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Turner, Henry McNeal 1834–1915

Henry McNeal Turner 18341915

Clergyman, activist, author

Preacher and Politician

Proponent of Black Pride and Colonization

Africa: Dream and Reality


Henry McNeal Turner was for many years the leading advocate of black migration to Africa as the only permanent solution to the problem of race discrimination in the United States. As bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), Turner was a highly vocal and vehement critic of white Americas continued oppression of its black citizens, and he became natural heir to nineteenth-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass as chief spokesman for black pride and self-determination. Turners firsthand experience of white resistance to equality among the races led him to embrace the cause of African migration even before the rise of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. His back to Africa campaign never won effective support from a majority of African Americans, but Turner remained one of the most powerful black leaders during the difficult years of widespread economic distress and segregation enforced by Jim Crow laws.

Turner was born to a family of free blacks in South Carolina in 1834. Although not slaves, the impoverished Turners found it necessary to put their children to work picking cotton side by side with slaves, and Henrys earliest memories were of hard labor under the hot Carolina sun. Already of a proud and defiant temperament, Turner ran away from home as a young teenager and found work as an office boy with a law firm. He swept floors and washed windows for a few pennies per day, but some of the law clerks noticed Turners unusually bright and curious mind and offered to teach the young man how to read and write. (In most parts of the South, this was a criminal act.) Turner responded quickly to their help and soon became not only literate, but a powerful speaker as well. While still in his teens, the broad-shouldered, powerfully built Turner was offered a position as an itinerant minister by the Methodist Episcopal ChurchSouth, beginning a career in the church that would continue for the remaining sixty-five years of his life.

Preacher and Politician

Throughout the 1850s Turner traveled widely in the deep South, preaching to slaves and free blacks under the auspices of the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church. Though himself a free man, Turner everywhere encountered the humiliations and restraints placed upon people of color in the prewar South, and he was not of a nature to suffer such indignities in silence. In 1858, Turner

At a Glance

Born in 1834, near Abbeville, SC; died in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, May 8,1915; buried in Atlanta, GA; son of Hardy and Sarah (Green) Turner; married four times, in 1856,1893,1900, and to fourth wife, Laura Pearl Lemon, in 1907. Education: African Methodist Episcopal (AME) training in theology, 1858-60, Religion: AME. Politics: Republican during Civil War; later, black nationalist.

Traveling preacher for Methodist Episcopal ChurchSouth, 1851-57; joined African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1858, became deacon, 1860, and elder, 1862; pastor of Union Bethel Church, Washington, DC, 1862-65; appointed first black U.S. Army chaplain by Abraham Lincoln, 1863; worked briefly as an agent of the Freedmens Bureau following the Union victory to the Civil War; organized AME churches and missions in Georgia, 1865-67; delegate to Georgia constitutional convention, 1867; member of the Georgia state legislature, 1868; church pastor in Savannah, GA, 1870-76; business manager, AME Book Concern, Philadelphia, 1876-80; elected AME bishop, 1880; established Morris Brown College, Atlanta, c. 1890, and served as president for twelve years; traveled to Africa four times, 1891-98; organized national convention of African Americans, Cincinnati, OH, 1893; headed Georgia Equal Rights Association, 1906.

Author of The Genius and Theory of Methodist Policy, 1885; founder of Southern Christian Recorder, Voice of Missions, and Voice of the People; author of editorials.

Member: American Colonization Society (elected president, 1876).

first heard of a Christian denomination run by and for blacks, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he immediately joined its mission in Baltimore.

The AME had been founded in Philadelphia in 1794 and was extensively represented in the northern half of the United States, but the threat posed to southern slaveowners by any all-black organization had prohibited its growth in the South. At the churchs training mission in Baltimore, Turner studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and theology with professors from nearby Trinity College. He was appointed deacon in 1860 and two years later elevated to the rank of elder.

Upon completion of his training, Turner was named pastor of the Union Bethel Church in Washington, D.C., the capitals largest black church. Turner was outspoken in his support for President Abraham Lincolns general emancipation of the slaves in 1863, and equally so in his call for the use of black troops in the Union Army during the Civil War. Once this became federal policy, the first black troops from the Washington area were mustered in the Union Bethel churchyard, and President Lincoln named Turner the first black chaplain in the history of the United States. Turner served his soldiers with great distinction, accompanying them into the field of battle while carrying out his duties as chaplain. The successful completion of the Union victory filled Turner with high hopes for the future of black Americans, and he joined the governments Freedmens Bureau in Georgia to help blacks make the transition from slavery to freedom.

Turner soon found that racial discrimination was as strong as ever in Georgia, and he resigned from the Freedmens Bureau after a short tenure to return to the AME. As would be true throughout his life, Turner preferred to work within all-black organizations rather than endure the insults faced by blacks in an integrated setting. As head of the AMEs new mission in Georgia, he proved himself a tireless organizer, dispatching AME ministers to the remotest corners of the state, taking on the burdens of administration, and defending the AME and himself from the hostility of whites resentful of this new source of black independence. In the tense atmosphere of the postwar South, Turners aggressive manner earned him the hatred of many whites, but under his direction the AME flourished as never before.

At the same time Turner was asked to help organize Georgias blacks under the banner of the Republican Party (the party of Lincoln, and for many years of all African American leaders). He was elected as a Republican to the state constitutional convention in 1867, where he adopted a surprisingly conciliatory position on most questions of race and equal rights. At this point in his career, Turner was still optimistic about the future of race relations in America, and he believed that changes in race relations would evolve inevitably as whites and blacks learned to live together as fellow citizens.

When elected to the state legislature in 1868, however, Turner quickly learned otherwise: Georgias white legislators passed a bill forbidding blacks from holding elected office, so enraging Turner that he led a delegation of African American representatives in a walkout from the capitol building. Before leaving the legislative chamber, Turner unleashed the full fury of his wrath in a speech that amazed whites and encouraged blacks everywhere. As quoted in a record of the Georgia state legislature, he proclaimed: I am here to demand my rights and to hurl thunderbolts at the man who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood. . . . Never in the history of the world has a man been . . . charged with the offense of being of a darker hue than his fellow men.

Proponent of Black Pride and Colonization

Turners disillusionment with the political process was redoubled the following year when he was forced to resign a federal appointment as postmaster of Macon, Georgia, after protests by local whites. His Washington connections did manage to secure Turner a minor job in the customs office of Savannah, Georgia, where he resumed full-time church duties as well; but his frustrations in the political arena had permanently altered his thinking about race relations in the United States. As early as 1862 the young clergyman had been impressed with the idea of African emigration for black Americans, and after his firsthand experience of the depth of white racism in the Reconstruction era, Turner returned to the dream of an African nation for blacks. The idea of African emigration was not newas early as 1817 the American Colonization Society had begun the settlement of black Americans in Liberia, on the west coast of Africabut Turner would become its most articulate and passionate nineteenth-century proponent.

Elected bishop in the AME in 1880, Turner used both pulpit and press to argue for the necessity of an African homeland for black Americans. He viewed as hopeless the efforts of blacks to achieve a decent life in the United States; racism was so ingrained in the American character, Turner believed, that people of color would never gain respect while living on American soil. Even if whites were to treat blacks with the best of intentionswhich in the post-Reconstruction era they most emphatically did not blacks would still suffer the psychic damage of living in a society founded, ruled, and defined by white culture. As cited by John Dittmer in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, Turner wrote in 1898: As long as we remain among the whites, the Negro will believe that the devil is black. . . that he [as a black person] is the devil. . . and the effect of such sentiment is contemptuous and degrading. It was his insistence on black pride and black nationalism that set apart Turner from earlier proponents of emigration, many of whom were southern whites hoping to purge the country of its black population.

Turners black nationalism was equally emphatic in the religious arena. God is a Negro, he often repeated, pointing out that every culture had always imagined God as one of its own. Such statements were infuriating to segments of white society, but Turners brilliant oratory and message of black pride won him a huge following among the majority of southern blacks, for whom life as free men had become nearly unendurable in the face of continued white oppression. As bishop in the AME, Turner traveled constantly throughout the southern states and Indian territories, preaching his doctrine of African migration and openly scorning those many black leaders who thought him too radical for the times. Indeed, Turner was always at the center of controversy, whether for his firebrand proclamations (Negro, Get Guns was the title of one of his editorials) or for such irregularities as ordaining a woman deacon in 1888 or marrying for the fourth time at the age of 73.

Africa: Dream and Reality

African emigration remained the polestar of Bishop Turners life and thought. African Americans needed an outlet, a theater of manhood and activity established somewhere for our young men and women, he noted in an 1883 edition of Christian Reporter. Until we have black men in the seat of power, respected, feared, hated, and reverenced, our young men will never rise. To further his dream of an African homeland, Turner urged the United States government to provide funds for the transportation of 5 or 10,000 blacks to Liberia every year, and he himself made the first of four trips to Africa in 1891.

Believing that the conversion of Africa to Christianity was part of Gods plan for black Americans, Turner busily established churches and schools in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and later in South Africa. Everything he saw in Africa reaffirmed his belief in emigration for blacks, and back in the United States Turner organized a national convention for African Americans to meet in Cincinnati in 1893. The convention was attended by more than 800 delegates from around the country, Turner delivering a keynote speech which touched on the subject of emigration; but his plea for Africa as the only hope of the Negro race was rejected by the gathering, and Turner was forced to admit that his program was not acceptable to the majority of educated black Americans.

An even more serious blow to Turners campaign was the bad publicity generated by the sending of two ships of black Americans to Liberia in the mid-1890s. Although reports varied, it appears that most of the colonists did not like or could not survive Liberias tropical climate and backward economy. Many of the emigrants died of fever or made their way back to the United States, where their stories of hardship were widely publicized by the black press as proof of the folly of Bishop Turners ideas. Turner reacted to the criticism with his usual scorn, referring, as quoted by Dittmer, to the failed emigrants as shiftless no-account Negroes. . . accustomed to being fed and driven around by white men. The mismanaged expeditions effectively ended any real hope for a large-scale emigration to Africa by black Americans.

In 1895 Booker T. Washington seized black leadership with his speech at the Atlanta Exposition, in which he promised African Americans that if they remained patient and hard-working, they would eventually be accepted as equals by white society. Washington respected Bishop Turner as a powerful leader, especially among lower-class blacks, and the two men did not openly clash; but Washingtons philosophy of accommodation had clearly prevailed.

Turner spent the balance of his life as an unapologetic and still virulent critic of Americas social injustices. Though yielding to Booker T. Washington the title of national spokesperson for blacks in the United States, Turner remained a man of considerable power in both religious and political affairs. He was not above making alliances with southern white politicians of every variety, since he held all white leaders in similar contempt; and, as elder bishop of the AME for the last twenty years of his life, Turners was the dominant voice in a church of some quarter million members. His last significant public role was as head of the Georgia Equal Rights Association, formed in 1906 by Turner, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other leading black figures. Turners dream of African emigration already seemed outdated to younger men like Du Bois, but no one could deny the seventy-two-year-old bishop the courage of his words when he addressed the Georgia Equal Rights Association convention: I used to love what I thought was the grand old flag, and sing with ecstasy about the stars and stripes, Dittmer quoted him as saying, but to the Negro in this country the American flag is a dirty and contemptible rag. Turner died nine years later, his funeral attended by 25,000 mourners.



Angell, Stephen W., Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South, University of Tennessee Press, 1992.

Dittmer, John, essay included in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier, University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Drago, Edmund L., Black Politicians and Reconstruction in Georgia: A Splendid Failure, Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Redkey, Edwin S., Respect Black: The Writings and Speeches of Henry McNeal Turner, Ayer Company Publications, 1971.

Wilmore, Gayraud S., Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People, Orbis Books, 1983.


Christian Reporter, 1883.

Ebony, February 1993.

Jonathan Martin

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Turner, Henry McNeal (1834-1915)

Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915)


African methodist episcopal bishop

Nothing but Freedom. Henry McNeal Turner, the best-known evangelist among former slaves, was himself born free on 1 February 1834. His father died when he was young, and Turner was raised by his mother and grandmother until 1848, when Sarah Greer Turner married Jabez Story and the family moved to Abbeville, South Carolina. There he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Methodism had only recently separated into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery). Turner found work as a janitor in a law firm, and his employers, impressed with his desire to learn, taught him reading, arithmetic, geography, history, law, and theology. However, religion, not law, was to be his career. A white Methodist circuit rider, Robert Jones Boyd, issued him a license as an exhorter in 1851 and another as a preacher in 1853. In December 1854 he obtained a guardian, John McLauren, and court papers that permitted him to leave his hometown and served as proof of his freedom, protecting him from slave patrols who might capture him for a reward.

Preaching in Whispers. Turner became a circuit rider himself, traveling throughout the Deep South to plantations and communities of free blacks. He was in a difficult position. Many churches, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, accepted slavery as Gods will. Also, even though churches accepted slavery, state governments did not trust black preachers, and many states required that at least one white male be present at black religious services to monitor the sermons. It must have been a relief when in 1857 Turner discovered the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church while preaching in New Orleans. Yet Turner hesitated before changing his denominational affiliation because he had married Eliza Ann Peacher the previous year, and his work in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, allowed him to support his family. In 1858 Turner presided over a revival in Atlanta, and he converted to the AME Church and moved to Baltimore. There he simultaneously served as pastor of two churches, the Waters Chapel and the Tissue Street Mission, and studied English grammar, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1860 he became pastor of the Union Bethel Church in Baltimore, where he was ordained a deacon (1860) and then an elder (1862). He also became pastor of the Israel Church in Washington, D.C., in 1862.

Military Chaplain. Turners first response to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 reflected his ministerial profession. He was appalled by the bloodshed and did not think the Civil War would serve any good purpose. In 1862 he studied the matter and concluded that God worked in mysterious ways and was using the war for the higher purpose of human freedom. Thus he was ready for the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Proclamation opened the way for blacks to join the armed forces. Turners assistant, Thomas H. ? Hinton, turned Israel Church into a recruiting center and organized the First Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. Turner himself volunteered to be a chaplain and received his commission on 6 November 1863. Some idea of his dedication to duty may be had by learning that he contracted smallpox when he visited troops confined to the hospital. He was equally concerned for his soldiers education, constantly soliciting donations of books, which he distributed to the troops. When a boat full of regimental supplies sank, he made sure to replace the lost spelling texts.

Political Leader. Turners commission expired at the end of 1865, and President Andrew Johnson appointed him to a chaplaincy in the regular army, assigning him to work with the Freedmens Bureau in Georgia. When Turner got to Georgia, he found that the unit to which he was assigned already had a chaplain and that the man in charge of Bureau operations in the state, Gen. Davis Tillson, was more sympathetic to whites than to former slaves. Turner soon resigned his army commission to organize the AME Church in the state. Part of that work involved political leadership, organizing blacks to protect their interests in the face of unrepentant Georgia Democrats. In 1866 Turner returned to Washington to make political contacts and to solicit funds for the black Georgians Equal Rights Association. By the next year he was urging black Georgians to join the Republican Party. From December 1867 to March 1868 he was a member of the Education Committee of the Atlanta Constitutional Convention, in which position he lobbied unsuccessfully for funds for black higher education and universal public elementary education. He served two terms in the state legislature, but his career as an elected civil servant soon came to a dramatic end. He had been elected partly on the strength of an alliance between blacks and poor whites, who had united to overcome the power of the states longtime political leaders, landowning white Democrats. Once elected, the whites wanted their black colleagues barred from the legislature, effective immediately. Turner and the other black representatives stood up, walked up the aisles among the seated white delegates to the door, and then, in biblical fashion, shook the dust from their feet. Turners final departure from politics was more ignominious. Congressional Republicans arranged for him to be appointed postmaster of Macon, Georgia. Local whites, though, did not want him to have the job. During this time, also, Turner was caught in a local scandal: he was seen in the company of a woman who was not only a confirmed counterfeiter, but a prostitute as well.

Bishop. Turner found new work in 1872 as pastor of Saint Philips AME Church in Savannah. In 1876 he moved from that job to a new one as head of the financially troubled church publishing department. A volume he wrote himself, The Hymn Book of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1876), became a popular seller. On 14 May 1880 he was elected bishop and assigned to Georgia. In that capacity he not only worked to build up his own flock, but also labored to extend the AME faith. In addition, he traveled to Africa as a missionary, visiting Sierra Leone (1891), Liberia (1893), and South Africa (1898).

Institution Builder. Turners election as bishop was not a foregone conclusion. He smoked, claiming he had become addicted to tobacco during his youth, when one of his chores was to keep his grandmothers pipe lit. Other Methodists took this breach of self-discipline seriously. Some also pointed out that the price of the rapid expansion of the AME in Georgia was the acceptance of many uneducated, even illiterate, ministers that compromised the status of the whole denomination. Nevertheless, Turner received the position and quickly became involved in the practical and theoretical aspects of church organization. Not only did he build up local churches, but he edited the newspaper Voice of Missions to develop a sense of unity in the denomination. He also wrote a book on The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity in 1885.

A Black Christian Identity. Turner both reacted to and shaped an emerging black identity. His experiences before, during, and after the Civil War convinced him that the federal and state governments were determined to marginalize blacks. Some would extend that analysis to Christianity, arguing that it was really a European religion whose doctrines were useful for oppressing and exploiting the poor by promising them that accepting the status quo on earth would lead to rewards in heaven. As a clergyman, though, Christianity meant liberation for Turner; personally, it gave him a professional career. For black people generally, Christianity promised that a just God would look after the oppressed, and it encouraged blacks not to revolt, but to develop useful strategies to improve their lot. Late in his life, Turner was impressed with Elizabeth Cady Stantons Womans Bible (1895-1898) and pondered whether it might not be desirable to do a translation and commentary on Scripture from an African American point of view.

Death. By the 1880s Turner was so disappointed in the prospects for blacks in the United States that he claimed he did not want to die in a place where his race was so maligned. Invited to preside over a church meeting in Canada, he had just disembarked from a ferry that carried him from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, when he was felled by a massive stroke at the wharf. He died on 8 May 1915, and his body was brought back to Atlanta for burial.


Stephen Ward Angell, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992).

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Henry McNeal Turner

Henry McNeal Turner

Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915), African American leader and a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, argued for African American emigration to Africa.

Henry M. Turner was born free near Abbeville, S.C., on Feb. 1, 1834. Unable to go to school because of state laws, he was "apprenticed" in local cotton fields but ran away and found a job as sweeper in a law office. The young clerks surreptitiously taught him to read and write. He was converted to Christianity and at age 20 was licensed as a traveling evangelist for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He preached to white and black audiences throughout the South until 1858. When he learned of the all-black African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), he joined it.

In Baltimore, Turner studied languages and Scripture as well as his new Church. In 1862 he moved to a church in Washington, D.C. His fiery sermons earned him the title "Black Spurgeon" (a reference to a famous English sermonizer of the day). Congressmen attended his preaching, and Turner frequented the Capitol to watch politicians in action. After emancipation of the slaves in 1863, he agitated for putting black troops into the Civil War and was commissioned the first black chaplain in the Union Army.

After the war Turner was assigned to the Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia, but he resigned to recruit blacks for his Church and, later, to organize them for the Republican party. He participated in the Georgia constitutional convention of 1868 and later was elected to the legislature. When blacks were refused their seats in the legislature, Turner was appointed postmaster at Macon, Ga., and then a customs inspector at Savannah. Meanwhile, in 1876, he was elected manager of the AME Book Concern, and in 1880 he was elected one of a dozen bishops in the Church.

Turner was interested in Africa as a potential homeland for African Americans. His experiences in Reconstruction politics disillusioned him with white America, and after 1868 he urged talented young blacks to establish a nation in Africa which would give pride and encouragement to blacks everywhere. His writings and speeches in favor of pan-African nationalism and his scathing attacks on white racism antagonized many middle-class blacks but inspired many black farmers.

Turner wrote for Church and public newspapers. In Atlanta he founded the Southern Recorder (1888), the Voice of Missions (1892), and the Voice of the People (1901). He also published a catechism, a hymnal, and The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity (1885). When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Reconstruction civil rights laws in 1883, he issued a blistering attack in The Barbarous Decisionof the Supreme Court…, revised as The Black Man's Doom (1896).

During the 1890s Turner visited Africa four times to supervise Church work and publicize emigration. In 1893 he summoned a national convention of Afro-American leaders to protest lynching and political attacks on blacks and get support for his emigration schemes. However, Turner's appeals were heeded only by poor blacks who could neither afford passage to Africa nor support themselves there. He continued his agitation, attracting nationwide attention in 1906, when he reportedly called the American flag a "dirty rag." He died in Windsor, Ontario, on May 8, 1915.

Further Reading

Respect Black! Writings and Speeches of Henry M. Turner (1971), edited by E. S. Redkey, contains a selection of Turner's rhetoric on the race question. The only full-length biography of Turner is the early, uncritical work by Mungo M. Ponton, Life and Times of Henry M. Turner (1917). A brief biography of Turner appears in Historical Negro Biographies in the International Library of Negro Life and History, edited by Wilhelmena S. Robinson (1968), and a chapter on him is in W. J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1968). E. S. Redkey, Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890-1910 (1969), focuses on Turner's emigrationist activities. □

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