In US history Nat Turner has been and remains one of the most enigmatic figures of its enslavement era. However, despite his well-publicized revolt, there is little known about the man. Meaning, in the Black community the memory of Nat Turner has been reduced to t-shirt images and African-centered Facebook memes. Nevertheless, stories of this man and his escapades terrified slaveholders and their families for decades and inspired would-be revolutionaries throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Since Nat Turner’s story has been told and retold repeatedly there is no need to rehash the entirety his crusade throughout the mid-Atlantic America. Instead it is more prudent to wrestle with the deeply dynamic philosophical dilemma presented via his righteous marauding. That is to ask: can the problem of violence, religion and freedom be balanced within the context of Turner’s story?
The familiar story of Nat Turner places him in Virginia in the early 1800s as a driver and “slaver preacher” who was used to keep other enslaved Africans docile and obedient. Seeing the inherent contradiction in that, Turner made a choice to fight against the system that oppressed him and his people, rather than serve it. This choice led to the slaughter of many white families, however, perhaps most importantly, his decision to fight rather than serve has cemented him within the African American pantheon of revolutionary deities.
Historically and philosophically speaking, religion, violence and freedom have not always mixed well for African Americans. Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to develop a philosophy, which centered on religion and freedom, but felt violence could not coexist within the triad. For him non-violent direct action offered an opportunity to strike at the moral consciousness of white America in order secure a sense of freedom. However, there are many problems with that philosophy. In fact, the success of this strategy was extremely dependent on the type of enemy faced and the historical time period in which the protest took place.
Nevertheless, during Turner’s campaign, he used “the Bible both to stake his spiritual authority to lead such a rebellion to claim temporal leadership over the revolt, both ideologically and operationally.” In a sense Turner and King represent both the Gods of the Bible through their actions. Turner brought the wrath of God and smote the Pharaohs of South Hampton, Virginia, while King presented the bounty of God’s forgiveness, healing, and love. Both leaders used the Biblical word of God to justify their actions as well they both claim divine inspiration for their actions. As well, both are well know for their understanding and interpretation of Biblical scripture.
To explain, King was dependent on the technology of the mid 20th century to aide in his crusade. That is to say, if there were no cameras nor national media to document the violent reactions of whites for other more well-meaning whites to witness, it is likely the movement would have fizzled out quickly with no progress made. As well, King’s movement was dependent on the violence itself. When King was encountered by an enemy who did not swiftly resort to violent aggression, as was the case in Albany, Georgia, he had a very hard time making his point. Therefore, King’s Christian approach would likely be useless in most other historical circumstances, especially during Turner’s era.
So the question that is of concern for Nat Turner, how do can his activities be reconciled given his Christian foundation. Was he justified in his efforts to find some semblance of freedom through the murder of his oppressors? More to the point, is there a place for violence within Christian theological philosophy that allows for the destruction of one’s oppressors without fear of divine retribution? To get at this question, the Bible itself must be taken in pieces. Meaning, the God of the Old Testament is jealous deity, who had no problem killing the enemies of his people to prove his point. However, the God of the New Testament, Jesus, was extremely forgiving and taught that love was the most important quality of humanity.
Moreover, it can be argued that beyond the Bible, both King and Turner were influenced heavily by the social and political zeitgeist of the historical periods in which they lived. For example, King was impacted by the philosophy and example of Gandhi, particularly with his non-violent strategy that he employed against the British. Turner on the other hand demonstrated an understanding of the ideas of freedom and independence from Thomas Jefferson. Anthony Santoro, author of the article "The Prophet in His Own Words: Nat Turner's Biblical Construction", argues that “Turner lived in Virginia and was in a sense an inheritor of the Jeffersonian rhetoric of all me being equal.” Since violence was used to achieve freedom Turner approach was definitely reflective of the historical period in which he lived. To be clear, it is difficult to connect the motivations of Turner to the philosophy espoused by Jefferson, however, it is know that Turner was literate and he had a certain freedom of movement as a traveling slave-preacher. As such, is very possible that he was exposed to some form of Jeffersonian rhetoric.
Turner was also deeply impacted by the Christian religion as was King. However, again we have a clear point of departure in terms of what Turner and King centered on to make their respective points. King boldly claimed that he was heavily influenced by Christ of the New Testament; Turner on the other hand seemed to focus on the religion of the vengeful Yahweh who made a way for His people with the blood of Israel’s enemies. Turner was also known for quoting or using imagery from the Old Testament. However, Anthony Santoro argues that Turner connected the Old and New Testaments. He states: “Turner’s weaving together of elements from both the Old and New testaments shows his understanding of his own role in the prophecy he bore.”
So, the query that is most concerning given in this context is: how can Christianity be reconciled as both the sword and shield in the African push for freedom in America? That is to ask, how can we balance Christianity as a tool that has been used for both violence and peace in the African American experience? The crux of this question centers on strategies for freedom in the 21st century. Because life for African Americans has gotten increasingly complex in the 21st century with the public return of White Supremacy during a period in history where African Americans are in key position of power in every facet of American culture. Essentially, this question is centered on survival strategies for the 21st century as the rights of minorities are being eroded with a degree of obviousness that has made people unsure about the future of the nation.
 Anthony Santoro. "The Prophet in His Own Words: Nat Turner's Biblical Construction." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 116, no. 2 (2008): 116-117.
 Peter H. Wood. “Nat Turner: The Unknown Slave as Visionary Leader.” From Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 21-42.
 Anthony Santoro. "The Prophet in His Own Words: Nat Turner's Biblical Construction." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 116, no. 2 (2008): 114-49.
 Ibid., 120-121.
 During this campaign Police Chief Laurie Pritchett studied the strategies of Martin Luther King Jr. and was able to quell the movement and avoid national embarrassment.
 David L Lewis. King: A Critical Biography. (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2012), 34.
 Anthony Santoro. "The Prophet in His Own Words: Nat Turner's Biblical Construction." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 116, no. 2 (2008): 121.
 Ibid., 121.
 Lerone Bennett, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. (Johnson Publishing Company Incorporated, 2003).
 Anthony Santoro. "The Prophet in His Own Words: Nat Turner's Biblical Construction." The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 116, no. 2 (2008): 117.