Monday, October 1, 2012

The Scholarship on Bishop Henry McNeal Turner




Scholarship on Turner is meager. Outside of brief articles or sketches printed in journals or edited volumes,[1] the first published work on Turner came two years after his death titled, “The Life and Times of Henry McNeal Turner” and written by friend and fellow AME minister Mungo Ponton. This glowing and uncritical “biography” purported to share the life story of Turner “upon the times in which he lived” (23). However, the “biography” was more apologetic in nature as Ponton not only defended the actions of Turner, but also had, as a goal, to protect and promote the AME Church. Ponton hoped that through his work, the story of Turner could “serve as an inspiration to lovers of manhood, home, freedom and life everywhere” (24). 

Despite the uncritical nature of the work and its apparent shortcomings, something that Ponton apologizes for early in the text (24), I believe that dismissing his work is a mistake. It is through Ponton’s work that we learn of Turner’s childhood experiences and get some glimpse of his family life—his call into ministry and some of his early travels. More important for the purposes of this dissertation, Ponton offers testimony from others to the oratorical prowess of Turner. He quotes many of Turner’s contemporaries who give us some impression of what Turner was like as a speaker.

After Ponton’s book, the next treatment of Turner came in 1938 with J. Minton Batten’s “Henry McNeal Turner, Negro BishopExtraordinary.” Drawing from Ponton, Batten offers a biographical sketch of Turner’s career as a pastor, politician, and bishop. However, unlike Ponton, Batten offers historical documentation in the way of speeches, and other writings that support his arguments.

It was not until 1964 that another published article on Turner appeared. Henry M. Turner: Georgia Negro Preacher-PoliticianDuring the Reconstruction Era” by E. Merton Coulter, was an account of Turner’s activities during the early part of Reconstruction. Drawn primarily from sources unfriendly and hostile to African Americans and their concerns, Coulter’s aim was to paint an unflattering picture of Turner’s political activities. As if to sum up his argument for this unflattering view, Coulter writes in the closing of his essay, “if he was the greatest man the Negro race ever produced, then that race had not reached the stage in civilization which has generally been accorded it” (406).[2]

In 1967, Edwin Redkey published “BishopTurner’s African Dream” that focused on Turner’s push for emigration to Africa. In his essay, Redkey, while highlighting Turner’s successes, also puts forth arguments that demonstrate why Turner’s emigration campaign ultimately failed. In addition, Redkey posits a reason for the dearth in Turner scholarship. Redkey argues that because of Turner’s “scathing attacks on American society and upon Negroes who disagreed with his solution to the race problem; few mourned the end of his uncomfortable prodding toward Negro achievement and his perpetual scheming to move Negroes to Africa” (272).

In 1969, Jane Herndon published “Henry McNeal Turner’s African Dream: A Re-Evaluation”. As the title would indicate, this was not a refutation or critique of Redkey’s earlier work. Herndon’s aim is to place Turner within the African American nationalist tradition and refute the charge that the “Negro has docilely accepted his position and that his sole ambition has been to amalgamate into white society” (327). By highlighting Turner’s emigration position and placing Turner within the nationalist tradition, Herndon offers a “re-evaluation” of Turner’s work and represents Turner as a forerunner to Garvey and Dubois and “more recent leaders of the contemporary Negro revolution” in the United States (336). 

The next publication, published in 1971, was “Respect Black: The Speeches and Writingsof Henry McNeal Turner” by Edwin Redkey. Offering a brief biographical sketch at the beginning, this book is the only volume of writings and speeches by Turner and is a valuable source for anyone interested in Turner’s rhetoric.[3]  

In 1973, Josephus R. Coan published “Henry McNeal Turner: A Fearless Prophet of Black Liberation”. Coan’s aim is clear from the outset: he attempts to place Turner within the Black Awareness movement current at the time of publication. Black Awareness Coan writes, “Is a determination to achieve complete liberation of Black Americans from all the forces and movements aimed at degrading and dehumanizing the race” (9). Coan divides his essay in two parts; first, he offers a chronological sketch of Turner’s life and second, he offers an overview of his theology and social ideas.

In 1980, Edwin Redkey published Turner’s Civil War recount of the assault on Fort Fisher in “Rock in the Cradle of Consternation”. In this article, Redkey republishes Turner’s letters to the Christian Recorder detailing the battle and describing the morale of black soldiers. The article is helpful in giving us insight into the mind of black soldiers during the Civil War.

After the 1980’s, there was some renewal of interest in the life and works of Turner. Three edited volumes contain essays about Turner. The first one, published in 1991, entitled “Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century,” contains an article by John Dittmer entitled “The Education of Henry McNeal Turner.” The essay offers a biographical sketch of Turner’s life and offers no new information. The second volume, published in 1999, titled “Black Conservatism: Essay in Intellectual and Political History,” contains an article by Stephen Angell, “Henry McNeal Turner—Conservative? Radical? Or Independent.”  In this essay, Angell argues that Turner does not fit “any single party label or any ideological label.” Therefore what Angell attempts to do is to offer an “accurate…portrayal of [Turner’s] political and ideological commitments throughout his career” (26).

Finally, the third book published in 2004 “Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War,” contains an essay by Edwin Redkey “Henry McNeal Turner: Black Chaplain in the Union Army.”  As the title indicates, Redkey focuses on Turner’s career as a chaplain in the Union Army which, Redkey argues, helped Turner “develop some of the ideas, attitudes, and skills that became manifest in his later career” (336).

In 1992, there was a publication of a full-length biography of Turner by Stephen Ward Angell titled “Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African American Religion in theSouth.” Angell’s work focused primarily on Turner’s extensive church work during antebellum and Post-Bellum periods of American history. 

Also published are books that devote chapters to Turner,[4] articles and essays that feature Turner,[5] as well as master theses’ and dissertations that focus on Turner’s life and work.[6] However, outside of Coan and Pinn who are theologians, the works published on Turner have come primarily from historians or students of history. While these historians have done a wonderful job at unearthing primary sources of Turner’s publications, writings, and speeches, what is utterly surprising is that only two published articles focus on Turner’s rhetoric.

The first one published in 1982, was Melbourne Cummings’ “The Rhetoric of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner.”  Cummings offers a rhetorical biography of Turner that covers the major events in his life that gave rise to his fiery rhetoric. Cummings traced the life of Turner from his childhood “working in the cotton fields alongside slaves” to his failed emigration movement. While she notes Turner’s use of religious rhetoric and makes a connection to contemporary Black Nationalist rhetoric, her primary focus is on Turner’s call for emigration to Africa.

Cummings’ essay differs from her earlier treatment of Turner’s rhetoric in her dissertation entitled “The Rhetoric of Bishop HenryMcNeal Turner, Leading Advocate in the African Emigration Movement,1866-1907.” Focused on Turner’s calls for emigration, Cummings grounds her analysis in Leland Griffin’s social movement model. In addition to Griffin’s model, she also uses Arthur Smith’s (Molefi Asante) agitational strategies of vilification, objectification, mythication, and legitimation to examine Turner’s style. 

The other treatment of Turner’s rhetoric comes from an essay by Richard Leeman, “Speaking as Jeremiah: Henry McNeal Turner’s “IClaim the Rights of a Man” in 2006. It has the distinction of being the only scholarly treatment of a speech delivered by Turner. In the essay, Leeman offers a rhetorical analysis of Turner’s “On the Eligibility of Colored Members to Seats in the Georgia Legislature” (also known as “I Claim the Rights of a Man”) speech, calling it an example of the jeremiad.

Andre E. Johnson is the Dr. James L. Netters Professor of Rhetoric and Religion and African American Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary








[1] See “Bishop H. M. Turner’s Twenty-Fifth Anniversary”. A.M.E. Church Review 22 (July 1905), 1-11, Simmons, William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising. Geo. M. Rewell and Co. Cleveland, 1887, Singleton, R.H. “Bishop Turner, His Birth, Rearing, and Education”. AME Church Review 22 (July 1903), 8-1, Ramsom, Reverdy C. “Bishop Henry McNeal Turner” A.M.E. Church Review. 32 (July 1915).

[2] Coulter was a member of the Dunning School; named after William Archibald Dunning a history professor at Columbia University. Teachers associated with this school of thought promoted a view of history that was unabashedly anti-black and viewed Reconstruction in the most negative terms.
               
             [3] Until my collection of Turner texts, The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner: An African American pastor before and During the American Civil war, Vol.1 (2010) and the Chaplain Letters, Vol. 2 (2012). Mellen Press

[4] See Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890-1910 especially chapters 2 and 8 by Edwin Redkey; Unafrican Americans: Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalists and the Civilizing Mission especially chapter 5 by Tunde Adeleke.

[5] See “Double Consciousness” in Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalism: Reflections on the Teachings of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner” by Anthony Pinn; Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘Ligion Down: African American Religion in the South edited by Alonzo Johnson and Paul T. Jersild for Stephen Angell’s “Black Methodist Preachers in the South Carolina Upcountry, 1840-1866”; Returning Home: A Century of African-American Repatriation by Robert Johnson, Jr. especially chapter 12; “Henry McNeal Turner Verses the Tuskegee Machine: Black Leadership in the. Nineteenth Century” by Gregory Mixon; “A Black Minister Befriends the “Unquestioned Father of Civil Rights”: Henry McNeal Turner, Charles Sumner, and the African American Quest for Freedom” by Stephen Ward Angell

[6] See Henry McNeal Turner, Exponent of American “Negritude” by Jane Walker Herndon; The Life of Henry McNeal Turner, 1834 to 1870 by Elbert Martin; Black Nationalism and Theodicy: A Comparison of the Thought of Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, and Henry McNeal Turner by James Arthur Holmes.

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