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Henry McNeal Turner in clerical dress

Henry McNeal Turner (February 1, 1834 – May 8, 1915) was a minister, politician, and the first southern bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; he was a pioneer in Georgia in organizing new congregations of the independent black denomination 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 Freedman'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; the movement grew after World War I.


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 father's parents were a white mother, who was a plantation owner, and a black father; according to partus sequitur ventrem, her children were free, as she was. According to family tradition, his paternal grandfather, renamed David Greer, was imported as a slave to South Carolina from Africa. Traders noticed he had royal Mandingo marks and did not sell him into slavery; Greer worked for a Quaker family[3] and married a free woman of color. Turner grew up with his mother and maternal grandmother.[4]

South Carolina law at the time of Turner's birth prohibited teaching blacks to read and write. As a youth, he worked as a custodian for a law firm in Abbeville,[5] where his intelligence was noted by sympathetic whites; they taught him to read and write.


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. He 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 seemed to increase the boldness of slave traders and people they hired as slavecatchers. In St. Louis, he 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.

Marriage and family

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 her death in 1889, Turner married Martha Elizabeth DeWitt in 1893; Harriet A. Wayman in 1900; and Laura Pearl Lemon in 1907. He outlived three of his four wives.

Civil War

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 chaplain to it. He was the first of the 14 black chaplains to be appointed during the war. After the war, he was appointed by President Andrew Johnson to work with the Freedman's Bureau in Georgia during Reconstruction. White clergy from the North also led some Freedmen's Bureau operations.

Political influence

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 (United States) still controlled the legislature and refused to seat Turner and 26 other newly elected black legislators, all Republicans. 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."[citation needed]

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.[6][7] 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.[7] 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.[3]

Church leadership

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."[8] 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,[9] 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.[8] 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.[8] 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][9] His efforts to combine missionary work with encouraging emigration to Africa were divisive in the AME Church.[8]

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[8]

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."[8]


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

Legacy and honors

  • Turner Chapel in Oakville, Ontario was built in 1890 by men and women who were escaped slaves from the United States, and named in his honor.
  • A portrait of Turner hangs in the state capital of Georgia.[3]
  • Turner Theological Seminary, a constituent seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia, was named in his honor.
  • In 2000, the U.S. Congress designated a Macon, Georgia post office in his honor.[10]
  • In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Henry McNeal Turner on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[11]

See also

  • Methodism
  • African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • List of African Methodist Episcopal Churches


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Wikisource-logo.svg Rines, George Edwin, ed (1920). "Turner, Henry McNeal". Encyclopedia Americana. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Courtney Vien, "Henry McNeal Turner", page includes links to his writings, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 14 May 2012
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Stephen Ward Angell, "Henry McNeal Turner", New Georgia Encyclopedia, accessed 13 May 2012 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "NGE" defined multiple times with different content
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 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. 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. 
  6. Edwin S. Redkey, "Bishop Turner's African Dream", The Journal of American History, (September 1967), pp. 271-290, accessed 14 May 2012
  7. 7.0 7.1 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
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 "Henry McNeal Turner", This Far by Faith, PBS, 2003, accessed 14 May 2012
  9. 9.0 9.1 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
  10. Public Law 106-322, 114 Statutes at Large 1288
  11. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.

Further reading

External links

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