Nat Turner’s Bible

Nat Turner’s Bible February 14, 2013

A few months ago, I went to Harper’s Ferry with my wife and daughter. It’s a very odd National Historical Park because the National Park Service clearly does not know how to interpret John Brown’s life. Of course, it would be impossible to interpret John Brown’s life without antagonizing some potential visitors. Was he a deranged madman? Righteous avenger? Terrorist? All of those?

Recently, the National Museum of African American History put Nat Turner’s Bible on display. As detailed in this article, a Southampton County, Virginia, family donated the item after a family member became concerned about its deteriorating state. Curator Rex Ellis went to investigate:

Porter’s mother brought out a bundle from the closet wrapped in an old dish towel, which Ellis said seemed to be as old as the Bible. She also said something that struck him; that the family knew that the Bible was important because “there was so much blood on it.” He realized that it could be authentic.

“All that excited me no end,” Ellis said. “I couldn’t wait to bring it back” to Washington for testing.

For Maurice Person, the Bible’s owner and Porter’s stepfather, the Bible created more complicated feelings. In an interview, he recalled the family story about his great-great-grandmother, Lavinia Francis, who was a young child at the time of the Turner raid.

“She was home one day, except for the servants,” said Person. “They got word that the Nat Turner group was approaching the house. The servants took her upstairs and hid her in a cubbyhole. That’s why I’m here today.”

Turner was tried and hanged. Slave owners killed more than 100, and possibly close to 200, black people in revenge.

The Bible is temporarily on display in the National Museum of American History. The family who preserved it was white and kept the artifact despite the fact that an ancestor only narrowly escaped during the uprising. The family acquired the Bible when an ancestor cleaned out the county courthouse’s basement.

Like Harpers Ferry, this historical artifact will likely generate mixed feelings, as the article suggests:

Nat Turner is a revered figure to many African-Americans, a tangible example of someone who defied slavery’s shackles.

He was a slave who could read and write, an early rebel who, inspired by Scripture, led a bloody rebellion against whites in southern Virginia in 1831.

But to the white families once targeted by Turner’s band of slaves and freed blacks, he remains something altogether different, akin to today’s terrorists, responsible for the killing of more than 50 people, including women and children.

Christians should hesitate before applauding those who brutally killed people. At the same time, I think we should hesitate before condemning Christians with the rare courage to willingly offer their own lives in an attempt to strike a blow against what seemed an implacable evil.

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  • I ask my students about both Turner and Brown, was he a good guy or bad guy? Leads to interesting discussions.

  • Philip Jenkins

    I just remark that Tony Kaye of Penn State’s History Department is working on a major book about Nat Turner’s revolt:
    He’s a fine scholar. His last book was Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (North Carolina)

  • Nat Turner and John Brown are two sides of the same coin, that coin reflects how God’s people can develop a sense of outrage concerning the evils done by a system. That outrage can lead to a violent response to the powers that be. There is no setting aside the burning desire for justice. Sooner or later, it will assert itself. Along with it, and often counter to it, it would seem, runs the stream of mercy and grace, the exercise of unconditional love, a reality also found among the African American slaves who had imbibed also the teachings that are truly the hope of the future for mankind. However, the sense of justice, the outrage at injustice, these are also a part of the reality of the biblical revelation, In the summer of ’71, while a student at Columbia Univ., I offered a prospectus for a doctoral dissertation on the subject, The Baptists and Slavery. At that time the tide of outrage over injustice was running high, and the thoughts involved in my thesis were hardly acceptable, thoughts that later I found to be just as legitimate as the cry for justice. Illustrative of what I am trying to say is the work by Henry Wiencek, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White. It involves one episode that is starkly remarkable, that of African Americans and the power of I Cors.13. The power of the Bible to transform lives of despair are amply illustrated in that episode so simply set forth by Wiencek in one of the greatest biographical and historical presentations that I have ever studied in more than sixty years of reading.

  • Nats Family

    Nat is one of the most righteous men to walk on this land. May the peace and blessings forever be showered on him and the righteous.He will forever be remembered ,far longer than the wicked

  • Yvonne Horak

    Never thought I would see the day that somebody that could kill a small child in a cot is called the most righteous man to walk on land and done by a man who was supposed to be a Preacher and reading the Bible. He should have written Mein Kamf before the Nazi’s did.