Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Forgotten Prophet Wins Book Award

The African American Communication and Culture Division (AACCD) of the National Communication Association (NCA) selected Dr. Andre E. Johnson's book The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition for its 2013 Outstanding Book Award. According to the announcement letter, the selection committee felt that Dr. Johnson's work was an "outstanding scholarly contribution to the field of African American discourse" Dr. Johnson will receive the award at the Association's convention in Washington, DC later this month. 

Dr. Johnson currently serves as the Dr. James L. Netters Associate Professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary and editor of the Rhetoric Race and Religion blog

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Social Revolution, Writ Small: Wartime Emancipation, a Mother, and a Mistress in Smithfield, North Carolina

The American Civil War was the start of a social revolution. The Union government policy of emancipating African Americans and enlisting them in the military led to a wartime transformation in the relations between white and black, master and slave, and the powerful and the powerless. In ways large and small, subtle and dramatic, encounters between black and white Union soldiers and black and white southerners led to a new navigation through the rushing and uncharted waters of social change.
Consider this reporting, dated May 15, 1865, from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner.Turner, a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, was part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry that was recruited and mustered from the District of Columbia. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his correspondence to the Recorder, Turner spoke of an incident involving a black woman and her mistress:
Read the rest here

Monday, May 6, 2013

Turner Accepts Position as Publishing Manager of AME Church

Turner's open letter after being selected the Publishing Manager of the AME Church
Forthcoming in the Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner, Vol 3

The New Manager’s Inaugural
Christian Recorder June 29, 1876

Dear Brethren---As directed by the suffrages of our late General Conferences, held in Atlanta, Ga. commencing May 1st 1876, I have been called to take charge of the Publishing Department of said church.  In pursuance of said call, I have this day taken charge of said Department and of all the appurtenances belonging thereto I have had the honor of filling many responsible positions in my life, ecclesiastical, military, legislative, political, and representative, and I am frank to admit that in one instance have I entered upon the duties of any so hesitatingly and tremblingly as I have upon this. Heavy debts frown me in the face and hurl defiance at me as my feet touches the threshold of our Publishing House. An exhausted treasury and empty coffers whisper, no notes of relief, nor span the dark horizon with any spectral bow of hope.  Humanly speaking is gloomy and prognosticative of fearful sequences. But our help is in the Lord Jesus Christ, who has promised to be with us till the world shall end. Through him we can do all things and conquer all appellation. Nevertheless, with over seven thousand preachers and over three hundred thousand members…..all expectantly awaiting the result of our action, and in a new field of operation too far removed from the sphere of accustomed labors, and familiar faces, with no money, when money is an indispensable prerequisite to the end sought, is enough to damper, if not to paralyze the energies of any not absolutely insane.  I have hitherto been rather boastful in saying that under God, I have never failed in anything I put my hands to that my official career had been one of perpetual successes &c. But incoming to our Publishing Department I feel my inadequacy to the onerous task, especially so when I remember the great and good men who have been wrecked upon this reef.  I am not here, however, to seek my own aggrandizement: I am here at the behest of the greatest (colored) church on the face of the earth.  As the servant of that church it will be my business to study and work for bar interest; and to give her a living literature.  Can I do it? No, not I but by the help of God and the Church, it can be done. With over three hundred thousand professed Christians and a million and a half of persons attend every Sabbath upon our ministry we ought to have one of the finest and greatest Publishing Houses in the country. To accomplish this end, I shall pray labor, beg and quarrel if necessary.  I have taken a solemn oath and kissed the Bible that I will deal honestly with your money. This oath I intend to keep by God’s help.  I shall be as economical as I can, yet, I shall not keep men in my employ and starve them to death, I have always thought it was a sin, and think so still.
            That I may succeed in giving you an establishment of no mean character, meet our present liabilities and enhance the literary status of our church, I now bow upon my knees, and with both hands stretched out before the ministers and members of our great connection, I pray and beseech  you, Help! Help! If our ministries will help me with the prayers, with their sympathies, with their patronage, with their sermons in stirring the people up to a sense of supporting their own literature and their own Publishing Department, we will soon have a literary emporium commensurate with our wants and reputation. If I can get a start, I propose to supply our ministers and members not only with the CHRISTIAN RECORDER,  Hymn books and Disciplines, &c., but I shall expect them to look to me for all their theological, scientific, philosophical, historical and classical, and every and all kinds of appropriate literature known to the nineteenth century. And I shall protest most stubbornly against our members applying elsewhere till I have exhausted my efforts to supply their wants; for I believe it is my business, and every member is morally bound to give me the first trial. I shall not recommence any work without some merit and I claim after having handled books for thirty years to be able to recommend them in some small degree to our young preachers.  I offer my experience free for your patronage.
            It is with shame and confusion of faces that I am driven to the necessity of making a solemn if not disgraceful fact public, a fraction less than four thousand copies of the Christian Recorder, the great organ  of our church is published weekly, and not half of them are paid for, and less than five hundred are laden by our ministers, while we boast of over seven thousand preachers.  The thing seems impossible. I can hardly realize it, and I am sure the progressive men our church will tremble when they read it.
            We ought to issue weekly fifty thousand copies of the RECORDER, with all the illiteracy of our paper, and then feel abashed. But it seems that we bare over six thousand preachers, itinerant and local, who never read or see their own church organ.  And as long as the people have such teachers, we will have such a disgraceful state of things. Here is a question for some of those brethren to answer--- which they can do at their leisure, it is, do you believe in your heart that any of you  ought to be allowed to preach who does not take and read the organ of his own Church? Take your time and answer this momentous question. We can all see now, why my distinguished predecessor had to use two thousand and six hundred dollars of his own money to keep the organ of our church alive. Now, I beg to inform you I have no money to use, if I would I could not. This is equal to telling you, the RECORDER must live upon its own merits or die a solemn death.
            But brethren, I am the wrong man to put in this office; if you are going to continue this state of affairs, I shall expect ministers of our churches North, South, East, and West not only to take our church organ; but notes agents; get subscribers, paying advertisements, &c.  And if you do not, pardon me if I tell you about it. I shall publish every six months, (if I can publish at all), the number of ministers and members in each Conference who take our paper, and the name of all the preachers, iterant and local who do not; the number of subscribers each minister sends, &c. Our last General Conference did the noblest act in the history of the church, when it passed a law that any minister who refuses or neglects to make his church paper should not receive an appointment from the hands of the Bishop; and I understand the Bishops are going to strictly enforce this law.  What a commentary upon our intelligence, and intellectual status, “Tell it not in Gath.” Severe as this may appear to the casual observer, thousands will bless God the day its provisions are executed and the cause of Christianity will receive a progressive impulse in the right direction. Answer the latter, and I will answer the former.
            I shall utilize every honorable means at my command to secure access; white or colored, men or women, saint or sinner will be practicalized in the enhancement of this laudable enterprise if they can render honorable service to the cause, and become agents for good.
            I shall prename every one with whom I deal or correspond, honest and in every respect reliable.  But whenever you write for books &c. and any in your letter, send them C.O.D., and then refuse to take them out, and return them to me, and throw the expenses both ways upon me as parties have done to Chaplain Hunter repeatedly, you will not think hard of me I trust, if I should spit a little fire at you.
            There is neither hope for our Church or race beyond the ratio we encourage (if we do not) build up a literature of our own.  For this I shall work with all my might, and especially invoke the young men and the progressive men of our church, and the friends of Negro elevation, to come to our aid.  I invite the colored ministers of other denominations who have no literature of their own to join in and help us, and I feel free to pledge them a full recognition.  The colored people are on trial in this nation, and neither fine speeches nor florid diction will ever settle their stains. Results accomplished results alone will do it.
            A race that cannot produce its own literature amounts to a cypher.  Consumption is better than nothing I confess, but it is very little.  I was proud to hear a very eminent colored lawyer say, when on my way to this city “As soon as you start your Quarterly Review, I shall take pleasure in helping you all I can, for a well written and well-edited magazine by our people, would reflect more credit upon our race than anything they have ever attempted.” Would that all could see it in that light for we may sit and read white men’s books and paper till doom’s day, and still be ignored, if not despised.  Weakness and ignorance ever carry the badge of contempt, and will always be inseparable correlatives, despite the varnish of rhetoric. Success is popularity, defeat is disgrace in our age and generation and it is useless to try to patch up a subterfuge must be paid before anything leaves the office; and you would do well to put ten cents in your letter, and the surplus, if any, will be returned.
            Now in conclusion, if you desire my success, the success of your own institution, your own name and honor, rally to my support, and as my soul liveth I will do you good and honest work; but if you do not, (for I again repeat there is no money here) woe be to your Publishing Department.
Yours for success,
H.M.Turner, Manager

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Turner on Preaching: Preaching Bishop Brown's Sermon

*Forthcoming: The Literary Archive of Henry Mcneal Turner, Vol. 3

          A few Thursday nights since, I notified my congregation that we would have a sermon from Bishop Brown on Sabbath morning at 11 o’clock. Accordingly, a rumor went forth that Bishop Brown was coming to the city &c. but to crown that matter, rumor had it, that he arrived Saturday evening at 6 o’clock, by way of the Central Rail Road, that he was seen getting off the cars, and that he went to the residence of the writer, and would surely preach Sabbath morning. The specified time arrived, but it was raining, and the streets were very disagreeable. Nevertheless, a great house of eager expectants were out, and every eye sought the person of the distinguished Bishop. The writer finally took the stand and gave out a hymn, and a powerful prayer was offered by a brother; and other hymn was sung, and the Bishop not despaired of, was still anxiously looked for, till lo, and behold, the writer broke the spell, and contradicted the false rumor, by arising and reading a masterly sermon that the Bishop preached before the last session of the Louisiana Conference. When they were informed that the Bishop would preach through me acting as his proxy, it did not seem to set well on their moral and intellectual stomachs, consequently some sucked their teeth, others looked out the windows, and others tried to go to sleep.
            But as soon as we could dispose of the Bishop’s Greek and Latin quotations, and glide through his very nice and logical exordium, and struck the grand artery of his discourse, a change was soon visible. About midway of the sermon, we fancied we were the actual Bishop Brown, and such a set of gesticulations we put on for the Bishop, has not been executed since the dawn of the nineteenth century. Had he heard our gestures and the inimitable emphasis we were giving him, he might have declined the idea of ever allowing another sermon to go to the press, or brought a charge against us for caricaturing his reverence. But at all events we strode through, without omitting a single sentence or word; and before we finished, the Amens and other approving utterances that came up from the congregations, were absolutely remarkable.  The sequel was, all were well pleased and edified, and we were complimented by being asked if we didn’t think our pulpit would be more attractive if that course was followed every Sabbath.
            The Louisiana Conference has done honor to itself and the literature of the entire church, by publishing a small volume of sermons, and we are at a loss for language to express our high appreciation for their leading off in this matter. The time has certainly arrived, when we should begin to make a living literature for our great connexion. Our young preachers as well as our growing youths demand it at our hands. Our rank and reputation through the civilized world also require it. This is the first volume that has come under our notice, and for literary chasteness and deep piety combined, these sermons will not be excelled in a long time. I know it is customary to crouch before power, and pay empty compliments to distinguished rank; but when we say that the sermons of this volume are an able and masterly production, we utter our most unequivocal convictions, to which all will agree who have read it. This is followed by sermons from Rev. James H. Harper, Rev. J.R.V. Thomas, Rev. James A. Handy, and Rev. M. R. Johnson A. M., all of which do credit to their distinguished authors, and make a rare contribution to the religious, moral and intellectual literature of our church. We have before us also, a sermon of great eloquence and logical force, delivered before the New Jersey Conference at its last session, by the Rev. Dr. John Stephenson. The Dr. seems to have out done himself, for the sermon would do honor to the Arch Bishop of Canterbury. Still another rare production from Rev. W.J. Gaines of the Georgia Conference, which will hand his name to posterity. Now I am not referring to these brethren and their sermons in any spirit of sycophancy, nor to seek their smiles and favorable considerations. We have no favors to seek at their hands, but the underlying privilege, the act per se is so praiseworthy and commendable, that some public recognition should go out, as a stimulus to the coming ministry of our church.
            For several years we have been thinking of sending out a circular, asking the leading ministers of our church, to give us a well-prepared sermon, so that we could get fifty or seventy five, and publish them in one volume, to be known as, The Pulpit of the A.M.E. Church. But our financial embarrassments have been so grievous, that we saw no hope of getting them through the press, if we succeeded in collecting the sermons and thus the request was deferred from time to time, till the Louisiana conference broke the monotony on a small scale. Such a work we believe would find rapid sale; for if there is one thing that our southern ministers want, it is a church literature peculiarly our own, and there is no doubt about our ability to give them a book of sermons if we had the will, for whatever we may be deficient in, there is one thing sure, the ministers of the A.M.E. Church can preach. The ambition to be a big preacher permeates the whole connection. True, a large number believe that pulpit power and success consist in getting up shouts and vociferous responses, and some will say anything to ring it out of the people, yet it is an ambition and stripped of its whimsicalness is a laudable ambition. Such preaching I confess will seldom hear the test of scrutiny, but the great bulk of our people care nothing for chasteness any way , and it answers as an inventive to the ignorant, and frequently edifies those who higher culture. -October 21, 1875

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Henry McNeal Turner and the Rhetorical Meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation

by Andre E. Johnson
R3 Editor  

As we celebrate the 150th year of the Emancipation Proclamation, historian Kidada Williams reminds us that as we celebrate the sesquicentennial anniversary of the document, we should examine what the Emancipation did and did not do. Williams writes that:

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a military strategy for winning the war against  the Confederate rebellion. By 1862, the war had been going on for longer than either the Union or the Confederacy expected. A number of Unionists concluded that taking away the Confederacy’s most valuable resource, their slaves, was the best way to cripple their ability to continue the fight. Some officials also wanted to arm enslaved black men and believed that the best way to obtain their loyalty to the Union was to free them and their families. As the chaos of war continued, the Lincoln administration searched for military solutions. 

Further, she notes that despite the belief of many, the Emancipation “did not free all enslaved people.”

The proclamation did free enslaved people in states and parts of the states that were still in rebellion against the United States by January 1, 1863. That left more than 800,000 people legally enslaved. Instead of being a panacea that destroyed slavery, the proclamation’s effect was quite limited. Confederates dismissed the proclamation, believing they could win the war and create their own slaveholding republic.

Drawing from James McPherson, Williams acknowledges the ineffectiveness of the proclamation because the Union could not enforce it in areas they did not control. 

The armies would not control the Confederacy until the war ends fifteen months later. In the end, the proclamation freed only some enslaved people, which is why Lincoln pushed Congress to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. 

Williams closes her essay by offering a place for the Emancipation within the collective consciousness of the nation.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation was a military document that had significant limitations, its political implications cannot be overstated. It marked the legal beginning of Americans’ effort to redeem the nation for what many people call the “original sin of slavery” and authorized the enlistment of black men to military service. The Emancipation Proclamation stands as a symbol of American freedom and deserves its place in the nation’s memory, right alongside the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Thirteenth Amendment. 

While in her essay, she touched on the mixed reactions to the Emancipation, for black people during the time and despite its limitations, the Emancipation already had a place alongside the other important national documents, (ie. the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, etc). African Americans saw the Emancipation as a liberative document—one ordained by God, and one that continued America’s freedom and liberty experiment that was finally to include African Americans. While the document was a military order and the document did not free all enslaved people, we should not underestimate the rhetorical meaning of the Emancipation and how African Americans adopted uses of its meanings. It allowed many of them to begin imagining a new America where all its people could enjoy the freedoms that many proclaimed. One such figure that the Emancipation inspired was Henry McNeal Turner.

Turner did not start as a supporter of Lincoln’s earlier efforts at Emancipation. He vigorously attacked Lincoln’s “Message to Congress Recommending Compensated Emancipation,” in March 1862, in which Lincoln offered cooperation with any state, which adopted gradual abolishment of slavery and promoted a “giving to such State pecuniary aid, to be used by such State, in its discretion, to compensate for the inconveniences, public and private, produced by such change of system.” Turner wrote:

A great many here have been blinded and made to believe that it portends hope for a brighter day; but I look at it as one of the most ingenious subterfuges, to pacify the humane and philanthropic hearts of the country, that was ever produced (20). 

After Lincoln announced the Emancipation, Turner’s views changed. While there were some African Americans who questioned the motives of Lincoln regarding the Emancipation, Turner did not. Turner wrote a response to the Emancipation where he defended Lincoln. He wrote, “Mr. Lincoln embodied his conscientious promptings when he wrote that proclamation.” While he acknowledged the political situation that possibility led Lincoln to write the Proclamation, he saw Lincoln’s early apathy at Emancipation as an “unnecessary caution, and a useless prudence," but not as others saw as a "love of slavery.” He closed by exhorting people to thank God for it (Proclamation)" because "Mr. Lincoln loves freedom as well as anyone on earth, and if he carries out the spirit of the proclamation he need never fear hell. God grant him a high seat in glory (111-112).

To understand the importance however, of the Emancipation to African Americans who witnessed and lived through it, one only have to examine Turner’s appreciation of it later in his life. In 1913, African Americans celebrated the fiftieth year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. In response to the celebration, the AME church asked then Bishop Henry McNeal Turner to write a reflection on the meaning of the Emancipation. However, the selection of Turner was not without problems. At this time, Turner shifted from one filled with optimism after the signing of the Emancipation to one that believed America did not hold any promises for African Americans. Turner found himself out of the mainstream of both American and African American political and social thought. 

While this seemed to be another opportunity for Turner to rain down bitter anathemas and criticize the country for not living up to the ideals and principals after the Emancipation, Turner offered an eloquent, moving reflection of the time. Published in the January 1913 edition of the AME Journal, Turner’s “Reminiscences of the Proclamation of Emancipation,” reminded many not only of his legacy and his importance to the AME Church, but also it introduced Turner to a new audience—one that only knew him as a pessimistic prophet. 

About the issuing of the Emancipation, Turner wrote, "The newspapers of the country were prolific and unsparing in the laudations of Mr. Lincoln. Every orator after reviewing in their richest eloquence concluded their speeches and orations by saying, “God save Abraham Lincoln,” or “God bless our President.” 

“In the great Union Cooper Hall in New York City,” Turner continued, “a colored man leaped and jumped with so much agility when the proclamation was read that he drew attention of every man and woman till Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation was scarcely listened to. New songs were sung and new poems composed…. On the first day of January 1863, odd and unique condition attended every mass meeting and the papers of the following day were not able to give them in anything like detail.” 

Turner also shared how he went by getting a copy of the emancipation. In a humorous story, Turner wrote:

I hurriedly went up to the office of the first paper in which the proclamation of freedom could be printed, known as the "Evening Star,"and squeezed myself through the dense crowd that was waiting for the paper. The first sheet run off with the proclamation in it was grabbed for by three of us, but some active young man got possession of it and fled. The next sheet was grabbed for by several, and was torn into tatters. The third sheet from the press was grabbed for by several, but I succeeded in procuring so much of it as contained the proclamation, and off I went for life and death. Down Pennsylvania Ave. I ran as for my life, and when the people saw me coming with the paper in my hand they raised a shouting cheer that was almost deafening. As many as could get around me lifted me to a great platform, and I started to read the proclamation. I had run the best end of a mile, I was out of breath, and could not read. Mr. Hinton, to whom I handed the paper, read it with great force and clearness. 

When the people heard the proclamation read aloud Turner wrote, 

Every kind of demonstration and gesticulation was going on. Men squealed, women fainted, dogs barked, white and colored people shook hands, songs were sung . . . every face had a smile, and even the dumb animals seemed to realize that some extraordinary event had taken place. . . . Rumor said that in several instances the very thought of being set at liberty and having no more auction blocks, no more separation of parents and children, no more horrors of slavery, was so elative and heart gladdening that scores of colored people literally fell dead with joy. 

Turner closed his essay with these words: 

It was indeed a time of times, and a half time, nothing like it will ever be seen again in this life. Our entrance into Heaven itself will only form a counterpart. January 1st, 1913, will be fifty years since Mr. Lincoln's proclamation stirred the world and avalanched America with joy, and the first day of next January, 1913, our race should fill every Church, every hall, and every preacher regardless of denomination should deliver a speech on the results of the proclamation. 

Hyperbole aside, Turner’s “Reminiscence of the Emancipation” spoke to what he truly longed for in America, for African Americans—a chance to be free and to be part of the American fabric. Despite his bitterness toward the country during this time, Turner could still reflect back on a time that America could have headed into another direction with the Emancipation leading the way.

Works Cited

Johnson, Andre E. (ed). An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner, Vol. 1. Edwin Mellen Press, New York, 2010.