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Nat Turner's rebellion in 1831 frightened Southerners because it challenged the idea that slavery was a benevolent institution. In speeches and writings, slave owners portrayed themselves not so much as ruthless businessmen exploiting a people for their labor but as kind and well-intentioned masters tutoring blacks in civilization and religion. A pervasive white Southern fear of rebellion, however, belied their own arguments that slaves were, in fact, happy. Uprisings like the one Turner staged in Virginia left no doubt that slaves wanted their freedom.
Nat Turner, Prophet
Turner was born into slavery on Oct. 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Va., on slaveholder Benjamin Turner's farm. He recounts in his confession (published as The Confessions of Nat Turner) that even when he was young, his family believed he:
“surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth. And my father and mother strengthened me in this my first impression, saying in my presence, I was intended for some great purpose, which they had always thought from certain marks on my head and breast.”
By his own account, Turner was a deeply spiritual man. He spent his youth praying and fasting, and one day, while taking a prayer break from plowing, he heard a voice: “The spirit spoke to me, saying 'Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.'”
Turner was convinced throughout his adulthood that he had some great purpose in life, a conviction that his experience at the plow confirmed. He searched for that mission in life, and starting in 1825, he began receiving visions from God. The first occurred after he had run away and bade him return to slavery--Turner was told that he shouldn't indulge his earthly wishes for freedom, but rather he was to serve the “kingdom of Heaven,” from bondage.
From then on, Turner experienced visions that he believed meant he was to attack directly the institution of slavery. He had a vision of a spiritual battle--of black and white spirits at war--as well as a vision in which he was instructed to take up the cause of Christ. As the years passed, Turner waited for a sign that it was time for him to act.
A startling eclipse of the sun in February of 1831 was the sign for which Turner had been waiting. It was time to strike against his enemies. He didn't hurry--he gathered followers and planned. In August of that same year, they struck. At 2 a.m. on Aug. 21, Turner and his men killed the family of Joseph Travis on whose farm he had been a slave for over a year.
Turner and his group then moved through the county, going from house to house, killing whites they encountered and recruiting more followers. They took money, supplies, and firearms as they traveled. By the time the white inhabitants of Southampton had become alerted to the rebellion, Turner and his men numbered approximately 50 or 60 and included five free black men.
A battle between Turner's force and white Southern men ensued on Aug. 22, around mid-day near the town of Jerusalem. Turner's men dispersed in the chaos, but a remnant remained with Turner to continue the fight. The state militia fought Turner and his remaining followers on Aug. 23, but Turner eluded capture until Oct. 30. He and his men had managed to kill 55 white Southerners.
The Aftermath of Nat Turner's Rebellion
According to Turner, Travis had not been a cruel master, and that was the paradox that white Southerners had to face in the aftermath of Nat Turner's Rebellion. They attempted to delude themselves that their slaves were content, but Turner forced them to confront the innate evil of the institution. White Southerners responded brutally to the rebellion. They executed 55 slaves for participating in or supporting the revolt, including Turner, and other angry whites killed over 200 African-Americans in the days after the rebellion.
Turner's rebellion not only pointed to the lie that slavery was a benevolent institution but also showed how white Southerners' own Christian beliefs supported his bid for freedom. Turner described his mission in his confession: “The Holy Ghost had revealed itself to me, and made plain the miracles it had shown me-For as the blood of Christ had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners, and was now returning to earth again in the form of dew-and as the leaves on the trees bore the impression of the figures I had seen in the heavens, it was plain to me that the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand.”
- “Africans in America.” PBS.org.
- Haskins, Jim et al. “Nat Turner” in African-American Religious Leaders. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008.
- Oates, Stephen. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
- Turner, Nat. .The Confessions of Nat Turner Baltimore: Lucas & Deaver, 1831.