hold after Turner’s war. 

For these detractors, Turner comes in a far third when compared to Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey and yet even farther down the list from the glorified and much considered John Brown. For the faultfinders, Turner’s ineptness can be observed in his military preparations or lack thereof, and the lack of discipline of his Christian army, especially mirrored in his men’s use of brandy to fuel their passions.

These circumstances, however, must be examined in the context of the control mechanisms used by Christian slaveowners and the isolation of the setting in which the war unfolded. Any sympathetic reading will reveal that Nat Turner’s management of seventy men involved in life and death circumstances was most miraculous. Turner and his Christian soldiers were up against the wall, battling the odds of might and numbers, fear and death. Despite the criticism of his detractors, the fact remains, of the Big Three, only Turner experienced the battlefield and managed men engaged in the horrors of bloody war.

There are those who have been befuddled by the scene of Turner and his military drills. For the racially self-conscious, this occasion lends itself too much to race mockery. In his The Southampton Insurrection (1900), William S. Drewry contributed to this disparaging view by describing Turner and his men through a minstrel lens. According to Drewry, Turner’s men “decorated themselves in the most ludicrous and fantastic style, with feathers in their hats and long red sashes around their waists and over their shoulders (Johnson, p. 82). 

Such terms as “ludicrous and fantastic style” poison the well. Such dress seems no more fantastic than powdered wigs and hooped skirts which were still popular in that era.

Moreover, it was not as if these Christian soldiers shopped at a bazaar and bought such clothing. All articles worn were found among their masters’ possessions, clothes their masters still thought the fashion. They may have indeed combined liberated clothing in a novel fashion, maybe even haphazardly. Such radical breaks with oppression induce the fantasy of wild celebration. Drewry directed his attack at the emotionalism of the Christian slaves. This “emotionalism,” however, was not a “racial factor,” as many would read this situation. Such emotional responses were religious in nature, a release of the Holy Spirit:

The powerful oratory of a Johns Wesley or a George Whitefield, both of whom were famed for reducing their audiences—men and women alike—to tears, was often decried as a form of demagoguery. Like radical democrats, evangelists in the Whitefieldian mode used simple but emotionally powerful words and images to elicit feelings of anger, disgust, and resentment against Satan emissaries (usually the standing clergy) (Juster, par. 15).

Clearly, Drewry had not only a racial but also a class perspective, an ideological view of the relationship of reason and revelation. In this light, there is no real sting in Drewry’s remarks that undermine the religious seriousness of Turner’s Christian soldiers. His approach, however, lacked grace and context.

Drewry was as morally and socially blind as his kindred who died in the Cross Keys holy war. Thus Drewry can not be allowed to set the standard by which men liberate themselves from oppression. Indeed, there are standards more appropriate. According to Basil the Great of the fourth century, one can in military life “preserve the perfection for the love of God, and that Christians should be marked, not by the fashion of their clothing, but by the disposition of their soul” (Wood, p. 158). Such measure we should grant Turner’s Christian men and their intent.

Though the scene drawn by Drewry may have been aesthetically abhorrent, by some standards, the circumstances were relevant and useful to Turner’s purpose to get the war off the ground. As can be seen in the skirmish at Parker’s Field, Turner’s brief “manoeuvres” were timely and appropriate. Though outgunned, Turner’s Christian soldiers stood their ground and pushed the enemy back. Of more significance the military drills were symbolic and necessary. 

Nathaniel Turner and his men went forth not as murderers, robbers, “banditti,” thugs. Turner and his Christian slaves were soldiers in the Army of the Lord. They went forth righteous, like Joshua, to slay God’s enemies. Their intent was to lead the people into a new spiritual land and to establish a new covenant with Christ, one radically different from that of their masters..

To evaluate Turner’s leadership realistically, one must take a broader view and ask the more crucial question. How does one in an hour make a slave into a soldier, to fight against impossible odds? Those Christian slaves, those men and women young and old, had been taught a life time by word and body, a life of servility, docility, subservience to any man, woman, or child, with a white skin—forced to live that lie, under threat of flogging or death, no protection by any judicial system. 

Turner’s Christian slaves had been shoved downward to the life of the beast, so that they could think of nothing but the basics of life—enough food, enough clothes, enough shoes, when there was not food enough, nor clothes, nor shoes; walking barefooted on hot soil and frozen earth, no change of clothes, always hungry. How can one whip such men into “soldiers,” when one is a slave among them? How can any quality of leadership arise out of such conditions of human debasement? Near impossible. Yet that was the spiritual gift that was Nat Turner, never surpassed in antebellum America.

There is yet another circumstance that arose during the Rebellion that still troubles many. Turner’s silence on his men’s drinking a prodigious quantity of brandy calls into question, for some, the religious character of Turner’s Rebellion and the dignity of his leadership. “There was brandy in abundance, and barrels of the beverage were rolled into the yard and an end knocked out of each,” according to F. Roy Johnson. Some of the insurgents “drunk freely of apple brandy mixed with gunpowder” (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, pp. 89, 92). In southeastern Virginia, especially in Southampton, there was much profit that came from the selling of brandy; all kinds, apple, peach, and so on.

Every farm had a wine press and Virginia brandy was thought to be excellent. The Negroes made it, but they were not allowed to partake of it. It was too valuable. Moreover, it was dangerous, and threatened order. How appropriate, it seems, that these Christian slaveowners should reap the whirlwind that they sowed. The spirits of brandy shattered the mental chains of moral drills, servile manners, and threats of punishment. One is made merry. 

In a manner one can step outside of “drudgery time,” as long as the spirits last and one’s constitution withstand the rush, though there may be hell to pay. In a slave’s life, now and again, a man deserves a little joy; a place and a time, he can be his own man, dance his own spirit, especially if he is to meet his death.

Turner’s “drunken insurgents,” his detractors have charged, contributed to the “failure” of the Rebellion. If Turner’s army had been a regular professional army, or even a militia, that argument would have its bite. If Turner’s goal were that of Prosser and Vesey and if his strategy were their strategy, the tenor of that argument would be a fair assessment. But that was not the case. Turner’s ends were spiritual rather than political; his source of inspiration divine rather than secular. Thus, this type of criticism, this type of argument is inappropriate.

For Turner, brandy had its role to play. It had its desired effect. It was a curious divine irony. That which the slaveholders made their highest profit would be their greatest undoing. Christian slaves, for a moment, released from their hearts the courage of righteous men. Though it was only for a day (22 August 1831), seventy Christian soldiers and their sympathizers brought freedom to Cross Keys. A new world came into existence, if only for a moment, in which the “last became first.” The self-styled gods of slaveholding were not as invincible and thorough in their indoctrination as had been imagined.

Jubilee came 22 August 1831. Bells rang in Christian hearts that longed for freedom. Black men and women ate food they never could have eaten; wore clothes and shoes, they never possessed. They drank the best of the master’s brandy, and what they didn’t drink, they spilled on the ground and complained of its quality. That Turner should be puritanical in this instance is pure unadulterated nonsense. For Turner to begin his Rebellion by proscribing the use of brandy, by exacting his own puritanical views upon such men in such circumstances, would have been a clear prescription for failure. 

Turner’s war concerned itself with greater sins than the petty ones related to the drinking of the master’s brandy. The violations of marital vows and the abuse of women and flesh peddling were sins that touch the very center of Christian civility. For many a Christian slave, it was a good day to live, and it was a good day to die. In the face of great odds and dire consequences, Turner’s soldiers, black men like Henry Porter and women like Lucy Barrow, served him well in the “great work” of Southampton.

Despite its horrors, a residue of natural awe and admiration adheres to the Turner Rebellion in its innocence and simplicity. Turner, however, was not the ignorant, bumbling fool some have made him out to be. That too may be more true of John Brown’s life and his attack on Harper’s Ferry (Smith, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, pp. 245-247). Turner understood the odds, the racial proportions of the county and the country. Clearly, he understood that there were nearly as many whites in Southampton as Negroes. 

Locally, his racial odds were better than those of John Brown in the Virginia mountain region. Turner was not oblivious to the reality that whites were mightily armed and trained and, worst, fierce when riled. Thus, his holy war would not have been by necessity “made perfect” by a “well-disciplined force,” men braver, stronger, more skilled and determined.

In the Richmond Enquirer (January 24, 1832), General William H. Broadnax, who led the clean up of the Turner Rebellion, asserted: “With the relative moral, intellectual and scientific advantages which we [the slaveholders and their sympathizers] possess, the numerical superiority of our slaves would have to become at least twenty to one, before any probable prospect would exist, of a successful general rebellion.” Actually, in Southampton, blacks outnumbered whites, 9501 to 6573, respectively (Aptheker, p. 15). 

For Brown, “the area around Harpers Ferry contained only 18,048 slaves in a total white population of 125, 449, and the vast majority were relatively well-off household servants” (Smith, Fools, Martyrs and Traitors, p. 247). Only in a civil war, Broadnax added, would the numerical advantages of Christian slaves become important (Foner, p. 111).

Turner had local, county, and state forces. But also, as in the John Brown seizure of Harpers Ferry, the federal army supported the state with its armed forces. The United States Constitution required the federal government to intervene in the suppression of servile insurrections (Article 1, Section 7). But Nat Turner had no plan of geographical or political conquest. Turner was operating in a transhistorical context. He was not concerned about the odds. Such was the case also with John Brown (Smith, Fools, Martyrs, Traitors, p. 249). 

Turner knew, however, God makes up the difference, and in his own time. A holy war is not won in a day. Christian history is measured in terms of the millennium. Prayer or the evoking of the divine does not guarantee immediate or thorough or final resolutions of sin and evil in the world. God has his own schedule and he can not be rushed. Each of us, however, Turner believed, is responsible to his utmost to bring forth the grace and salvation of the Lord, that is, the “kingdom of heaven.”

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update  5 July 2012




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