“The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion” by Stephen B. Oates is a book that depicts the rebellion led by Turner in 1831. Religion and the Bible play an essential role in understanding the context of the uprising. For slaveowners, the Bible justified their actions towards African Americans. Similarly, Turner used his religious beliefs and visions of God’s signs he had to plan and carry out the rebellion. This paper aims to explore the role of religion and its impact on Turner’s rebellion, as depicted in “The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion.”
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Turner’s rebellion affected the entire state, as after it was stopped and the rebels were captured, the policymakers implemented new laws in fear that something similar may happen again. One example is forbidding the slaves to get an education, which was what allowed Turner to read and be familiarized with the Bible. Notably, in the book, Oates states that many of the slaves in the town were allowed to go to church with their masters (4). Hence, religion had an essential role for both the slaves and the masters. However, both parties had a different view of it.
The Biblical justification of slavery was connected to the religious beliefs that Africans brought to America had. In most cases, they were not Christian, practicing Islam or other religions. Hence, slavery allowed the Christian slaveowners to save the souls of the slaves since they encountered God’s message while being enslaved. As was mentioned, many of the slaves depicted by Turner attended church with their masters (4).
Moreover, in Southhampton, slave owners believed that they treated the slaves much better when compared to other tows, which would mean that they should not be afraid of a rebellion. According to Oates, “Virginians liked to boast that slavery was not so harsh in the Old Dominion” (3), The example of Southhampton represents a typical approach to viewing slavery. Although this was a small town, “if you had to own at least 20 slaves to claim as a planter, then 96 of Southhampton’s 734 slaveowners … could claim that coveted distinction” (Oates, 2).
In contrast, the Biblical denominations of slavery are prominent as well. Nat Turner’s experience with Christianity and the Bible began when he was a child. Because he was intelligent, he studied the Bible and interpreted slavery as unjust treatment. He decided that the rebellion must take place when he saw a black spot over the sun (26). Turner believed that this was a symbol of a black hand and understood it as God wanting him to rebel against the slaveowners. Hence, in Turner’s view, religion and the Bible were against slavery. This study reveals to me that the region was interpreted by both sides differently, based on the actions they wanted to commit. For slaveowners, it could be used to justify the enslavement, for slaves, it made killing white slaveowners justifiable.
Turner interpreted the Bible as one but not the only source through which God communicated with people, which was manifested in his visions and communication with spirits. For Turner, the Bible and his faith were a source of strength as he believed that because his life was governed by it, his faith would help him find the power to rebel against slavery. Moreover, since his birth, he experiences mystical events, such as spirits telling him about his great purpose (9). Thus, the causes of freedom were taken up by religious views of different classes. For different segments of society, this meant that freedom could be manifested in slavery because slaves could encounter the word of God, while Turner saw freedom as not having to serve his masters.
Turner can be viewed as insane because of his visions and obsession with religion and greater purpose. However, his followers regarded him as a prominent figure and a guide. He became a preacher in his community and thus had an impact on many (167). Arguably, the slave community could sense Turner’s greater purpose, and they followed him because of that. On August 21, only six men, together with Turner, began planning their rebellion (167). As they continued preparing, more people joined their group. It is possible that his followers saw him as a prophet, and Turner himself used this description to justify his rebellion after he was captured (169). Hence, Turner can be viewed both as an insane or a blessed person.
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I would explain Turner to another class as a rebel who attempted to stand against the unjust treatment he and his community received. In some way, Turner was controversial because of his visions of spirits. However, as an intelligent man, he understood the unjust and cruel treatment of slaveowners. He relied on the word of God to plan his rebellion and recruit other slaves to participate. Although, in the end, many of the slaves were killed, including Turner, who was hanged, his example sheds light on how slaveowners interpreted the Bible. They used it as a source of justification for their cruelty and enslavement of others, which suggests that Nat Turner is a prominent historical figure.
Overall, this essay explores the role of religion in the justification of slavery and anti-slavery rebellions. A notable fact is that in Southhampton, slave owners justified their actions with religion, similarly to Turner, who used it as a basis for his rebellion. Turner used religion and his spiritual visions as a guide for planning and justifying his rebellion. His actions shed light on the issues of slavery and the use of faith in explaining it.
Oates, Stephen. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. Harper Perennial, 2014.