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Children Of Darkness
Sure that he was divinely appointed, Nat Turner led fellow slaves in a bloody attempt to overthrow their masters
October 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 6
As a perceptive man with a prodigious knowledge of the Bible, Turner was more than aware of the hypocrisies and contradictions loose in this Christian area, where whites gloried in the teachings of Jesus and yet discriminated against the “free coloreds” and kept the other blacks in chains. Here slave owners bragged about their benevolence (in Virginia they took care of their “niggers”) and yet broke up families, sold Negroes off to whip-happy slave traders when money was scarce, and denied intelligent and skilled blacks something even the most debauched and useless poor whites enjoyed: freedom. Increasingly embittered about his condition and that of his people, his imagination fired to incandescence by prolonged fasting and Old Testament prayers, Turner began to have apocalyptic visions and bloody fantasies in the fields and woods southwest of Jerusalem. “I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle,” he declared later, “and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the heavens, and blood flowed in streams—and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.’” He was awestruck, he recalled, but what did the voice mean? What must he bare? He withdrew from his fellow slaves and prayed for a revelation; and one day when he was plowing in the field, he thought the Spirit called out, “Behold me as I stand in the Heavens,” and Turner looked up and saw forms of men there in a variety of attitudes, “and there were lights in the sky to which the children of darkness gave other names than what they really were—for they were the lights of the Saviour’s hands, stretched forth from east to west, even as they extended on the cross on Calvary for the redemption of sinners.”
Certain that Judgment Day was fast approaching, Turner strove to attain “true holiness” and “the true knowledge of faith.” And once he had them, once he was “made perfect,” then the Spirit showed him other miracles. While working in the field, he said, he discovered drops of blood on the corn. In the woods he found leaves with hieroglyphic characters and numbers etched on them; other leaves contained forms of men—some drawn in blood—like the figures in the sky. He told his fellow slaves about these signs —they were simply astounded—and claimed that the Spirit had endowed him with a special knowledge of the seasons, the rotation of the planets, and the operation of the tides. He acquired an even greater reputation among the county’s slaves, many of whom thought he could control the weather and heal disease. He told his followers that clearly something large was about to happen, that he was soon to fulfill “the great promise that had been made to me.”
But he still did not know what his mission was. Then on May 12, 1828, “I heard a loud noise in the heavens,” Turner remembered, “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.” Now at last it was clear. By signs in the heavens Jehovah would show him when to commence the great work, whereupon “I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons.” Until then he should keep his lips sealed.
But his work was too momentous for him to remain entirely silent. He announced to Thomas Moore that the slaves ought to be free and would be “one day or other.” Moore, of course, regarded this as dangerous talk from a slave and gave Turner a thrashing.
In 1829 a convention met in Virginia to draft a new state constitution, and there was talk among the slaves—who communicated along a slave grapevine—that they might be liberated. Their hopes were crushed, though, when the convention emphatically rejected emancipation and restricted suffrage to whites only. There was also a strong backlash against antislavery publications thought to be infiltrating from the North, one of which—David Walker’s Appeal —actually called on the slaves to revolt. In reaction the Virginia legislature enacted a law against teaching slaves to read and write. True, it was not yet rigorously enforced, but from the blacks’ viewpoint slavery seemed more entrenched in “enlightened” Virginia than ever.
There is no evidence that Turner ever read antislavery publications, but he was certainly sensitive to the despair of his people. Still, Jehovah gave him no further signs, and he was carried along in the ebb and flow of ordinary life. Moore had died in 1828, and Turner had become the legal property of Moore’s nine-year-old son—something that must have humiliated him. In 1829 a local wheelwright, Joseph Travis, married Moore’s widow and soon moved into her house near the Cross Keys, a village located southwest of Jerusalem. Still known as Nat Turner even though he had changed owners several times, Nat considered Travis “a kind master” and later said that Travis “placed the greatest confidence in me.”