Black Preachers and Religious Leaders

What religious leader first declared that “God is a Negro”?

Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915) was the first prominent black churchman to declare that God is black. In 1898 he said: “We had rather believe in no God, or … believe that all nature is God than to believe in the personality of a God, and not to believe that He is a Negro.” Turner was also the first black chaplain in the United States Army, in 1863. As a minister and bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Turner later advocated that blacks return to Africa. Born free in New-berry Court House, South Carolina, he worked in cotton fields along with slaves for a while, and then moved to Abbeville where he was a janitor in a lawyer’s office and later a beginning carpenter. While working at the lawyer’s office, he received instruction in elementary subjects, in violation of state law. Turner converted to Christianity in 1844 and joined the Baptist church. After hearing stirring messages from Methodist preachers at summer camp meetings, he was admitted to the Methodist church in 1848. He was licensed as an exhorter in 1851 and as a preacher in 1853. Turner became an evangelist and preached throughout the South, where he attracted blacks and whites with his spellbinding sermons. He rose rapidly within the denomination, pastoring churches in the Baltimore conference while he supplemented his education. He later pastored Union Bethel in Baltimore and Israel Church in Washington, D.C. In 1860 he was ordained a deacon and in 1862 an elder. His work with the AME Book Concern and his writings for the Christian Recorder enhanced his reputation in the church. He was a chaplain for the First Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, receiving his commission on November 6, 1863.

Turner became involved in Reconstruction politics from 1867 to 1871 and used his church’s resources to help organize the Republican Party in Georgia. In 1868 he served as a member of the Georgia legislature. Turner was elected bishop in 1880 and presided over various districts for four-year terms. He had doctrinal differences with the church that gradually led to his having a more liberal position on the Bible. In 1896 he called for a new translation of the Bible by and for blacks, and initiated some of the themes of a black theology. Around this time he declared that “The devil is white and never was black,” and, by 1895, he proclaimed at a Baptist convention in Atlanta that “God is a Negro.” Further, Turner believed that the first humans on earth were black. He advocated increased missionary activity and founded a women’s auxiliary, the Women’s Home and Foreign Missionary Society, to support his cause. In time he became unpopular for his stance on emigration to Africa and for encouraging blacks to keep guns in their homes during the rising tide of anti-black violence and lynchings in 1897. Turner is remembered, however, for his vigorous and effective leadership of the AME church in the South.

Henry McNeal Turner, the first Southern bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, declared that God is black.


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