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Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South.

In the first serious book-length treatment of Henry McNeal Turner, Stephen Ward Angell, associated professor of religious studies at Florida A & M University, focuses on the life of a truly fascinating figure. Reverdy Ransom, one of Turner's colleagues, described him as an "epoch-making man," and Angell himself characterizes Turner as "one of the outstanding African-American leaders in the two generations after emancipation" (p. 1). The historical significance of the man lies with the role he played in the transformation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. When he joined it in 1858, the A.M.E. Church claimed approximately 20,000 members located in the North, the Midwest, and the border states; by 1896, it counted 452, 725. Much of the increase came from the former Confederacy, and Turner deserves a great deal of credit for the church's successful mission to the South. Given the importance of this man and his contribution as well as the significance of the era during which he lived, it is ironic that except for Mungo M. Ponton's short, uncritical biography, The Life and Times of Henry M. Turner, published two years after Turner's death, he has received scant scholarly consideration.

Born free in slaveholding South Carolina on February 1, 1834, Turner claimed an ancestry that included African royal blood as well as a white paternal grandmother. Existing law forbade educating blacks, but he acquired some semblance of instruction from attorneys in an Abbeville, South Carolina, firm where he worked as a sweeper. He joined a Methodist church there in 1848 and soon took up the ministry, traveling extensively throughout the South during the 1850s. In 1858, he went to St. Louis with his first wife, Eliza, to join the African Methodist Episcopal Church and to become a Northern pastor. Actually, the denominational hierarchy assigned him churches in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., where some blacks remained in bondage during the early 1860s.

Turner left his pastorate during June 1863 to become a chaplain to black troops in the Union army. After a brief stint with the Freedmen's Bureau following the Civil War, he settled in Georgia as the "unordained bishop" of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Eventually, he became a full-fledged bishop, a position he held from 1880 to 1915. Along the way, he served in the state legislature, became an advocate of prohibition, crusaded for civil rights, supported the back-to-Africa movement, went to the "dark continent" as a missionary, emerged as a leading proponent of black theology, and favored the ordination of female ministers. He also married four women in succession and buried three, fathered children, and stood accused of extramarital affairs.

In 1869, the Reverend Turner had secured an appointment as postmaster in Macon, which was a major patronage plum. Returning to the Georgia town from Washington, D.C., where he had been trying to salvage his position beset as it was by a storm of controversy, he traveled in the company of Marian Harris, a prostitute whom he had known and consorted with in other cities for a couple of years; she had in her possession $1800 in counterfeit bank notes, which earned her jail time and garnered him considerable trouble and embarrassment. Indeed, Turner knew an extraordinary and turbulent existence.

Given the particulars of Henry McNeal Turner's life and times, it seems almost impossible to write anything less than a scintillating biography; but Stephen Ward Angell has managed to do so. The fault does not lie with a lackluster topic or inadequate research, for the author seems to have examined appropriate materials. The problem rests with Angell's failure to place his subject in satisfactory perspective within Southern history and the black experience. Furthermore, the internal organization devised by the author affords the reader little assistance in plowing through the maze of details; and the inordinately long, rambling paragraphs and the tedious style prove taxing. Serious revision and careful editing of the manuscript could have produced a really first-rate biography. Still, in spite of these flaws, Turner himself is of sufficient magnitude to attract scholars to this book; but they may be disappointed by how little insight it offers into his personal life.
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Author:Wolfe, Margaret Ripley
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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