10/24/2012 07:10 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2012

Learning to Speak:The Rhetorical Education of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner

In my last post, I offered a brief biographical sketch of Turner. In this post, I want to discuss Turner's rhetorical education. In my book, The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition, I argue that Turner was one of the finest orators in America during his lifetime. Early in his career, his preaching took center stage. While preaching on the revival circuits, Turner could move a crowd--having folks caught up with the Spirit and falling out around the altar. Many regarded him as a true champion of the pulpit.

His contemporaries also knew Turner as a great debater. Turner helped institute a debate club at his church and frequently joined in the debates. Anticipating his progressive thinking with regard to gender during his lifetime, Turner argued the affirmative position on the question "has not a lady equally a right to court a gentleman, as a gentleman has to court a lady?" After more than three hours of arguments and counterarguments, the judges declared Turner the winner.

Many also knew Turner as a first rate political speaker within the epideictic genre of rhetoric. After hearing Turner speak at the Emancipation Day Celebration in Augusta in 1866, one contemporary wrote, "Such lofty, eloquent language from a colored man, they had not expected to hear. Even the whites could not conceal their admiration, nor restrain the applause due to him, as the best orator of the day."

In the book, I suggested that it was Turner's rhetoric that helped propel him to heights that he never dreamed possible. Turner's powerful use of rhetoric led him to preach integrated revivals, command audiences with Senators, congressional leaders, and presidents, and to become a popular correspondent for the Christian Recorder newspaper. His rhetoric helped him become the first African American chaplain in the Armed Forces, an agent for the Freedmen's Bureau, a State Constitutional delegate, and a State Representative. His oratorical powers had a lot to do with him becoming the Presiding Elder of Georgia for his church and eventually Bishop.

Along with these accomplishments, Turner was the first African American Postmaster General (Georgia), and offered bills in the Georgia House of Representatives giving all women the right to vote and creating an eight-hour workday. In addition, he was the publication manager (1876-1880) of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), ordained the first women as elder in the AME church--an ordination that the other bishops rescinded, and led hundreds if not thousands of African Americans to Africa. While we credit Marcus Garvey with being the leader of the "Back to Africa" movement, Garvey never traveled to Africa and only "talked" about going to Africa--Turner actually had some success at persuading people to go.

Therefore, since contemporaries considered Turner's rhetorical ability legendary, I was interested in discovering Turner's "training" in the rhetorical arts. Again, in my previous post, I mentioned that Turner did not receive a formal education, so he did not learn it in school. Moreover, Turner did not benefit from reading a book on rhetoric, unlike Frederick Douglass, who read a copy of Columbian Orator as a way to understand rhetoric. So where and how did Turner develop his speaking ability?

Drawing on the work of Shirley Wilson Logan, I suggested that Turner's rhetorical education started at the feet of his grandmother Hannah Greer. She shared stories with Turner and taught him early on the value and power of storytelling--a skill Turner found valuable throughout his public speaking career. Several contemporaries commented on Turner's storytelling abilities and he could "call up" stories whenever the occasion fit.

While Turner learned much that would help him as an orator by listening to his grandmother and other elders in the community share stories, he also benefited from the spirituals sung by enslaved people. As with storytelling, singing was an integral part of the African traditions that Africans maintained when forced into slavery. These songs were not just for entertainment--enslaved people filled them with heavy uses of metaphor, indirection and innuendo. Enslaved people used spirituals to "reveal themselves to each other" while at the same time to provide an alternative definition of self. Spirituals acted as a form of rhetorical resistance that enable enslaved Africans to refute definitions that ran counter to who they believe they were.

While Turner benefited from both the storytelling and singing to help shape his oratory, it was primarily the oratorical style of black preaching that gave his rhetoric its power. Sermons that Turner heard as a youth probably were experiential--one that did not ground itself into a "literal" interpretative position on the text, but one which searches for a deeper embedded meaning beneath the text. This would lead Turner to "imitate" preachers and to "baptize" his friends. Some of Turner earliest "sermons" were to cows in the pasture.

When Turner became pastor of Israel AME Church, he started attending the debates on the floors of the Senate and watching members of the House of Representatives. It was here that Turner began to understand the difference between a speech and an oration. Drawing from Kenneth Greenberg, one notices an ethos-driven function of the oration. In other words, what orations tend to do is to create an air of credibility and respect for the speaker. In addition, the oration depends even more on delivery. What the speaker wants to do with an oration is to create a persona through performance that would create a "superior personality." Turner's elocution and delivery established him as a leader not only within the confines of the AME Church, but also as a leader of national notoriety.