First Army African-American Commissioned Chaplain
The following account of the rise of Rev. H. M. Turner to be the first black man commissioned a U.S. Army chaplain is from Harper’s Weekly, December 12, 1863 (author’s collection):
“We publish herewith a portrait of Rev. H. M. Turner, the first man of color ever commissioned a chaplain in the United States service.
“The Rev. H. M. Turner is a native of South Carolina, and is now near thirty-one years of age. He was born in the vicinity of Newberry Court House, grew up to a good-sized boy on the cotton fields with the slaves, and learned to read by his own efforts. His mother, marrying in Abbeville village, carried him there, where he waited on some lawyers, who became so much impressed with his talent, that, in defiance of the prohibition of the law, they took pleasure in instructing him. He would listen to them talk and speak, and then go in the woods and repeat what he had heard. Thus his mind developed, and in his seventeenth year he became a member of the Methodist church. He was licensed to preach in his twentieth year, and displayed such intelligence in his first sermon that he made quite a sensation. From this time forth he attracted great crowds wherever he went.
“Eventually his name became so well known that white churches were often thrown open to him of all denominations–a circumstance almost unknown, for the law of South Carolina strictly forbids colored men preaching. He traveled through Savannah (Georgia), Montgomery (Alabama), and Mobile, where he was known as the Negro Spurgeon, and every one, white and colored, was rife to see and hear him. After visiting nearly all the great Southern cities, he settled at St. Louis, Missouri, and joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Bishop Payne sent him to Baltimore city. In April, 1862, Bishop Payne again sent him to Washington city, to take charge of the large colored church known as the Israel Bethel Church. Here his reputation soon rose, and it was nothing strange last winter to see on Sunday evenings several Congressmen sitting about in the church. IN August, 1862, he delivered a sermon on the policy of organizing colored soldiers, which was published in the Washington Republican, and created some stir, and at first considerable opposition. He persevered, however, till he and others friendly to the move were allowed to commence to recruit the regiment of which he is now chaplain. He was commissioned chaplain on the 10th of last September, entered upon active service a few days afterward, and is now with his regiment on his way to Texas to reinforce the gallant army which is led by General Banks.
“Mr. Turned is a man of great personal courage: he fears no man and nothing. In large assemblies he can command attention when few others could. His size is ordinary, with yellow complexion and very sharp features.”