When Nat Turner was captured after leading a bloody rebellion in August 1831, his Bible was with him, a book that would become an important piece of his complex story. The infamous revolt leader was dubbed “The Prophet”, as religion was a deep tie for him, and he often quoted Bible verses and held sermons.
Born into slavery on October 2, 1800, Turner, from his youth, claimed to have visions from God. These visions led to Turner leaving his owner then returning because of what he saw in his dreams.
In May 1828, however, these visions led to Turner believing that God was telling him to rebel against the slave owners and help lead a rebellion.
“I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first… 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… I should arise and prepare myself and slay my enemies with their own weapons.”
As a matter of fact, religious visions, particularly the Bible which Turner carried with him always, gave him and other enslaved black people the firm belief that they could rebel against slave owners.
“…the reason it [the Bible] was dog-eared and careworn, is that it provided him with inspiration, with the possibility of something else for himself and for those around him,” said museum curator Rex Ellis.
On August 13, 1831, Turner, who had then been given to another owner, used a weather event in the skies as the final signal that it was time to rebel.
On August 21, Turner and six others met to plan. In the wee hours of the morning, Turner and the others slew his new masters and their entire family. The group went from house to house, killing White families in their slumber. Eventually, Turner’s group grew to 40 slaves.
Later on August 22, the group marched toward the town of Jerusalem. The Whites by then were alerted of the slave rebellion and met them with weapons. Outgunned and out-manned, Turner’s group scattered and largely escaped. After hiding and clashing with the White militia throughout the day, Turner’s force killed at least 55 Whites.
Turner remained on the run until October 30 when a farmer by the name Benjamin Phipps found him hidden in a hole covered with fence rails – there with his Bible.
Turner was sentenced to death by hanging on November 5 by Virginia authorities, with his execution and subsequent skinning of his body taking place on November 11, alongside some 55 rebels.
After, his Bible remained in the Southampton County courthouse storage until 1912, when a courthouse gave it to a white family related to those killed in the rebellion. It was only recently that the historic relic was handed over to the museum of African American History in Washington, DC for safekeeping and preservation, becoming one of the museum’s prized possessions.
The Person family, which had kept the Bible, said “it sat in the back of a closet in the dark, wrapped in a cotton towel.” The artifact was first placed on the piano of the living room of Walter Person, who first inherited it after the revolt. Turner’s Bible was displayed there for 30 years until Walter died in 1945 and his son Maurice inherited it.
When Maurice decided to hand it over to the museum, he was told collectors would pay millions for the Bible but he was not willing to earn profit from it.
“It belongs to history. It belongs to the world,” Maurice told his stepdaughter Wendy Creekmore-Porter.
Recently, distinguished Professor of History Kenneth Greenberg spoke about the significance of Turner’s Bible: “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.”