“A Story to be Shared”: The True Story of Nat Turner’s Bible and the Lambda Chi Connection Behind It
Featured image courtesy of The New York Times
On October 2, 1800, a day like any other, a figure was born who would later play a hand in changing the course of American history. Nat Turner was born into slavery to Benjamin and Elizabeth Turner in Southhampton County, Virginia. Though a slave, Nat was believed to have been schooled along with the Turner children. Early in his life, Nat was given a simple bible from Elizabeth, which he learned to read and cherished for the rest of his life.
When Benjamin passed away, Nat was turned over to his son, Samuel. His world became completely different, expected to work in the fields all hours of the day, nothing like the kindness he had known from Elizabeth. Through it all, Nat maintained his deep faith. He often preached around the county, but was shunned from churches. Nat was finally allowed baptismal rights on the land of John Person, where in 1838 he would found Persons United Methodist Church.
According to Person, anyone was welcome on his land. So there, in Persons Mill Pond, Nat Turner was baptized, his bible close at hand.
It was because of his devout faith that led to what is considered as “one of the bloodiest and most effective” rebellions in American history. When Nat witnessed a solar eclipse in August of 1831, he believed it was a sign from above and so he struck.
In the early morning of the rebellion, Nat Turner and his followers started by killing the Travis family (Sally Moore, who was now married to Joseph Travis, was the wife of one of Nat’s owners, Thomas Moore). They then came for Lavinia Francis, as she was also connected to the Travis family. However, Lavinia was eight months pregnant and her husband, Nathaniel, was nowhere to be found. Two of the house slaves hid Lavinia in the cubby in the attic, stashing her away under blankets, ultimately saving her life.
Following the rebellion, many followers were caught and executed, but Nat eluded capture for two months. When finally caught, he surrendered peacefully, confessing everything to a lawyer from the Southhampton County Courthouse. There he would stay while the rebellion came to life on paper and there too his beloved bible stayed.
Mark Person attended Randolph-Macon College on a baseball scholarship. After settling into college life his sophomore year and realizing much of the baseball team was in Lambda Chi Alpha, Person took the plunge to become a member.
Far before college and Lambda Chi, though, Person’s time was spent researching his family history. The Person lineage was a long and intricate one, tracing its roots back to the first settlers to come to America from England. Many of Person’s ancestors were decorated generals and held other important places in American history.
But the place where Person felt his family’s history the most was always Persons United Methodist Church, the church that had been founded by his ancestor who had shown Nat Turner kindness.
Throughout his childhood, Person remembers hearing as a youth about the bible and that it was kept in a little glass dome atop the piano in the home of one of his relatives while growing up, but the name Nat Turner continued to surface.
“His name kept coming up: Nat Turner,” said Person. “So, moving forward, I was told the bible was kept on top of the piano in a glass dome and everyone would come look at it and say, ‘That’s Nat Turner’s bible’.”
As Person grew older, he started to do extensive research and learned the significance of that little bible and the amazing story of its owner and the connection with his family. Turns out, Lavinia Francis, the woman who was eight months pregnant and eluded Nat Turner and his rebellion, was Person’s great-great grandmother. Person wanted to know more.
“We knew it [the bible] was priceless, but we just thought everyone’s family had something comparable on kind of a local level,” said Person.
Years passed since Person learned the truth about the bible, and questions started to arise from museums around the country: what would happen to this priceless artifact?
Finally, in 2010, the bible was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and passed the verification protocol.
Person recalls a Dr. Rex Ellis, an official from the Smithsonian, making the trip to Virginia Beach to view the bible. It came down to matching water stains found on the cover to a photograph of the Person family from the 1900s, where the bible is prominently displayed. Once it was determined that this was indeed Nat Turner’s, Dr. Ellis called it “the most exciting thing he has seen since the birth of his children.”
And so, the bible moved once more, this time to the nation’s capital.
“When the exhibit opened, I took the train and I start thinking about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” recalls Person. “When I get there, guess whose artifacts are sitting next to the bible? It’s Harriet Tubman’s shawl, given to her by Queen Victoria.
“To the right, about three feet down, is President Lincoln’s tie coat and hat, so that’s the company this little bible is keeping.”
Nat Turner’s prized possession stayed in the Smithsonian as part of an exhibit named “The Changing of America” from 2012-2014, while Person became the spokesperson on behalf of his family.
Today, the bible sees thousands of visitors each day at the new and renowned Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture and is regarded as one of the centerpieces of the museum. Opening to the public in 2016, the museum “…tells the American story through the lens of African American history and culture.”
Since donating the bible to the museum, Person has been in contact with the descendants of Nat Turner, who affirm that the bible is in the right place. For Person, the joy comes from being able to share such an important piece of history with those who will listen.
“It’s significant,” said Person. “It’s a story to be shared.”
Nat Turner’s bible has been the subject of countless articles and documentaries. Fox Business Channel will run a segment on the bible on Jan. 15 at 9:00 pm EST, during the show, “Strange Inheritance”.
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