Historical FAQs #3:
What were Nat Turner's motives in starting the revolt?
Nat Turner’s true motivations will likely never be known. That being said, people studying the Southampton revolt have tended to fall into two camps. One group argues that he was a deeply religious man who truly believed it was his holy mission to free himself and his fellow slaves. The other group asserts that, while he was religious, he was driven to revolt by the injustices of slavery and the desire for freedom. The answer probably falls somewhere in the middle.
Nat grew up reading the Bible and memorizing many of the Scriptures. He claimed to have had no less than ten revelations during the 1820s. These visions affirmed his belief that he was destined for a great purpose. By the start of 1831, he was still waiting for a sign from the heavens to begin fulfilling his destiny. It came on February 12th in the form of a solar eclipse. Afterwards, Nat gathered his closest friends (Hark, Henry, Nelson, and Sam) and began the conspiracy that would ignite into revolution.
Yet there was an incident a week before the eclipse that could also have served as a major spark for the revolt. At the start of 1831, John Reese, son of Joseph Reese Sr., was suffering from a serious debt crisis. To pay off his loans he leveraged many of his assets, which included his slaves Cherry and Riddick. Historians believe Cherry may have been Turner's wife and Riddick, his son. Such willful disregard for his family could have pushed Turner to begin planning in earnest for a rebellion. He may have accepted the eclipse as a sign that a great change was coming to the world and decided to act.
1. The Richmond Whig, September 26, 1831
"General Nat was no preacher, but in his immediate neighbourhood, he was acquired the character of a prophet; like a Roman Sybil, he traced his divination in characters of blood, on leaves alone in the woods; he would arrange them in some conspicuous place, have a dream telling them to him, to whom he would interpret their meaning. Thus, by means of this nature, he acquired an immense influence, over such persons as he took into his confidence.”
2. The Richmond Enquirer, August 30, 1831
“Nat, the ringleader, who calls himself General, pretends to be a Baptist preacher—a great enthusiast—declares to his comrades that he is commissioned by Jesus Christ, and proceeds under his inspired directions—that the late singular appearance of the sun was the sign for him.”
3. The Richmond Whig, September 26, 1831
"Tis true, that Nat has for some time, thought closely on this subject—for I have in my possession, some papers given up by his wife, under the lash—they are filled with hieroglyphical characters, conveying no definite meaning. The characters on the oldest paper appear to have been traced with blood; and on each paper, a crucifix and the sun, is distinctly visible; with the figures 6,000, 30,000, 80,000, etc.—There is likewise a piece of paper, of a late date, which all agree, is a list of his men; if so, they were short of twenty.”