Henry McNeal Turner: Church Planter, Politician, and Public Theologian
"Every race of people since time began who have attempted to describe their world by words, or by paintings, or by carvings... have conveyed the idea that the God who made them and shaped their destinies was symbolised in themselves." Henry McNeal Turner, Voice of Missions, February 1898
Henry McNeal Turner's life was guided by a faith in the capabilities of himself and his people. He grew up in Abbeville, South Carolina. He was born free, and raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. Legend had it that his paternal grandfather was an African prince.
Turner was a gifted speaker, largely self-educated. In 1848 he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church South and five years later was licensed as a lay exhorter to travel throughout the South preaching and evangelising. In 1858 he joined the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the following year was assigned to the AME mission in Baltimore, which enabled him to enrol in Trinity College for divinity study, his first formal education. He was ordained a deacon in 1860 and an elder two years later. During the Civil War he helped recruit blacks as Union troops and was commissioned the first black army chaplain. Following the war he was sent to Georgia as a member of the reconstruction forces, but he resigned to recruit members for the AME Church in that state. He held a series of political offices in Georgia and in 1876 became director of the AME publishing house in Philadelphia. Four years later he was elected bishop in Georgia.
From an early age, Turner’s life was marked by dreams. When Turner was eight, he dreamed that he was standing in front of a large, racially diverse crowd who were looking to him for instruction. He interpreted the dream as God “marking him” for great things, and it ultimately catalysed his passion for education—at a time when it was illegal for African Americans, free or enslaved, to attend school. In spite of this discrimination, Turner began to teach himself through the help of a divine “dream angel” that he believed appeared to him in his dreams to help him learn.
As Turner later told author William Simmons: I would study with all the intensity of my soul until overcome by sleep at night; then I would kneel down and pray, and ask the Lord to teach me what I was not able to understand myself, and as soon as I would fall asleep an angelic personage would appear with open book in hand and teach me how to pronounce every word that I failed in pronouncing while awake, and on each subsequent day the lessons given me in my dreams would be better understood than any other portions of the lessons. This angelic teacher, or dream teacher, at all events, carried me through the old Webster’s spelling book and thus enabled me to read the Bible and hymnbook.
Despite Turner’s unusual educational method, by the time he was 15 he had read the entire Bible five times and memorised lengthy passages of Scripture.
Turner’s father died while he was still young. After his mother remarried, the family moved to Abbeville, South Carolina, and Turner became a janitor at a law office. Turner’s astute memory and eagerness to learn new things so impressed his white colleagues that they decided to assist their co-worker in his education. Turner interpreted their actions as an answer to prayer and poured himself into arithmetic, astronomy, geography, history, law, and theology.
Henry McNeal Turner was born in South Carolina in 1834. Although born free he was forced to work alongside field slaves in the local cotton plantation. He learnt to read and write and when he was a teenager he was recruited as an itinerant minister for the Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1858 he was sent to Baltimore where he studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew and theology at Trinity College. In 1860 he moved to Washington where he became the pastor of Union Bethel Church. He became active in politics and developed friendships with Benjamin Wade, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. Turner became a national figure when Abraham Lincoln appointed him the first black army chaplain.
After the American Civil War Turner moved to Georgia to work with the Freemen's Bureau. Over the next few years he established the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia. He worked tirelessly to raise the political consciousness of former slaves. One resident of Georgia claimed that he had never seen "a man travel so much, preach and speak so much."
In 1867 Georgia was readmitted to the Union and in April 1868 he held elections for governor and state legislators. Although dominated by conservative whites, Turner and thirty-one other black men were elected. Turner was disappointed by white members of the Republican Party refused to support pro-black legislation. He accused the whites of treachery and led a walk out of black legislators.
Turner now retired from political life and returned full-time to his religious duties. He was a great advocate of black pride: "I hold that we are a very great people." He argued that blacks must reject all teachings of the white church that confirmed their inferior status. In sermons he often claimed that "God is a Negro".
In 1880 Turner was appointed as Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Married four times, Turner survived three wives and all but two of his children. His final marriage at 73 to his secretary evoked a storm of criticism and attempts were made to remove him from office. Henry McNeal Turner died in 1915.
Turner left behind a rich legacy. Much of his writing foreshadowed many of the social movements in African American culture during the 20th century. Turner was also a public theologian. His oratory, writings, publications, letters, and editorials display a figure who was not limited to the walls of the church but saw the need for public engagement of God-talk in the public arena. His faith followed him from the battlefield of the Civil War to the halls of Congress to the offices of the AME, faith that led him to challenge America to live up to the ideals of freedom, justice, and democracy.