Harold W. Turner Remembered
Hitchen, John M., International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Harold W. Turner, Presbyterian minister, missionary scholar, inaugurator of university departments of religious studies, founder of the Centre for New Religious Movements. Born January 13, 1911; died May 5, 2002, age 91.
Harold W. Turner's life work in documentation of new religious movements in primal societies changed the way the academic world understands religion. More widely, each period of his life and ministry contributed significantly to the study of religion and missiology.
1911-1954. Born in rural New Zealand, in 1929 Turner completed secondary schooling in Auckland, was baptized, joined the Presbyterian Church, and began teaching Sunday school. Headed for an engineering career Turner enrolled at Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand, but before graduating in 1935 with a first class M.A. in philosophy, his church involvement led to a change of career towards Christian ministry. Then followed, as church expectations of the day required, a long engagement to "that girl in the choir," Maude Yoeman, while Turner completed theological training at Knox College, Dunedin, plus a final term in Edinburgh, Scotland, under John Baillie.
Ordained and married in 1939, during fifteen years of pastoral ministry, Turner pioneered an ecumenical student chaplaincy in New Zealand, established two university student halls of residence, started the nation's first campus-based university bookshop, and published Halls of Residence (1954). In these years Turner sought seriously to apply Christian insights to New Zealand public life and explored issues seminal to gospel and culture concerns that would blossom in his final decade.
1954-1966: Recognizing God's call to theological teaching, the Turners migrated to Britain with their four children. Since only a part-time role opened up, he accepted a position in Sierra Leone at Fourah Bay College. Settling into the faculty of theology, Turner was not so sure about a new staff member fresh from the British evangelical hotbed, Tyndale House, Cambridge. But Andrew Walls soon became a close friend and the lives of these two remarkable scholars intertwined from that point.
Eighteen months into this ministry, an unplanned but divinely appointed meeting focused Turner's academic future. In his own words:
Our family was swimming at Lundi, the ocean beach near Freetown favoured by expatriates.... On the beach there was one African in an unusual white gown, with a few others coming and kneeling before him while he placed an iron rod on their heads and said something over them. In curiosity I rather brashly went and asked him about it.
Until then African Independent Churches had received little serious academic attention. Turner became involved firsthand and began ferreting out documented information, ably assisted in those pre-photocopier days by Maude as transcriber. By 1962 he had amassed data for his Melbourne College of Divinity doctoral thesis, published in two volumes as History of an African Independent Church (1967).
From 1963 to 1966 Turner joined Andrew Walls at the Religious Studies Department in the new University of Eastern Nigeria. There he began documenting the presence, history, and practices worldwide of what he taught Westerners to call New Religious Movements in Primal Societies (NRMs). His conceptual tools are still foundational for this now distinct field of academic study.
1966-1972. Turner moved to the University of Leicester, England, to develop a new department around his own phenomenological approach to studying religion. In 1967 he published the first of what became six annotated volumes, Bibliography of New Religious Movements in Primal Societies, documenting primary source materials on six continents. Two years of teaching at Emory University's School of Theology in Atlanta, 1971-72, gave opportunity to visit and document NRMs among Native Americans. …