Letter To His Son
Christian Recorder: March 5, 1880
Twenty-one years ago this morning, at six o’clock, you were born into this troublesome and evanescent world. And in view of the fact that this is your birthday – a day that will be ever memorable among the events of your life, as you will this day assume command of your own person and destiny, and thereby release me from a twenty-one year responsibility – it was my full intention to be present this morning, congratulate you upon your arrival at manhood maturity, give you a father’s advice and benediction, put a little finance in your hand, lead you out of the gate, point you to a cold and deceptive world, and wish you success in the fearful struggles that await you. But the duties of my office compel me to be absent from my home today, and I have made it the rule of my ministerial life to serve the wants of my church in preference of my own. This day ushers you into manhood. It throws upon the world another responsible being, who must end his days as a gentleman or a miserable wreck – as an heir of heaven or a subject of the damned. You must either be a blessing to the world or a curse to mankind, for there is no middle or neutral ground. And remember, no man has a right in this world to enjoy its comforts, blessings and luxuries and leave it as bad as he found it. A man whose aim of life is no higher than the mere gratification of his animal passions, such as eating, drinking, and parading a few cheap clothes, is but little more than a human brute, and must ultimately take his place at the feet of society.
This morning, twenty-one years ago, after learning that a man child was born, likely, in the providence of God, would bear my name to coming ages, I knelt before heaven and invoked its favor upon you and promised to do all in my power to train you for a useful life and a happy death. This promise I have faithfully kept. I have set before you the highest example I was able to impart. I have prayed, preached, advised, warned, threatened, whipped a little (three times), reasoned, read and spent hundreds of dollars upon you in schools and colleges, that I might not send out upon the world an ignoramus or vagabond. How well I have succeeded in the effort will be for others to say in the future. I have the consciousness of knowing, however, that I will meet you at the bar of God free from any charge of willful neglect, for I call heaven and earth to witness against me if I have not tried to do my whole duty.
But today ends my charge and parental responsibility. I can no longer command you; hereafter I can only advise. You are now my equal before the world. I hope you will be my superior in usefulness and good offices. You enter the arena of manhood in a grand age. Everything is bright before you. No slave chains are forged for our race, no proscription gives limit to human rights, the path to distinction, honor and immorality lies open before you. The entire globe is the theater of your intellectual prowess. If you are able to fill it, you have a right to conquer the world and ask God for a larger. Yet to be anything commendable you must be truthful, honest, respectful, charitable, peaceable and obliging to a fault. There are hundreds of people like dogs, if they see a strong dog whipping a weak one, all the other dogs will pitch on the weak. Never let that be an element of your character. Always takes sides with the weak, frail and impotent, especially when in the right. God does it. Follow his example, for the strong and rich do not need your help anyway.
I am glad you abhor liquors and can say you never tasted it. May you never say less. Precious old grandmother taught me to smoke when a boy, by lighting her pipe, which habit I have never conquered; but I have ever held it up before you as an evil, if not a crime. I still warn you against the habit; it will do you no good, but much harm. Let tobacco alone in all its forms, is the advice of one who has used it for years and has examined the deleterious effects upon the human constitution as few have been able and hopes ultimately to rid himself of it.
I hope you will marry before you are twenty-four – twenty five at the farthest. Remember it is a sin before God and a crime upon society to live single. The first thing God did after creating man was to institute matrimony, and under all reasonable circumstances it is honorable; but most terribly dishonorable not to comply with it. Bachelors are public nuisances. Married people live longer, have better health, get rich faster, enjoy life more, are more respected, are held in higher estimation generally and are far more useful to society. But do no go to the cradle to find a wife – marry a lady no less than eighteen years old – seventeen at the utmost; for till then she is not developed, and bids fair to become an invalid upon your hands. Better that she be twenty. Do not defer marriage upon the plea that you are not able to support a wife. The same money that will support a man will take care of a wife, too, unless he lives like a brute, eats only when he can find it lying on the ground. If you feel your inability to sustain some of these dressy misses who have no thought but to primp and flirt, then go into the country and get a girl who has been trained to hard work. She will appreciate the recognition, respect an intelligent man as you pretend to be, and in many instances they will prove to be the purest and best wives anyway.
You were named after two great men – John, after Bishop John M. Brown, who was my Presiding Elder at that time, and Payne, after Bishop Payne, who was my Presiding Elder at the time. They both, too, officiated at your baptism. I hope you will emulate their great lives and try to be equally useful. But to ever be that will require years of persistent study and work. Some ignorant laggards will tell you that too much study is dangerous; that it will throw your mind our of gear, run you crazy, and such other nonsense. I never heard of a colored person going crazy from study since I have been born, nor anyone else, except persons who were born with feeble constitutions or some hereditary disease, and they will go crazy as soon over love or jealousy as the deepest question that ever engaged the human mind. No man possessing a sound body will ever go crazy, unless he impairs it with strong drink or violates the laws of nature in some other way. You have studied physiology and the laws of hygiene, so live by the instructions imparted and fear no danger.
Remember that thoughts make men whatever they are. Great thoughts make great men, little thoughts make little men, mean thoughts make mean men and good thoughts make good men, and if you ever expect to be a great man, you must think greatly, seek the companionship of great minds, and if you cannot find such company in person, you can always find them in books. You can converse with the mightiest men of every age through their writings.
I believe you have a very respectable library now. Should you need more before you are able to purchase them, I have thousands of volumes and will loan you good books with pleasure, provided you take good care of them, and return them, for my books are no longer yours. Today you relinquish all claims upon my property till I die, then if anything is left you are entitled to your share.
I believe you have the reputation of being generally smart, provident and economical. I am glad of it. I hope you will never be a loafer; but should you ever turn out be one, bear in mind you can never loaf around me. Twenty-one years is long enough for me to bother with boys; after that they must pay their way and meet all their own expenses. Hereafter, when you are at my house you will either be there as a boarder or a visitor, and I shall so recognize you….
I am glad that you, like myself, believe that the time has arrived when we of this country should awake to the moral and intellectual wants of Africa. Our people, as a race, are asleep upon that subject. I hope you will agitate that question, in common with others, till the blinded eyes of our people shall be opened to one of the gravest subjects that can possibly arrest our attention. I do not mean emigration there in mass, but putting forth of efforts for the moral and intellectual development of that darkened continent. If you want your name woven into song and history when you are dead, become an African explorer, geologist, mineralogist, or something that will enlighten the world upon her resources, or make you in part her benefactor, and a thousand years from today the name of John P. Turner will be known from pole to pole, and from shore to shore.
Now, to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I commend your soul and body, and may the blessings of the same crown your life with a glorious care, is the prayer of your father.