Friday, September 28, 2012

The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition

The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition, by Andre E. Johnson, is a study of the prophetic rhetoric of 19th century African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop Henry McNeal Turner. By locating Turner within the African American prophetic tradition, Johnson examines how Bishop Turner adopted a prophetic persona. As one of America’s earliest black activists and social reformers, Bishop Turner made an indelible mark in American history and left behind an enduring social influence through his speeches, writings, and prophetic addresses. This text offers a definition of prophetic rhetoric and examines the existing genres of prophetic discourse, suggesting that there are other types of prophetic rhetorics, especially within the African American prophetic tradition. In examining these modes of discourses from 1866-1895, this study further examines how Turner’s rhetoric shifted over time. It examines how Turner found a voice to article not only his views and positions, but also in the prophetic tradition, the views of people he claimed to represent. The Forgotten Prophet is a significant contribution to the study of Bishop Turner and the African American prophetic tradition.

Reviews for The Forgotten Prophet: Andre Johnson’s study of the speeches of Henry McNeal Turner, from his optimistic Emancipation Day Address in 1866, to sober reflections on the fiftieth anniversary of the proclamation in 1913, is an important step in recovering the story of African-Americans in the South during Reconstruction. Framing Turner’s powerful words as examples of prophetic rhetoric, Johnson shows how even Turner’s most pessimistic comments spoke to a wide audience eager for freedom yet demoralized by prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Although Turner’s answer to the nation’s racism—emigration—did not become a major movement in his lifetime, Johnson’s study of Turner’s prophetic voice enlarges our understanding of this neglected, but important figure in American history.-Sandra J. Sarkela, University of Memphis 

Professor Johnson not only offers a new perspective on Reverend Turner by focusing on the rhetorical dimensions of words, but also suggests new and more precise ways for scholars to study the “prophetic” in the United States. Professor Johnson should be congratulated for offering the first and most nuance study of African American prophetic rhetoric of any black leader.-Edward J. Blum, Co-Author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America 

The critical lens that Dr. Johnson employs—of seeing Turner’s work as an evolution through prophetic stages, not only helps the reader understand Turner’s discourse but significantly enhances our understanding the different prophetic voices available to rhetors-Richard Leeman, author of The Teleological Discourse of Barack Obama

Click here to buy your Copy. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Foreword: Marked For Greatness

Below is the foreword written by Dr. Barbara A. Holmes for the series titled the Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner in Volume 1 (Mellen Press). Dr. Holmes currently serves as President of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

But many of us have now concluded, that the judgment of God will never cease its plagues upon this nation, till slavery and oppression shall be foiled, and right, equity, and justice shall be seen in all its grand regalia, leading on in triumphant conquest the victories of humanity.-Henry McNeal Turner, published August 30, 1862 in the Christian Recorder

What does it mean to have a dream so real and so memorable that it becomes a blueprint for your life despite a thicket of racism and cultural marginalization? As a young boy, The Reverend Dr. Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) had a dream that inspired a life of public service, prophetic leadership, and intellectual inquiry. Raised by teen mother Sarah Turner and Grandmother Hannah Greer, Turner was taught self worth, spiritual acuity and the importance of his cultural heritage.

In dreams, Turner saw himself in a leadership role that seemed impossible to achieve in the segregated south, yet he believed that he was “marked for greatness.” His testimony is not unusual. Throughout history, leaders, martyrs, prophets and queens have dreamed futures that they could not imagine during their waking hours. Sacred texts in many religions describe dream landscapes as spaces where life purposes may be revealed and divine instructions may be given.

As you read the introduction of this volume and Turner’s brief biography, you realize that his emergence as a public intellectual in the midst of the confederacy was nothing short of a miracle. Turner was born a free black man in the South during an era when he had no recourse to the protections of law or the opportunities of a purportedly free society. And so, the dreams began, and an improbable life path unfolded. What emerges from Turner’s writings is that he while he is fulfilling his unique calling; he is also laying a foundation for the flourishing of African American people, as they are merging from the catastrophe of slavery.

The papers reveal that the contributions that Turner made to an evolving liberative consciousness among formerly enslaved African Americans and abolitionists, laid the groundwork for the civil rights initiatives of the mid-twentieth century. Although the Civil Rights movement seems to erupt out of nowhere when Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat, and King and Malcolm X (El Haj Malik El Shabazz) challenge American apartheid, closer analysis reveals the work of predecessors like Turner, who prepared the way, articulated the humanity of besieged people, and prophetically claimed a future.

In addition, the papers of Henry McNeal Turner reveal a renaissance man, who had a vision of what could be achieved with a mix of divine inspiration, intelligence and hard work. His talents were eclectic, wide ranging and too numerous to recount here. From cotton fields, he learns blacksmithing, serves as the first black chaplain of the armed forces, writes for the Christian Recorder, serves as a Postmaster, elected to the Georgia Legislature and elected the first southern Bishop of the AME church.

Turner is tireless and prophetic as he amplifies the voices of the poor, supports an Afro-centric worship style, a “back to Africa” movement, and then declares that if humankind reflects the image of the Creator, then God is also a Negro. Turner has all of the markings of a forerunner, one who sets the stage for the future, who speaks truth to power, and who reframes the moral boundaries of public life for all citizens.

Dr. Andre Johnson’s scholarship on the life, work, and writings of The Henry McNeal Turner recovers an incredibly important aspect of African American history. It is always an important occasion when a scholar goes beyond the study of well known historical figures to re-introduce a leader who lived beyond the limits of current life memories, and whose efforts paved the way for current benefits. The volumes that will follow, document Turner’s contributions to history through his copious writings. Dr Johnson, a rhetorician, theologian, professor and pastor, is uniquely suited to edit volumes that will enhance our understanding of Turner’s work and the political, theological, and legal issues of the antebellum and reconstruction period.

As I read this first compilation, I noted that Turner’s eloquence transcends the span of time, whether he is sermonically chastising those who sleep in church or publicly challenging a vacillating president to support the emancipation of enslaved people. He was equally forthright when he addressed his congregation on its duty in the Civil War as well as when he addressed the North as “mythic Egypt” for its role in the War.

This series marks an important milestone in African American history, and enlightens those of us living in the twenty-first century under the leadership of the first African American President of the United States. Through Turner’s prophetic rhetoric, it becomes apparent that capable leaders of African heritage have emerged in every generation. From the time that African Diaspora people landed on the shores of the Americas, they handled dire circumstances with trickster savvy, the multiple realities of dream language, and prophetic, mystical, and practical traditions. We know the stories of those struggles in part, but the brevity of our own lives and times, and the loss of critical historical resources constricts our knowledge.

Turner’s writings remind us that famous or not, we all stand on the shoulders of ancestors and progenitors. We benefit from their feats of courage and learn from their occasions of human frailty. Their stories chart the path for our future and remind us that we are only responsible for a small segment of the journey toward freedom. It is apparent in this first volume that Henry McNeal Turner was not marked for greatness by unusual divine intervention, he was imbued, as each of us are, with a spark of divinity that he fanned into a lifetime of passionate service to God, country and his people.

The dreams strengthened his resolve, and heightened his spiritual awareness, but he translated the mystical into the practical and never allowed his access to power to separate him from his origins. I am confident that the example of Turner’s extraordinary life will continue to inspire future generations.

Barbara A. Holmes
Professor of Ethics and African American Religious Studies
Memphis Theological Seminary

Saturday, September 1, 2012


Congressional Action:
House of Representatives - September 06, 2000

Mrs. MORELLA. Madam Speaker, I move to suspend the rules and pass the bill (H.R. 3454) to designate the United States post office located at 451 College Street in Macon, Georgia, as the ``Henry McNeal Turner Post Office.''

The Clerk read as follows:
H.R. 3454

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


(a) DESIGNATION.--The United States post office located at 451 College Street in Macon, Georgia, shall be known and designated as the ``Henry McNeal Turner Post Office''.

(b) REFERENCES.--Any reference in a law, map, regulation, document, paper, or other record of the United States to the facility referred to in subsection (a) shall be deemed to be a reference to the ``Henry McNeal Turner Post Office''.

The SPEAKER pro tempore. Pursuant to the rule, the gentlewoman from Maryland (Mrs. MORELLA) and the gentleman from Maryland (Mr. CUMMINGS) each will control 20 minutes.

The Chair recognizes the gentlewoman from Maryland (Mrs. MORELLA).


Mrs. MORELLA. Madam Speaker, I ask unanimous consent that all Members may have 5 legislative days within which to revise and extend their remarks on this legislation.

The SPEAKER pro tempore. Is there objection to the request of the gentlewoman from Maryland?

There was no objection.

Mrs. MORELLA. Madam Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Madam Speaker, the legislation before us, H.R. 3454, was introduced by our colleague, the gentleman from Georgia (Mr. CHAMBLISS). All Members of the House delegation from Georgia have cosponsored this bill.

H.R. 3454 designates the post office located at 451 College Street in Macon, Georgia, as the Henry McNeal Turner Post Office.

There is much to be said about the man honored by this legislation, but I will speak briefly. Henry McNeal Turner was a well-known missionary, pastor, evangelist, church administrator, Army chaplain, author of religious publications, and postmaster.

Turner faced many obstructions in his youth. However, he taught himself to read, and at the age of 19 became a preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1863, he organized the first regiment of African-American troops, and he became the first African-American Army chaplain, and then became a chaplain of the regular troops.

Mr. Turner was appointed as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1867. He was elected to the Georgia State Legislature in 1868 and in 1870. He was appointed postmaster of Macon in 1869. After a year as postmaster, Mr. Turner returned to the State Legislature and founded the Georgia Equal Rights League. He actively championed equal rights, and led mission trips to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa.

Madam Speaker, I urge our colleagues to support H.R. 3454, honoring an individual who sought equality for all Americans and for people around the world.

I want to thank the gentleman from Georgia (Mr. CHAMBLISS) for bringing our focus to this great individual, Henry McNeal Turner.

Madam Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.

Mr. CUMMINGS. Madam Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

Madam Speaker, I join the gentlewoman from Maryland (Mrs. MORELLA) in thanking the gentleman from Georgia (Mr. CHAMBLISS) for sponsoring H.R. 3454.

Henry McNeal Turner was a well-known missionary pastor, evangelist, church administrator, Army chaplain, author of religious publications, and postmaster. He taught himself to read, and at the age of 19 he became a preacher in the African-American Methodist Episcopal Church.

In 1863, he organized the first regiment of African-American troops. He became the first African-American Army chaplain, and then became a chaplain of the regular troops. He was elected to the Georgia State legislature in 1868.

I guess it is easy for us to say that today, but when we think about the times back in 1868, for an African-American man to be elected to the State legislature is phenomenal.

In 1869 he was appointed Postmaster of Macon, Georgia. He actively championed equal rights, and led missions to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and South Africa. So we pause here to honor him by naming this post office after him.
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Throughout American history, there have been individuals who have cut out their own paths in life to improve the conditions of themselves or the human race as a whole. Oftentimes these individuals are considered to be heroic so the accolades that are bestowed upon them are immeasurable. What happens when the trail that is blazed by the person is so unfavorable and unfolded that the person becomes an outcast? Such is the case of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner. This great African-American dream of establishing an all black nation on the continent of Africa ended mainly to his lack of appeal to the middle class African-American population and financial instability. With that being one of his few setbacks, though this setback was significant to Bishop Turner and his followers, following several historical precedents the question becomes: How does such an extraordinary and accomplished leader get overshadowed in the annals of American history? The research will give several explanations to how such a gross injustice happened to this remarkable figure. The area of focus is centered around Bishop Turner’s lack of support by many of the elite and renowned African-American of his day, Bishop Turner’s increasing insistence on declaring that God was black caused many historians to back away from the leader, and America’ historic preference for chronicling the life of a specific type of African-American leader. Bishop Henry Turner McNeal accomplishments far exceeded his failures. Though his desire for the improvement for African-Americans albeit b abroad, was a testament for his dedication to this improvement. Bishop Turner’s story should be told and canonized like many leaders that have fought of the cause of freedom.
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