Nat Turner – Slave Revolt Leader, Prophet, Condemned Man – Bisson

Discovery of Nat Turner (c. 1831–1876)

Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader, by Terry Bisson and Thomas Gray’s “Confessions” depict a selfless, charismatic, intelligent preacher and methodical killer.

Nat Turner went to his grave without expressing remorse for leading a slave rebellion that resulted in the deaths of close to 60 white men, women and children. He both horrified and impressed white lawyer Thomas Gray, who had been given permission to record Turner’s “confessions.” His clothes still soaked with the blood of his victims, Turner was composed as he spoke with Gray.

Thomas Gray Records “The Confessions of Nat Turner”

The white lawyer found Turner “for natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few…he possesses an uncommon share of intelligence, with a mind capable of attaining anything.” What troubled Gray was Turner’s religious fanaticism and remorselessness. Instead of issuing an apology, Turner asserted, “I am here loaded with chains, and willing to suffer the fate that awaits me.”

Nat Turner: Preacher and Prophet

It was clear to many of the slaves that Nat Turner was not suitable for slavery. He had learned to read with ease at an early age, claiming “that the alphabet ‘came to him’ in a vision, the letters burning themselves into fallen leaves on the ground.”

He emerged as a natural leader and was granted relative freedom to travel in order to preach at different black churches on Sundays. Christian slave owners had wanted to extend their religion to their slaves, but in a way that suited their purpose of keeping them subservient and patient for a Heaven after a life of obedience. Separated families and brutalized workers were assured that everything would be made whole again in the afterlife.

While slave owners hired ministers to teach this version of Christianity, rebel preachers like Nat Turner taught a different version. Turner evoked an active faith, where struggle, war and bloodshed were required in order to bring about “the great day of judgment.” Regarded as a prophet, Turner was so charismatic and eloquent that he was able to convert a white man named E.T. Brantley to Methodism, and, at Brantley’s request, baptize him.

Nat Turner is Hanged in Virginia

The incongruence of a benevolent preacher and a ruthless killer so disturbed Thomas Gray that his “blood curled in [his] veins,” as did that of the crowd that gathered to watch him die: “Not a limb or a muscle was observed to move.” He offered no last words. As the rope was secured around his neck, he said, “I am ready.” He died with dignity and pride, refusing the angry crowd the spectacle of a twitching body: “He hung perfectly still, as if already dead.” A complete understanding of his dissonance would go to the grave with him, for Turner died as he lived: a mystery.


  1. Bisson, Terry. Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005.