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Professor Christopher Tomlins 'Debt, Death, and Redemption: Toward a Soterial-Legal History of the Turner Rebellion'

22 May 2014

Time: 3:00 - 5:00pm
Venue: Room 100, Law Building, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End Road, London E1 4NS

In May 2014, the School of History and the Department of Law at Queen Mary University of London will be hosting Professor Christopher Tomlins as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow. Professor Tomlins is Chancellor’s Professor of Law at University of California, Irvine, Affiliated Research Professor with The American Bar Foundation, Chicago, and from July 2014, Professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

Debt, Death, and Redemption: Toward a Soterial-Legal History of the Turner Rebellion

The Turner Rebellion, which took place in August 1831 in Virginia, is well known as one of the bloodiest slave revolts in antebellum America. The history of the rebellion is dominated by one document, a 24 page pamphlet entitled The Confessions of Nat Turner written by a local attorney, Thomas Ruffin Gray, based on jailhouse conversations with Turner. By the time they met, Gray had already accumulated considerable independent knowledge of the events of the rebellion, and the second half of The Confessions, a blow-by-blow narrative of the rebellion, bears his mark. But the first half is quite different, dwelling on Turner’s life from his birth until the rebellion, matters of which Gray could have had little independent knowledge. Its central motif is the ascent of a severely ascetic personality to a state of religious grace and the consequences attending that outcome. 

This lecture counterposes Gray and Turner, treating Gray as the bearer of a “disenchanting” positivist rationality that discounts Turner’s “soterial” (pertaining to salvation) account of his motivation. It describes the Turner Rebellion as a fracture in the social-historical and socio-legal normalization of the world (a normalization that Thomas Ruffin Gray laboured hard to restore in the rebellion’s wake). It argues that such fractures grant us access to new orderings of the phenomena with which as scholars we concern ourselves. In this case, a soterial-legal history uncovers realms of human motivation and action that socio-legal history cannot explain, laying bare a theological metaphysics at work in an American history and law that we have been taught to think of in determinedly atheological terms.

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