Sunday, August 30, 2009


Bishop Henry M. Turner

Bishop, Statesman and Activist

More than two hundred and fifty ministers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church gathered in Dublin in November 1898 for the annual meeting of the Macon Conference. Presiding over the conference was Rev. Henry McNeal Turner, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. For over half a century Bishop Turner was a guiding force within the church as well as a national leader of African American people throughout the country.

The annual conference convened on November 17, 1898. The Rev. E.P. Holmes, Presiding Elder of the Dublin District, opened the meeting in the temporary absence of Bishop Turner. The opening services were conducted by Reverends E.W. Lee, C.C. Cargile, W.C. Gaines and Dr. J.A. Davis.

Education within the church was the subject of the Sunday session. Prof. John Hawkins, Superintendent of Education, proudly proclaimed that within the last thirty years Negroes had wiped out forty-two percent of their illiteracy. He reported that within his department there were forty one schools, 165 teachers and 1,585 students. Rev. James Henderson, president of Morris Brown College, told the assembly of the improvements at the college. Rev. Henderson reported than in the past fifteen years, more than eight hundred thousand dollars had been raised for education. He was followed by Prof. George Woodson of Payne Seminary. Bishop James M. Dwane of Queensborough, South Africa pleaded with the ministers to appropriate $3000.00 to build a college in his country. A wave of enthusiasm ensued and more than $1000.00 was raised for Morris Brown College.

During the week long conference there were large meetings of the Woman’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society under the direction of Mrs. S.J. Duncan of Selma, Alabama and Mrs. J. Donley of Grenada, Mississippi. Among the noted ministers attending the conference were; Rev. T.N.M. Smith of Savannah, Rev. C.H.J. Taylor of Atlanta, Rev. H.B. Parks, Secretary of Missions, New York, Rev. R.M. Cheeks, Editor of the Southern Recorder, Atlanta, Prof. H.T. Kealing, editor of the Quarterly Review, of Philadelphia, Rev. J.J. Higgs of Springfield, Mass., Rev. Wright Newman of Americus, Rev. F.F. Boddle of Milledgeville, and Reverends A.B. Jackson of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church Macon, J.R. Brazill and B.J. Walton of the Baptist churches of Macon.

On the last full day of the conference, the white citizens of Dublin welcomed the visitors. Rev. George C. Thompson and Rev. J.W. Domingos of the First Methodist Episcopal Church and Rev. J.C. Solomon of Dublin First Baptist Church delivered well received messages to the delegates. Rev. A.A. Whitman, the poet laureate of the church, told the ministers " The human mind is a sea upon which there is room for every wave of thought. No one gets so high that the Gospel cannot reach him." At the special instance of those present, Bishop Turner preached at the Tabernacle at 11:00 a.m. and again at the county courthouse at 3:00 p.m.

As the session came to a close, Bishop Turner ordained elders W.S. Dugged, T.J. Linton, F.J. Reeves, and A.S. Martin. He announced the ministerial assignments for the upcoming year. It was just after midnight when Bishop Turner rose to speak for the final time. His sermon until 4:00 a.m. on November 22nd.

Bishop Turner gave the ministers a message he had been espousing for more than two decades. That message was the Negro had no future in this country and that he should return, at the expense of the American government, to his ancestral homeland in Africa. The Rev. Turner said, " I see no manhood future for the Negro in this county, and the man who is not able to discover that fact from existing conditions must be void of common sense. Our evil, political and social status is degrading, and as degradation begets degradation, the Negro must go from bad to worse ad infinitum. Neither education nor wealth can ever elevate us to the grade of respectability. I say this, because we are surrounded by so many influences that militate against our manhood."

The Bishop continued, " The best thing the Negro can do is to call a great national convention and ask the United States congress for a hundred million dollars to meet the expense of starting a line of steamers between this country and Africa;, thus pioneering a domain for our settlement. With this start upon the part of the general government, which actually owes us forty billion dollars for the 246 years of labor, we could build up a business that would enable us to transport to Africa as many of our race as are fit to go. If the United States has hundred of millions to throw away in useless war, and for other foolish things, surely it can appropriate a hundred million dollars to the most loyal inhabitants it has within its domain."

He concluded by saying, " The white people themselves had infinitely better appropriate a hundred million dollars, if we are the raping monsters which the public press charges us with being, than to be shedding so much blood, when I know and you all know how much of that blood is innocent blood, and innocent blood will speak to God day and night for retribution till God overthrows the nation, as he did in the Roman Empire. And I have the ear of the country, it is very likely I shall call such a convention within the next three or six months, for if the Negro does not say or do something in his own defense, he is not only an inferior race, but he is not fit to be ranked as a human being."

Henry McNeal Turner was born in 1834 near Abbeville, South Carolina. He was fervent in his studies and read under the supervision of white lawyers. He was ordained a minister in 1853 at the age of nineteen. In 1860, he was ordained a deacon and two years later in 1862, he was ordained an elder in the church. At the beginning of the Civil War, Rev. Turner was commissioned Chaplain of the First Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, making him the first Negro chaplain in the United States Army. Following the war, he moved to Georgia and began preaching at St. Phillips A.M.E. Church in Savannah, the mother church of African Methodism in Georgia. It has been said that he founded more than one hundred A.M.E. churches. In 1868, Rev. Turner was elected to a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives from Bibb County. He was unseated by the State of Georgia, but was returned to office by the federal government and his finished his term in 1870. During his time in the legislature, Rev. Turner served as Postmaster of Macon. As Rep. Turner, he introduced bills to establish colleges for Negroes, to establish a black militia to combat the KKK and to give women the right to vote.

In 1877, Turner was elected Vice-president of the African Colonization Society. He was a founder of the Southern Christian Recorder and the Women's Home and Foreign Missionary Society. In 1880, Henry Turner was ordained the twelfth bishop of the A.M.E. Church. For a dozen years, Bishop Turner served as Chancellor of Morris Brown College in Atlanta. Bishop Turner led two expeditions to Africa in the 1890s and promulgated the establishment of missionary work in Africa.

Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, A.M.E. died on May 8, 1915. He was mourned by more than twenty five thousand persons who attended his funeral. In his quarter of a century as Bishop, Turner was controversial to say the least. He built bridges with the Baptist Church, appointed a woman as a deacon in the church and alienated many whites across the South, who attempted to discredit him by charging him with crimes.

During this Black History Month, let us remember that Bishop Turner was wrong in his assessment of the future of the Negro in America. In the century which has followed his sermon in Dublin, African Americans have risen to heights far above what the Bishop could ever have imagined.

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