by Andre E. Johnson
Henry McNeal Turner, the first black chaplain in the Union Army and one of the most prominent religious and political leaders of Civil War era black America, was born a free black on Feb. 1, 1834, in New Berry Court House, S.C. Turner was the oldest child of Hardy Turner and Sarah Greer Turner, and while we do not know much about Turner’s other siblings, we do know that Turner’s father died while he was still young.
Even though born as a free person, Turner still experienced the harsh reality of prejudice and racism; he worked in cotton fields alongside enslaved people as well as in a blacksmith shop under some of the harshest overseers.
When Turner was “eight or nine years old,” he later recalled, he had a dream that placed him in front of a large crowd of both blacks and whites who looked to him for instruction. The dream not only became a guiding light for Turner, but it also gave Turner a desire for education. However, state laws at the time did not allow blacks, enslaved or free, to attend school or to learn how to read and write. After obtaining a spelling book, Turner attempted to learn how to read and write with the help of several people in his community. But each time Turner would begin to study, others would find out and have the teaching stopped. Having learned only a little from his teachers, Turner attempted to learn to read and write on his own — by the time he was 15, he had read the entire Bible five times and started a habit of memorizing lengthy passages of scripture, which helped him develop a strong memory.
Turner attended revival services with his mother and finally joined the Methodist church in Abbeville, S.C., in 1848. His “conversion,” as he called it, 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, Turner became convinced that the dream he had earlier was a call to preach the gospel.
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