Religion and American Slavery

Lesson IV. Black Antebellum Abolitionists Motivated by Their Religion: Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth

Step 2. Learn About Nat Turner

Nat Turner

Nat Turner was born into slavery in 1800. He was deeply religious and raised with both pre-Christian African and Christian religious influences. Throughout his life, he experienced revelations about the will of God. His mother and grandmother, both born and raised in Africa, also taught him divination. In African tradition, divination is where one could foretell future events or reveal knowledge through the studying of nature and events. Because from a young age Turner knew of events before his birth and knew how to read without ever being taught, his family and community were certain he was marked for greatness. He became an admired and respected preacher in his community in Southampton County, Virginia.

“…I surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shown 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…”

Quote from Nat Turner in “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by Thomas Gray, a primary text.

Turner briefly escaped slavery, but believed God told him to return and serve his fellow slaves. He felt troubled by the lack of religious freedom available to slaves and thought the slaveholders were denying the community the ability to practice religion in their own way. For him, he was not able to honor his African and Christian roots. Turner started seeing visions related to the enslavement of his community which led him to believe God had chosen him to lead a violent uprising against the slave masters. He waited for a sign to enact this mission. After seeing a day-long eclipse of the sun and moon on August 13, 1831, Turner knew it was time.

“Nat Turner was deeply religious and faithful to God. He had several revelations that he interpreted as instructions for him to lead his people out of bondage. Thus, Turner led the insurrection believing that he was fulfilling his duty to God and that God was on his side.”

Quote from “Nat Turner: The Complexity and Dynamic of His Religious Background,” a published essay by Jakobi Williams.

“Turner had a deeper understanding of what freedom meant. To Turner freedom was about how to be himself without having to choose between the two religious aspects. Moreover, being free he could honor both religious aspects or not have to select one with the exclusion of the other. In other words, Nat Turner and his community were in an impossible situation. They could only practice in the open the religion approved by slaveholders or be what slaveholders wanted them to be. Thus, Turner concluded that the slaveholder had to be slain to at least try to resolve the situation within himself and the community.”

Quote from “Nat Turner: The Complexity and Dynamic of His Religious Background,” a published essay by Jakobi Williams.

Altogether, 50 slaves, led by Turner, escaped in the night and caused a great panic by killing more than 50 white people. To Turner, God had justified and ordained this violence. While about 50 enslaved and free Black people were tried in the three weeks following the insurrection, he was able to escape and avoid detection for more than two months. Turner was then put on trial and executed. During his time in jail, a prosecutor transcribed Turner’s account, which remains the best source scholars have to study these events.

Turner’s rebellion was one of the largest slave insurrections in the early 19th century America. As such, it left a great impact on the country. Laws and pro-slavery vigilantes thereafter continued to restrict religious freedom and endanger the Black community. It is estimated that 120 enslaved and free Black people were killed by white people in the backlash. Pro-slavery vigilantes swarmed into the area and kept the slaves of the community from reading, writing, or practicing religion. Slave churches were demolished, and slaves caught praying or singing hymns often risked death. Soon after, the state legislature passed laws codifying these restrictions. Many other states also passed laws restricting the religious meetings of free and enslaved Black people. One example of these laws was requiring a white minister in all worship services. However, Turner’s rebellion left a great impression on slave populations and other leaders across the country who were inspired to continue their own efforts for abolition.

October 2, 1800
August 13, 1831
August 22, 1831
October 30, 1831
November 5, 1831
November 11, 1831

Nat Turner is Born

Turner is born into slavery in Southampton County, Virginia. 

Turner briefly escapes slavery but returns to serve his fellow slaves

Turner sees visions from God

Turner witnesses an eclipse

He believes it is a sign from God to rebel.

Turner begins the rebellion

Turner is caught

Turner is put on trial

Turner is executed

Lesson IV. Step 2 of 8


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