Clergyman, politician. Turner was born in Newberry on February 1, 1834, the son of Hardy Turner and Sarah Greer. Turner, a light-skinned African American, was born free. His mother hired a tutor, but South Carolina law forbade education of black children, so the tutor was let go. His father died while he was still young. After his mother married Jabez Story, the family moved to Abbeville in 1848. There lawyers hired Turner as a janitor and, in defiance of the law, educated him in many subjects, including history, law, and theology. In July 1849 Turner experienced an emotional conversion on a campground outside Abbeville due to the evangelism of a white Methodist preacher, C. A. Crowell, and he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In 1853 he was licensed to preach, and he traveled throughout South Carolina and other southern states preaching to both black and white audiences and achieving considerable renown. In 1856 he married Eliza Peacher of Columbia. He was widowed three times and was remarried each time: in 1893 to Martha DeWitt, in 1900 to Harriet Wayman, and in 1907 to Laura Lemon.
Turner enjoyed his acceptance as a Methodist preacher, but he abhorred the proslavery politics of antebellum South Carolina. One event that shocked him was Representative Preston Brooks’s 1856 caning of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the U.S. Senate, an event that later prompted Turner to refer to South Carolina as “the pestiferous State of my nativity.” In 1858 Henry and Eliza Turner moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where Turner joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church. From 1863 to 1865 Turner served as a chaplain to the First U.S. Colored Troops, a regiment he helped to recruit. In 1865 he moved to Georgia and helped organize both the AME Church and the Republican Party. He served as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives and also briefly as a U.S. postmaster in Macon. After 1865 he made his home in Georgia.
During the last four decades of his life, Turner became a vocal supporter of the emigration of African Americans to Africa. He personally attended the sailing of the ship Azor from Charleston to Liberia in April 1878 with two hundred emigrants aboard. Turner believed that African Americans needed “a theater of manhood and activity established somewhere for our young men and women,” where their abilities in such areas as politics and economics could be developed without fear of white supremacist violence. Furthermore, he believed that African Americans should play a leading role in Christianizing Africa. In the 1890s he made four trips to West and South Africa to build up the AME Church.
In 1880 Turner was elected a bishop in the AME Church. When AME churches in South Carolina threatened to separate from the denomination in 1884 and 1891, Turner reduced the extent of the schism by skillfully mediating the disputes. He was, however, increasingly critical of the United States. In 1906, after riots in Atlanta devastated the black community, Turner declared that “hell is an improvement upon the United States where the Negro is concerned.” Turner said that he did not want to die in the United States because of its denial of human rights to African Americans, and he did not. On his way to an AME Church conference in Canada, he suffered a massive stroke as he disembarked the ferry at Windsor, Ontario, and he died several hours later on May 8, 1915. He was buried in Atlanta.
Angell, Stephen W. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
———. “Black Methodist Preachers in the South Carolina Upcountry, 1840–1866.” In “Ain’t Gonna Lay My ’Ligion Down”: African American Religion in the South, edited by Alonzo Johnson and Paul Jersild. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.
Redkey, Edwin S. Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890–1910. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969. Turner, Henry McNeal. Respect Black: The Writings and Speeches of Henry McNeal Turner. Edited by Edwin S. Redkey. New York: Arno, 1971.