Former SBTC president: To overcome nationwide family crisis, understand African-American history

Terry Turner understands firsthand the value of knowing African-American history because he has seen the importance of discovering his own family’s history. 

Turner, a past president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, began looking into African-American history as part of his doctoral research and discovered a correspondence between his story and the larger story of African Americans. During this time, Turner was introduced to the research of Orlando Patterson, who described the links between the breakdown of African-American families today and slavery. 

“Patterson brought to my attention that the greatest problem that African Americans were given from slavery is a history of disconnected fathers and husbands,” said Turner, whose own research and story became the basis of a 2017 book, God’s Amazing Grace: Reconciling Four Centuries of African American Marriages and Families. “Because those roles were destroyed, we’ve never been able to redefine them in the African-American community. Of course, fathers lead families. No family is complete without a father.”

Turner experienced this himself at age 10 when his father passed away. The pain and stress of growing up without a father followed him for years. Later, he had a child out of wedlock, continuing a cycle of absentee fatherhood into a new generation.

Eventually, Turner came to faith in Christ, got married and had additional children. For his first 25 years of pastoral ministry, he counseled couples to live out Christian principles in their marriage, but he struggled to bring the satisfaction he felt should have come from his own marriage and family. Turner returned to school for his doctorate with an emphasis on family and marriage, in part, to get answers to the pain in his own family.  

As he researched the broader history of African Americans for his dissertation, Turner became interested in his lineage, tracing his family back to Warren and Elvira Turner, both born into slavery. Warren had conceived a son with another woman before gaining his freedom in 1865. Even after gaining his freedom and marrying Elvira, Warren fathered another child out of wedlock.

Later generations of men in the Turner family continued this pattern of risk factors, including cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births. 

Turner notes that during slavery 89 percent of African Americans cohabited because they were forced to do so. 

“I believe these risk factors were handed down to us through the generations of time,” said Turner, who serves as the senior pastor of Mesquite Friendship Baptist Church in Mesquite. “The Bible tells us that the sins of the father would be handed down to the third and fourth generations. A lot of time we don’t take into account how what our parents went through impacts our lives. … Many of the risk factors present in my life were also present in my great-grandfather’s life.”

To turn around what Turner calls a crisis in American families, he urges all Americans to understand African-American history—both the broader history of slavery and racism and the individual stories within families. 

“I think the big problem is a lack of knowledge,” Turner said. “That’s what my book is all about, trying to promote an awareness and knowledge of our history. African-American history has been basically written out. A lot of people don’t take into account where we are today in our country as far as race relations and the problems our families have. The family is the first institution God created. It is the basis of all of society. When the family structure is messed up and diluted, you’ll find that society is messed up.”

Turner says while slavery impacted African-American families by taking fathers and husbands out of the home, it impacted Anglo families by passing on racism and prejudice through later generations. 

Turner believes churches have a role to play in teaching African-American history since most won’t learn it elsewhere.

He says it’s important for churches to teach the Christian principle of love—and be clear about their opposition to hate. But love isn’t just something for Caucasians to better understand; African Americans need to get it, too. 

“You have to fight hatred with love, which is the premise of my book,” Turner said. “Many African Americans look at American history and see how evil it was toward us and how enslavement was so difficult on our ancestors, and they want to rise up and take vengeance. My book is designed to show how the power of love brought our ancestors through all of that pain—and it will also bring us through it, too.”

Turner notes that his book is full of biblical passages. He says the Bible speaks directly to what ails families, whether African-American or otherwise. 

“The Bible addresses every issue we deal with,” Turner said. “Preachers today don’t preach against sin like we used to. The greatest tool we have to change society is when a preacher stands up and preaches against the sins in society.”

Turner believes there is hope for struggling families as churches begin to directly address some of the risk factors that are not only present in African-American families but are rising across the board. Those risk factors include out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation and abandonment by fathers. 

“I believe it can be turned around, but we have to know where we came from,” Turner said. “I encourage everyone to study their history. It was beneficial to me and has helped me to become a better father, a better husband, as I learned what my ancestors went through.” 

TEXAN Correspondent
Tobin Perry
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