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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.