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  • I Know It Was the Blood:Prophetic Initiation and Retributive Justice in the Narratives of John Marrant, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass

This article emphasizes the generative impact of West African religious culture on early African American Christians by analyzing the use of two symbols, wilderness and blood, in the autobiographical accounts of John Marrant, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass. I use Theophus Smith's notion of conjure to reconstruct the hermeneutical lens through which early African Americans read and understood the Bible and to explain how the repetition of symbols evinces Africana religious consciousness. While the Bible provided these authors and narrators with a narrative model for storytelling, the structural patterns and thematic emphases repeated in their texts suggest that Africana spirituality, rather than the doctrines of Euro-American Protestantism, primarily informs the processes by which these narrators construct religious meaning. The repetition of the Bible's symbols, tropes, and themes establishes a written tradition of biblical interpretation—a midrash of the Black Church—a hitherto-unacknowledged phenomenon in African diaspora religious history.


John Marrant, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, conjure, Bible

As even the most casual survey of African American religious thought reveals, the Exodus story has functioned centrally in the religious imaginations of [End Page 234] Black North Americans. Since their earliest documented reflections on the Bible, Black people's desires for both collective identity and freedom have been profoundly impacted by the telling and retelling of the Old Testament's principal narrative. Early Black autobiographical narratives allegorize Black people's historic quest for freedom by employing structures, symbols, and literary tropes found in Exodus to depict scenes in which resistance to enslavement is instigated by protagonists who have undergone ritual isolation in wilderness settings. This article emphasizes the generative impact of West African and Central African religious cultures on early African American Christians (and Bible readers more broadly) by analyzing the use of symbols, tropes, and themes from Exodus in the autobiographical accounts of John Marrant, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass. In each case, the author's use of the symbols of wilderness and blood signify ritualized prophetic initiation and direct confrontation with oppressive rulers. Taken together, these symbols, read within narrative structures derived from traditional West African, Central African, and African American storytelling cultures, reveal retribution tales for injuries suffered at the hands of enslavers. First, I analyze how Marrant, Turner, and Douglass deploy the symbols to describe ritual practices of early African Americans derived from West African and Central African religious cultures. Next, I reconstruct the hermeneutical lens through which early African Americans read and understood the Bible to explain how this literary device evinces Africana religious consciousness. While the Bible provided these authors with a narrative model for storytelling, the structural patterns and themes repeated within and across their texts suggest that Africana spirituality, rather than the orthodox doctrines of Euro-American Protestantism, primarily informs the processes by which these narrators interpret and construct religious meaning. The repetition of the Bible's symbols, tropes, and themes in the tales told by Marrant, Turner, and Douglass establishes a written tradition of biblical interpretation—a midrash of the Black Church—a hitherto-unacknowledged phenomenon in the religious history of the African diaspora.

In biblical lore, prophets commonly endure isolation in the wilderness before embarking on a divine mission. In the story of the Exodus, Moses flees to the wilderness of Midian after he murders an Egyptian taskmaster for mistreating a Hebrew slave. There he learns to herd sheep from his father-in-law, Jethro. When Moses returns from the wilderness, he is not leading sheep, but the nation of Israel. After the people of Israel escape from Egypt, they return to the wilderness where they are given laws, and Moses learns from Jethro to organize his massive following. In the New Testament, Jesus is [End Page 235] driven to seclusion in the wilderness for forty days of fasting and prayer. This follows his baptism by John at which his prophetic identity is confirmed by the voice of God from heaven. In both examples, the number forty signifies the ritual aspects of wilderness initiation. Jesus spends forty days and nights in the wilderness, and each of Moses's respective stays in the wilderness lasts forty years. In biblical narratives, wilderness is a literary signifier of prophetic initiation.

The wilderness motif also signifies ritual initiation in African American religious culture. In her ethnographic study of Black folk culture, Zora Neale Hurston notes that African American seeking rituals often take place in wilderness spaces. Customarily, the supplicant "goes forth into waste places and by fasting and prayer induces the vision."1 The wilderness was also a significant psycho-social space in the religious lives of early Black North Americans. Historian Ras Michael Brown explains that in the Georgia and South Carolina low country, the association of uncultivated land with spiritual potency persisted among enslaved and free persons of African descent. Gullah Joe, a Kongolese man enslaved in Africa and brought to the New World, affectionately longs for his wife and children long after arriving in nineteenth-century South Carolina. Additionally, he desires to once again walk in the "feenda,"2 a derivative of the KiKongo word mfinda, which means "forest," where, as Brown explains, "he likely spent much of his youth in Africa collecting plants, trapping small animals, practicing the hunt, and otherwise learning to become a Kongo man."3

Brown identifies a relationship between sacred land and social development in early African American spirituality and insists this epistemology has precedence in West-Central African cultural thought. "People of African descent … accepted that the physical landscape had sacred dimensions that had to be engaged for both the spiritual development of individuals and the well-being of communities. This notion, too, was embraced by many of the African societies from which the captives who landed in the Lowcountry originated."4 The feenda was instrumental in the formation of Kongolese male identity, and this religious orientation was maintained among American-born persons of African descent in the low country region of South Carolina. "The framework for this Lowcountry Christian practice came from West-Central African and West African initiation societies, revealed in part by the stages of seeking in which the initiate endured seclusion in the wilderness and returned after a dramatic spiritual transformation. The West African associations known as Poro and Sande have been examined as likely precursors for Lowcountry seeking, although West-Central African antecedents have received much less attention."5 [End Page 236]

Wilderness initiation is a long-standing, widespread practice in many Africana religious communities. The Kimpasi association of West-Central Africa was one of the most important initiation societies of the Kongo region. Beginning with the ritual stage of seclusion, initiates were consecrated to nature spirits, or simbi. The initiates were removed from the community and sent to the wilderness or another designated place outside the community. Kimpasi societies were commonly based in "uninhabited areas, especially densely wooded or secluded regions." Their ritual activity usually took place in outdoor, open enclosures "hidden by trees, logs, and thorny underbrush."6 During the seclusion stage of the ritual, initiates underwent extreme physical and psychological pressure, living without the comforts of everyday life. Ritual seclusion provides initiates with extended time for contemplative reflection. Despite undergoing these journeys alongside peers, initiates were isolated from family and the community. In an intensely focused spiritual environment designed to induce the contemplative journey, initiates received wisdom of the elders and ancestors and were compelled to view their past and future from newly enlightened vantage points. Most importantly, they learned to understand and accept the cyclical nature of spiritual seasons and "take their place on the great wheel of life that turns elders into ancestors and children into adults."7

While the contemplative aspect of such practices often eludes observers not familiar with Africana religious traditions, the effect is evident in the life of the initiate. Wilderness seclusion enacts a narrative of death and resurrection. The purpose of the ritual is to impress on initiates the importance of communal support and cooperation. The initiates' liminality is underscored by their exclusion from the community: apart from community, the individual, alone, cannot exist. Without formal instruction (the next phase in the initiatory journey), initiates have no lasting appreciation for the community's customs, rituals, and long-standing traditions. Wilderness seclusion underscores the central importance of belonging to a social group and the values of cooperation and one's responsibility to the larger society, without which the community disintegrates into chaos. Consequently, seclusion signifies the death from which the initiates will be delivered by integration into the community after the initiation process has been completed.8

The accounts of wilderness initiation related by John Marrant, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass in their respective autobiographical narratives illuminate the generative impact of West African and Central African religion on Black religious history in North America. Their journeys through the wilderness and back home adhere closely to tales of wilderness initiation found in the Old and New Testaments. The story of John Marrant, North America's first [End Page 237] ordained Black minister, opens a window into the history of religious cultures formed and informed by persons of African descent on the North American landscape. In his first autobiographical narrative, he describes the formation of his religious identity in the woods of the Georgia and South Carolina low country. After a chance encounter with famed revivalist preacher George Whitefield, Marrant discerns the prophetic call. When his ascetic regimen of fasting and prayer draws the scorn of family and neighbors, he takes to the wilderness to strengthen his resolve and spiritual fortitude. He stayed in the low country fields sometimes "from morning to night to avoid persecutors." Despite taxing hunger and fatigue, Marrant reports that he "seemed to have clearer views into the spiritual things of God."9

Eventually his daily excursions are extended until one day he leaves home altogether. After nearly a week alone in the woods, he meets "an Indian deer hunter" who teaches him to hunt and to build a brush harbor, a makeshift shelter commonly used in Native American and African American religious ceremonies. After remaining under the hunter's tutelage for several weeks, Marrant accompanies his instructor to a Cherokee settlement where he remains two years. During this time, he develops as a religious leader, visiting several Creek, Catawba, and Housaw communities.10 When he returns to his mother's home in Savannah, his family members do not recognize him. Fully assimilated to the ways and customs of his former hosts, he is dressed "purely in the Indian stile" with garments made from "the skins of wild beasts. … My head was set out in the savage manner, with a long pendant down my back, a sash round my middle, without breeches, and a tomahawk by my side."11 Marrant is employed as a carpenter and begins to teach the Bible to enslaved Blacks at the Jenkins plantation in Combahee, South Carolina.

Other early Black American autobiographical tales also allude to wilderness initiation. When Nat Turner escapes from a Virginia plantation in 1829, he is secluded in the woods for thirty days. To the dismay of his fellow slaves, he returns to the plantation when he receives a divine commission from the Spirit. Turner explains that he was directed by the Spirit "that I should return to the service of my earthly master," where he would carry out divine instructions to seek first the kingdom of God. Despite Turner's claims of divine inspiration, the "negroes" on the plantation scoffed at his return, "saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world."12

When Turner returns to the plantation, the effect of his consecration in the woods is evident. Like Marrant, he adopts ascetic practices that distinguish him from other members of the community and augment his prophetic authority. At every opportunity, he withdraws from the company of his fellow slaves [End Page 238] to better understand the revelations of the Spirit. Like the Kimpasi in Kongo, who undergo initiation partly to gain an understanding of the spiritual seasons, Turner learns the rhythms of the natural world—"the knowledge of the elements, the revolution of the planets, the operation of tides, and changes of the seasons."13

Wilderness seclusion is also signified in Frederick Douglass's 1845 autobiographical narrative. After a savage beating at the hands of his overseer, Edward Covey, Douglass seeks protection from his owner. When his petition is dismissed, he contemplates running away rather than remaining under Covey's abusive authority. On his way back to Covey, Douglass meets a fellow slave, Sandy Jenkins, who takes him to the woods to procure protective herbs. Douglass spends most of the remainder of the day with Sandy and informs him that he is contemplating absconding from Covey. Sandy advises against taking flight and instructs him instead to carry a protective herb on his right side, and it "would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me."14

Douglass reluctantly accepts Sandy's charm, noting his skepticism toward the practice of conjure. However, he reconsiders the charm's efficacy when a passing encounter reveals a less ornery side of Covey. Douglass's return from the wilderness sets the stage for a dramatic encounter in which Covey's authority is directly challenged. An explication of this confrontation is taken up later in this article.

In the cases of John Marrant, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass, the wilderness provides temporary respite from the trials of daily life. Marrant turns to the wilderness to seek refuge from persecution at the hands of family and neighbors, Turner withdraws to the wilderness to reflect on the mysteries of his developing spirituality, and Douglass seeks to escape abuse at the hands of a violent overseer. Ras Michael Brown explains that in West-Central Africa nature spirits were commonly sought to alleviate individual and collective suffering. Initiates sought nature spirits to guide them through the political turmoil and social upheaval that characterized the region during the era following the dissolution of the old kingdom. As a result, Kimpasi societies witnessed substantial growth in the kingdom of Kongo during times of social distress such as drought and extended civil war at the turn of the eighteenth century. Similarly, for African-descended North Americans, wilderness initiation enabled African captives to redress collective problems through their relationships with unseen forces. For Marrant, Turner, and Douglass the effect of wilderness seclusion is evident after each returns to his community to confront the oppressive forces of white supremacy, anti-Black racism, and American slavery. [End Page 239]

In the accounts from Marrant, Turner, and Douglass, prophetic initiation in the wilderness sets the stage for direct confrontation of abusive leaders who rule the enslaved unjustly. The symbolic and structural patterns of confrontation are nearly identical in the Bible and in these Black autobiographical narratives. While the Exodus story provides the basic structure for these stories, retaliation narratives circulated widely among colonial and antebellum Black storytellers. Yvonne Chireau's study of African American conjure traditions identifies a standard narrative structure Blacks employ to relate accounts of retributive justice: "These [Conjure] narratives nearly always focus on some sort of human suffering, and they inevitably articulate a link between conflict and supernaturally induced misfortune. … [T]hey describe sudden illness, with symptoms of headache, deafness, and unusual physical debilitation—all precipitated by conflict or emotional injury."15

The Exodus story follows a similar pattern. At the beginning of Exodus, Israel's progeny is threatened by Pharaoh's edict to slaughter the Hebrew male infants. Moses, the prophetic hero of Exodus, returns from the wilderness of Midian to persuade Pharaoh to release Israel from bondage. When Pharaoh demands a sign to confirm Moses's prophetic identity, Moses changes the waters of the Nile to blood, an ominous sign that foreshadows violent redemption. Pharaoh refuses to heed the warning, and Moses calls forth a series of plagues, or supernaturally induced misfortunes, that cause great turmoil throughout Egypt. After lesser plagues prove ineffective, a final plague—the death plague—is enacted. The angel of death sweeps through Egypt killing the firstborn male child in every household not marked by the blood of a sacrificial lamb. When the Egyptians discover their sons dead, their cries reach Pharaoh, whose own son has also perished at the hands of the death angel. Angrily, Pharaoh releases the Hebrews from bondage, and the structural elements of the story are reversed. The people of Israel, who began in bondage, are freed by the story's conclusion. While they flee with their children to the wilderness for safety, the Egyptians mourn the loss of their sons who now lie dead.

In the Exodus story, the plague of death is not enacted until lesser plagues prove ineffectual. Other biblical versions of the retaliation narrative include supernaturally induced misfortune while avoiding the plague of death altogether. Abram's escape from Egypt in Genesis 12, for example, does not include the plague of death. When Abram goes to Egypt because of a famine, he conceals his relationship with his wife, Sarai, saying instead that she is his sister.16 Abram's fabrication is attributed to fear of the Egyptians, whom Abram supposes will kill him to take his spouse. Abram's fear is eventually realized when Egyptians take Sarai into Pharaoh's house to be his wife. The removal [End Page 240] of Sarai from the house of Abram, like the slaughter of Hebrew male infants in Exodus, poses a serious threat to Israel's progeny. However, as in Exodus, Pharaoh's house is beseeched with plagues, and Sarai is returned to Abram. Pharaoh sends Abram out of Egypt with his wife and all his possessions.

The same narrative pattern of retribution is found in the accounts of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20 and Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 26. Both Abraham and Isaac sojourn in the land of Gerar, and both claim their spouses as sisters because they fear the jealousy of their neighbors and the wrath of Abimelech, the king. Abraham's fears are soon realized. When Sarah, his wife, is taken into the house of Abimelech, plagues are brought upon Abimelech and his household because of her. Sarah is returned to Abraham, and they are sent from the land of Gerar. Abraham increases his holdings in cattle, servants, and silver. In Isaac's account, however, Abimelech discovers that Rebekah is Isaac's wife before she is taken. The king proclaims that no one is to touch her lest punishment be brought upon the land. Isaac and Rebekah leave Gerar with family and increased possessions, and plagues of any kind are avoided altogether.

The narrative pattern that Yvonne Chireau identifies in African American retaliation stories—suffering, conflict, and supernaturally induced misfortune—can be traced in these biblical tales. These narrative patterns also persist in the material history of African American religious practitioners. As Chireau highlights, conjure played a significant role in many African American slave insurrections. For instance, during the New York Conspiracy of 1712, a rebellion purportedly organized in retaliation against harsh treatment by slave masters, conspirators partook in a ritual blood oath and consumed "an enchanted powder" alleged to render them invulnerable.

Denmark Vesey, who, like John Marrant, worked as a carpenter in Charleston, employed conjure rituals during his 1822 conspiracy. Vesey, a leader in the African Methodist Church, recruited artisans, laborers, and field hands to participate in an insurrection conspiracy headquartered at the church. Religious faith became a tool for both unifying and motivating participants. However, according to Chireau, "while Christianity gave justification to the noble but dangerous cause of freedom fighting, ritual action was the catalyst." Additionally, Vesey also deploys an exegesis of the Exodus narrative to incite his followers to action. As Rolla Bennett, a slave of the former governor of South Carolina, confesses, Vesey exhorted the enslaved to "rise up and fight against the whites for our liberties." Bennett further explains that Vesey read from the Bible "how the Children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage. … He then read in the Bible where God commanded, that all should be cut off, both men, women and children, and said, [End Page 241] he believed, it was no sin for us to do so, for the Lord had commanded us to do it."17

The association of conjure rituals and rebellion may have cultural antecedents among religious groups deriving from West Africa and Central Africa. Among the Akan of West Africa, oath-swearing rituals were a central feature of the political culture. Taking an oath was a sacred act that involved ingesting ceremonial food or drink made from a variety of substances—gunpowder, water, blood, rum or other strong drink—potent enough to cause serious harm or even death if the terms of the oath were violated or if the oath was taken disingenuously. Described by many Europeans as "drinking fetish" or "eating fetish," oathing ceremonies were enacted to "seal commercial contracts, to consecrate peace treaties between nations, or to ensure the loyalty of soldiers and their commanding officers to the war aims of a polity." As one Ga-speaking informant relates, each element in the "drinking fetish" signified a different means of death if the terms of the oath were violated. "Water means an unhappy death in the sea … the blood means a violent death by gunshot or sword … the [millet] that all the blessings of the earth's fertility will be denied him, if he breaks the oath."18

The pervasiveness of oath swearing among West and Central African religious communities obscures the specific cultural origin of oath-swearing rituals among enslaved Blacks in North America. However, in both North American and African contexts, oathing rituals were enacted to secure the loyalty of soldiers during war.19 One of Vesey's most influential "lieutenants" was Jack Pritchard, or Gullah Jack, an acknowledged priest of African tradition. Gullah Jack was a leader in the Gullah Society, a church-based association comprised of Blacks from Carolina plantations and the Sea Islands. Commonly known as a "sorcerer," Gullah Jack engaged in spiritual practices including readings, prayers, and oaths. Additionally, he distributed poison to be used in preemptive attacks on planters and whites.

While the use of poison aided Vesey's collective revolt, poison was far more commonly deployed in "acts of personal defiance." In many instances, eighteenth-century African Americans turned to poisoning as a means of resolving offenses. Because slavery and poison were viewed as forms of spiritual evil, some enslaved Blacks settled grievances by poisoning their masters. Legislative responses in Georgia and South Carolina attest to planter concerns regarding the high incidence of poisoning in the region. South Carolina's 1751 Negro Act stated, "That in case any slave shall teach or instruct another slave in the knowledge of any poisonous root, plant, herb, or other poison, whatever, he or she, so offending, shall upon conviction thereof, suffer death as a felon." According to eighteenth-century Georgia legislation, anyone convicted for poisoning was sentenced to death.20 [End Page 242]

Slave owners, as well as their mistresses, had reason to fear poisoning by slaves as retribution for ill treatment. Chireau notes the case of Sambo, a North Carolina slave convicted of conspiring to poison his slave mistress "to make her better to him." Sambo was found guilty of planning to give "touck," a harmful potion made of wild herbs widely known among Native and African American conjurers. The association of conjure with African and Native American culture was so common that one eighteenth-century doctor referred to conjure traditions as "Indian or Negro poison."21

The association of retaliatory conjure with African and Native American cultural influence is instructive for understanding John Marrant's account of his conflict with a plantation mistress in Combahee, South Carolina. After a two-year absence from his family while on a Creek settlement in the Georgia low country, Marrant found work as "a house Carpenter" on the Jenkins plantation in nearby Combahee, South Carolina. There, Marrant began to hold secret religious meetings in the woods and taught enslaved children and their parents to read the Bible. When the slave mistress, Mrs. Jenkins, became aware of Marrant's efforts, she determined to put a stop to it. She sent her husband to intimidate Marrant and his pupils. On his wife's orders, Mr. Jenkins organized a mob to break up the gathering. Mr. Jenkins, "together with his overseer and negro-driver, and some of his neighbours," seized Marrant and the worshippers gathered for prayer. With the exception of Marrant, who insists on the legal protection afforded to him by his free status, the worshippers are stripped naked, their feet are tied to stakes with cords, and their hands are tied to the arm of a tree. They are whipped until "the blood ran from their backs to the floor," and they "promise they would leave off prayering."22

Of particular interest in Marrant's description of Jenkins's assault is the ground covered in the slaves' blood. In the Exodus story, Moses's initial sign to Pharaoh, the conversion of water to blood, foreshadowed Israel's retaliation and the death of Egypt's sons.23 Marrant also deploys blood imagery to foreshadow divine retribution. Although Mrs. Jenkins succeeds in driving him from the plantation, Marrant has the final word in the saga when Mrs. Jenkins is seized with a mysterious illness.

In about two months after I left them, it pleased God to lay his hand upon their Mistress, and she was seized with a very violent fever, which no medicine that they could procure would remove, and in a very few days after she was taken ill, she died in a very dreadful manner, in great anger with her husband, for not preventing their meetings, which she had heard they continued, notwithstanding all her endeavours to stop it.24 [End Page 243]

The death plague is enacted on Mrs. Jenkins because, like Pharaoh in Exodus, she refused to allow the people of God to worship freely in the wilderness. Her harsh treatment of enslaved laborers causes their blood to flow. The blood imagery foreshadows divine retribution, which is realized by her untimely demise. The well-documented tradition of poison raises suspicions concerning the possible role of conjure in the mysterious death of Mrs. Jenkins. It is plausible, and perhaps likely, that Marrant's wilderness initiation under the tutelage of his Native American instructor included training in the curative and harmful properties of local botany. If Mrs. Jenkins's sudden, mysterious illness was the result of conjure, then one can reasonably infer that the combination of the wilderness motif and blood imagery in Black freedom narratives signifies divinely inspired retaliation against oppression.

In Nat Turner's Confession, blood imagery also triggers retributive justice. Turner, like Marrant, returns from the woods before commencing his antislavery heroics and, shortly after returning to the plantation, is inspired by a vision to resist enslavement violently. He describes a cosmic battle in which streams of blood result from fighting between Black and white spirits. He hears a voice from heaven saying, "Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bear it."25 The blood imagery in Turner's narration signals rebellion. When he sees blood flowing in streams and hears the voice of the Spirit, he discerns a call to rebellion and begins to develop plans for armed resistance. While Turner does not initially understand the vision of battle between white and Black spirits, the repetition of blood patterns in nature drives home the point.

Shortly afterward, Turner witnesses another miraculous vision while laboring in the field. This time he discovers "drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven." He also describes "hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood." He shares news of this revelation widely—communicating it to both white and Black residents in the neighborhood. In particular, he notes the effect of his news on Etheldred T. Brantley, a local white man reputed for his wicked treatment of the enslaved.

About this time I told these things to a white man (Etheldred T. Brantley) on whom it had a wonderful effect—and he ceased from his wickedness, and was attacked immediately with a cutaneous eruption, and blood oozed from the pores of his skin, and after praying and fasting nine days, he was healed, and the Spirit appeared to me again, and said, as the Saviour had been baptised so should we be also—and [End Page 244] when the white people would not let us be baptised by the church, we went down into the water together, in the sight of many who reviled us, and were baptised by the Spirit—After this I rejoiced greatly, and gave thanks to God.26

For Turner, the appearance of blood—on the corn in the field, oozing from Brantley's pores, and flowing in cosmic visions—symbolized an apocalyptic battle in which the powers that upheld American slavery would be defeated. As he and his band of rebels marched from plantation to plantation in revolt, they likely imagined themselves accompanied by the death angel who wreaked havoc in Egypt just as they sought to do in Southampton, Virginia.

Note also Turner's reference to the "blood of Christ" when he describes the miraculous signs that inspire his rebellion. "The blood of Christ," he declares, "had been shed on this earth, and had ascended to heaven for the salvation of sinners." The appearance of Christ's blood in Turner's visions, however, does not signal the reconciliation of humanity and God, but rather announces that "the great day of judgement was at hand." The concern was for earthly, rather than cosmic, justice. The association of the blood of Christ with the redemption of captives in America may have precedence in traditional West African and Central African religion. African church historian Samson Fatokun notes that expiatory sacrifices were common in these religions. As in the Christian maxim, "bloodshed is necessary for remission of sin," blood occupies a significant place in the Yoruba concept of expiatory sacrifice and can avert evils in the land. In fact, such sacrifice is incomplete without the shedding of blood—the blood of animals, or even (in extreme cases) human beings, is believed to have both "propitiatory and purifying power." The victim's blood stands as a substitute for the offender and gives satisfaction or cools the hot anger of the offended deity.27

Among the Abaluyia in Western Kenya, blood sacrifices were performed to bring about peace rather than hostility. During the omusango ceremony, the ritual slaughter of a sacrificial dog enacted an end to intercommunal hostilities. The blood of the sacrificed animal stood in place of the blood of the men from the communities that had been spared by the slaughtering of the dog. The ceremony is comparable to animal sacrifices practiced for generations throughout the region. "The Israelites of the Old Testament times and other Near Eastern groups (extra-biblical groups) were quite familiar with these types of sacrifices, which sealed peace covenants and ensured peace for the parties involved. A striking example of this notion is the Christian Church, which was founded on the belief in a crucified Christ who shed his blood for the salvation of humankind."28 [End Page 245]

The notion of expiatory sacrifice may also help illuminate ritual sacrifices performed by Turner and his coconspirators on the night of the rebellion. Turner and six fellow conspirators slaughtered a pig in the woods before they commenced their attack on the planters of Southampton. Nearly forty years earlier in Haiti, Boukman, a "vodoo high priest," allegedly performed a similar ritual slaughter of a pig in the wilderness at the commencement of the Haitian Revolution. After the animal was sacrificed, Boukman gave instructions to rebels, and "after Voodoo incantations and the sucking of the blood of a stuck pig, he stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in creole." The expiatory sacrifice was widespread throughout New World diasporas and was also a constitutive element of traditional African indigenous religion.29

Turner's reference to the blood of Christ invokes the redemption of slaves in Southampton, Virginia, rather than the whole of humanity. In fact, notions of universal salvation through expiatory sacrifice are without precedent in traditional African religion. "While indigenous religion has references to cases of sacrifices undertaken by some individuals (savior-gods) for the liberation of their different communities from one calamity or the other, the notion of a single individual taking away the sins of the 'whole world' through a single act of expiatory sacrifice finds no parallel to Africa."30 In Turner's narrative, the blood of Christ signals resistance to the forces of American slavery and redemption from bondage. The reconciliation of human beings, either individually or collectively, to God does not appear central to Turner's conception. Turner's deployment of blood symbolism in Confession seems more in line with epistemologies informed by African conceptualizations of expiatory sacrifice.

Frederick Douglass's autobiographical account also employs blood symbolism to depict resistance to slavery. As noted earlier, Douglass suffers a brutal beating at the hands of a violent overseer, Edward Covey. During his attack, Douglass is kicked repeatedly when he complains to Covey that he is too ill to work. He attempts to stand to escape the torture at the hands of Covey but falls to the ground as he does so. While on the ground, Covey strikes him with a hickory slat, and "the blood ran freely" from a large wound on the side of Douglass's head. His appearance after the attack drives home the point.

I then presented an appearance enough to affect any but a heart of iron. From the crown of my head to my feet, I was covered with blood. My hair was all clotted with dust and blood; my shirt was stiff with blood. My legs and feet were torn in sundry places with briers and thorns, and were also covered with blood. I suppose I looked like a man who had escaped a den of wild beasts, and barely escaped them.31 [End Page 246]

When Douglass and Covey next face off, Douglass has returned from the wilderness carrying Sandy's protective root. When Covey strikes again, Douglass "resolved to fight" rather than submit to his overseer's will. He explains, "Suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose." Covey is so taken aback by Douglass's newfound resolve that he calls for Mr. Hughes to help subdue him. But Hughes is met by a vicious kick to the ribs from Douglass, and, with Hughes temporarily out of commission, the fight continues between Covey and Douglass for nearly two hours. When the dust settles, Douglass notes with delight that he had not been whipped by Covey at all.

Douglass credits the dramatic confrontation with Covey as the turning point in his career as slave. Not only does he experience a rejuvenated determination for freedom and greater self-confidence, but Douglass is never again whipped. In fact, by the end of the scene, the structural elements of the story have been reversed. Covey, not Douglass, is covered in his own blood. Douglass pinpoints the role reversal, reminding the reader, "he had drawn no blood from me, but I had from him."32

The repetition of the signifiers of wilderness and blood across Black American narratives establishes an intertextual dialogue. Henry Louis Gates posits that the Black literary tradition is self-reflexive and contains within it the principles by which it ought to be read.33 Gates also argues that the rules of interpretation that govern the literary genre of African American autobiography are derived from West African and West-Central African oral culture. His analysis of trickster tales featuring the Yoruba deity Esu Elegba establishes the connection between the religious cultures of West Africa and African American storytelling. Generally speaking, in traditional West and Central African religious communities, one's connection to ancestors and humanity supersedes concerns with God or gods, although divine beings are theoretically held in higher regard.34 Consequently, cosmology narratives elaborate matters of human well-being more so than they do devotion to deities. These stories, songs, and wise sayings are passed from one generation to the next to illuminate moral and ethical norms for members of the society.

While Gates rightly identifies the West African cultural origins of the Black storytelling tradition, his analysis of early Black American literature does not take religion into account. Rather, Gates's analysis "makes liberal use of poststructural scholarship in semiotics and tropic analysis."35 His analysis of John Marrant's narrative, for example, neither considers the spiritual legacy of cosmology narratives from which it descends nor scrutinizes Marrant's use of the Bible as a storytelling model. Consequently, Gates overlooks the religious epistemology that undergirds Marrant's text. The Bible, however, [End Page 247] is fundamental to his storytelling, as the narrative structure of biblical tales informs the plot structure of early Black American autobiographies. The Judeo-Christian mythic narrative pattern includes an idyllic beginning disrupted by tragedy. Biblical protagonists undergo spiritual transformation (many times in a wilderness setting) followed by divine intervention and deliverance to a land of promise. This pattern is consistently observed throughout the Old and New Testaments, as well as in early Black American literature.36 The autobiographical narratives of John Marrant, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass unfold along similar plot lines and include many of the symbols that signify the stages of development commonly found in biblical tales. However, these early Black narrators and authors draw on the interpretive principles of African storytelling rather than the doctrines of Euro-American Protestantism to understand the Bible's stories.

Walter Rucker surmises that Nat Turner, for example, read the Bible through the lens of conjure, not the doctrines of Protestantism, and that he was just one of the "numerous slave exhorters, preachers, and prophets" that inhabited the "religious middle ground" that bridged Christianity and conjure while "not completely belonging to either."37 A singular view of these early Black religious leaders as "Christian" or "conjurer" loses sight of the moment of transition in the development of African American religious consciousness in which Christianity provided little more than a veneer for the African spiritual values that helped form the early Black Church. The narratives of Marrant, Turner, and Douglass evince mechanisms of cultural transmission that connected Black North Americans to West and Central African religious traditions. Additionally, the storytelling cultures that emerge from the fusion of African religious cultures in the New World enabled a shared cultural consciousness for Black North Americans across hundreds of miles along the coasts of the low country and Chesapeake regions.38

As early Black authors inaugurated new storytelling traditions, they mimicked the Bible in their literary performances by adapting narrative details, such as setting and characters, to their own historical contexts. Mimetic performance is a long-standing practice in Black expressive culture and implies a religious consciousness shaped by traditional African religious culture. The imitation of the Bible's narrative patterns and symbols in the storytelling traditions of early Black Christians demonstrates how West African and Central African epistemologies function in African American religious consciousness. Additionally, mimesis implies conjuring traditions within Black cultural frameworks. As religious studies scholar Theophus Smith contends, in early African American religion conjure was an underlying interpretive framework through [End Page 248] which religious phenomena were made intelligible. Within the cultural framework of West African conjure, mimesis played an integral role in the efficacy of ritual performance. Mimesis consists of the patterned performance of operations based on an inferred relationship between one or more things. This relationship, argues Smith, is observable in a host of American American cultural forms related to magico-religious performance.

Indeed magic itself is essentially mimetic, inferred the nineteenth century historian of religion James G. Frazer, in his magnum opus, The Golden Bough (1900). With his concept of "sympathetic magic" Frazer assigned to magic generically, the element of mimesis that I have highlighted with reference to African American folk expression in particular. Among religion scholars he thereby inaugurated a mimetic theory of magic. On this view magical arts consist in first discerning, and then performing an operation based on, the imputed affinity that one thing has for another. Such affinity consists in the perception of two things as similar: similar on the basis of appearance, function, prior experience of contact or in some other way. Seizing upon such an affinity or "sympathy," the practitioner of magic devises an effective means of turning to human advantage the perceived similarity or habitual proximity of the two objects.39

In Black expressive culture, mimetic performance explicates the relationship between distinct phenomena. As Zora Neale Hurston explains, imitation is at the heart of Black expression. Hurston theorizes the mimetic tendency as communicative expression intended to render the essence of one's experience of reality. "Mimicry is an art in itself. If it is not, then all art must fall by the same blow that strikes it down. When sculpture, painting, dancing, literature neither reflect nor suggest anything in nature or human experience we turn away with a dull wonder in our hearts at why the thing was done."40 If expression does not imitate reality, Hurston implies, one's intended meaning can never be known since the other has no frame of reference for knowing outside what is commonly experienced as reality. Mimetic performance communicates the performer's conception of a phenomenon and aims to make the perceived relationship between distinct phenomena explicit.

In Africana religious consciousness, the essence of a phenomenon extends beyond its material reality. Therefore, mimetic performance in the autobiographies of Marrant, Turner, and Douglass imitates the Bible's structural forms, but their deployment of the biblical symbols of wilderness and blood also [End Page 249] reveals a shared understanding of the relationship between the symbols and the material realities they signify—namely, prophetic initiation and retributive justice. Their texts illustrate how symbolic meaning was determined in early Black American religion.

The mimetic performance of the Bible's narrative structures and symbols reveals African conceptions of biblical mythology and of the natural world. The Bible's stories, complete with their symbols, structural forms, and moral imperatives, are imitated in the lives of Black American protagonists. However, the symbols and ethical norms are interpreted via African epistemologies. Consequently, the meanings assigned to Bible stories—and, by extension, Black religion—diverge sharply from those of Euro-American forms of Christianity.

This article explains how Black storytellers' repetitious use of symbols and narrative structures from Exodus, and the mimetic performance of rituals to which these symbols correspond, reveals religious epistemologies informed by traditional West African and Central African religion. Drawing on the breadth of existing scholarship, I have assumed connections between Black North American religious expression and parent sources in Africa.41 The presence of non-European religious orientations among early Black authors raises questions about the presumed religious nature of Black colonial literature and, by extension, the diverse religious identities of early Black communities. In fact, as Lawrence Levine reminds us, narratives told by early Black Americans exhibit a religious orientation in which conjure factored prominently. "African-born slaves were associated with conjure and magical powers as exemplified in the frequently told stories of Africans who put up with the treatment accorded to them by whites in America as long as they could and then simply rose up and flew back to Africa. In some versions they delayed their escape until they could teach their American-born relatives and friends the power of flight as well."42 In African American storytelling, conjure is a spiritual technology to counter the effects of anti-Black racism and injustice. Representations of conjure in Black oral and literary narratives symbolize strategies of resistance and transmit sacred knowledge of spiritual power to the wider community.

Theophus Smith's theory of conjure illumines the hermeneutical lens through which early Black Americans read the Bible. In the tales related by John Marrant, Nat Turner, and Frederick Douglass, the Bible is rendered intelligible via processes of exegesis that assign preexisting meanings derived from Africana religious epistemologies to biblical symbols and narrative structures. Additionally, the hermeneutical lens of conjure highlights the role of prophecy in Africana religion. The sequence of events in the autobiographical narratives transitions protagonists from slavery to freedom. As a result, when Marrant, Turner, and Douglass deploy the symbols of wilderness and blood to signify prophetic [End Page 250] initiation and retributive justice, they prophecy the long-awaited freedom of Black Americans. In this sense, their texts conjure new realities for African Americans and prompt scholars to consider writing as a spiritual technology within the religious repertoire of early African American religious practitioners.

Early African American autobiographies, read through the theoretical lens of conjure, open new possibilities for conceptualizing Africana religion in the formation of African American religious consciousness. The works of Marrant, Turner, and Douglass evince a religious worldview grounded in African-derived epistemologies and in structural, rather than theological, modes of biblical analysis. Consequently, storytelling, like other forms of Black expressive culture, disguises African religious orientation in the external accoutrements of Euro-American Christianity.43 The autobiographical accounts illustrate how the Bible was read through the interpretive lens of Africana religious culture and incorporated into the protective repertoire of early Black American spirituality. The narratives adapt the symbols and structures of the Exodus for their own autobiographical contexts. The wilderness motif signifies prophetic initiation, and the corresponding history of wilderness initiation in Black American communities in North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries suggests the Bible was used to conceal ritual practices derived from traditional African religious cultures.

Similarly, Marrant, Douglass, and Turner use blood imagery to signify retributive justice. In the material history of Black resistance to enslavement, blood oaths fortified cohesive bonds among Black rebels. Additionally, the widespread use of poison, conjure, and other forms of violence reveals the generative impact of African spirituality on the protective spiritual technologies of Black religion in early America. The narratives of Marrant, Turner, and Douglass provide documentary evidence that establishes the rhetorical and ritual practices of retributive justice firmly within the history of the Black Church. The autobiographical narratives of these early Black writers and narrators explicate the interpretive framework through which the early Black Church read the Bible and evince an exegetical tradition not completely belonging to either Christian or West and Central African traditional religion. The narratives exhibit how West and Central African epistemologies operationalize biblical symbols and narratives to create meaning for African descendants in the eighteenth-century New World. While beyond the scope of this article, an in-depth analysis of early Black American autobiographies could indicate a more widespread use of biblical symbolism and conjure in African American religious imagination and uncover a collective understanding of both the material world and also a hitherto-unexamined tradition of biblical interpretation among early African Americans—a midrash tradition of the early Black Church. [End Page 251]

Alphonso F. Saville
Georgetown University


1. Zora Neale Hurston, The Sanctified Church (Berkeley, Calif.: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981), 91.

2. "Feenda" is a derivative spelling of the KiKongo word finda or mfinda, which means "forest."

3. Ras Michael Brown, "'Walk in the Feenda': West-Central Africans and the Forest in the South Carolina–Georgia Lowcountry," in Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora, ed. Linda M. Heywood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 290.

4. Ras Michael Brown, African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 3.

5. Ibid., 199.

6. Jason Young, Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 79; Brown, African-Atlantic Cultures, 219.

7. Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), 58.

8. Laurenti Magesa, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1997), 86.

9. John Marrant, A Narrative of the Lord's Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, 4th edition (1785), in "Face Zion Forward": First Writers of the Black Atlantic, 1785–1798, ed. Joanna Brooks and John Saillant (Boston: Northeastern, 2002), 53–56.

10. Ras Michael Brown notes the complexity that categorized relationships between African American captives and Native Americans in the lowcountry. The Catawba, Creek, and Cherokee provided refuge to runaway captives during the eighteenth century; however, he also notes these same Native American nations captured and sold Africans who sought liberty beyond the boundaries of white society. They also maintained the institution of slavery within their nations after their removal from the lowcountry region in the nineteenth century. See Brown, African-Atlantic Cultures, 37–38.

11. Marrant, Narrative, 65. Tiya Miles posits that Marrant's affinity for the markers of Native American culture reveal his strategy to distance himself from presumed notions of inferiority that accompanied Black racial identity in the eighteenth century. While beyond the scope of this study, the impact of Marrant's religious consciousness promises to yield valuable insight into the relationship between Native and African American spirituality in colonial and antebellum America. Tiya Miles, "'His Kingdom for a Kiss': Indians and Intimacy in the Narrative of John Marrant," in Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, ed. Ann Laura Stoler (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 163–90.

12. Nat Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, VA (Baltimore: Thomas R. Gray, 1831), 9–10,

13. Ibid., 10.

14. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845), 69–70,; emphasis in original.

15. Yvonne Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 59–60.

16. See Genesis 12:10–13:1.

17. Chireau, Black Magic, 66.

18. Walter C. Rucker, Gold Coast Diasporas: Identity, Culture, and Power (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 90–92; emphasis added.

19. Ibid.

20. Chireau, Black Magic, 68–70.

21. Ibid., 73.

22. Marrant, Narrative, 65.

23. See Exodus 7:14–24.

24. Marrant, Narrative, 70.

25. Turner, Confessions, 10; emphasis added.

26. Ibid., 10–11; emphasis added.

27. Samson Adetunji Fatokun, "The Concept of Expiatory Sacrifice in the Early Church and in African Indigenous Religious Traditions," in African Traditions in the Study of Religion, Diaspora and Gendered Societies, ed. Afe Adogame, Ezra Chitando, and Balaji Bateye (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2012), 71–84.

28. Lucas Nandih Shamala, "Approaches to Peacemaking in Africa: Obuntu Perspectives from Western Kenya," In African Traditions in the Study of Religion, Diaspora and Gendered Societies, ed. Afe Adogame, Ezra Chitando, and Balaji Bateye (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2012), 13–24.

29. See Michael A. Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 136; C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Vintage, 1963), 87.

30. Fatokun, "Expiatory Sacrifice," 79–80.

31. Ibid., 67; emphasis added.

32. Ibid., 71–72.

33. Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

34. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University, 2004), 12.

35. Donald Matthews, Honoring the Ancestors: An African Cultural Interpretation of Black Religion and Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 90.

36. Frances Smith Foster, Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1979), 82–87.

37. Walter Rucker, The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), 188.

38. Ibid., 198.

39. Theophus Smith, Conjuring Culture: Biblical Formations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 26–27.

40. Hurston, Sanctified Church, 59.

41. See Dianne Stewart, Three Eyes for the Journey: African Dimensions of the Jamaican Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 24.

42. Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 87.

43. Josiah Young argues the spiritual legacy of the African American literary tradition is expressed, in part, by narrating Black people's "inner resolve, profound insight, and struggle against oppressive mores" in the fight against racism. This tradition is not confined to a literary tradition. As Young states, "I do not confine … spirituality to essays and novels, or hold that it—as a tradition—is exclusively literary. Music—jazz, for instance—is integral to this tradition, as are religious bodies (the Black church, the Nation of Islam), and oral legacies." Josiah Young, "Dogged Strength within the Veil," Journal of Religious Thought 55, no. 2–56, no. 1 (Spring-Fall 1999): 88.

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