The Curious Journey of Nat Turner's Bible
Distinguished Professor of History Kenneth Greenberg appeared on the Fox Business Network program “Strange Inheritance” to discuss Virginia slave rebellion leader Nat Turner’s Bible. Greenberg explained why the Bible is such an important piece of Nat Turner’s complex story:
Q: You’ve dedicated a great deal of your life’s work to researching and documenting the life of Nat Turner and the Virginia slave rebellion he led. Why is this such a critical story to tell?
A: Nat Turner led one of the most important rebellions against slavery in the history of our nation. We need to study and understand him and his rebellion for a variety of reasons.
Turner fought for the cause of liberty. His battle should be understood as part of the larger story of the fight for liberty in the United States. It is a story that should be told alongside the stories of the American revolutionaries, the abolitionists, those who fought for the rights of women, those who struggled against racial and ethnic discrimination, and the Civil Rights Movement. Nat Turner and the men who fought alongside him gave their lives in the cause of liberty and this is a heritage that should make us proud.
Q: Do you think Nat Turner is a misunderstood figure in American history? Is that changing?
A: The evidence that the Nat Turner story has been relatively neglected by our nation can be detected in many different ways. If you travel today to the town in Virginia which was at the center of the rebellion you will see an obelisk to honor the Confederate dead, to honor the men who fought against the nation in order to preserve slavery. You will not see a monument dedicated to Nat Turner and to those who joined him in the fight for liberty. If you want to visit the grave of Nat Turner you will not be able to find it. When he was executed in 1831 his body was dissected and the location of his body parts remain unknown. No marker directs us to the place of his death and burial.
In an odd inversion of the truth of the past, for a long time Confederate soldiers had been understood as men who fought for states’ rights and liberty rather than to preserve slavery. There are signs that this once-dominant view is under attack, as evidenced by the recent removal of Confederate monuments all over the South. It remains to be seen whether or not these changes are superficial and temporary or deep and permanent.
Q: On “Strange Inheritance” you discuss the handling of Nat Turner’s Bible -- and its eventual home at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. What is the significance of the Bible and its changing ownership?
A: Nat Turner’s religion was at the heart of his decision to undertake the rebellion. During the years before 1831 he came to believe that he was a prophet chosen by God to lead his people against their masters in a great battle for liberty. From childhood, Nat Turner, his family, and his community understood that he was exceptional and destined for some great purpose. He astonished everyone by learning to read—at a time when it was illegal for anyone to teach an enslaved person to read. He came to believe that special marks on his body, his extraordinary intelligence, his knowledge of events that happened before he was born, and ultimately a series of direct revelations from the heavens, all pointed to a destiny that transcended enslavement. Nat Turner’s Bible served as his guide to understanding his special relation with God. It also pointed the way toward his first major target in the rebellion—the nearby town significantly and strikingly named “Jerusalem.” Imagine reading the Bible while living so close to the town of “Jerusalem.”
After Nat Turner was captured and hanged, his Bible was given to a white family related to those killed in the rebellion. Only recently has this Bible been turned over for safekeeping and preservation to the new museum of African American History in Washington, DC. It is now on display in the museum and is considered one of their prize possessions.
The Bible stands as the embodiment of the religious vision that gave Nat Turner the courage and determination to sacrifice his life to fight slavery. At one moment, when Turner was in his jail cell, a white interrogator asked him whether he now believed himself mistaken. Without hesitation, Turner replied “Was not Christ crucified?” Surrounded by enemies, days away from execution and dismemberment, it was the Bible and the religious ideas embedded in the Bible that inspired Turner and confirmed him in the belief that he had chosen a righteous road.
Q: You have helped raise awareness of Nat Turner’s story through books, essays, lectures, and the nationally broadcast documentary Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property. Is there still another chapter to tell?
A: I am writing a book that will retell the Nat Turner story for modern audiences. It is not an easy story to tell, and many earlier historians have attempted and failed. There have been many obstacles.
Perhaps most importantly, the sources contain no “unmediated” African American voices. Government records, newspaper accounts, and private letters were all written by whites. Nat Turner’s “Confession” occasionally contains Nat Turner’s voice, but it also contains the white lawyer’s voice who wrote it all down and it is very difficult to separate the two voices. Trial records, even when they include the testimony of enslaved people, cannot be trusted because they include statements delivered under coercive circumstances and copied by white court reporters. As with all topics related to the history of enslaved people in the United States, a historian needs to be skeptical of all sources. This requires painstaking work and great patience.