Turner was born a “free black” in New Berry Courthouse, South Carolina on February 1, 1834. His father died when he was quite young. His mother Sarah, and maternal grandmother Hannah Greer raised him, and even though he was born a free person, he nonetheless experienced the harsh realities of prejudice and racism. He worked alongside enslaved Africans from sun-up to sundown for meager earnings in South Carolina cotton fields. In winter months, he labored in a blacksmith shop, watched over by harsh, white overseers. This early exposure to the “real world” made him physically strong, and painfully aware of society’s inhumane treatment of black people.
Like many great figures in the Old Testament of the Bible, dreams played an important role in Turner’s life. When Turner was “eight or nine years old,” he had a dream that was both prophetic and propelling. In the dream, he was in front of a large crowd of both blacks and whites, who were looking to him for instruction. He interpreted the dream as God “marking him” for great things. This became a “guiding star” in Turner’s life—a point that he would always reflect on when times got tough.
It also gave him a passion for education. This was no easy task, however, as state laws forbade blacks to attend school or learn to read and write. After managing to obtain a spelling book, Turner attempted to learn how to read and write with the help of people in his community. However, each time he would begin to study, others would find out and have the teaching stopped. Turner, therefore, decided to teach himself, through the help of a divine “dream angel” that Turner believed appeared to him in his dreams to help him learn. Reflecting on this time, he shared with author William Simmons on his dream angel escapade:
I would study with all the intensity of my soul until overcome by sleep at night; then I would kneel down and pray, and ask the Lord to teach me what I was not able to understand myself, and as soon as I would fall asleep an angelic personage would appear with open book in hand and teach me how to pronounce every word that I failed in pronouncing while awake, and on each subsequent day the lessons given me in my dreams would be better understood than any other portions of the lessons. This angelic teacher, or dream teacher, at all events, carried me through the old Websters spelling book and thus enabled me to read the Bible and hymnbook.From this, Turner not only taught himself how to read and write, but by the time he was fifteen he had read the entire Bible five times and memorized lengthy passages of scripture, which helped him develop a very strong memory.
After his mother married Jabez Story, the family moved to Abbeville, South Carolina, where Turner found employment as a janitor in a law office. The lawyers were impressed with his “astonishing memory, honed by memorizing passages of scripture.” They took notice of his “quick mind” and his “eagerness to learn,” and furthered Turner’s education by teaching him “arithmetic, astronomy, geography, history, law and even theology,” which he greatly appreciated. Reflecting on this, he saw it as the answer to his prayers.
In 1848, Turner attended revival services with his mother and joined the Southern Methodist Church. However, his conversion actually came three years later in 1851, under the preaching of plantation missionary Samuel Leard. Soon after his conversion, Turner accepted the call to preach.
The Southern Methodist Episcopal Church licensed Turner to preach at the age of nineteen. Three years later, at the age of 22, Turner married 19-year-old Eliza Ann Peacher of Columbia, South Carolina. Peacher’s father was a carpenter and believed to be the “wealthiest colored man in Columbia” at the time of their marriage. Henry and Eliza would have several children, but only two, John and David, reached adulthood.
Eliza provided much-needed support during this time in Turner’s career. While, as Angell notes, information about Turner’s career during these years is incomplete, we do know that he was highly successful in his preaching (Angell, Bishop 23). One of the first places he preached was Macon, Georgia, where he received a warm welcome from both black and white audiences. It was here that his education from the lawyers in Abbeville served him well. Turner surprised many in the audience with the amount of knowledge he displayed. Benjamin Tanner, who later became an opponent to Turner’s emigration plans wrote, “that when they heard him quote history, ecclesiastical and profane, some of the white people declared him to be a white man galvanized.”
However, some in Macon believed Turner just memorized sermons and could not speak impromptu. A man by the name of Robert Smith issued Turner a challenge to expound from a text that Smith would give. Turner accepted the challenge and, “in the Spirit of the Lord,” he expounded on Genesis 7:1, “Come thou and all thy house into the ark." While we do not know exactly what Turner said, Anderson reports that not only were the “white citizens well pleased with it,” but after the sermon, an offering was called for and $810 was raised, a small fortune in that day.
Turner was also instrumental at conducting a series of revivals in Athens, Georgia during the spring of 1858. Paired with W.A. Parks, a white minister who held the post of “missionary” to blacks, Turner preached “powerful sermons” and held the pulpit of the black Methodist church “up to twice a day during the week.”
Turner traveled to St. Louis where he officially joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). He had become disillusioned with the Southern Methodist Church because they did not allow blacks to become ordained or to become bishops. He had learned about the AME Church during a visit to New Orleans for a preaching assignment where he also met Willis H. Revels, pastor of the St. James AME Church. Revels shared the story of church’s beginnings, along with describing its founder and first bishop, Richard Allen. Turner was thoroughly impressed, as he had not heard of this denomination before and the fact that this was a black Methodist denomination, complete with black bishops and pastors, only intrigued Turner more. However, while documents show that Turner later wrote that he joined the church immediately after Revels invitation, he kept his standing as a licensed minister for the Southern Methodist Church for almost a year after meeting with Revels. He did not join the AME Church until August 1858.
While Turner had enjoyed some success as a Southern Methodist preacher, it was after he joined the AME Church that his preaching career really took off. After joining the AME Church, Turner moved to Baltimore to serve as pastor of Waters’ Chapel AME Church and the Tissue Street Mission. Turner took advantage of more educational opportunities by studying grammar, Latin, Greek, theology, and the classics over the next four years (Simmons 810). Ponton later described the true depths of Turner’s desire for an education:
In procuring his education he was a most painstaking man. Whatever subject he undertook to study . . . he went to the heart of it. He understood thoroughly what many of the school men but half understood . . . he would go a thousand miles to hear a man speak, or to get a new idea on an important subject. [He] sought words from every possible source to express his meaning.After leaving Baltimore in 1862, Turner served as pastor of the large and influential Israel AME Church in Washington, D.C. Here Turner formed relationships that would serve him throughout his life. He befriended “powerful Republican politicians” such as Thaddeus Stevens, Salmon Chase, Benjamin Wade, and Charles Sumner. Since Turner’s church was within walking distance from the Capitol, Turner invited his newfound friends to speak to the black citizens of the city, and he spent hours in the Capitol listening to debates and arguments on the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate Chamber. Turner quickly learned about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, about politics, and the art of deliberative oratory. During this time, Turner also started a lyceum at Israel Church, in which he served as president and participated in debates about these and many other issues of the day. As an AME minister, not only was Turner ordained, but he also became a regular correspondent for the Christian Recorder, the AME’s weekly newspaper.
During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln commissioned Turner to the office of Chaplain in the Union Army, making him the first black chaplain in any branch of the military. In this capacity, he also became a war correspondent and published many articles in the Christian Recorder about the trials and tribulations of the First Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops. When the Civil War ended, The Freedmen’s Bureau assigned him to Georgia as Army Chaplain.
After his service in the military, Turner turned his attention to politics. During the period of Reconstruction, and while working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, Turner became a Republican Party organizer and helped recruit and organize black voters throughout Georgia. He helped establish the first Republican State Convention, assisted in drafting a new state constitution, and served as a Georgia State Representative. However, his victory was short-lived because white members of the state legislature voted to disqualify blacks from holding elected office.
After his ouster from the Georgia state legislature, Turner became United States Postmaster in Macon, Georgia, the first black ever to hold that position. However, pressures began to mount on the federal government to dismiss Turner based on trumped up improprieties. Fired after only two weeks in office, Turner then took a position as a customs inspector in Savannah, Georgia. He held this position for several years, but eventually resigned from this position because of increasing demands of the church.
After resigning from his position as customs inspector, Turner focused his efforts on building the AME Church in the South. His primary goal was to increase membership and build churches. By 1876, his hard work paid off and he became publications manager for the AME Church. This allowed him to travel to all the districts and meet pastors and leaders of local churches. During the four years he served as publications manager, he developed a following that led to his election as one of the twelve bishops of the church. As a bishop, Turner had a national platform to espouse his ideas on race, politics, lynching, and other social issues of the day, especially emigration.
In the latter part of the nineteenth century, after several failed attempts at an emigration plan, and with the rise of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois as leaders in the black community, Turner’s influence began to wane. Undaunted, Turner remained active. He served as chair of the board of Morris Brown College from 1896-1908, and kept a busy schedule up to the end of his life. He was in Windsor, Ontario, at the General Conference of the AME Church in 1915 when he suffered a massive stroke. He died hours later at a Windsor hospital.