Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Nat Turner: Baptist preacher, Rebel leader

A drawing of Turner which appeared in
Slave Insurrections in Virginia
Last night (19 Feb 2018) I found time to read The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va., as told to Thomas R. Gray (Baltimore, MD: Lucas & Deaver, 1831).[i]

Nat, a slave commonly known as Nat Turner, according to his own testimony was born October 2, 1800 on the plantation of Benjamin Turner in Southampton County, Virginia. He was taught reading and writing from the Bible, embraced the Christian religion, and became a preacher. With only these characteristics to recommend him, he might have been lost to history, but in August of 1831 he became the leader of a bloody slave rebellion in Virginia. Because of this his name has passed down in the annals of time.

From the time he was a young child, his family and other slaves considered him to be a prophet (or at least destined to be prophet). Turner was very religious and spent much of his free time reading the Bible, fasting, and praying. Probably sometime between 1825 and 1830 he became a preacher and preached to other slaves. His ability as a preacher and his personal charisma allowed him to attract a good number of followers. Turner was sold several times and no longer part of the Turner plantation by the time of his rebellion. By that time he worked for Joseph Travis (actually belonging to Travis’s stepson, Putnam Moore). According to Gray’s report, Nat said, “Since the commencement of 1830, I had begun living with Mr. Joseph Travis, who was to me a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me.” (Confessions, p. 11)

According to most accounts, Nat Turner was a Baptist preacher (though there is at least one statement by Turner that calls that into question). Drewry wrote, “He was a careful student of the Bible, a Baptist preacher, read the newspapers and every book within his reach, and listened attentively to the discussions of political and social questions by the best and most enlightened men of the country.” (p. 113; cf. also p. 26) Turner believed in signs and visions – which would not necessarily be unusual for a Baptist preacher in the 1830s[ii] – and it was through these that he eventually interpreted his mission of insurrection. In 1825 he had a vision of a conflict between black and white spirits, where “the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams.”[iii] In his confession, Turner explained another message from God: “the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent.” Later he would view an eclipse of the Sun in February 1831 as a sign to plan the insurrection. It would ultimately be scheduled for August 21, 1831.

A writer in The Atlantic Monthly stressed, “He never was a Baptist preacher, though such vocation has often been attributed to him. The impression arose from his having immersed himself, during one of his periods of special enthusiasm, together with a poor white man named Brantley.”[iv] This refers to Turner’s statement recorded on page 11 of his Confessions: “About this time I told these things to a white man, (Etheldred T. Brantley) on whom it had a wonderful effect—and he ceased from his wickedness, and was attacked immediately with a cutaneous eruption, and the blood ozed (sic) from the pores of his skin, and after praying and fasting nine days, he was healed, and the Spirit appeared to me again, and said, as the Saviour had been baptised, so should we be also—and when the white people would not let us be baptized by the church, we went down into the water together, in the sight of many who reviled us, and were baptised by the Spirit—After this I rejoiced greatly and gave thanks to God.” The Atlantic Monthly writer assumes this account gives rise to the idea that Turner was a Baptist. But a careful reading of the statement, taking it literally, would mean that though Turner was possibly a Baptist in sentiment, he was not a Baptist and not a member of a Baptist Church – that is, if “the white people would not let us be baptized by the church.” There is reason to question such a literal construction of the statement, though, since it was common for slaves to be received as church members and baptized on profession of faith.[v] One wonders, then, if Turner’s story may have meant that the church objected to a black slave baptizing a white free man. Perhaps this is a “second” and self-baptism by Turner to identify himself with the one he is baptizing? Absent finding a record of Nat Turner joining a Southampton County church, we may never know the answer to his Baptist connections.

The bloody revolt planned and guided by Turner began in the early morning hours of August 21, 1831. With his followers Turner led a series of attacks – going from house to house killing men, women, and children – beginning with his own master’s household. Most sources (including Confessions, p. 22) relate that about 55 people were killed in Turner’s rebellion. Within two days the rebellion was broken, but Turner hid successfully for nearly two months before being captured. He was tried and hung at Jerusalem, Virginia on November 11, 1831. It might be (and has been) argued that in the long view the Turner Rebellion helped the anti-slavery cause, but its most immediate effects were executions of blacks (some of whom probably had no connection to the rebellion, and some who were not slaves), harsher laws against slaves, and stiffening of pro-slavery resolve. Turner had not led his followers from bondage, but led them to dispersion, death, destruction, and denigration. Whites lived in fear more slave rebellions. Blacks lived in fear of being lynched. 

According to the extremes, Nat Turner may be considered either a hero or a villain, but certainly he was a man of his times – a perhaps unusual one as an educated slave, but a man of his times, nevertheless. It seems that it was important to both Turner and his white narrators that he not be seen as a man exacting vengeance of those who mistreated him (though probably for different reasons). Drewry wrote that “Cruel treatment was not a motive for the rebellion” (Slave Insurrections, p. 115) and Gray explained that the insurrection “was not instigated by motives of revenge or sudden anger, but the result of long deliberation, and a settled purpose of mind.” (Confessions, p. 5) Turner himself did not see the conflict as a matter of personal vengeance against his oppressors, but a call of God to execute God’s judgment. He confessed that on May 12, 1828, the Spirit told him he should take on the yoke of Christ and “fight against the Serpent.” Did Turner couch revenge in spiritual terminology? Perhaps. But his long-known spiritual tendencies suggest a true sincerity of belief existed (but that might not have been present in many of the co-conspirators).[vi] Gray connected the voices and visions with madness, thereby explaining both the religion and rebellion. All told, the entire account reveals how violence begets violence that is returned by violence – and that spiritual men need to be extremely careful how they interpret their spiritual impressions.

[Note: I found this after I finished the article, so my article does not have the benefit of these sources. The Nat Turner Project is a digital archive of original documents related to the Turner rebellion newspaper articles, diary entries, letters, maps, trials transcripts, census records, pamphlets, petitions, and other types of sources created at the time the revolt occurred. According to the Project, “The collection of primary sources in this archive allows you to create your own interpretations of the rebellion, its black participants, its white targets, and its enigmatic leader” and “In some respects, the historical documents available about the revolt raise as many questions as they answer.”]
Unknown Woodcut titled “Horrid Massacre in Virginia,” which appeared in Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene which was Witnessed in Southampton County (Virginia) on Monday the 22d of August Last

Books about Nat Turner
Links to stories about Nat Turner

[i] In his preface to Slave Insurrections in Virginia (1830-1865) (p. 7), William Sidney Drewry wrote, “This attempt to separate truth from fiction has been exceedingly difficult, owing to the numerous misrepresentations and exaggerations which have grown up about the subject.” In the attempt, he conducted interviews in Southampton County, including with former slaves and former masters. I make no claim that I am able to separate the truth from fiction, but believe the story is worth telling. If Turner was a Baptist preacher, his story is part of Baptist history. I have assumed a general reliability of The Confessions of Nat Turner, as told by Gray which purports to be Turner’s own statement. It was supposedly read to Turner in the presence of witnesses and he “acknowledged the same to be full, free, and voluntary.” This is not to say that these people had no interest in shading the truth. Certainly they were not neutral. On the other hand, at trial Nat Turner was asked whether he had anything else to say and he replied, “I have not. I have made a full confession to Mr. Gray and I have nothing more to say.” (See pages 5 and 20.) This is also not to say whether Turner had an interest in presenting his rebellion in a certain light – though he must have known that a death sentence was inevitable regardless of how he told the story.
[ii] For example, Shubal Stearns claimed a direct revelation from God after a thunderstorm in September 1769. “As he was ascending a hill in his way home he observed in the horizon a white heap like snow; upon drawing near he perceived the heap to stand suspended in the air about fifteen or15 to twenty feet above the ground. Presently it fell to the ground and divided itself into three parts; the greatest part moved northward; a less towards the south; and the third, which was less than either but much brighter, remained on the spot where the whole fell; as his eyes followed that which went northward, it vanished; he turned to look at the other, and found that they also had disappeared. While the old man pondered what phantom the division, and motions of it meant, the thought struck him: ‘The bright heap is our religious interest; which will divide and spread north and south, but chiefly northward; while a small part remains at Sandy Creek’.” (See Morgan Edwards, Materials Towards a History of the Baptists, Volume 2, p. 94) The visions of Turner are nevertheless extreme compared to the spiritual impressions of most Baptists of his day.
[iii] The Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 10
[v] There are numerous historical examples of this. One example can be found in the history of First African Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, roughly 75 miles north of the area where Nat Turner lived, mentions blacks who were members of the (white) First Baptist Church of Richmond in the 1830s.
[vi] Turner’s inability to “give a death blow” to Mr. Travis and Mrs. Newsome, and the struggle to kill Margaret Whitehead may also suggest he did not have the rage that some of the other rebels exhibited. (Confessions, pp. 12-134) In fact, Turner only admitted to killing one person.

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