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People of Faith Henry McNeal Turner

Albert Cleage James Cone Warith Deen Mohammed Thomas Dorsey Frederick Douglass Olaudah Equiano Prathia Hall Daniel Payne Howard Thurman Sojourner Truth Henry McNeal Turner Denmark Vesey Cecil Williams


Henry McNeal Turner

Photo of Henry McNeal Turner "Every race of people since time began who have attempted to describe their world by words, or by paintings, oy by carvings... have conveyed the idea that the God who made them and shaped their destinies was symbolized 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.

As a young boy, he dreamed that millions of people would look to him as a teacher, and he determined to act on that vision. But first, he had to learn to read and write; in South Carolina, teaching blacks to do either was forbidden. He writes that a "dream angel" taught him basic spelling; but his prayers were really answered when he became a janitor for an Abbeville law firm, around 1849. Four years later, at 19, he became a licensed preacher. He married Eliza Ann Preacher of Columbia, South Carolina, in 1956. The couple moved to Baltimore and eventually had 14 children, but only two sons survived.

Turner joined the African Methodist Episcopalian church in 1858, at 24, because he heard that within that church black men could become bishops. He was taken under wing by Bishop Daniel Payne and pastored at two of his churches.

Turner joined the lobbying effort to convince President Lincoln to enlist freedmen in the Union Army. In 1863, Lincoln acceded, and Turner became the first black chaplain.

After the war, Turner walked back to Georgia, and began organizing AME churches there. By some counts, he founded over one hundred churches. At the same time, he helped organize the Georgia Republican Party. In 1868, he was elected state representative, but he and 14 other black representatives were expelled from the Georgia legislature after whites combined in an 82-83 vote.

That rejection made Turner turn his back on the American political process. He turned his attention instead to developing the political potential of the black church.

In 1880, Turner rode a wave of populist popularity to become the first southern bishop elected in the AME Church. He would also prove to be the most controversial. He provoked white racists in print, and advocated a wholesale move of blacks back to Africa "to achieve our dignity and manhood." He ordained a woman, Sarah Ann Hughes, as a deacon in the church. He built alliances with Baptists. At the first Black Baptist convention, he gave the speech for which he would be forever known: "We have every right to believe that God is a Negro," he stated, proclaiming that a people needed to see their reflection in their deity.

Turner came close to becoming a national leader in the mold of Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington. But in the end, his outspokenness on the Africa issue undermined him. He died, isolated and bitter, in 1915.

"Turner was the last of his clan: mighty men, physically and mentally, 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 Afircan church in America." --Crisis Magazine, July 1915


KEY MOMENTS OF FAITH

FIRST, HE HAD TO LEARN TO READ

Turner was raised in the heart of the Confederacy, where it was illegal for blacks to learn to read and write. His mother arranged for lessons, but each time she was found out, and the lessons ended. Finally, an elderly slave taught him to sound out words, and Turner wrote that an angel would come to him in his dreams and teach him the connection between sounds and the alphabet. His education progressed when the lawyers at a firm where he worked as janitor tested his memory by teaching him science. Within four years, he had learned enough to become a licensed preacher.

A BLACK CHAPLAIN IN THE CIVIL WAR

Turner was the first of fourteen black chaplains who served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Historians consider him an important primary source for researching the experience of black Union soldiers because of his prolific dispatches to the Christian Recorder, the weekly newspaper of the AME church. Chaplains organized prayer meetings, tended to and prayed for the wounded, ensured that the soldiers' pay was sent to their families, wrote letters for the illiterate, and acted as intermediaries between the black troops and white commanding officers. Most importantly, they taught the men in their unit how to read. Many black troops learned to read during the war. Their textbook was the Bible. Turner's unit, the 1st Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, served in Virgina and North Carolina.

A MISSIONARY AND A POLITICIAN

After the war, Turner became one of the AME church's hardest working missionaries. He sought to save the souls of the freedmen and to expand their minds. Missionaries from various denominations competed with one another for church membership, and joining a church became one of the ways in which a freedman claimed an identity. Turner loosened the strict rules requiring educated ministers, allowed congregants to sing their slave spirituals during worship, and dared the Klu Klux Klan to try and stop him. At the same time, he worked with white Republicans, trying to develop a multiracial coalition which would govern the South.

FROM A STATE REPRESENTATIVE TO AN EXPELLED LEGISLATOR

In 1868, Turner was elected a state representative; but his white colleagues couldn't countenance those they once considered chattel. After Turner had joined them in a vote grandfathering the right to vote to those who owned property, they used the clause to prohibit black officeholders because, under that same clause, blacks could not have held property. Turner filibustered for three days, but, finally, the black legislators were expelled.

POLITICALLY CHARGED SCANDALS

Georgian Democrats went to great lengths to discredit Turner's leadership and character. He was charged with carrying counterfeit money - the charges were thrown out in federal court - but, more damaging were accusations of extramarital affairs. The scandal destroyed his friendship with Bishop Daniel Payne and damaged his reputation, particularly among women in the AME Church, who formed the bedrock of the organization.

BISHOP TURNER BUILDS A DENOMINATION

As Bishop, Turner dedicated himself to building a denomination. The AME Church had begun to lose ground to the fast-growing Baptist denomination, which allowed greater freedom of expression during service. Turner wrote a hymnal which included adaptations of many "slave ditties," as Bishop Payne called them. He worked to give southern congregations a greater voice among the AME hierarchy, which, dominated as it was by Northerners, tended to look down on their southern brethren. And he gave women a greater role in the denomination. He even ordained a woman as deacon, but that move was condemned so loudly that he rescinded it and never spoke about it again - the one subject on which he was silenced.

BACK TO AFRICA: EMIGRATION TO THE HOME LAND

Turner believed that Emancipation was the first Exodus for African-Americans and leaving the South would be the second. While many in the black community shared Turner's views on the limits of freedom in the South, most chose to remain in the United States instead of migrating to Africa. Turner's insistence on linking missionary work in Africa with mass emigration to the continent made him a divisive figure in the AME Church. At the same time, his four trips to Africa showed him the dignity of a people uncowed by slavery. In 1895, speaking before the first meeting of the National Baptist Convention, Turner declared that African-Americans should see God as a Negro.

IMAGES OF THE ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS


Henry McNeal Turner army correspondence for the Christian Recorder, February 24, 1865

Henry McNeal Turner army correspondence for the Christian Recorder, March 28, 1865

Turner writes about the war using imagery from Exodus. July 12, 1862

June 19, 1866. Turner writes about the beating and stabbing of AME Deacon Robert Alexander by whites for opening a school.

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Cain Hope Felder, Professor of Theology, Howard University, on Bishop Turner's vision of Africa