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In the religious songs, the sentiments and often the entire lines are taken bodily from the Bible. However, there is no doubt that some of these religious songs have a meaning apart from the Biblical text. It is evident that the opening lines of "Go Down Moses" . . . have a significance beyond the bondage of Israel in Egypt

 

 

Section 1, Chapter 5

Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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The Bible & Biblical Typology

A Useful Method of Interpretation

 

Like other Americans, such as Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, Nathaniel Turner and other Christian slaves came under the influence of Hebrew literature, including its "slavery-deliverance-promised land metaphor" (Skinner, p. 16). The impact of the biblical stories is evident in the cultural productions of America’s Christian slaves. Most of the "sentiments" in the "spirituals," according to James Weldon Johnson, were, "for the most part, taken from the bible" (The Book of American Negro Poetry, p 17).

These songs too were part of Turner’s musical heritage. His "1831 Confessions" also possesses the same compelling and corrective force of Hebrew narratives. In his testament, Turner, however, did not use the land metaphor discourse directly. The notion of a liberating God who intervenes in history, nevertheless, runs throughout the "1831 Confessions." Turner and other Christian slaves were highly skilled in the traditional methods of reading the bible, its stories, and its doctrines. Like the dissenting American colonists, Christian slaves discovered a liberating spiritual force in the scriptures.

Early Americans, consciously, viewed history through the lens of religion and biblical prophecy. In Massachusetts as well as Virginia in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, English settlers who came to what became the United States likened themselves to the ancient Hebrews, God’s chosen people. In crossing the Red Sea (the Atlantic), America’s Christians became a new people fulfilling prophecy. "The early New England Puritans believed that they had been chosen by the divine being to build a holy commonwealth in the New World," according to Guy W. Stroh. "They believed they had a covenant with God which put them under the obligation to follow his laws and do his will; and in return they would be strengthened in their faith and enjoy God’s help and deliverance from damnation" (American Ethical Thought, p. 2).

They viewed their lives in the world as ones that partook of a divine drama. Some modernists view this type of thinking a "madness" in need of philosophical, if not psychological treatment. Nevertheless, such religious thinking had been a norm for the Christian culture of the Anglo-Saxon peoples for over a millennium.

These Anglo-Europeans left Old World corruption (Egypt) and sailed across the Atlantic (Red Sea) for the pristine wilderness of North America (Canaan). As the Hebrews traversed the Jordan and supplanted the idol worshippers, the English conquered and subdued the heathen, Indians and Africans, and established the New Israel, favored of God (Peterson, p. 13). By the late 18th century much of the outlook of the Puritans with respect to sin and predestination had been supplanted.

Nevertheless, Puritan ethics, biblical typology, and notions of hierarchy and election remained a part of the general American culture North and South, including the slaveholders of Southampton, Virginia. They established their own towns with biblical names, such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and named their children after biblical prophets, as spiritual signs of a new covenant of a new chosen people. Through this religious lens Virginians also justified their way of life, a biblical society that sanctioned slavery.

Before the prevalence of historical criticism, "the ordinary Bible reader of a century ago" found "a coherent pattern running through every part of Scripture," according to G.W.H. Lampe. "He was still like the men of the first century, the heir of Biblical and Hebraic culture" ("The Reasonableness of Typology," pp. 10-11).

Such a reader was at home in the world of Old Testament imagery. He was accustomed to hear from the pulpit and in school the traditional typological and allegorical expositions of Scripture . . . the simpler interpretations of Old Testament narratives which had gradually come to be commonplace in preaching, teaching and liturgical expression, and which rested on the principle that the Bible is a unity and that in every part it speaks of Christ. . . .

Behind the outlook of such a person there stood the combined and continuous Christian and Jewish tradition of scriptural exegesis, in which the modern interpreter was directly linked through a common cultural inheritance with the actual authors of the Biblical books. The natural expression of this sense of cultural and religious unity was the typological interpretation of the ancient Scriptures, used by the New Testament writers and expanded and developed in later literature and in Christian art ( Lampe, pp. 11-12).

Virginia religionists also saw the entire Bible as a unity, as a Christian book. Israel’s history prefigured or foreshadowed the Christian future, and expressed, to paraphrase Lampe, the significance of the present in terms of the past (Lampe, p. 20).

Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, according to Mark A. Noll, the United States was the most "biblical nation" in the world. For the educated as well as the illiterate, the Bible "was the story of all stories. . . . the controlling myth for American use." The scriptures were "most useful on public occasions" when treated as "a storehouse of types" in the "belief that the United States was an antitype which fulfilled biblical types" ("The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation," p. 43). Ministers had an intense fascination with the fulfillment of biblical prophecy to substantiate nationalism and patriotism:

This predisposition to read Scripture typically and to regard the United States as a new Israel naturally led ministers to stress the grand narratives of the Old Testament. Well into the national period, the public Bible of the United States was for all intents the Old Testament. During the Revolution just about the only ministers who preached consistently from the New Testament were pacifists and loyalists, trying—in vain—to overcome the power of Old Testament narratives about setting captive Israel free with straight-forward New Testament injunctions to honor the king and love one’s neighbors (Noll, pp. 44-45).

Though widespread, this "union of biblical typology and American nationalism" was not followed by all (Noll, p. 46). In the early nineteenth century, a class of educated blacks, such as David Walker, rose in the North who used biblical typology for ideological purposes, namely, abolitionism. Some, such as Martin Delany, used this biblical mode of interpretation to promote the notion of an African nationality.

Affected by Enlightenment thinkers, such as John Locke and other natural theologians, many American clergyman modified the traditional methods of biblical exegesis. Congregationalist minister Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), former president of the College of New Jersey and a "student of prophecy" and "God’s eschatological designs" for America, moved away from the standard use of Bible typology as was used by Cotton Mather and other Congregationalists. He was "enthralled with the sense of God’s majestic presence, not with man’s submission to infinite authority" (Bowden, p. 142). 

Edwards' dispute with the Northampton church over "church purity" and its attempt to establish a public morality led him to "reconsider the application of biblical typology. He did not abandon the idea that Israel and its history were types to be fulfilled in later years," according to Mark A. Noll. "But he did insist that these were types of spiritual realities having little or nothing to do with later nations as such" ("The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation," p. 46).

Much of the nation, however, did not follow Edwards or make use of his method as he had intended. Many of the colonists viewed the Revolution and American Independence in biblical terms as a fulfillment of prophecy. The dissenting settlers who made up the body of the revolutionary spirit, less lettered than Edwards, were still heavily influenced by the bible tradition. For them, the American Revolution "represented the complete break from Old Israel" and the "creation of a New Israel" in which the promises of the past would bring forth a harvest that would benefit the world, according to Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

"One of the obvious points here is that biblical typology, particularly Exodus, is an important part of the cultural and political beginnings (ideology, if you will) of the United States, so much so that most political events are captured and understood within the terms of the narrative. We are the new Israelites. That is, unless you are black" (Exodus, p. 42). The American Enlightenment was not as thorough-going as that which occurred in Europe, which moved away from religious explanations to explain "natural events."

Samuel Hopkins of Newport, a follower of Edwards’ method, used scripture, during the Revolutionary period, for an attack on slavery. He was aware that there was nothing explicit in the Bible that condemned slavery. Hopkins concluded, however, that slavery was "condemned by the whole of divine revelation." He cited book, chapter, and verse in which implicit condemnation could be found. "For Hopkins to read the Bible as had been taught by Edwards was to find a very different public book than that which many of his contemporaries opened to illuminate the Revolutionary era" (Noll, p. 47-48).

Besides the Edwardseans, there was yet another group of Americans who used "biblical typology," not as a "fulfillment in the legendary events of United States history," according to Noll. Though seldom heard, Christian slaves had their own perspective of God working in the world. "If whites saw future political realities in Scriptural narrative, and Edwardseans discerned spiritual ones, [Christian] slaves saw a combination of social and spiritual truths" ("The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation," pp. 48-49). One needs only examine the Spirituals, an extant source of Christian slaves’ religious consciousness, to observe their use of biblical typology to other purposes than nationalism or self-glorification.

There will be no attempt here to analyze the Spirituals for their topological content. But a mere perusal of a few titles of the more than six hundred songs should sustain the point: "Go Down Moses"; "Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho"; "Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost?"; "Give Me That Old Time Religion"; "Stand Still Jordan"; "Singing With a Sword in My Hand"; "Steal Away to Jesus"; and "Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel." Spiritual and physical liberation centered their religious concerns.

In the religious songs, the sentiments and often the entire lines are taken bodily from the Bible. However, there is no doubt that some of these religious songs have a meaning apart from the Biblical text. It is evident that the opening lines of "Go Down Moses" . . . have a significance beyond the bondage of Israel in Egypt (The Book of American Negro Poetry, p. 18)

America’s Christian slaves lived in a world radically different from that of Jonathan Edwards’ "spiritual realities." These Christian slaves, like the Jewish sects of the Roman Empire, were an oppressed people sustained by their relationship to God.

In 1864, a Union soldier was dismayed by the appeal that the biblical Moses had for liberated Christian slaves. "There is no part of the Bible with which they are so familiar as the story of the deliverance of the children of Israel. Moses is their ideal of all that is high, and noble, and perfect, in man. I think they have been accustomed to regard Christ not so much in the light of a spiritual deliverer, as that of a second Moses who could eventually lead them out of their prison-house of bondage" ("The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation," p. 50).

That Jesus was a "second Moses" had long been a commonplace in Christian typology. According to W. K. Grossouw, "Chapters 5 to 7 of Matthew’s Gospel represent the Lord as the new and greater Moses, who with authority proclaims His teaching on the mountain" (Spirituality of the New Testament, p. 38). Despite widespread illiteracy, these Christian slaves may have been more attuned than their power-wielding masters to the underlining messages found in Jesus’ parables of "the kingdom of heaven."

This type of thinking, despite the Union soldier’s amazement, was orthodox biblical typology, the same typological thinking found in the Book of Matthew, the "most violently anti-Pharisaic" of the gospels (The Gospels: Their Origins and their Growth, p. 137). Like those of the first century, the religion of Christian slaves were both other-worldly and this-worldly. Like other Christians, they too desired one of the "father’s mansions" in this world and the next. These black Christian "readers" combined "biblical types and scriptural injunctions" against slavery’s demonic power. Some of their favorite verses were Malachi 2:10 ("Hath not one God created us?") to counter ethnic rivalry; Acts 10:34 ("God is no respecter of persons") to counter racial thinking; and Acts 17:26 ("Of one blood hath God made all nations") to counter white nationalism.

For Christian slaves, "God’s chosen people" were those "who suffered unjustly among all peoples," not one "nation among nations" ("The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation," pp. 50-51). Though an African people, America’s Christian slaves, the folk masses, responded wonderfully to the universal message of salvation taught in the gospel of the "kingdom of heaven." Not infrequently, Christian slaves led their masters to Christ.

In the black popular imagination, Nathaniel Turner, with the fervor of Old Testament prophets, corrected the religious arrogance and vanity of Christian slaveholders. But Turner was not singular in his actions. Christian slaves of Virginia and throughout the South reoriented the typological mode of interpretation to the perspective of the enslaved Christian, whose self-interest it was to "escape from American institutions," as Christian Jews and Gentiles sought to escape the horrors of Roman imperialism and slavery.

"Escape" for the Christian slave of the South was expressed in the biblical terms of the "Exodus" ("The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation," p. 49). Grounded and schooled in this Christian slave perspective, in his youth, Turner did indeed choose "escape" when his "promise" of freedom was ignored. But that was not his destiny. He moved toward accommodation ("Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s") and then, in the end, confrontation ("And unto God that which is God’s). For Nathaniel Turner, faith and obedience were the foundation of Christian manhood.

Like Abraham or Joshua, Turner engaged the forces of evil with righteous indignation and violence. Though usually associated with Old Testament prophecy, Turner focused his testament primarily on the gospel message of the prophet Jesus of Nazareth. Turner did not read the gospel as a pacifist manifesto nor Jesus as a non-violent ideologue. Like Francis Asbury, Turner believed the gospel was "armed with terror to the disobedient, impenitent, and to apostates from it. . . . all the perfection of Deity is arranged on the side of vengeance and vindictive wrath" (The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, p, 553).

In his "1831 Confessions,"  Turner highlighted the Gospel of Matthew, which is "emphatically apocalyptic-eschatological" (The Gospels: Their Origins and their Growth, p. 147). Establishing a continuity between the old and the new, Matthew’s gospel cements the two testaments. This emphasis was a sign for the reader that Turner too viewed the Bible as a unity, as a Christian book. The gospel message of the "kingdom" was central to Turner’s Christianity. For Turner, it was clear, Jesus was a prophet who "called his disciples to be, among other things, prophetic" (Prophecy in Israel, p. 159).

The religious world of Southampton, for Turner, thus mirrored the biblical world of the ancient Israelites and the new dispensation of Christ as seen through Methodist eyes.. Turner reenacted in his own Cross Keys context the Christian drama. To put it another way, one must read Turner’s "1831 Confessions" in light of the Gospel of Matthew. Throughout Turner’s life, there are indeed correspondences or echoes that respond to Jesus’ life and ministry. For instance, ancient Jerusalem played a pivotal role in the life of Jesus and his execution.

In Turner’s life, the Jerusalem of Southampton played a symbolical role in his Christian slave context. In Turner’s Jerusalem, the Court of Oyer and Terminer (a special court for Virginia slaves) publicly tried and convicted him, November 5, 1831, "as an insurgent." Twelve days after his "capture," under order of the Court, Turner’s jailers took him from his cell to a nearby tree, and at noon on November 11, 1831, hanged him until he was dead. Clearly, for Nathaniel Turner, this state murder was a type of crucifixion.

Sources Consulted

Bowden, Henry Warner. Dictionary of American Religious Biography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Clark, Elmer T., J. Manning Potts, and Jacob S. Payton. The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, Volume II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1958.

Glaude, Jr., Eddie S. Exodus: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Grant, Frederick C. The Gospels: Their Origins and their Growth. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.

Grossouw, W. K. Spirituality of the New Testament. London: B. Herder Book Company, 1961. 

Johnson, James Weldon. The Book of American Negro Poetry. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.

Lampe, G. W. H., and K. J. Woollcombe. “The Reasonableness of Typology.” In Essays on Typology, Studies in Biblical Theology, no. 22. Napierville, Ill: A.R. Allenson, 1957, pp. 9-38.

Noll, Mark A. "The Image of the United States as a Biblical Nation, 1776-1865. In Nathan O. Hatch and Mark A. Noll, eds. The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982, pp. 39-58.

Skinner, Andrew C. "The Influence of the Hebrew Bible on the Founders of the American Republic." In Leonard Jay Greenspoon and Bryan F. LeBeau, eds. Sacred Text, Secular Times: The Hebrew Bible in the Modern World. Omaha, Nebraska: Creighton University Press, 2000.

Stroh, Guy W. American Ethical Thought. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979.

Tucker, Gene M. "The Role of the Prophets and the Role of the Church." In David L. Petersen, ed. Prophecy in Israel: Search for an Identity (Issues in Religion and Theology 10). Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987, pp. 159-174.

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Slave leader's Bible given to museum18 February 2012For a century, the descendants of one of Virginia's oldest families have kept a Bible that connected them to Nat Turner, the slave who led the bloodiest slave revolt in American history. Maurice Person, a descendant of people who were killed during the Turner rebellion, and his stepdaughter, Wendy Porter, decided to give the small Bible to the National Museum of African American History and Culture."It didn't have the home it deserved. It needed to be in a place where it could be seen," Porter said.

Members of Person's family and the Francis family were among the estimated 55 white Virginians killed by Turner and his followers. One of the family members, Lavinia Francis, was hidden by the Francises' house slaves. The gift launched an investigation by museum experts to pinpoint the Bible's origins. They knew its provenance—kept in the courthouse after Turner's trial and execution in 1831. When Virginia's Southampton County Courthouse was being renovated in 1912, an official asked the Person family whether it wanted Turner's Bible. Person's father, Walter, accepted the book and displayed it on the family piano for many years. Later, the family put it in a safe-deposit box. . . .

Even with the ownership clear, the museum did its due diligence. A photograph of the Bible, identified as Turner's, was taken in 1900 and is part of the archives at the University of Virginia. An affidavit in 1969 by Harriet E. Francis, a descendant of Lavinia Francis, is also part of the university archives.

Nora Lockshin, a paper conservator for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, examined the paper, leather, ink and arrangement of the pages. The book, which is a little larger than pocket-size, is missing both covers, part of its spine and one chapter. Its pages are yellowed, and there are watermarks and mold. Because of its age, it cannot be opened flat. "The paper is in good shape, and it is a good, strong rag paper," Lockshin said. She enhanced the 1900 photograph, matching the page in the photo to a page in the book. "It matched the pattern of stains." With the Turner Bible, Bunch said, the museum will tell many stories about the resistance to slavery and the compassion of slaves.NewsLeader 

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Nathaniel Turner: 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

Chapter 4 The Social World of Cross Keys / Chapter 6 A Mother's Prophecy

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Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation

in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America

By Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

No other story in the Bible has fired the imaginations of African Americans quite like that of Exodus. Its tale of suffering and the journey to redemption offered hope and a sense of possibility to people facing seemingly insurmountable evil.

Exodus! shows how this biblical story inspired a pragmatic tradition of racial advocacy among African Americans in the early nineteenth century—a tradition based not on race but on a moral politics of respectability. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., begins by comparing the historical uses of Exodus by black and white Americans and the concepts of "nation" it generated. He then traces the roles that Exodus played in the National Negro Convention movement, from its first meeting in 1830 to 1843, when the convention decided—by one vote—against supporting Henry Highland Garnet's call for slave insurrection.

Exodus! reveals the deep historical roots of debates over African-American national identity that continue to rage today. It will engage anyone interested in the story of black nationalism and the promise of African-American religious culture.University Of Chicago Press

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

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Ancient African Nations

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