Monday, February 20, 2012

Nat Turner's Bible: Slavery and Apocalypticism in America

During the slavery debates preceding the Civil War the Bible was often used by people on both sides of the debate to support their stance. What is not always known is that the Bible also helped to foster the largest, bloodiest slave revolt in the 19th century.
Nat Turner's Bible 

Nat Turner was a slave in Virginia in the early 19th century. What was unusual about Turner, at least among slaves, is that he could read and write. He was also deeply religious. Combined, these made Turner a well known "prophet" among the other slaves due to his frequent messages and visions from God. There is also evidence that his preaching had some influence over whites. Eventually, these visions led him to believe that God called him to something higher. It resulted in the now famous Nat Turner Rebellion.

Until recently, I had never known about the apocalyptic aspects of the rebellion. I had always read about it in the context of the slavery debate. I found the following timeline of the rebellion at PBS. It was part of their series Africans in America.
In 1821, Turner ran away from his overseer, returning after thirty days because of a vision in which the Spirit had told him to "return to the service of my earthly master." The next year, following the death of his master, Samuel Turner, Nat was sold to Thomas Moore. Three years later, Nat Turner had another vision. He saw lights in the sky and prayed to find out what they meant. Then "... while laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both white and black, in the neighborhood; and then I found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens."
On May 12, 1828, Turner had his third vision: "I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and 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, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first... And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work, and until the first sign appeared I should conceal it from the knowledge of men; and on the appearance of the sign... I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons."
At the beginning of the year 1830, Turner was moved to the home of Joseph Travis, the new husband of Thomas Moore's widow. His official owner was Putnum Moore, still a young child. Turner described Travis as a kind master, against whom he had no complaints. 
Then, in February, 1831, there was an eclipse of the sun. Turner took this to be the sign he had been promised and confided his plan to the four men he trusted the most, Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam. They decided to hold the insurrection on the 4th of July and began planning a strategy. However, they had to postpone action because Turner became ill. 
On August 13, there was an atmospheric disturbance in which the sun appeared bluish-green. This was the final sign, and a week later, on August 21, Turner and six of his men met in the woods to eat a dinner and make their plans. At 2:00 that morning, they set out to the Travis household, where they killed the entire family as they lay sleeping. They continued on, from house to house, killing all of the white people they encountered. Turner's force eventually consisted of more than 40 slaves, most on horseback. 
By about mid-day on August 22, Turner decided to march toward Jerusalem, the closest town. By then word of the rebellion had gotten out to the whites; confronted by a group of militia, the rebels scattered, and Turner's force became disorganized. After spending the night near some slave cabins, Turner and his men attempted to attack another house, but were repulsed. Several of the rebels were captured. The remaining force then met the state and federal troops in final skirmish, in which one slave was killed and many escaped, including Turner. In the end, the rebels had stabbed, shot and clubbed at least 55 white people to death.

 The fact that he was marching towards Jerusalem and that the book of Revelation is missing from Turner's Bible reinforces the apocalyptic nature of the rebellion. He truly thought he was doing God's work. He was eventually captured two moths later, was tried and brutally executed. He seems to have been carrying his Bible when he was captured. It was stored in a court house until it was given to the descendants of some of those who had died in the uprising. That family has now donated the Bible to the Smithsonian. You can read the article here.

This story got me thinking about the way apocalyptic literature has been misunderstood and misused in American history. Soon after Turner's rebellion another apocalyptic movement would begin. Millerism would proclaim that the second coming of Christ was soon at hand. Thankfully, this group did not lash out in violence. They waited patiently in a field in March of 1843 for Jesus to return and were disappointed. Since then there have been other individuals who thought they were doing God's work and were God's servant to bring about the end or to at least proclaim it. The prediction by Harold Camping is the most recent example.

But Nat Turner's story also got me thinking in another direction.

It is easy for us today to look back and see Nat Turner as a crazed, religious fanatic who led a violent uprising against his oppressors. I have never heard Turner's uprising described in positive terms. It is always presented as a dark spot of history. And it is. As many as 55 whites were killed by Turner and as many as 200 blacks were killed in retaliation by angry, fearful whites.

But he was also a hero to some. I am sure there were many slaves who saw him as a black messiah, a new Moses. And why not? The kind of violence he inspired was described in the Bible as the Israelites left Egypt and moved into the promise land.

It is ironic that we look back on Spartacus and the slave rebellion he led in Rome with an element of nostalgia. We make movies and television series that portray the rebel as lifting up the banner of freedom, think Kirk Douglas. Yet we don't see Turner as a hero in US history. Instead, he is a deranged, violent mad man who massacred a group of innocent people.

I suppose it all depends on from whose perspective you read the story.


  1. Great post, John and to be honest, this is a part of American history I've never heard of. Either I skipped school that day or Nat Turner was not part of the lesson plan.

    1. It's sad that most of the history that should have been, and should now be, taught regarding the period of chattel slavery in the U.S. has been conveniently forgotten. These people contributed so much to this country. Even the events like Nat Turner's revolt pale in comparison with the violence and oppression perpetrated on the African/Americans. "Nat Turner was not part of the lesson plan" is a crime that, hopefully, will be addressed by historians, the educational system, and the culture.

  2. John, this is incredible. I never knew about that connection between Turner and Revelation. His visions, especially that second one, sound remarkably like Jewish apocalyptic literature (I'm sure his main inspiration was Revelation, but the similarity is really stunning).

    And what a tragedy to consider what has happened when people from very different cultural contexts have taken this literature, which is allegorical, written from a perspective of a people who had no power to actually carry it out (and hence the power to act in judgment is rightly attributed to God, NOT human beings), and usurp it to their own ends, however noble or ignoble. I guess it turns out apocalyptic literature is very relevant, eh?

    By the way, did you know that David Koresh wrote a commentary on Revelation? It's actually available to view on the internet: I'll never forget watching them self-destruct. What a tragic moment in our history. Thanks, John, this was very interesting to read.


  3. Great post! While I would never advocate violence, stories like this remind us why apocalyptic literature is so dangerous. It is dangerous because it is both hopeful and subversive. It is hopeful because it births within humanity a realization that reality, as we have constructed it, must not be epitomized. This is what makes this hope so subversive. It is a hope that subverts both oppressors and Empire; and for their own self-preservation they seek to eradicate such hope. Hope requires that we resists the baptism of status quo. Subsequently anyone who challenges the reigning "plausibility structures" of their day is almost always labeled a villain. This of undoubtedly a issue of perspective, as you have pointed out.

    1. Great observation. I do not know who you are or where you live. I am a Francis descendant of the very people who owned Nat Turner and were ravaged during the revolt.

      My great, great grandmother was Lavinia Francis. She was pregnant with the man who would become my great grandfather William Saumel Francis. A slave hid her away when Nat's followers reached the Francis farm.

      Those who challenge are always labeled the villain. How true.

    2. To Anonymous; I am a student of Ancestry. You, dear heart, would not be here if that slave had not hidden you great great grandmother. The moral of this story is somehow we all must come together for our sakes and those of future generations. I fear we are all being driven apart even though many of us want peace.

  4. Book of Revelations is NOT missing from Nat Turner's Bible. His Bible is on display at the Smithsonian and in fact there is an "X" beside Revelations 6:2

  5. I find it so funny because I remember reading about Nat Turner during one of my standardized tests, I think or it was in one of my reading classes. One of those two instances. I didn't realize at the time the significance of such a figure.