Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Central to Nat Turner’s mission is the question of how one can distinguish between the will of God and the will of the self. Turner becomes first a self-appointed minister of God and then a self-ordained prophet of God—that is, the God of the Old Testament. It is only logical and natural that the slaves of the American Old South would identify forcefully with the Israelites as slaves in Egypt, but Turner seldom reflects on this comparison. Rather, he focuses on the Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah and broods on references to the Babylonian Captivity and the Apocalypse. In so doing he chooses destruction and damnation rather than progress and salvation.
Turner is left at the end in a totally ambiguous dilemma: Can he be redeemed and forgiven of his sins (the responsibility for the deaths of some two hundred persons, white and black alike) or is he eternally damned for them? He is unable to make peace with this question, because to receive forgiveness from God presumably he would have to admit that he was acting of his own will and volition in carrying out the atrocities and that God had never directed him to take these actions. The lawyer Gray repeatedly points out that if God had given his blessings to the insurrection, it would surely have succeeded. Whereas, its failure is manifest proof that God was not involved. Hence, Turner is left in a fixed state, like limbo, of denial paired with an attempt at belief. He is unable to pray and read the Bible as he approaches his execution. Moreover, Gray’s atheism seems to triumph in trouncing Turner’s belief.
Also of importance here is the issue of social action: How does a Christian fight against the evils of an institution so inherently wicked as slavery? Does God want Turner to kill its perpetrators to eliminate it? Or should he stay within the system to fight against it with whatever effect he can muster? It is the choice of understanding Jesus as the God who drove the money changers out of the temple or as the preacher who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Styron’s novel raises this question but does not attempt to answer it. Finally, Turner will simply be hanged.