By Andre E. Johnson, author of The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition
In my previous post, I shared with you the story of a woman who attended and graduated from Henry McNeal Turner High School but did not know the man for which officials named the school. This of course was a story I heard before because many people have not heard of Bishop Turner—and if they heard of him, they only know little about him. In the post, I called for a reclaiming of the voice of Henry McNeal Turner and closed by asking the readers to join me in reclaiming the voice of Bishop Turner. This is the main reason why I wrote the Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition—to begin to reclaim this lost voice. In this post, I want to share a brief bio sketch of Turner.
Henry McNeal Turner was born a “free black” on February 1, 1834, in New Berry Court House, South Carolina, to Hardy Turner and Sarah Greer Turner. Even though born a free person, Turner still experienced the harsh reality of prejudice and racism. Turner worked in cotton fields along side enslaved people and in a blacksmith shop under some of the harshest overseers.
As a boy, Turner desired an education, but state laws at the time did not allow blacks to attend school or to learn how to read and write. After struggling to teach himself how to read and write and after others who would start teaching but had to stop under pressure from others, Turner turned to prayer for help. In a remarkable story, Turner claimed that an angelic being would appear with an open book to teach Turner how to read and pronounce words. This “dream teacher,” as Turner called it, taught him the entire Webster’s spelling book, which allowed him to read the hymnbook and the bible. By the time he was fifteen, he had read the entire Bible five times and started a habit of memorizing lengthy passages of scripture.
Turner attended revival services with his mother and finally joined the Methodist church in Abbeville, South Carolina in 1848. Turner’s conversion came in 1851 under the preaching of plantation missionary Samuel Leard in a camp meeting at Sharon Camp Ground. In his conversion experience, Turner remembered rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth and agonizing under conviction until he felt the presence of Christ in his life. Soon after his conversion, Turner, remembering an earlier dream in which he stood before thousands of people, was in fact a call to preach the gospel.
Licensed to preach in the Southern Methodist Church at the age of nineteen, Turner preached to large integrated audiences. However, the prejudice he continued to encounter frustrated him. He quickly discovered that no matter how good he was, the Southern Methodist Church would never ordain him and that as a licensed exhorter he had already achieved the highest level a black person could attain in the denomination. This eventually led him to join the African Methodist Episcopal church (AME) in 1858.
Not only did the AME church ordain Turner but also he eventually became pastor of Israel AME church in Washington D.C. His ministry in Washington DC became legendary. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln commissioned Turner to the office of Chaplain in the Union Army, making him the first black chaplain in any branch of the military. In this capacity, he also became a war correspondent, writing many articles that the Christian Recorder published about the trials and tribulations of the First Regiment US Colored Troops. When the Civil War ended, he found himself assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia as Army Chaplain.
Leaving the military for good, Turner turned his attention to politics. During the period of Reconstruction, and while working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, Turner became a Republican Party organizer and helped recruit and organize black voters throughout Georgia. He helped establish the first Republican State Convention helped draft a new Georgia state constitution. Elected later to the Georgia Legislature, Turner believed that change had finally come. He garnered support and respect from black people by organizing Loyal Leagues and Equal Rights Associations.
However, any excitement that Turner or black people in general had for ushering in a new day after the Civil War disappeared quickly when white members of the state legislature voted to disqualify blacks from holding elected office. After his ouster from the Georgia state legislature, Turner became United States Postmaster in Macon, Georgia, the first black ever to hold that position. However, pressures began to mount on the federal government to dismiss Turner based on trumped up improprieties. Fired after only two weeks in office, Turner then took a position as a customs inspector in Savannah, Georgia. He held this position for several years but eventually resigned from this position because of increasing demands of the church.
After resigning from his position as customs inspector, Turner focused his efforts on building the AME church in the South. By 1876, he became publications manager for the church. This allowed him to travel to all the districts and meet the pastors and leaders of local churches. During the four years he served as publications manager, he developed a following that led to his election as one of the twelve bishops of the church. As a bishop, Turner had a national platform to espouse his ideas on race, politics, lynching, and other issues of the day. However, as racism became more of an issue for blacks, Turner increasingly became a proponent of emigration.
Ironically, Turner’s emigration plans grew out of his radical vision of equality and since he also believed that radical equality would never exist for African Americans in America, Turner turned his focus to Africa—a place where Turner believed that blacks could earn respect and dignity.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, after several failed attempts at an emigration plan and with the rise of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois as leaders in the black community, Turner’s influence started to wane. However, Turner remained active. He edited two newspapers—the Voice of Missions (1893-1900) and the Voice of the People (1901-1904), served as chair of the board of Morris Brown College from 1896-1908, and kept a busy schedule up to the end of his life. He was in Windsor, Ontario, at the General Conference of the AME church in 1915 where he suffered a massive stroke. He died hours later at a Windsor hospital.