- The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition by Andre E. Johnson
At times, history buries the memory of individuals who espouse views contrary to the Zeitgeist. This tendency leaves contemporary society without a holistic perspective of the ideas, tensions, and conflicts that have shaped the world. Andre Johnson’s The Forgotten [End Page 184] Prophet attempts to resurrect the life and rhetoric of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and preserve it for a generation in desperate need of prophetic voices to speak out against modern forms of oppression. Johnson offers readers a rhetorical portrait of an individual who sacrificed fame, power, and prestige to speak truth to the dominant power structures of his day.
During the Reconstruction Era, Turner was one of the most influential advocates for justice and equality for African Americans. He was a renaissance man. At different points during his illustrious career, he served as a pastor, writer, newspaper editor, debater, politician, the first African American chaplain of the armed forces (appointed by President Lincoln), and the first African American postmaster general (Georgia). He was a contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Despite his impressive resume, his controversial views on emigration from America led to his erasure from public memory. Once a celebrated defender of freedom, justice, and equality, Turner was dismissed by both Caucasians and African Americans. In this work, Johnson traces Turner’s rhetorical evolution from optimism to pessimism over America’s future. Turner’s rhetoric was grounded in the prophetic tradition. This tradition, drawn from the prophets of the Hebrew Old Testament, has been utilized by individuals at crucial moments in American history to call the nation to be faithful to the sacred values of its democratic experiment. For the purposes of this project, Johnson defines prophetic rhetoric as “discourse grounded in the sacred and rooted in a community experience that offers a critique of existing communities and traditions by charging and challenging society to live up to the ideals espoused while offering celebration and hope for a brighter future” (7).
With the prophetic tradition as his starting point, Johnson examines the multiple ways in which the prophetic tradition manifests itself in Turner’s rhetoric. Previous rhetorical scholarship on the prophetic tradition has concentrated on two primary modes of operation: apocalyptic rhetoric and the jeremiad. Johnson challenges rhetorical scholars to consider four additional types of prophetic rhetoric through his analysis. From Turner’s 1866 exhortation for African Americans to “let by-gones be by-gones” to his 1895 declaration that “there is no manhood future in the United States for the Negro” (1), Johnson’s analysis of this forgotten prophet’s rhetoric offers fresh insights to scholars interested in the ways in which minority groups adopt radical, dissident, and prophetic stances in discourse. [End Page 185]
The book moves chronologically through Turner’s public career, featuring a different type of prophetic rhetoric in each of the four periods discussed. Every chapter focuses on one of Turner’s key speeches and highlights how he adapted to the particular rhetorical situation he was facing while still remaining faithful to the prophetic tradition. Chapter 1 demonstrates how Turner optimistically used celebratory prophecy in 1866 when speaking at an event celebrating the three-year anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The celebration became the impetus to his prophetic call for the nation to fully extend the values of freedom, justice, and equality to all citizens. He strategically used the discursive space of the event to situate “blacks as citizens and [displace] whites from their position of moral superiority” (38). In 1868, the move by the white majority in the Georgia House of Representatives to disqualify African Americans from House membership challenged Turner’s optimism for America. In response, Turner deployed disputation prophecy to confront the majority. This confrontation is the focus of chapter 2. On the floor of the House, he systematically refuted each argument that the white majority presented with the sacred values...