The infamous rebellion took place 185 years ago
It was in August of 1831 that Nat Turner led a rebellion of Virginia slaves that left dozens of people dead, including small children. One-hundred and eighty-five years ago this week, in the early hours of Aug. 22, Turner and a some of his fellow slaves entered Turner’s master’s home, having decided that Turner “must spill the first blood” to start the rebellion, as Turner would later recount. Turner was soon captured and the uprising was suppressed. But in the weeks immediately afterward, Americans everywhere clamored to know something that may now seem obvious: Why had he done it? Nearly two centuries later, the legacy of that question is still evolving.
In November of 1831, shortly before to his execution, Turner gave ajailhouse confession, to attorney Thomas Gray, to answer the question. The story began, Turner said, in his childhood, when he had an experience that seemed to his family an indication of the powers of prophesy. Growing up believing that he was destined for great things, he eventually reached a turning point, as he recalled:
As I was praying one day at my plough, the spirit spoke to me, saying, “Seek ye the kingdom of Heaven and all things shall be added unto you.” Question—what do you mean by the Spirit. Ans. The Spirit that spoke to the prophets in former days—and I was greatly astonished, and for two years prayed continually, whenever my duty would permit—and then again I had the same revelation, which fully confirmed me in the impression that I was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty. Several years rolled round, in which many events occurred to strengthen me in this my belief. At this time I reverted in my mind to the remarks made of me in my childhood, and the things that had been shewn me—and as it had been said of me in my childhood by those by whom I had been taught to pray, both white and black, and in whom I had the greatest confidence, that I had too much sense to be raised, and if I was, I would never be of any use to any one as a slave. Now finding I had arrived to man’s estate, and was a slave, and these revelations being made known to me, I began to direct my attention to this great object, to fulfil the purpose for which, by this time, I felt assured I was intended.