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People & Ideas: Nat Turner

In the early morning of Aug. 22, 1831, a band of slaves launched a bloody insurrection in the tidal backwater of Southampton, Va. Their leader was Nat Turner, a slave and self-proclaimed prophet. Turner was eventually captured, imprisoned and hanged. While in prison he spoke with his lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, who published his notes as the book The Confessions of Nat Turner. While it is impossible to know how much Gray -- or Turner himself -- may have embellished Turner's story, this book became the primary historical document for Turner's life.

Born in 1800, the same year that Thomas Jefferson won election in a hotly contested presidential race, Nat belonged to the Turners, white gentry who owned a prosperous farm. Like so many other upwardly mobile Americans, the Turners were attracted to Methodism, with its appealing message of free will and individual salvation. Determined that their slaves should have the chance to be saved, the Turners held prayer services and allowed their slaves to attend the local chapel on Sundays.

As a child, Nat displayed a keen intelligence and was encouraged by his owner, Benjamin Turner, to read and study the Bible. According to Nat's version of his life story, both blacks and whites, as well as his mother, Nancy, recognized from his earliest years that Nat Turner was "intended for some great purpose," certain that one day he would be a prophet. (His father, it is believed, successfully escaped from his owners and slavery when Nat was very young; his name is unknown.) Nat studied the Old Testament, committing long passages to memory and heeding the words of the prophets. Working in the fields, he heard a voice call to him and became convinced that he had been chosen to carry out a divine mission. As he later recalled, "Having soon discovered to be great, I must appear so." He cloaked himself in mystery, avoided fraternizing, abstained from alcohol, and devoted long periods to fasting. In cabins, fields and hush harbors (secluded parts of plantations where slaves would gather to worship out of sight of their masters), he began to exhort his fellow slaves, promising them that something big would happen one day.

Then came the visions: black and white spirits engaged in battle; the Savior with arms outstretched; drops of blood on corn; leaves with hieroglyphic characters and numbers. Finally he understood the meaning of the signs: "The Savior was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand." It was just a matter of time.

In 1826 or 1827, Turner selected 20 trusted men. In May 1828, he experienced a vision of a serpent. In February 1831, he witnessed an eclipse of the sun. Then on Aug. 13, 1831, the final signal was revealed to him: a second "black spot" on the sun. He told his followers, "As the black spot passed over the sun, so shall the blacks pass over the earth."

At 2:00 a.m. on Aug. 22, Nat and his men killed the entire family of John Travis, Turner's new owner. Moving on, they hacked, stabbed, bludgeoned and shot approximately 60 unarmed white men, women and children. His men were eventually killed or captured. Turner himself was captured and imprisoned. His lawyer, Gray, questioned him at length and concluded that Nat was "a complete fanatic." But Nat professed no regrets for his actions. He was hanged on Nov. 11.

Southern whites would not accept responsibility for the insurrection. They blamed Northern agitators, including William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and white evangelicals who infected the minds of slaves with dangerous religious ideas, including the notion that that all men were equal before God.

Nearly 200 years after his death, Nat Turner's legacy remains controversial. To some he is simply a cold-blooded killer who did not hesitate to slaughter innocent and unarmed whites. To others, he is a martyr who died for the cause of freedom. For still others, he stands in a long and distinguished line of prophets, men convinced they were chosen by God to fulfill a special destiny and divine purpose.

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Published October 11, 2010

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