Henry McNeal Turner

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The Right Reverend

Henry McNeal Turner
Henry McNeal Turner in clerical dress
Member of the Georgia House of Representatives
from the Bibb district
In office
Personal details
Born(1834-02-01)February 1, 1834
Newberry, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedMay 8, 1915(1915-05-08) (aged 81)
Windsor, Ontario
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Eliza Peacher
Martha Elizabeth DeWitt
Harriet A. Wayman
Laura Pearl Lemon
ParentsHardy Turner
Sarah Greer

Henry McNeal Turner (February 1, 1834 – May 8, 1915) was a minister, politician, and the 12th elected and consecrated bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). An African American, he was a pioneer in Georgia at organizing new congregations of African Americans after the American Civil War.[1] Born free in South Carolina, Turner learned to read and write and became a Methodist preacher. He joined the AME Church in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1858, where he became a minister. Later he had pastorates in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, DC.

In 1863 during the American Civil War, Turner was appointed as the first black chaplain in the United States Colored Troops. Afterward, he was appointed to the Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia. He settled in Macon and was elected to the state legislature in 1868 during Reconstruction. He planted many AME churches in Georgia after the war. In 1880 he was elected as the first southern bishop of the AME Church after a fierce battle within the denomination.

Angered by the Democrats' regaining power and instituting Jim Crow laws in the late nineteenth century South, Turner began to support black nationalism and emigration of blacks to Africa. He was the chief figure to do so in the late nineteenth century; this emigration movement increased after World War I.

Early life[edit]

Henry McNeal Turner was born free in Newberry, South Carolina, to Sarah Greer and Hardy Turner, both of African and European ancestry. Some sources say he was born in Abbeville, South Carolina.[2] His paternal grandparents were a white woman planter and a black man. According to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem under slave law, her mixed-race children were born free, because she was.

According to the family's oral tradition, his maternal grandfather, renamed David Greer, had been enslaved in Africa and imported to South Carolina. Traders subsequently noticed that he had royal Mandingo tribal marks, so they released him from slavery. According to the same family lore, Greer then began to work for a Quaker family.[3] He ultimately married a free woman of color. Henry Turner grew up with his mother and maternal grandmother.[4]

At the time, South Carolina law prohibited teaching blacks to read and write. When he was apprenticed to work in cotton fields beside slaves, Turner ran away to Abbeville.[5] He found a job as a custodian for a law firm in Abbeville.[6]

Early career[edit]

At the age of 14, Turner was inspired by a Methodist revival and swore to become a pastor. He received his preacher's license at the age of 19 from the Methodist Church South in 1853 (the national church had divided in 1844 over the issue of slavery). Turner traveled through the South for a few years as an evangelist and exhorter.

In 1858 he moved with his family to Saint Louis, Missouri. The demand for slaves in the South made him fear that members of his family might be kidnapped and sold into slavery, as has been documented for hundreds of free blacks. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 increased the incentives for the capture of people who escaped slavery and required slave traders and people they hired as slavecatchers to provide little documentation to prove their slave status. In St. Louis, Turner became ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and studied the classics, Hebrew and divinity at Trinity College.[1]

He also served in pastorates in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, DC, where he met influential Republicans.

When the Civil War broke out, Turner was still training in Baltimore. In April 1862 he was assigned to the largest AME church in Washington, D.C., Israel Church on Capitol Hill, near both the heart of government and the war in Virginia. Congressmen and army officers visited to hear Turner preach.

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1856, Turner married Eliza Peacher, daughter of a wealthy black contractor in Columbia, South Carolina. They had 14 children, four of whom lived to adulthood. After Eliza's death in 1889, Turner married Martha Elizabeth DeWitt in 1893. She died, and he married Harriet A. Wayman in 1900. She died, and he married Laura Pearl Lemon in 1907. He outlived three of his four wives.

Civil War[edit]

During the American Civil War, Turner organized one of the first regiments of black troops (Company B of the First United States Colored Troops), and was appointed as its chaplain. Turner urged both free-born blacks and "contrabands" to enlist. Turner regularly preached to the men while they trained and reminded them that the "destiny of their race depended on their loyalty and courage". It was not uncommon for the regiment to march to Turner's church to hear his patriotic speeches. In July 1863, the regiment had completed its formation and was preparing to leave for war. In November of that year, Turner received his commission as chaplain, becoming the only black officer in the 1st USCT.[5]

Turner discovered that the duties of a Union army chaplain in the Civil War were not well defined. Before the war, chaplains only taught school at army posts. During the war, the duties expanded to include holding worship services and prayer meetings, visiting the sick and wounded in hospitals, and burying the dead. Each chaplain had to work out his role in his regiment according to the expectations of the men in his care and his own talents. For Turner, this appointment allowed him to grow in influence among the African-American population.[5]

Turner was a chaplain for two years. Not long after reporting for duty, he caught smallpox and spent months in the hospital. He returned in May, just in time for his company to participate in its first Battle of Wilson's Wharf on the James River. From May through December, his unit participated in the fighting around Petersburg and Richmond. At the end of the year, they participated in the massive amphibious attack against Fort Fisher.

Turner spent the spring of 1865 with his men as they joined Sherman's march through North Carolina. When the fighting ended, he was sent to Roanoke Island to help supervise a large settlement of ex-slaves. Discharged in September, he received another army commission as chaplain of a different African American regiment, which was assigned to the Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia. Shortly after arriving he resigned and left the army. He turned his attention to politics, civil rights, black nationalism, and the development among the Southern freedmen of the AME Church.[5]

In his role as chaplain, Turner developed some of the ideas, attitudes, and skills that became manifest in his later career, in which he became a Reconstruction politician, a powerful churchman, and a national race leader. While serving in the army, Turner refined his thinking about the African race and its future. Two specific activities propelled him to wide attention among both blacks and whites in both North and South. First, his newspaper letters from the battlefield attracted many readers and admirers in the North, and they launched him on a lifetime of journalism. Second, in the first months after the war ended, he used his position as army chaplain to lead emancipated freedmen into his all-black church; this represented a significant culture shift for the ex-slaves and left a permanent mark on the South. Turner was the first of the 14 black chaplains to be appointed during the war.[5]

After the war, Turner was appointed by President Andrew Johnson to work with the Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia during Reconstruction. White clergy from the North also led some Freedmen's Bureau operations.

Political influence[edit]

Following the Civil War, Turner became politically active with the Republican Party, whose officials had led the war effort and, under Abraham Lincoln, emancipated the slaves throughout the Confederacy. He helped found the Republican Party of Georgia. Turner ran for political office from Macon and was elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1868. At the time, the Democratic Party still controlled the legislature and refused to seat Turner and 26 other newly elected black legislators, all Republicans. (See Original 33.) After the federal government protested, the Democrats allowed Turner and his fellow legislators to take their seats during the second session.

In 1869, he was appointed by the Republican administration as postmaster of Macon, which was a political plum. Turner was dismayed after the Democrats regained power in the state and throughout the South by the late 1870s. He had seen the rise in violence at the polls, which repressed black voting. In 1883, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, forbidding racial discrimination in hotels, trains, and other public places, was unconstitutional. Turner was incensed:

The world has never witnessed such barbarous laws entailed upon a free people as have grown out of the decision of the United States Supreme Court, issued October 15, 1883. For that decision alone authorized and now sustains all the unjust discriminations, proscriptions and robberies perpetrated by public carriers upon millions of the nation's most loyal defenders. It fathers all the 'Jim-Crow cars' into which colored people are huddled and compelled to pay as much as the whites, who are given the finest accommodations. It has made the ballot of the black man a parody, his citizenship a nullity and his freedom a burlesque. It has engendered the bitterest feeling between the whites and blacks, and resulted in the deaths of thousands, who would have been living and enjoying life today."[7]

In the late nineteenth century, he witnessed state legislatures in Georgia and across the South passing measures to disfranchise blacks. He became a proponent of black nationalism and supported emigration of American blacks to Africa.[8][9] He thought it was the only way they could make free and independent lives for themselves. When he traveled to Africa, he was struck by the differences in the attitude of Africans who ruled themselves and had never known the degradation of slavery.[9]

He founded the International Migration Society, supported by his own newspapers: The Voice of Missions (he served as editor, 1893-1900) and later The Voice of the People (editor, 1901-4). He organized two ships with a total of 500 or more emigrants, who traveled to Liberia in 1895 and 1896. This was established as an American colony by the American Colonization Society before the Civil War, and settled by free American blacks, who tended to push aside the native African peoples. Disliking the lack of economic opportunity, cultural shock and disease, some of the migrants returned to the United States. After that, Turner did not organize another expedition.[10]

Church leadership[edit]

As a correspondent for The Christian Reporter, the weekly newspaper of the AME Church, he wrote extensively about the Civil War. Later he wrote about the condition of his parishioners in Georgia.

When Turner joined the AME Church in 1858, its members lived mostly in the Northern and border states; total members numbered 20,000.[4] His biographer Stephen W. Angell described Turner as "one of the most skillful denominational builders in American history."[11] After the Civil War, he founded many AME congregations in Georgia as part of a missionary effort by the church in the South. It gained more than 250,000 new adherents throughout the South by 1877,[12] and by 1896 had a total of more than 452,000 members nationally.[4]

In 1880, Turner was elected as the first bishop from the South in the AME Church, after a hard battle within the denomination.[11] Although one of the last bishops to have struggled up from poverty and a self-made man, he was the first AME Bishop to ordain a woman to the order of Deacon.[11] He discontinued the controversial practice because of threats and discontent among the congregations. During and after the 1880s, Turner supported prohibition and women's suffrage movements. He also served for twelve years as chancellor of Morris Brown College (now Morris Brown University), a historically black college affiliated with the AME Church in Atlanta.[2]

During the 1890s, Turner went four times to Liberia and Sierra Leone, United States and British colonies, respectively. As bishop, he organized four annual AME conferences in Africa to introduce more American blacks to the continent and organize missions in the colonies.[1] He also worked to establish the AME Church in South Africa, where he negotiated a merger with the Ethiopian Church. Due to his efforts, African students from South Africa began coming to the United States to attend Wilberforce University in Ohio, which the AME church had operated since 1863.[3][12] His efforts to combine missionary work with encouraging emigration to Africa were divisive in the AME Church.[11]

Turner crossed denominational lines in the United States, building connections with black Baptists, for instance.[4] He was known as a fiery orator. He notably preached that God was black, scandalizing some but appealing to his colleagues at the first Black Baptist Convention when he said:

We have as much right biblically and otherwise to believe that God is a Negroe, as you buckra or white people have to believe that God is a fine looking, symmetrical and ornamented white man. For the bulk of you and all the fool Negroes of the country believe that God is white-skinned, blue eyed, straight-haired, projected nosed, compressed lipped and finely robed white gentleman, sitting upon a throne somewhere in the heavens. Every race of people who have attempted to describe their God by words, or by paintings, or by carvings, or any other form or figure, have conveyed the idea that the God who made them and shaped their destinies was symbolized in themselves, and why should not the Negroe believe that he resembles God.

— Voice of Missions, February 1898[11]

He died while visiting Windsor, Ontario in 1915. Turner was buried in Atlanta.[3] After his death, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Crisis magazine about him:

Turner was the last of his clan, mighty men mentally and physically, men who started at the bottom and hammered their way to the top by sheer brute strength, they were the spiritual progeny of African chieftains, and they built the African church in America.[11]

Selected writings[edit]

The following four items are available online through the University of North Carolina, at their Documenting the American South website.[2]

  • African Letters
  • The Barbarous Decision of the United States Supreme Court Declaring the Civil Rights Act Unconstitutional and Disrobing the Colored Race of All Civil Protection. The Most Cruel and Inhuman Verdict Against a Loyal People in the History of the World. Also the Powerful Speeches of Hon. Frederick Douglass and Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, Jurist and Famous Orator
  • "Civil Rights. The Outrage of the Supreme Court of the United States upon the Black Man", Reviewed in a Reply to the New York Voice, the Great Temperance Paper of the United States.
  • The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity, or the Machinery of Methodism. Practically Illustrated through a Series of Questions and Answers

Andre E. Johnson created the Henry McNeal Turner Project, a digital archive of the writings of Turner.

Legacy and honors[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Wikisource-logo.svg Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Turner, Henry McNeal" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  2. ^ a b c Courtney Vien, "Henry McNeal Turner", page includes links to his writings, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 14 May 2012
  3. ^ a b c d Stephen Ward Angell, "Henry McNeal Turner", New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 13 May 2012
  4. ^ a b c d Margaret Ripley Wolfe, "Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South", Review of Stephen W. Angell's Henry McNeal Turner, The Mississippi Quarterly, 22 December 1993, carried at The Free Library, accessed 14 May 2012
  5. ^ a b c d e Smith, John David, Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 336-339
  6. ^ Culp, Daniel Wallace (1902). Twentieth century Negro literature; or, A cyclopedia of thought on the vital topics relating to the American Negro. Atlanta: J.L. Nichols & Co. p. 42.
  7. ^ Ingersoll, R. G., Bradley, J. P., Douglass, F., Turner, H. M., & Harlan, J. M. (1893). The Barbarous Decision of the United States Supreme Court Declaring the Civil Rights Act Unconstitutional and Disrobing the Colored Race of All Civil Protection. The Most Cruel and Inhuman Verdict Against a Loyal People in the History of the World. Also the Powerful Speeches of Hon. Frederick Douglass and Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, Jurist and Famous Orator. p3
  8. ^ Edwin S. Redkey, "Bishop Turner's African Dream", The Journal of American History, (September 1967), pp. 271-290, accessed 14 May 2012
  9. ^ a b August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial Ideologies in the Age of Booker T. Washington, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1963, pp. 59-68
  10. ^ Hugh Ruppersburg. Literature: Overview. New Georgia Encyclopedia. originally posted 01/20/2004 Retrieved December 5, 2007.
  11. ^ a b c d e f "Henry McNeal Turner", This Far by Faith, PBS, 2003, accessed 14 May 2012
  12. ^ a b Campbell, James T., Songs of Zion: The African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States and South Africa, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 53–54, retrieved January 13, 2009
  13. ^ Public Law 106-322, 114 Statutes at Large 1288
  14. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.

Further reading[edit]

  • Stephen Ward Angell, Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South, Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1992
  • Jean Lee Cole, ed., Freedom's Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner, 2013
  • Andre E. Johnson, The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition, 2012
  • Mungo M. Ponton, The Life and Times of Henry M. Turner, 1917
  • Edwin S. Redkey, Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890-1910 New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969
  • Edwin S. Redkey, ed., Respect Black: The Writings and Speeches of Henry McNeal Turner, New York: Arno Press, 1971
  • Charles Spencer Smith and Daniel A. Payne, “History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Supplemental Volume covering 1856-1922, 1922

External links[edit]