The Public Theologian: The Post Reconstruction Rhetoric of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner-Pt. 4

The Public Theologian: The Post Reconstruction Rhetoric of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner-Pt. 4 July 5, 2015



In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the death of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (February 1, 1834-May 8, 2015).

Turner challenged his fellow Bishops as well. In writing about the ministerial appointment process, Turner cautioned Bishops to ignore appeals from ministers who do not have any “soul saving” in them.

The sooner the Bishops of the A.M E. Church ignore all appeals for the return of pastors that do not have any soul-saving in them, the better. The argument that he is an honest man, eloquent preacher, fine orator, up to the times, highly cultured, meets the literary wants of the people, good financier, gentlemanly in bearing, etc., etc, should not be a primal condition.  After a man has been one, two or three years at a place and has failed to have converts, he is of no further use, though he keeps a crowded church from year to year; for he is not preaching, he is simply delivering fine addresses from the Bible. It is one thing to get up and deliver a speech over the Bible and another to preach God’s eternal word from the Bible. Bible speech-making and Bible preaching are quite different.  How often do we hear an address from the pulpit which has no more preach in it than there is in the bray of an ass.  Preaching will move the people sooner or later; mere speeches, never. (156).

While Turner did not write a book or any one-essay length works on preaching, in examining his corpus, one would find that Turner wrote extensively on the subject. One thing he did not like was for preachers to rely heavily upon a manuscript while preaching.

The soul has as much for it as it has for written sermons, which have done more to blight the power of the pulpit than anything else conceivable. I do not refer to special occasions, when some doctrinal subject is being treated. But what does a man look like standing in the pulpit, calling upon sinners to come to God, with his eyes upon a sheet of paper, and his head hanging down as though he was afraid to face the people? He is relying about as much upon the aid of the Holy Spirit as he is upon a petrified fossil. Moreover, it is all intellect and no soul, and no man can preach affectively through intellect alone. I repeat, it is time to revive exhortational service in our Church, and the sooner the better for thousands, if not millions (73).

Not only did Turner write about preaching, he also celebrated preachers. One such preacher was Rev. Thomas Smith. In speaking on the power of prayer, Turner wrote

“The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” The Bible is full of instances that verifies the truth of this declaration.  History is full of them also.  But the only instance we have ever read or heard of where men wagered or bet on prayer, was in the case of Rev. Thomas Smith….He was holding a revival at Pemberton, and a young man trembling under conviction started up for prayer.  Three young infidels tried to pull him away. “We do not believe in the Christian religion,” they said.  Smith then challenged them to be prayed for thirty minutes, and if under prayer their minds were not changed he (Smith) would renounce Christianity forever before the whole congregation.  “I will most solemnly do it,” he exclaimed, and the young men cried out, “It is a bargain.”  “Amen,’ said Smith.  Many of the Christian people present trembled and turned pale, at this awful contract which Smith had made.  The three men came up to the alter and stood, and Smith exclaimed, and “Infidelity and Christianity, my brethren, are at issue today and may God answer by fire.’  The praying people crowed to the help of the Lord and were told to pray for conviction only, not for conversion.  Prayer began and the minutes were noted. The foundation of the house seemed to tremble while Smith, sided by the praying people, thundered in prayer at the gates of heaven.  In fifteen minutes one fell prostrate on the floor; in twenty minutes another fell, and in twenty five minutes the third sank to his seat.  At the end of thirty minutes Smith called on them to stand to their bargain.  The two who could only speak, confessed to a change and admitted Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Victory crown the daring preacher who took awful risk and the three men accepted Christ as their pardoning Saviour (151).

In addition, Turner wrote about self-esteem and self-pride issues. This would become an important part of his writing in later years. In writing about how some African Americans considered their hair as bad and desired “good hair,” Turner wrote

Colored people are generally in the habit of valuing hair in proportion as it approximates the hair of white people. Their own hair is always bad hair, but if it resembles the hair of white people it is good hair. But we find these good-haired colored ladies are fearfully in the habit of grabbing up other people’s combs and braking the teeth out of them. For the want of a little energy they hold the comb in such angularity that it is compelled to break. Man or woman who cannot curry their noddles without pulling the teeth out of combs ought to cease talking about good hair till they learn some good sense. We never broke a tooth from a comb in our life, curly, kinked, knotty or bad as our wool may be, and it betrays unpardonable slovenness in anyone who does. Besides, such language is an insult to the God who made their hair, and an insult to every colored person whose hair is natural. The sooner the Negro race learns to respect themselves, their color, their hair, their lips, their heels, their noses and their all, the better for their future (140).

In another editorial, Turner offered this anecdote about “good” and “bad” hair.

Two colored ladies—or I should have said two ignorant colored females, were babbling in a street car the other day in front of where I was sitting, and one said to the other, “Oh, yes, Susie has beautiful hair; why it hangs way down her back.” The inference was if it did not hang down her back it would not be beautiful. This country is full of just such black and yellow fools. Instead of thanking God for what he has given us, and taking care of it, we are always whining because God did not make us something else. It seems to me that it is a pity God did not make some of these Negro fools dogs or hogs at once; then they would have been satisfied. I see no hope for the Negro race while he complains about his hair, color, and other specialties peculiar to himself. A stately black man and a refined black woman has no superior, in looks, upon earth (146).

Read Part 1

Read Part 2

Read Part 3

All quotes from Turner come from the forthcoming volume, An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War. The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner. An African American Bishop During the Post Reconstruction. Volume 4. Edwin Mellen Press. (2015).

"As your Facebook commenters stated, much of it is about our political system. Capitalism and ..."

Why Do We Have Such a ..."
"I don't understand how anyone who follows Jesus can disdain poor people. Jesus said the ..."

Why Do We Have Such a ..."
"From the beginning of time, those with power and wealth believed that they held that ..."

Why Do We Have Such a ..."
"Why do "we" disdain the poor? I agree with many of the answers given in ..."

Why Do We Have Such a ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!