Nat Turner: A Preacher Turned Captain

Who Gets to Be Righteous?

Branden Janese
Aug 27, 2020 - 11:48

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At one point in time, righteousness revolved around religion. The Great Awakening (1730-1740) suggested that anyone could achieve righteousness by committing to Christianity and following the words of the bible. 

At this time, slavery was legally practiced in the English colonies of America, and when John Edwards and Geroge Whitefield preached to slave owners the importance of baptizing enslaved people, it worked. The Great Awakening ignited a revival in the nation that had seemed to put the fear of God inside the hearts of monstrous Southern planters and many slave owners had bowed to submission and allowed enslaved Africans to worship Jesus Christ. At the same time, the introduction of Christianity to the enslaved population was equivalent to bearing them with spiritual arms, the Holy Bible was a small form of protection for enslaved Africans. 

On the heels of this spiritual emancipation, America started a bloody insurrection in hopes of gaining her independence from the British Empire. When America declared her independence in 1776, God and Christianity, and Jesus Christ were widely credited for the war ending in America’s favor. The narrative spread that America had won a righteous war with support from the hands of the Almighty. Preachers continued to teach Christianity to enslaved Africans and by 1790, there were 10,000 Black methodists and 20,000 Black baptists in the country. Black religious life swelled in the South and changed the religious complexity of the land. From 1770 to 1820, millions of kidnapped Africans were sold in Virginia, Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas, where they learned basic Christianity, built churches, performed baptisms, and the literate and illiterate both were ordained to preach the word. If nothing else, the messages from the Holy Bible became the great equalizer among the races.  

This idea of enslaved folx getting woke terrified plantation owners, before and after the Great Awakening. Slave trading whites knew what they were doing was wrong, one may even call the torture and unpaid, forced labor, and rape a sin of God. What if the enslaved African interpreted the Holy Bible correctly, and demanded righteous justice and freedom from their horrific bondage? When the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) first placed Anglican missionaries in the Carolinas in the 1700s, they noted,   

“Early in 1710 Le Jau reported to his superiors in London that “thro his Learning … The best scholar of all the negroes” in Goose Creek, “a very sober and honest Liver,” seemed “likely to Create some Confusion among all the Negroes in the County.” Apparently this man had placed his own interpretation “upon some Words of the Holy Prophet’s which he had read” concerning “the several judgments that Chastise Men because of their Sins in these latter days.” Whether he included slaveholding among these “Sins” is unclear. What is clear, however, is that this man had “told his Master abruptly that there would be a dismal time and the Moon would be turned into Blood, and there would be dearth of darkness.” His dire prophecies had been overheard by another slave, and soon “it was publicly blazed abroad that an Angel came and spoke to the Man, he had seen a hand that gave him a Book, he had heard Voices, he had seen fires, etc.”

Over one hundred years later, Nat Turner had a similar biblically inspired dream in 1831.

Nat Turner had learned to read as a child and he mainly read the Holy Bible. He began preaching the gospel to enslaved Black folx in and around the Southampton, Virginia plantation he lived on. He was so galvanizing in his oration that his congregants gave him the handle Old Prophet Nat. It wasn’t long before Turner started to be exploited. He was used as a traveling preacher by plantation owners who needed a man of God to remind the Black people in bondage that they were, in fact, not fed up with torture, or, tired from arduous daily labor because God demanded they are obedient to their masters.

Nat used the word of God in August 1831 to lead the bloodiest revolt on American soil. He gathered men from the Southampton area and planned a revolt. Old Prophet Nat preached about a dream he had to lay the swift hand of God on top of the heads and hearts of Virginia’s white plantation owners. As soon as he laid out the plan of attack and escape to Jerusalem, Virginia, Old Prophet Nat had transitioned into Captain Nat. He led about 70 Black men to plantations in the middle of the night, murdered the families in the big houses and recruited the families in the slave quarters to join his band of freemen to take arms in the Black American revolution. 

After a few days, Turner’s Revolt ended with a standoff between the militia and Captain Nat’s men. Outnumbered and overpowered, the freemen lost the battle and those who were not killed were taken from the battlefield and lynched for their participation in the revolt. Turner himself had escaped and survived for two months before being captured in early October and lynched on November 11, 1831.

In the end, 55-60 white men, women and children were dead, killed by the same hands that were forced to till their land and raise their young. 

Captain Nat’s story marks the turning point for Black American culture in every possible way. The foundation of Black life is the church. Our music, our energy, our style, our love for God, and our communal traditions all are deeply rooted in the Black Church. Thousands of enslaved people used the magic of Black oration as a pathway to literacy and political power.

After Old Prophet Nat’s beautiful revenge plot was executed, Black liberation was ignited in a sense.  

Four months after Nat’s death, the General Assembly of Virginia passed CHAP. XXII.

— “an act reducing into one the several acts concerning slaves, free negroes and mulattoes, and for other purposes.”  

Its first clause gave Black people the freedom they needed to be righteous in a land soaked in sin.

“Be it enacted by the general assembly, That no slave, free negro, or mulatto, whether he shall have been ordained or licensed, or otherwise, shall hereafter undertake to preach, exhort or conduct, or hold any assembly, or meeting, for religious or other purposes, either in the day time, or at night; and any slave, free negro or mulatto, so offending, shall for every such offense, be punished with stripes, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes; and any person desiring so to do, shall have authority, without any previous written precept or otherwise, to apprehend any such offender, and carry him before such justice.”

This law didn’t stop anything except for public displays of Black religiosity. This law was a gift. It meant that no longer would Black people have to share spiritual space with slave trading, sin-stained white folx. These laws forced Black folx (who had been practicing Christianity for over 100 years and had come to have a profound faith in the Lord) to create invisible institutions and ‘Hush Harbors’ where they worshiped in private without the pitiful gaze or unwanted influence of white energy to disrupt their service. This was a private connection to God. This segregation of spiritual practice created a space for Black folx to build the foundation of our entire culture. Isolated in the woods, under a starry Southern night sky, we created spirituals, we met the Holy Ghost, we invented the gospel. Without Nat Turner’s revolt, where would Black American culture be? What would have become of us if we never got the opportunity to worship and operate church in peace? Where would Black folx be today without the foundation of the church? I simply can’t fathom a world without Black American music, rhetoric, style, and gospel. Our ancestors who invented those invisible institutions and swap congregations got to experience a form of peace through the war waged by Nat Turner. 

However, the question remains. Who gets to be righteous?

Enslaved worshipers birthed the most dynamic culture America has ever known. However, in doing so, they were breaking the law. Does that take away from their righteousness?  Nat Turner was a preacher turned captain who led a war for liberation from bondage. However, does the bloodbath blackball him and his legacy? I’m reminded of a James Baldwin interview when I think about the answer.

In the interview, Dick Cavett asks Baldwin what he thinks about “Negro figures who frighten us the most…the ones who want to burn it down.” Baldwin answers, “If you think Stokely [Kwame Ture] is new, I refer you back to an old song. No one even knows who wrote it. It’s supposed to be spiritual, about the Christian church but really it is a slave revolt song…‘God if I had my way I’d tear this building down’.…if we had in your model a frame of reference our heroes would be your heroes. Nat Turner would be a hero to you instead of a threat.”

This Baldwin interview is from 1966, and Nat Turner’s name comes up in numerous pieces of pop culture, literature and music before and since then. On Kendrick Lamar’s song “Mortal Man” (2015), a clip from a 1994 Tupac Shakur interview is sampled where Shakur mentions Nat Turner’s revolt.

Lamar ‘asks’ Shakur, “What you think is the future for me and my generation?” Tupac’s voice answers, “I think niggas is tired of grabbing shit out of the store. Next time it’s a riot, it’s gonna be bloodshed…it ain’t gon’ be no more playing. It’s gon be murder. Like Nat Turner 1831 up in this  mutherfucker.”

Even before Baldwin in 1966 or Shakur in 1994, Nat’s name was mentioned by Frederick Douglas in 1863 in his famous speech, “Men of Color, to Arms!” In his speech, where he encouraged enslaved Black men to charge the white man in the war for freedom, Douglass said:

“The day dawns; the morning star is bright upon the horizon! The iron gate of our prison stands half open. One gallant rush from the North will fling it wide open, while four millions of our brothers and sisters shall march out into liberty. The chance is now given you to end in a day the bondage of centuries, and to rise in one bound from social degradation to the plane of common equality with all other varieties of men. Remember Denmark Vesey of Charleston; remember Nathaniel Turner of Southampton; remember Shields Green and Copeland, who followed noble John Brown, and fell as glorious martyrs for the cause of the slave. Remember that in a contest with oppression, the Almighty has no attribute which can take sides with oppressors.”

Frederick Douglass, a deeply religious man and an ordained AME preacher, not only encouraged a civil war but he eased the enslaved man’s fear of failure by noting that the Almighty fights with the oppressed and not with the oppressor. Douglass was not alone in mixing righteousness with rebellion. One of Douglass’s peers was a man named Henry Highland Garnet who had escaped bondage and became a reverend. In1843, Garnet gave a powerful speech titled “Call to Rebellion” at a National Negro Convention (in attendance was Frederick Douglass) where the call for Black men to arms was applauded vigorously. Rev. Garnet said it simple and plain, 

“Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. Now is the day and the hour. Let every slave throughout the land do this and the days of slavery are numbered. You cannot be more oppressed than you have been — you cannot suffer greater cruelties than you have already. Rather die freemen than live to be slaves. Remember that you are FOUR MILLIONS!” 

We are forty million now. And all forty million of us are unorganized, overread and over God. Today, are we too righteous for our own good? We are still peacefully protesting after watching innocent, unarmed Black men are murdered by police officers. We sho’ do got a lot of peace for a bully such as America. Where is our Nat Turner at?

Nat Turner’s righteousness led him to lead an insurrection, which led to an unlawful holy segregation where the backbone of Black culture was born. In a private, Blacks only, secret place of worship God came to “show up and show out.” There were no stiff repetitive rituals, not a brick to build a church with or a bible to read from. Just linga and old-southern slang singing spirituals sewn on the tongues of kidnapped Black people by a Black Goddess. I feel chills thinking about that time of spiritual segregation and how it must have been the purest example of faith that God has ever witnessed.

A narrative collected from a man named Wash Wilson, who was born into slavery, painted the scene of a typical night at an all Black service in a makeshift Hush Harbor,

“For music dey scratch on de skillet lids or beat bones or pick de banjo. Dere be thirty to fifty folks, all cullud, and sometimes dey stay all night, and build de big fire and dance outdoors or in de barn.

Dere wasn’t no music instruments. Us take pieces a sheep’s rib or cow’s jaw or a piece iron, with a old kettle, or a hollow gourd and some horsehairs to make de drum. Sometimes dey’d git a piece of tree trunk and hollow it out and stretch a goat’s or sheep’s skin over it for de drum. Dey’d be one to four foot high and a foot up to six foot ‘cross. In gen’ral two niggers play with de fingers or sticks on dis drum. Never seed so many in Texas, but dey made some. Dey’d take de buffalo horn and scrape it out to make de flute. Dat sho’ be heared a long ways off. Den dey’d take a mule’s jawbone and rattle de stick ‘cross its teeth. Dey’d take a barrel and stretch a ox’s hide ‘cross one end and a man sot ‘stride de barrel and beat on dat hide with he hands, and he feet, and iffen he git to feelin’ de music in he bones, he’d beat on dat barrel with he head. ‘Nother man beat one wooden side with sticks. Us ‘longed to de church, all right, but dancin’ ain’t sinful iffen de foots ain’t crossed. Us danced at de arbor meetin’s but us sho’ didn’t have us foots crossed!

When de niggers go round singin’ ‘Steal Away to Jesus,’ dat mean dere gwine be a ‘ligious meetin’ dat night. Dat de sig’fication of a meetin’. De masters ‘fore and after freedom didn’t like dem ‘ligious meetin’s, so us natcherly slips off at night, down in de bottoms or somewheres. Sometimes us sing and pray all night.”

Now, let us pray.

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