Nat Turner’s confession provides a chilling example of Christian inspiration that sets it apart from any slave narrative recorded. The leader of the largest and most significant slave revolt in American history, Turner was brought up by his mother, a slave who had been kidnapped from Africa, to believe that great things were expected from him. As a child he learned to read, and from the teachings of the Bible grew up associating religion with freedom. Turner grew up to become a charismatic preacher whose religious visions even led some blacks to consider him a prophet. In fact, one such vision—a solar eclipse that Turner took to be a sign from God—inspired his final and most historic act.
On the night of August 22, 1831, Turner, in an ill-fated attempt to free his people, led four accomplices on a three-day rampage through Southampton, Virginia. Going from house to house, the fugitives murdered every white person—regardless of sex or age—whom they encountered. Their destination was the arsenal in Jerusalem, Virginia, and along the way Turner’s army swelled to as many as seventy slave rebels. However, a militia intercepted the army and killed more than one hundred blacks. Turner escaped but was apprehended weeks later.
Turner’s narrative, dictated to his attorney as a confession made shortly before his execution in November 1831 , demonstrates how his fanatical devotion to God led to a “divinely inspired” killing spree that left fifty-seven whites dead. But, just as significantly, Turner’s rebellion attests to the extreme lengths slaves were prepared to go to in order to achieve their freedom by any means necessary.
—Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise, The Long Walk to Freedom: Runaway Slave Narratives
The following passages come from The Confessions of Nat Turner, excerpted in The Long Walk to Freedom.
By this time, having arrived to man’s estate, and hearing the scriptures commented on at meetings, I was struck with that particular passage which says : “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.” I reflected much on this passage, and prayed daily for light on this subject—As I was praying one day at my plough, the spirit spoke to me, saying “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.”
Question—what do you mean by the Spirit. Ans. The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days—and I was greatly astonished, and for two years prayed continually, whenever my duty would permit—and then again I had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty. Several years rolled round, in which many events occurred to strengthen me in this my belief. At this time I reverted in my mind to the remarks made of me in my childhood, and the things that had been shewn me—and as it had been said of me in my childhood by those by whom I had been taught to pray, both white and black, and in whom I had the greatest confidence, that I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any use to any one as a slave. Now finding I had arrived to man’s estate, and was a slave, and these revelations being made known to me, I began to direct my attention to this great object, to fulfil the purpose for which, by this time, I felt assured I was intended. Knowing the influence I had obtained over the minds of my fellow servants, (not by the means of conjuring and such like tricks—for to them I always spoke of such things with contempt) but by the communion of the Spirit whose revelations I often communicated to them, and they believed and said my wisdom came from God. I now began to prepare them for my purpose, by telling them something was about to happen that would terminate in fulfilling the great promise that had been made to me—About this time I was placed under an overseer, from whom I ran away—and after remaining in the woods thirty days, I returned, to the astonishment of the negroes on the plantation, who thought I had made my escape to some other part of the country, as my father had done before. But the reason of my return was, that the Spirit appeared to me and said I had my wishes directed to the things of this world, and not to the kingdom of Heaven, and that I should return to the service of my earthly master—“For he who knoweth his Master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes, and thus, have I chastened you.”
Ques. Do you not find yourself mistaken now? Ans. Was not Christ crucified. 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, (the eclipse of the sun last February) I should arise and prepare myself, and slay my enemies with their own weapons. And immediately on the sign appearing in the heavens, the seal was removed from my lips, and I communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence, (Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam)—It was intended by us to have begun the work of death on the 4th July last— Many were the plans formed and rejected by us, and it affected my mind to such a degree, that I fell sick, and the time passed without our coming to any determination how to commence—Still forming new schemes and rejecting them, when the sign appeared again, which determined me not to wait longer.
Since the commencement of 1830, I had been living with Mr. Joseph Travis, who was to me a kind master, and placed the greatest confidence in me; in fact, I had no cause to complain of his treatment to me. On Saturday evening, the 20th of August, it was agreed between Henry, Hark and myself, to prepare a dinner the next day for the men we expected, and then to concert a plan, as we had not yet determined on any. Hark, on the following morning, brought a pig, and Henry brandy, and being joined by Sam, Nelson, Will and Jack, they prepared in the woods a dinner, where, about three o’clock, I joined them.
Q. Why were you so backward in joining them.
A. The same reason that had caused me not to mix with them for years before.
I saluted them on coming up, and asked Will how came he there, he answered, his life was worth no more than others, and his liberty as dear to him. I asked him if he thought to obtain it? He said he would, or lose his life. This was enough to put him in full confidence. Jack, I knew, was only a tool in the hands of Hark, it was quickly agreed we should commence at home (Mr. J. Travis’) on that night, and until we had armed and equipped ourselves, and gathered sufficient force, neither age nor sex was to be spared, (which was invariably adhered to.) We remained at the feast until about two hours in the night, when we went to the house and found Austin; they all went to the cider press and drank, except myself. On returning to the house, Hark went to the door with an axe, for the purpose of breaking it open, as we knew we were strong enough to murder the family, if they were awaked by the noise; but reflecting that it might create an alarm in the neighborhood, we determined to enter the house secretly, and murder them whilst sleeping. Hark got a ladder and set it against the chimney, on which I ascended, and hoisting a window, entered and came down stairs, unbarred the door, and removed the guns from their places. It was then observed that I must spill the first blood. On which, armed with a hatchet, and accompanied by Will, I entered my master’s chamber, it being dark, I could not give a death blow, the hatchet glanced from his head, he sprang from the bed and called his wife, it was his last word, Will laid him dead, with a blow of his axe, and Mrs. Travis shared the same fate, as she lay in bed. The murder of this family, five in number, was the work of a moment, not one of them awoke; there was a little infant sleeping in a cradle, that was forgotten, until we had left the house and gone some distance, when Henry and Will returned and killed it; we got here, four guns that would shoot, and several old muskets, with a pound or two of powder. We remained some time at the barn, where we paraded; I formed them in a line as soldiers, and after carrying them through all the manoeuvres I was master of, marched them off to Mr. Salathul Francis,’ about six hundred yards distant. Sam and Will went to the door and knocked. Mr. Francis asked who was there, Sam replied, it was him, and he had a letter for him, on which he got up and came to the door, they immediately seized him, and dragging him out a little from the door, he was dispatched by repeated blows on the head; there was no other white person in the family. We started from there for Mrs. Reese’s, maintaining the most perfect silence on our march, where finding the door unlocked, we entered, and murdered Mrs. Reese in her bed, while sleeping; her son awoke, but it was only to sleep the sleep of death, he had only time to say who is that, and he was no more. From Mrs. Reese’s we went to Mrs. Turner’s, a mile distant, which we reached about sunrise, on Monday morning.
About the Editors
Devon W. Carbado, is professor of law and African American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles and the coeditor of several books, including Acting White? Rethinking Race in "Post-Racial" America (with Mitu Gulati).
Donald Weise is an independent scholar in African American history and coeditor of The Huey Newton Reader (with David Hilliard). He lives in New York.