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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Turner, Asa
(June 11, 1799–December 13, 1885)

–a Congregationalist home missionary who launched the Congregationalist missionary movement in Iowa—was an educator and social reformer who was prominent in the temperance, abolitionist, and civil rights movements in Iowa during the 1840s and 1850s and played a key role in organizing the political antislavery coalition that evolved into the Iowa Republican Party.

    Turner was born in Templeton, Massachusetts, the son of Asa and Abigail (Baldwin) Turner. As a boy, he attended a district school and worked on his father's farm. As he grew a little older, he taught school during the winter months. Having decided to become a minister, he entered Amherst Academy in the fall of 1821 to prepare for college. Within two years, he was able to gain admission to Yale University. Graduating in 1827, he enrolled in Yale Divinity School, and on September 6, 1830, he was ordained at New Haven by the New Haven West Association, and joined a group known as the "Yale Band," which formally organized in 1829 as the Illinois Association. The members of the group had signed a pledge to go to Illinois to establish a seminary for teaching while others would preach. Turner was elected a trustee of the proposed school, a position he held until 1844, and successfully raised money in New England and New York for the project, which opened on January 4, 1830, as Illinois College at Jacksonville. On August 31, 1830, Turner married Martha Bull of Hartford, Connecticut.

    In September 1830 he set out for Quincy, Illinois, where he established a Presbyterian church. The next year he persuaded a schoolmaster to start a school there. After going back east to raise more money for Illinois College, he returned west, traveling through northern Illinois and the Iowa Territory in 1834 and 1836. In 1837, having organized 13 churches, he went back to New England.

    On May 5, 1838, Turner and Julius A. Reed, of Warsaw, Illinois, established the first Congregationalist church west of the Mississippi River at Denmark, Iowa, in Lee County. Three months later Turner became its pastor. In July 1839 the American Home Missionary Society appointed him the first missionary agent for Iowa. He began writing back east to seek help for his missionary work. By 1842 he had convinced 11 young missionaries, the "Iowa Band," to come west to join him. Eventually he inspired more than 100 others to follow their lead. In 1837 he also was responsible for the organization of the Iowa Association by seven Yale students. On February 3, 1843, he received a charter from the territorial assembly of Iowa for an educational institution, the Denmark Academy, which opened in September 1845 in a crude log building. He also played an important role in organizing Iowa College, which opened in November 1848 in Davenport, and in 1859 moved to Grinnell, Iowa, and was renamed Grinnell College in 1909. Turner remained a trustee for both of these institutions until his death, and also worked to organize a system of public schools.

    On New Year's Day, 1840, Turner and two-thirds of his congregation in Denmark launched the Iowa Territory's first abolitionist organization, the Denmark Anti-Slavery Society. In September 1840 Turner urged the Iowa Association to endorse a "testimony" against slavery, and urged Congregationalists to withhold fellowship from professing Christians who held slaves. He endorsed the doctrine of immediate emancipation of slaves with no compensation for slaveholders, calling slavery a "heinous sin against God and a gross violation of the law and Gospel of Christ."During the early 1840s, Turner also publicly opposed the state "black laws" that discriminated against free blacks in Iowa, describing such legislation as "a violation of principles of justice and the laws of God, oppressive in operation, and forbidding acts of humanity."He also fought against alcohol and the desecration of the Sabbath.

    In 1854 Turner, along with Congregational clergymen Simeon Waters and George F. Magoun, worked to bring about a fusion of free-soil Democrats, Liberty Party abolitionists, and Conscience Whigs by supporting the Whig nomination of James W. Grimesfor governor. After an assembly of free-soil and antislavery forces at Crawfordsville on March 28, 1854, the fusion forces endorsed Grimes, and in August 1854 Grimeswas elected governor on an antislavery and prohibitionist platform, signaling the end of nearly a decade of Democratic rule in the state. That fusion movement was critical to the development of the early Republican Party in Iowa.

    Turner continued to preach at Denmark and supported the cause of abolitionism during the Civil War through sermons and articles that he published in eastern religious journals. He retired from his pastorate in Denmark in 1868 and moved to Oskaloosa. He spent two winters in California, but returned to Oskaloosa, because he dreaded the thought of dying anywhere but in Iowa. Turner died in 1885 after long struggles with ill health.

    Historian F. I. Herriott, writing in the early 20th century, pointed out that "the two oldest educational institutions in the State owe their inception and establishment to the farsighted plans and persistent self-sacrifice and promotion of Asa Turner and the Iowa Band."
Sources A full biography is George F. Magoun, Asa Turner: A Home Missionary Patriarch and His Times (1889). See also William Salter, The Old People's Psalms, with Reminiscences of the Deceased Members of the Iowa Band (1895); F. I. Herriott, "The Nativity of the Pioneers of Iowa," Iowa Official Register, 1911–1912; Truman O. Douglass, The Pilgrims of Iowa (1911); The Iowa Band (1870); Robert R. Dykstra, Bright Radical Star: Black Freedom and White Supremacy on the Hawkeye Frontier (1993); and Robert Cook, Baptism of Fire: The Republican Party in Iowa, 1838–1878 (1994).
Contributor: Scott R. Grau

Cite as: Grau, Scott R. "Turner, Asa" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 18 January 2018