Profiles in Africana Religion – Henry McNeal Turner: A Righteous Man’s Prophet Journey
After the Civil War one of the problems that African people in America faced was the issue of identity. Who were African Americans - to their former enslavers, to the country - but most importantly, to themselves? The crux of this identity problem was centered on the fact that African Americans were working to find their place in a society that enslaved them, then freed them -- under certain conditions. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner worked diligently during wartime and peacetime to help fashion a sense of being for his people. As Turner worked to forge an identity for his people through their culture and spiritual essence, he was called a ‘prophet’ and many looked to him for a new spiritual identity. Moreover, Turner was a pillar of strength for the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South, a point that boosted his reputation as a Holy Man ordained by God to bring justice to the plight of Africans in the United States. This essay will delve into Bishop Turner’s life with a particular focus on his role as a spiritual leader of his people.
Bishop Turner was born free in Newberry, South Carolina in the antebellum South to Sarah Greer and Hardy Turner (who died at an early age). There is a certain amount of lore surrounding his heritage, for instance, it is said that he was of royal linage of the Mandingo people. However, it must be said that it is often an element of African American heritage (especially for leaders and history makers) that their unknown African roots are mythologized as royal. While it is clear, that to make up a past such as this speaks to an effort to build a sense of pride within a broken people, it is the opinion of this writer that a sense being and belonging is essential to pulling one’s self out of an oppressive situation and making a remarkable life out of very little is by itself remarkable. Therefore, regardless of Turner’s would-be royal African lineage, what is critically important is the impact he made in the lives of the people he came in contact with and his ability to shape the zeitgeist of the historical moment in which he lived.
Turner’s real royal lineage came from his grandmother who cared for him greatly and taught him to be proud of his heritage and never be ashamed of where he came from. Inspired by the Christian revivals of this time and his heritage, Turner understood his mission in life at a fairly young age and worked to earn his right to preach before he was twenty years old. From there his fame began to grow among the enslaved populace who were themselves growing impatient under the yoke of their European enslavers. As a preacher, Turner was not merely focused on the stories of the ancient prophets, but on the divine lineage of African people. To elaborate, Turner taught his parishioners that they were the descendants a great, mighty and divine people – God’s chosen few – whose purpose was to gain a deeper knowledge of the word of God to save a land devoid of morality.
Though Bishop Turner can be placed in the company of other race men and women of his time, he was a patriot first. He deeply resented the oppression America had wrought against his people, nonetheless, he felt that the Civil War represented a critical turning point towards a brighter future for the country. As well, freedom did not represent a time for retribution for African Americans, but instead an opportunity to show the world what God’s promise and what God’s people were capable of. Though Turner’s optimism was considerably misplaced, as he would quickly learn, he believed in the promise the zeitgeist symbolized. Nevertheless, it was the pride and hope that was instilled in him from a young age by his mother and grandmother that continued to order his steps as he looked towards the development and expansion his divine mission.
In the pre-emancipation South, Turner was a popular traveling preacher who traveled freely giving sermons to enslaved and free African Americans. His popularity grew so much that his sermons even attracted Southern whites who would often come to hear him speak. However, he had a religious revelation of his own during the latter part of the 1850s, in the form of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Not much is known about why he converted to the AME Church, perhaps he found the Church more culturally relevant, fitting his own predilection towards pride in his African heritage. Regardless, despite this omission in his history, what is known is that he quickly rose through the ranks in the AME Church and earned his first assignment as a mission before 1860. This assignment was in Baltimore and in this position he developed and rigorous religious education system that mandated attention to African culture as well as instruction in ancient languages to aid in the learning of biblical texts.
During the Civil War, Turner fought valiantly in battle for the North, however, he made the most impact as a Chaplain. He would minister to the troops and join them in battle. His reputation was dynamic and renowned, so much so that he was named the first African American Army chaplain by President Lincoln. After serving honorably, Turner set his aspirations towards impacting the lives of African Americans in the realm of politics. He was hopeful as a politician and because of his loyalty to the Union he became very active in the Republican Party in Georgia and was elected to state legislature in 1868. As a sycophant of republican party his presence amongst Southern republican was tolerated, however as he grew culturally he began to understand that African Americans did not have a real place in American society. Due to this, he shed his accommodationist stance and started to look towards Africa as the only rightful place for his people.
Turner’s work with the African Methodist Episcopal Church both in America and in Africa can be looked at from a couple of different angles. On the one hand, his efforts can be interpreted as an effort to colonize the minds and spirits of African people using a tool (Christianity) that has had a dubious presence. That is to say, the effort on the part of European Christians to missionize Africa is understood by many as simply a prelude to slavery, oppression and genocide - long way to ask: why would a Pan-Africanist support this posture?  However, on the other hand, Turner’s effort can be seen as simply a way to organize African people into a self-determining, self-organizing and cohesive people who strive of unity and self-betterment. For Turner Christianity could have just been the most abundant tool at his disposal at that particular time and space. That is to argue, Turner was not simply a “colonizer” like many (if not most) European Christians, he represented the AME church which is itself an important example of African self-determination. From this perspective, Christianity is just a veneer or better yet merely a tool towards a larger ends – Pan African unity.
There are many ways to understand Turner’s mission and resolve, but despite many divergent perspectives, one thing is clear: he believed in the betterment and upliftment of African people throughout the world. He was a Christian minister whose primary focus was the upliftment of African people, which at its root this makes him a Pan-Africanist. However, as passive readers of this history (as opposed to actors in it by virtue of our birth in this present time and space) it is easy to mold his words around our own theories and perspectives without really knowing the man. Nevertheless, knowing the history as it has been laid out, it seems Turner was a man of his time, deeply steeped in the struggles the that defined the zeitgeist of the later half of the 19th century and as such he rose to the occasion of his time, which is all any of us can do.
 This is referring to the vagrancy laws that impacted the lives of African Americans after the Emancipation Proclamation. Vagrancy laws required one to be able to demonstrate their employment status to be sent to prison where they would be put to work in the prison system. In other words, they would be re-enslaved.
 Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds. Black leaders of the nineteenth century. Vol. 82. (University of Illinois Press, 1991), 255.
 Ibid., 255. “Assigned to the A.M.E. mission in Baltimore, Turner began a rigorous program of educational training, studying Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and theology with several professors at Trinity College.”
 Ibid., 255.
 Ibid., 258-259.
 Ibid., 261.
 Ibid., 265.
 Stephen Ward Angell. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South. (University of Tennessee Press, 1992), 2.
 Leon F. Litwack and August Meier, eds. Black leaders of the nineteenth century. Vol. 82. (University of Illinois Press, 1991), 263. “While not nearly so well publicized as his promotion of African emigration, Turner’s missionary work on the continent produced tangible results for the A.M.E. church and facilitated the rise of black consciousness in South Africa.”
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