*Synopsis: In 1871, Turner resigned from his post as Elder and Superintendent of Missions from the State of Georgia. Turner wanted to pursue his efforts on growing the A.M.E. Church in the South. His primary goal was to increase membership and plant/build churches. Turner stepped down to pastor a church in Savannah, Georgia. In this speech, Turner testifies before an A.M.E. congregation on his demanding workload and how the strenuous workload began to affect him physically. For Turner, it was an arduous task, made even harder by the racial discrimination and violence of white confederates inflicted upon black people after 1865. It exposed him to unreasonable demands of his time and overexerted his energy.

Retirement from the Presiding Eldership and Superintendent of Missions from the State of Georgia

From the Quarto-Centennial of Bishop Henry M. Turner, Philadelphia, 1905, pp. 113-18 printed in the Life and Times of Henry M. Turner, by M.M. Ponton

A.B. Caldwell Publishing, Atlanta, Georgia, 1917 

Dear Brethren: I have the honor to ask that I no longer be retained in the arduous duties of Presiding Elder. I am aware that since I have signified a desire to retire from the responsible duties the office involves, grave objections have been made by the brethren to my taking such a step. I hope, however, that these objections will be reconsidered and that I may be allowed to assume a relation to our Conference less arduous and responsible.

Nine years ago, when our country was in the whirl of revolution and battle strife, and the immortal principles of freedom were in doubtful suspense, I left the pulpit and went to the scene of carnage to throw the weight of my influence and physical power on the side of God and a free country. In this capacity I served both my church and my government to the best of my ability, with what success I will leave to other tongues to tell. I will say, however, I endeavored at all times to discharge my whole duty.

At the end of the rebellion it was thought by the Chief Executive of the nation, that my service were further needed in the South, in assisting to elevate my recently delivered race; and being mustered out of service, as a United States Chaplain, with my brave and gallant regiment, I was again reappointed a Chaplain in the regular army, and sent by Secretary Stanton to Georgia, to labor in the Freedman’s Bureau.[1] Here I landed in the fall of 1865; but shortly after my arrival, I resigned this lucrative position, in consequence of some disrespect shown me on account of my color, on the one hand, and the better to serve my church on the other.

I immediately entered upon the general organization of the A. M. E. Church in this State. At that time we had only one Church and congregation in Georgia, which was under the pastoral charge of Rev. A.L. Standford, St. Philip’s Savannah, Ga. And this is the congregation to which I have reference. Brother Standford was necessarily confined to this special locality; in view of the discordant elements which had to be watched with a vigilant eye-thus leaving almost the entire Empire State of the South[2] to my care and supervision. But the field was ripe for the harvest, though it was large and cumbersome, and without a dollar to start with, I shouldered the responsibilities and trusting in God for help, went willingly to work.

To recount my labors would necessitate the writing of a volume, which I may do at some future day; but for the present it must suffice to say that I have had to pass through blood and fire. No man can imagine what I have had to endure but one who has through it. And no man could have passed through it unless he had, as I have, an iron constitution. I started out with the determination of raising up the grandest Negro Conference in America, but I think we have the largest in the world—certainly America cannot boast of an equal, for we have 189 appointments and 226 members. And as for Church Government, we have no superiors for our time and chance. I made it a rule to teach and instill the highest system of Church Government known to our Connection, from the commencement of our organization in the state. This rigid training, as many of you here well remember, caused me often to keep you up all night, till day would drive us out of Church next morning; you know it was nothing unusual for me to have you studying, praying and sighing for whole nights in Quarterly Conferences, trying to teach both preachers and their officiary, what the law of our Church required, even to the minutest point. And you need not be reminded of my pulpit labors, you certainly have not forgotten how I had to preach three times every Sabbath and every night in the week, for month after month, and then come out of the pulpit and explain the history, character, purpose and object of our Church, for hours to satisfy the colored and whites, who would often look at me as if I was a bear or a lion—sometimes just commencing the organization of the Church about twelve or one at night. But why attempt to enter upon a detailed review, why, in one year alone I traveled over 15,000 miles in this state, organizing and planting churches and superintending the work together, and preached and spoke over 500 times. I have also been accused of recklessly licensing preachers by the cargo, etc., because I had to license such a number. I admit that I did on several occasions exercise rather extraordinary powers in this respect, but in no instance where the emergency of the case would not justify such action. I was for a long time Elder, Superintendent and everything else and sometimes had to make preachers of raw material at a moment’s notice. I have licensed preachers while riding on the cars, but I always put you through an examination; [I] sometimes would examine you for three or four hours. And while it is not only gratifying to me to know that some of these arbitrarily licensed preachers are not among our most useful and intelligent Presiding Elders; but what is more gratifying is that not one of them has been expelled or silenced for any crime whatever. Indeed, my hastily made preachers have been among the most useful. [3]

And my labors have not stopped in the religious sphere, but it is well known to everyone that I have done more work in the political field than any five men in the state, if you will take out Col. Bryant. I first organized the Republican Party in this State, and have worked for its maintenance and perpetuity as no other man in the State has. I have put more men in the field, made more speeches, organized more Union Leagues, Political Associations, Clubs, and have written more campaign documents that received larger circulation than any other man in the state. Why, one campaign document I wrote alone was so acceptable that it took 4,000,000 copies to satisfy the public. And as you are well aware, these labors have not been performed amid sunshine and prosperity. I have been the constant target of Democratic abuse and venom, and white Republican jealousy.[4] The newspapers have teemed with all kinds of slander, accusing me of every crime in the catalogue of villainy. I have even been arrested and tried on some of the wildest charges, and most groundless accusations ever distilled from the laboratory of hell.[5] Witnesses have been paid as high as four thousand dollars to swear me in the penitentiary; white preachers have sworn that I tried to get up insurrection, etc., a crime punishable with death, and all such deviltry has been resorted to for the purpose of breaking me down—and with it all they have not hurt a hair of my head, nor even bothered my brain longer than we were going through the farce of an adjudication. I neither replied to their slanders nor sought revenge when it hung upon my option; nor did I even bandy words with the most inveterate and calumnious enemies I had; I invariably let them say their say, and do their do; while they were studying against me I was studying for the interest of the Church, and working for the success of my party, and they would expose their own treachery and lies and leave me to attend to my business as usual. So that up to this time my trials have been a succession of triumphs. I have enemies, as is natural, but at this time their tongues are silent, and their missiles are as chaff, while my friends can be counted by hundreds of thousands. And, I can boast of being one of the fathers of the Mammoth Conference—an honor I would not exchange for a royal diadem. Thus, having reached the goal of my ambition, I only ask not to be retired from the weighty duties of the past, and given the more humble and more circumscribed sphere of preacher in charge. I am perfectly willing, if the Bishop will consent, to let some of my sons in the Gospel be my Presiding Elder, and I trust I shall be able to honor them as highly as they have honored me, for I can say I have yet to be resisted or questioned by a single preacher. And while I shall try to rest more regularly and comfortably in my retired relation, and enjoy life more pleasantly than I have in the last nine years, I shall nevertheless endeavor to be equally as useful to the Church in the literary department; for I purpose to give my future days to the literary work of our grand and growing Connection. Since I have been trying to preach the Gospel I have had the inestimable pleasure of receiving into the Church on probation, fourteen thousand three hundred and eighteen persons which I can account for, besides some three or four thousand, I cannot give any definite account of. And I would guess, for I am not certain that I have received during and since the war, about sixteen or seventeen thousand full members in the A.M.E. Church by change of Church relation—making in all nearly forty thousand souls that I have in some manner been instrumental in bringing to religious liberty. And yet I am not quite thirty-nine years old. Hundreds of these persons have in all probability fainted by the way, and gone back to the world; but I am, on the other hand, happy to inform you that hundreds have since died in triumph and gone to heaven, while thousands are today pressing their way to a better land, scores among whom are preaching the Gospel. I make no reference to these statistics to have you suppose that I am better than other men, who have not been thus successful, for I am only a poor, worthless creature, and may yet be a castaway. I only mention these facts to express my profound gratitude to God, for His abundant favors which have been bestowed upon one so undeserving. If Bishop Payne and Wayman were here, I would take great pleasure in laying my gratitude at their feet for the support they gave me in the early establishment of this conference; but, as they are not, I trust Bishop Brown will allow me to tender him my heartfelt thanks for the continued manifestations of respect shown me under his administration, he who so ably presided over our Conference for the last four years, and done so much to advance and elevate the members of this Conference.

I would say also to the brethren of the Conference: You are now Deacons, Elders, Presiding Elders, and many of you are pulpit orators, as now you must bear your own responsibilities, and look, in addition to your Bible, Discipline, and Bishop, to our Father who art in Heaven, for direction and counsel; you are welcome to the benefits of my experience at any time you may wish them; but I trust it will not be in my province to exercise any further control over a single member of the Conference. With these remarks, Bishop and Conference, I again pray to be relieved of my heavy, taxing responsibilities. May the God of grace keep you, is my prayed.

The Quarto-Centennial of Bishop Henry

M. Turner, Philadelphia, 1905, pp. 113-18

[1] During the American Civil War Turner was appointed a Chaplain to one of the first Federal regiments of black troops (Company B of the First United States Colored Troops). Turner was the first of only 14 black Chaplains to be appointed during the Civil War. This appointment came directly from President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. He was also appointed by President Andrew Johnson to work with the Freedman's Bureau in Georgia during Reconstruction.

[2] “The Empire State of the South” is one of the nicknames for the state of Georgia. It had this nickname since before 1800, in reference to Georgia’s industrialization, wealth, and variety of resources following the Civil War.

[3] Stephen Ward Angell notes in his book, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South (pgs. 72-80) that due to the shortage of available black pastors, Turner made one of the most controversial decisions of his career by changing the system of admitting pastors on trial backed by many A.M.E. pastors in Georgia. The rule change allowed him to license his preachers (emergency ordinations) just about anywhere: street corners and on railroad trains. The prerequisites for admission to the itinerancy were also waved. Turner did not require the preachers he licensed in 1866 and 1867 to be literate or have a thorough acquaintance with the Bible.

[4]As head of the AME’s new mission in Georgia, Turner proved himself a tireless organizer, dispatching AME ministers to the remotest corners of the state, taking on the burdens of administration, and defending the AME and himself from the hostility of whites resentful of this new source of black independence. In the tense atmosphere of the postwar South, Turner’s aggressive manner earned him the hatred of many whites, but under his direction the AME flourished as never before. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/us-history-biographies/henry-mcneal-turner.

[5] Turner endured many politically charged scandals. The Georgian Democratic Party did everything in their power to discredit his leadership and character. He was accused and charged with fraud-carrying counterfeit money (MACON SCANDAL). Eventually, the charges were thrown out in federal court, but even more damaging were the accusations of extramarital affairs. The scandal destroyed his friendship with Bishop David Payne and damaged his reputation, particularly among women in the A.M.E. Church, who formed the bedrock of the organization. https://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/henry_mcneal_turner.html.


Turner, Henry McNeal. Retirement from the Presiding Eldership and Superintendent of Missions from the State of Georgia. The Henry McNeal Turner Project. (1872, January 5). http://www.thehenrymcnealturnerproject.org/2019/03/retirement-from-presiding-eldership-and.html

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