Henry McNeal Turner was born in South Carolina in 1834. Although born free he was forced to work alongside field slaves in the local cotton plantation. He learnt to read and write and when he was a teenager he was recruited as an itinerant minister for the Methodist Episcopal Church.
In 1858 he was sent to Baltimore where he studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew and theology at Trinity College. In 1860 he moved to Washington where he became the pastor of Union Bethal Church. He became active in politics and developed friendships with Benjamin Wade, Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner. Turner became a national figure when Abraham Lincoln appointed him the first black army chaplain.
After the American Civil War Turner moved to Georgia to work with the Freemen's Bureau. Over the next few years he established the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Georgia. He worked tirelessly to raise the political consciousness of former slaves. One resident of Georgia claimed that he had never seen "a man travel so much, preach and speak so much."
In 1867 Georgia was readmitted to the Union and in April 1868 he held elections for governor and state legislators. Although dominated by conservative whites, Turner and thirty-one other black men were elected. Turner was disappointed by white members of the Republican Party refused to support pro-black legislation. He accused the whites of treachery and led a walk out of black legislators.
Turner now retired from political life and returned full-time to his religious duties. He was a great advocate of black pride: "I hold that we are a very great people." He argued that blacks must reject all teachings of the white church that confirmed their inferior status. In sermons he often claimed that "God is a Negro".
In 1880 Turner was appointed as Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Married four times, Turner survived three wives and all but two of his children. His final marriage at 73 to his secretary evoked a storm of criticism and attempts were made to remove him from office.
Henry McNeal Turner died in 1915.