Book Excerpt

An excerpt from the Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition, by Andre E. Johnson, Lexington Books, 2012


On January 1, 1866, Henry McNeal Turner was the keynote speaker at the Emancipation Day Celebration in Augusta, Georgia. Organizers billed the day as the “First day of Freedom” and celebrated the ending of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery. Many people, both black and white in the audience that day sensed the excitement in the air and were ready to begin the arduous process of building the South through Reconstruction efforts. Turner sensed the mood as well and ended his speech with the charge to blacks in the audience:

Let us love the whites, and let by-gones be by-gones, neither taunt nor insult them for past grievances, respect them; honor them; work for them; but still let us be men. Let us show them we can be a people, respectable, virtuous, honest, and industrious, and soon their prejudice will melt away, and with God for our father, we will all be brothers. (“Celebration,” Jan. 13, 1866)

However, almost thirty years later, Turner’s tone changed. With the end of Reconstruction, the 1875 Civil Rights bill declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and the increase in lynching and the gains of Reconstruction disappearing, Turner was no longer optimistic about the future of the United States and the role African Americans would play. In a speech given at the Congress of Africa in Atlanta in 1895, Turner declared, “There is no manhood future in the United States for the Negro” (“American Negro” 194).

This book is an examination the life and career of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner—a study that examines Turner’s rhetorical trajectory, from 1866-1895—a trajectory that moves from “let by-gones be by-gones” and “we will be brothers” to “there is no manhood future in the United States for the Negro.” It is a story about nineteenth century America and how African Americans found voice and reclaimed agency to speak up and speak out on issues germane to them and their communities. It is also an examination of race and the use of the African American prophetic tradition. It is a story of how Turner’s rhetoric shifted over time but stayed primarily rooted within this religious tradition. It is also a story of how someone who would later become a proponent of African emigration as the panacea for African American woes in America, still found relevance as an orator and leader in America.

As an orator, Henry McNeal Turner was one of the finest in America during the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction periods. One contemporary said of Turner,

As an orator, he is one of the most forcible and eloquent in the United States. His sentences weigh more than the ordinary language of most men. When speaking, he is very impressive, and carries an audience with him as easily as the wind sweeps the chaff before it. He has the power of taking hold of his audience and chaining their attention to the subject under consideration. He has been considered by many, one of the best if not the best orator of his class in the United States. (Simmons 818)

Another contemporary called Turner a “Black Moses” (Haley 35), and Harper’s Weekly noted the success of Turner-led revivals, calling Turner the “Negro Spurgeon” in reference to famed English evangelist Charles Spurgeon (1863). As an evangelist in revivals, observers knew Turner to have mourners “falling around the altar like dead men and women” (Hinton, Oct. 3, 1863). Yet still another observer wrote that no one “spoke more eloquently, more learnedly, more effectively, and enunciated more profoundly the eternal principles of human rights than did Henry McNeal Turner” (Ponton 24).

Early in his public career, he attracted large crowds wherever he went to speak and could command the attention of those crowds when no one else could. Knowing that Turner was in town to speak could get someone to change their plans. A correspondent of the Christian Recorder newspaper wrote that when he learned that Turner was to preach in his city, he put on his Sabbath “fixens” and “wended my way thither to hear and be benefited by the solid and unadulterated word expounded by this eminent divine” (Conover, April 4, 1863). Many regarded him as a true champion of the pulpit and some even maintained that while in Washington, Turner was the most influential African American (Hinton, July 4, 1863).

His contemporaries also knew Turner as a great debater. Turner helped institute the Israel Lyceum while pastor there. In one debate Turner, anticipating his progressive thinking with regard to gender during his lifetime, argued the affirmative position on the question, “has not a lady equally a right to court a gentleman, as a gentleman has to court a lady?” After more than three hours of arguments and counterarguments, the judges declared Turner the winner (Hinton, Aug. 8, 1863). After hearing Turner speak at the Emancipation Day Celebration in Augusta in 1866, Robert Kent wrote about the audience, “Such lofty, eloquent language from a colored man, they had not expected to hear. Even the whites could not conceal their admiration, nor restrain the applause due to him, as the best orator of the day” (Jan. 27, 1866).

Turner’s contemporaries admired him for his ability to speak thoroughly on many different subjects—even within one speech. At a Fourth of July celebration, one writer noted that Turner “delivered an able oration, in which he reviewed the History of America from its discovery by Columbus to the present day and was pronounced by white and colored to be the most masterly oration they ever heard” (Saunders, July 21, 1866).

Turner’s powerful rhetoric led him to preach integrated revivals, command audiences with Senators, congressional leaders, and presidents, and to become a popular correspondent for the Christian Recorder newspaper. His rhetoric helped him become the first African American chaplain in the Armed Forces, an agent for the Freedmen’s Bureau, a State Constitutional delegate, and a State Representative. His oratorical powers had a lot to do with him becoming the Presiding Elder of Georgia for his church and eventually Bishop. Along with these accomplishments, Turner was the first African American Postmaster General (Georgia), and offered bills in the Georgia House of Representatives giving all women the right to vote and creating an eight-hour workday. In addition, he was the publication manager (1876-1880) of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), ordained the first women as elder in the AME church—an ordination that the other bishops rescinded, and led hundreds if not thousands of African Americans to Africa. While Marcus Garvey has the distinction of being the leader of the “Back to Africa” movement, Garvey never traveled to African and only “talked” about going to Africa—Turner actually had some success at persuading people to go.

Moreover, while doing all of this, Turner found time to start three newspapers: Southern Recorder (1887-1889), Voice of Missions (1893-1900) and the Voice of the People (1901-1904), serving as editor of all three. He took four trips to Africa himself and established the AME Church there. He also wrote numerous articles and essays for various newspapers, wrote several introductions to books, preached all over the country, and carried out his Episcopal duties. Turner married four times (all of his wives except the last one preceded him in death), and only two of his children—both from his first marriage—survived until adulthood.
In short, Turner lived a very active life and produced a plethora of documents that still survive today. However, history has not been kind to Turner. After Turner’s death in 1915, his friend and fellow AME minister Mungo Ponton published an uncritical biographical work on Turner in 1917. After Ponton, it would be 1938 before there was another study on Turner. However, during the 1960s and with the rise of Black Studies departments emphasizing the rediscovery of African American figures, Turner enjoyed minimal attention from scholars in history and religion. After the 1980s, there was some renewal of interest in the life and works of Turner, culminating in Stephen Ward Angell’s critical full-length biographical work on Turner, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African American Religion in the South.

However, while there has been some attention paid to Turner in other disciplines, “Turner scholarship” in the field of rhetoric has been anemic. Despite Turner’s massive corpus of speeches, letters, and essays, there have been to date only two dissertations and two published articles that focus on Turner’s rhetoric. The reason for this may be found in Turner’s rhetoric itself. If people remember Turner at all, it is for his unpopular emigration position. Indeed, Turner’s emigration rhetoric took up much of his career. From the time he became a bishop in 1880 until his death, Turner advocated emigration is some form.

Emigration on the scale Turner advocated did not happen and Turner himself did not emigrate. Therefore, many saw Turner’s rhetoric as a failure. Turner was an embarrassment at times within his own church and at other times, especially in his later years, many considered him a laughingstock. Others thought he was just plain “crazy” and many thought Turner’s rhetoric was just the ramblings of some “old kook.” The more Turner advocated emigration as the panacea for African American problems in America, the further he moved away from mainstream thought in the African American community.

As I argue, it would be a mistake to call Turner’s rhetoric a failure. Our perceptions of rhetoric must go under alteration before we can understand and appreciate Turner’s rhetoric. First, much of Turner’s rhetoric was prophetic in nature. Not that Turner predicted impending doom or anything in the future (even though some may argue against this when reading his texts), but Turner, in ancient prophetic tradition, forth told—or spoke truth to power—and called his audiences to live up to the ideals they espoused. In short, through his prophetic pronouncements, announcements, and denouncements, Turner criticized and lambasted not only governmental institutions, but also other African American leaders, his church, and other ministers. No one was exempt from Turner’s prophetic wrath.

Second, if we read Turner’s rhetoric as prophetic, then we need to invoke another standard of judgment towards his rhetoric. Much rhetorical criticism still focuses on effects or a means to an end. In other words, we judge speaker effectiveness by audience response. If the speaker persuades the audience, it is a good speech—if not, then it is a bad one. Reading Turner through the lens of audience response or effects would render him a failure. Not only would his emigration rhetoric be a failure, but also most of the causes that Turner advocated and supported would be failures.

However, as Robert Terrill noted in his study of Malcolm X, there are other standards of judgment that “suggest other conceptions of rhetoric” (6-8). One of those conceptions is to understand that action does not necessarily have to happen after the speech—that the very rhetoric itself is an action. Here, rhetoric transforms the audience into redefining and reshaping their situations and even themselves. It allows the audience to see themselves in a different light and in so doing, the audience can begin to reclaim agency and create spaces to act and, more importantly, to be. Rhetoric that speaks to the consciousness of the audience—even if the audience rejects the political action that the speaker calls for—still allows the audience to act in the way they see fit.

Not unlike many African Americans during the period in which he lived, Turner faced many rhetorical challenges, and much has been written about the philosophical, political, or social thoughts and traditions that many African Americans grounded themselves in as they strove for economic justice and freedom during this and other time periods of discrimination.
Many scholars however, neglect the tradition that arguably is the foundation of other traditions of African American social and political thought—the religious tradition. Cornel West writes of this primarily Christian tradition:

Afro-American thought must take seriously the most influential and enduring intellectual tradition in its experience: evangelical and pietistic Christianity. This tradition began the moment that African slaves, laboring in sweltering heat on plantations owned and ruled primarily by white American Christians, tried to understand their lives and servitude in the light of biblical text, Protestant hymns, and Christian testimonies. . . . This “church,” merely a rubric to designate black Christian communities of many denominations, came into being when slaves decided, often at the risk of life and limb, to “make Jesus their choice” and to share with one another their common sense of purpose and Christian understanding of their circumstances. (Prophesy 15)

Along with its “priestly streams,” this tradition is also the home to a prophetic stream of thought. West argues that the “prophetic stream” of thought provided the essence of African American critical thought. Because “every individual regardless of class, country, caste, race, or sex should have the opportunity to fulfill his or her potentialities” (Prophesy 16), I argue that this tradition provided the impetus and the critical edge for other African American traditions. Therefore, what I attempt to do in this book is to examine Turner’s use of this religious tradition, which manifests itself in Turner’s use of prophetic rhetoric.

I need to be clear here. I am not interested in focusing on whether Turner was a prophet or on what makes a prophet a prophet. What I attempt here is to study Turner’s use of prophetic rhetoric by examining certain speech texts that function as prophetic discourse. This leads me to examine how Turner adopts a prophetic persona in order to produce this oratory along with how Turner shifts his prophetic persona throughout his career to fit the situation in which he finds himself.

I examine these texts by engaging in what rhetoric scholars call textual criticism or close reading. Defined as an interpretive analysis that primarily examines texts in light of the contexts in which they are given, critics using the textual criticism approach are concerned with the rhetorical dynamics of particular discourses. For textual critics, theory arises from an “understanding of the particular;” abstract or theoretical principles are only important within the “texture of an actual discourse” (Leff 378). In short, textual criticism privileges texts and demonstrates how texts functions rhetorically.

McClure argues that, “among the elements involved in textual criticism” (close reading) are “the analysis of the historical and biographical circumstances that generate and form [the text’s] composition, the recognition of the basic conceptions that establish the co-ordinates of the text, and an appreciation of the way these conceptions interact within the text and help determine its temporal movement” (426). He further writes:

Textual criticism (close reading) obligates the critic to commit to analyses that privileged an address as a purposeful discourse that attempts to have a persuasive impact on a specific audience(s) in response to a set of momentary situational concerns with particular attention to the rhetorical properties of the text. In this way, textual criticism (close reading) “retains an audience perspective, but as opposed to neo-Aristotelianism, this perspective does not entail measurement of actual responses.” Instead, the critical process seeks to explain how rhetorical performance invites certain kinds of responses. (426)

Thus, a close textual reading allows for the historical and biographical approach of a rhetorical biography as well as a theoretical approach that emphasizes the text and thereby enables the critic to tease out more nuances of the text. In the case of my work, a close textual reading will allow me to focus on Turner’s prophetic discourse and to show how that discourse operates within a larger context.
One of the criticisms against using the close reading approach is that it slights the context of the speech in favor of a formalist textual reading (Terrill, Symbolic 22). Quoting Leff and Sachs, Terrill writes that

A single-minded concentration on particulars . . . may tend to promote its own kind of formalism—readings that isolate the text and constrain interpretation within the orbit of the text’s own construction. (Symbolic 22)

Critics using the close reading approach have been sensitive to this charge. Moreover, since Leff challenged rhetorical critics to examine the merits of textual criticism (Textual Criticism 1986), many not only have, but by extending the parameters of the enterprise, critics have offered new nuances and approaches to textual criticism, while at the same time addressing previous weaknesses of textual criticism.

Mindful of the potential weaknesses associated with a close reading, I will attempt to present an analysis that examines the text both intrinsically and extrinsically—a reading in and outside the text that will offer a deeper understanding of the times that produced the text as well as the rhetoric used inside the text. Moreover, by using a textual critical approach to analyze Turner’s speech texts, I attempt to highlight and acknowledge Turner’s own rhetorical agency by examining his prophetic persona.

*Click here for footnotes to this excerpt