Nat Turner: Black Moses of America

Marlee Schwalm (Elizabethtown College ’18) studies Nat Turner’s 19th century realization of the Moses tradition as recorded in Thomas Gray’s Confessions. This is the first issue in our second volume on the Bible and Race in the USA. You can see the first volume here.

Horrid Massacre in Virginia
An engraving with text depicting the Horrid Massacre in Virginia during Nat Turner’s Rebellion circa 1831. Black Males are seen Attacking White Males, Females and Children. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

Nat Turner was born a slave in Virginia in 1800. Nat Turner’s owner, Benjamin Turner, allowed Nat to be educated in religion, writing, and reading. This led him to become a great, influential slave pastor for which he is remembered. Turner believed he saw two environmental signs from God indicating he needed to be the one to unite black men and women to overthrow their masters. However, he became ill which caused him to delay the initial rebellion. After seeing a solar eclipse, Turner knew it was time to begin the rebellion. In August of 1831, Turner led the only successful self-sustained slave rebellion that involved killing over fifty white people, including his owner and his owner’s family. After hiding for almost two months after the rebellion, Turner was eventually found and hung for his actions.[1] A comparison is seen between Nat Turner and Moses in Exodus. Both Turner and Moses had special privileges and some form of education, both were given environmental signs from God, both men used death as a way to fight for their freedoms, and both men were inspired to lead a rebellion to become free from their master or Egypt. Nat Turner was so inspired by Moses and his exodus of the Israelites in Exodus 3 that he decided to start a rebellion of his own in Virginia.

Moses did not have the Bible during his time; however, he did have a special relationship with God to guide him. Moses received explicit instruction directly from God telling him to overthrow the Egyptian government and free the Israelites from their oppressors. Turner used Moses’ valiant story as a way to justify his rebellion. W.C. Smith would say Turner used a concept called scripturalizing while interpreting Moses’ story. Scripturalizing is a way for people to interpret a text to further “transcend” or justify an action based upon their interpretation of the text.[2]  Smith furthers his idea by saying people not only read texts but a text can also read people back. When Turner read Moses’ story it is clear he identified with Moses. Moses’ story read Turner back by inspiring him to lead a rebellion just as Moses did to escape oppression. Turner, being a pastor, had exceptional knowledge of the Bible and the ability to read between the lines. In doing so, Turner took the Exodus story and used it to appeal to the other slaves to join his rebellion. Turner knew “the influence I had obtained over the minds of my fellow servants.”[3] Turner also appealed to African Americans’ mindsets by interpreting the Bible as the victimized and enslaved race just as the Israelites were. This interpretation is an example of James Massey’s situational approach. Massey states that a situational approach is reading and interpreting a text “from the standpoint of the respective community’s own experience and needs.”[4]   By using his knowledge of the Scriptures, Turner pleased African American’s vulnerability by giving them an alternative to slavery: a rebellion.

Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Every Day Life discusses the idea of a scriptural economy. This idea gives people the ability to determine value to peoples’ bodies.[5]  Nat Turner was facing a white supremacy during the 1800s that believed white lives were the only lives that had value other than a dollar sign. With this in mind, whites of that time would not elevate Turner to the hero African Americans view him as. This is caused by different interpretations of the Bible between African Americans and whites.

Moses is generally known as the Hebrew baby who escaped death by being left in a basket in the Nile River. Luckily for Moses, he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter. This automatically granted Moses special privileges and opportunities he would otherwise not have had as an enslaved Israelite. Through the kindness of his master Turner was able to be educated. This, along with becoming a pastor, gave him special privileges in his society. Turner said he “surely would be a prophet, as the Lord had shewn me things that had happened before my birth.”[6] Turner believed he was destined for great things and he made sure his life supported his idea.

One of the most iconic parts of the Moses story is the burning bush. Moses’ signs were given in Exodus 3:9-10 when God said: “And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”[7] The burning bush was the moment Moses was ordained to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. As previously mentioned, Turner waited until there were clear signs, such as blood on corn and a solar eclipse, from God to rebel. Turner said his signs “the Holy Ghost… made plain the miracles it had shown me.”[8] Listening to these environmental signs showed Turner and Moses had incredible reverence for their God and obeyed when called upon.

As the story goes, Moses successfully led the Israelite people out of Egypt after various altercations with the Pharaoh. Death played a huge role in both Moses and Turner’s exodus stories. In Moses’ case “every firstborn son in Egypt will die.”[9] In Turner’s case, the slaves he led in the rebellion successfully killed over fifty white people/masters. Turner even said he “returned to commence the work of death”.[10] Both men used death as a way to end the oppression their people were facing.

Nat Turner not only read and interpreted the Moses story but was inspired by the story which led him to start a rebellion. Moses and Turner incorporated death into their fight for freedom, both were given signs from God, both were educated, and both were inspired to rebel from their hierarchies at that time. African Americans were enslaved, oppressed, and defeated. Nat Turner saw through this and with God’s timing he decided to do something about it. He interpreted the Bible as a slave with his knowledge as a pastor.  By doing so he was able to see the value of his people that white men failed to acknowledge. Turner successfully challenged the status quo of that era using his knowledge in interpreting the Bible, specifically the Exodus story, and left a legacy just as Moses did.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you think Nat Turner was ultimately justified in his rebellious actions?
  2. Can you think of any examples of “scripturalizing” the Bible being used today to justify African American actions that may be controversial?
  3. Is there any significance of Nat Turner’s original Bible being in the newly opened African American Museum in Washington D.C.?

[1] Justin Fornal, “Nat Turner’s Slave Uprising Left Complex Legacy,” News (National Geographic News), October 5, 2016,

[2] Wilfred C. Smith, Introduction to What Is Scripture?: A Comparative Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[3] Thomas Gray, The Confessions Of Nat Turner (Las Vegas: Classic American Pub., 2000).

[4] James Earl Massey, Introduction to the New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, ed. Leander Keck (n.p.: Abingdon Press, 1995).

[5]Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

[6] Nat Turner, The Confessions Of Nat Turner, ed. Thomas Gray (Las Vegas, NV: Classic American Pub., 2000).

[7] Zondervan Publishing Company, Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI, United States: Zondervan, 2006).

[8] Nat Turner, The Confessions Of Nat Turner, ed. Thomas Gray (Las Vegas, NV: Classic American Pub., 2000).

[9] Zondervan Publishing Company, Zondervan NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI, United States: Zondervan, 2006).

[10] Nat Turner, The Confessions Of Nat Turner, ed. Thomas Gray (Las Vegas, NV: Classic American Pub., 2000).

finally.jpgMarlee Schwalm is a Allied Health Biology major and Religious Studies minor at Elizabethtown College ’18.

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