Turner, Edward

Edward Turner
Edward Turner

Edward Turner (July 28, 1776-January 24, 1853) ranked second only to Hosea Ballou among Universalist ministers of his generation. He was a denominational organizer, a celebrated preacher, and the first historian of Universalism. Close friends for over two decades, Turner and Ballou were alienated after 1815 and were opponents in the Restorationist controversy.

Edward Turner was born in Medfield, Massachusetts where, as a young boy he attended a school run by Hannah Adams. He moved with his family to Sturbridge, Massachusetts when he was ten years old. While enrolled at Leicester Academy, 1792-93, he converted to Universalism. Subsequently, he studied with Hosea Ballou. The two evangelists shared a circuit in southern Worcester County, Massachusetts until 1803, when Ballou moved to Barnard, Vermont.

In 1803 the New England Universalist General Convention meeting in Winchester, New Hampshire adopted the Winchester Profession. This was a mild creedal statement adopted to enhance the legal standing of Universalist churches and ministers. Turner was an outspoken opponent of the Profession. He thought creeds created unnecessary divisions among Christians and clouded the truth of scripture. In this he opposed Ballou, who was one of the committee sponsoring the profession.

Most early General Conventions were not primarily decision-making meetings. They were largely rallies for the purpose of showing off Universalist evangelists in various locales. They also provided opportunity to evaluate new talent. The first sermon Turner preached before the Convention in 1800 attracted the attention of John Murray, who, for several years afterwards, groomed him to become his associate and successor in Boston. Because of the poor health of his first wife, Amy, Turner could not, however, fill Murray’s pulpit as often as he was asked. Besides, he did not appreciate Murray’s theological criticism of his rural colleagues. Consequently, in 1805 Turner shifted his attention to supplying the as-yet unorganized Universalists in Salem.

In 1807 Amy Turner died. The following year Turner married Lucy Davis, daughter of Levi Davis, a founder of the Universalist church in Oxford. Turner’s new family situation allowed him, for the first time, to consider moving away from the Sturbridge area. Thus, when the First Universalist Society of Salem was organized that same year, Turner accepted the call to be their minister. At the installation service Ballou, who had recently been settled in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire, declared the occasion “the happiest day of my life hitherto.”

After a bout with a serious illness, c.1810, Turner had less energy than formerly. Although his ordinary preaching was afterward less dynamic in style, his convention sermons continued to be considered second to none.

Ballou and Turner were among the founders of the Gloucester Conference, 1811, a short-lived minister’s colloquium devoted to the discussion of theological questions. The participants published their assigned articles in a periodical, The Gospel Visitant, 1811-12, printed by Turner in Salem. In his paper, “What Profession of Faith, ” Turner again deplored sectarianism: “The Christian world has been divided into parties, each claiming a kind of infallibility, not so much from the author of the Christian religion, as under the name of the leader of the particular sect. By such means, man has been made the enemy of man.”

In his article, Ballou came to grips with a key scripture passage, 1 Peter 3:18-20, which described Christ in hell preaching to the “Spirits in Prison,” and was forced to conclude, much against his inclination, that scripture taught the existence of a limited period of punishment in the afterlife. This conclusion came as a relief to Ballou’s friend, Turner.

In 1815 the same group of ministers were instrumental in founding the Southern Association, a denominational organization covering southern New England. It joined the Eastern Association (Maine), the Northern Association (Vermont), and the Western Association (central New York State) as regional bodies in fellowship with the New England General Convention. These associations multiplied the number of Universalist evangelical rallies and provided local venues for the recruitment, ordination, and discipline of clergy. Although the General Convention assumed a supervisory role over the associations, the formal nature of the relationship between these denominational organizations remained for many years undetermined, foreshadowing later Universalist difficulties with issues of governance.

Turner was the standing clerk, or secretary, of the Southern Association, 1815-19. He was also standing clerk and treasurer of the New England General Convention, 1815-24. These were the only offices that extended over a period of years until a successor was chosen and with regular duties between meetings. The presiding officer, the moderator, was chosen at the beginning of each session and resigned his post when the session adjourned.

For the General Convention Turner performed several other several tasks: He corresponded with England, helped prepare two hymnals, served on a committee to plan and finance a Universalist seminary, and began a history of the denomination. Turner made an outline and wrote several draft chapters of the assigned history. So few subscribers responded to the prospectus, however, that the project was abandoned. Fragments of this history are preserved by Turner’s biographer, Elbridge Gerry Brooks.

Turner’s relationship with Ballou was strained by his acceptance of a call in 1814 to Charlestown, Massachusetts, a settlement in which Ballou was also interested, and by his friendship with ministers Paul Dean and Jacob Wood, both of whom were hostile to Ballou. In 1817 Wood enticed Turner and Ballou to debate the doctrine of future punishment in a series of letters printed in a resuscitated Gospel Visitant. Turner took the position that there would be a finite period of discipline in the afterlife. Ballou contended that the consequences of sin were confined to the present life. The debate was intended to be a cordial, cooperative investigation, but resulted only in sharpening and intensifying the theological and personal division between Turner and Ballou. Turner was particularly dismayed by Ballou’s unexpected about-face on the “Spirits in Prison” passage. In his new interpretation Ballou asserted that the passage did not refer to reformation in the afterlife, but to the extension of Christian preaching to the gentiles. Turner found the new exegesis strained.

For the next six years Turner associated with a small group of ministers known as Restorationists who sought to promote the doctrine of future punishment among Universalists. They were also displeased with the partisan manner in which Ballou conducted himself in his honorary and informal leadership role. Among themselves the Restorationists dubbed Ballou “the Bishop.”

In late 1822 the Restorationists published a pair of manifestos, later known as the “Appeal and Declaration,” in the Christian Repository. They declared their doctrine on the afterlife and Hosea Ballou’s were “incapable of being reconciled together.” These articles were interpreted by many, including those in theological agreement with the Restorationists, as a breach of fellowship. In 1823 Hosea Ballou 2d, a co-editor with his great-uncle Hosea of the Universalist Magazine, in his editorial reply to the Appeal and Declaration, described Turner and Dean as motivated by envy of Hosea Ballou. The editors did not allow Turner or Dean opportunity to rebut the charge in the Magazine. A few months later the Southern Association began to investigate the behavior of the Restorationists. Meanwhile, Turner was placed under a form of ban: Ballou’s Boston church forbade Ballou to exchange pulpits with Turner or with anyone who exchanged with him. Turner was not restored to the good graces of his colleagues until he signed a negotiated retraction later that year.

Dissatisfaction expressed by a few members of the Charlestown congregation over Turner’s role in the Restorationist controversy led to his dismissal in 1823. Although he obtained a new settlement in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and continued to be held in high esteem by most Universalists, Turner began to feel he could no longer remain in a situation which required continued cooperation with Hosea Ballou. In 1828 he accepted a call to serve the Unitarian church in Charlton, Massachusetts, a few miles from his old hometown, Sturbridge. Many felt the defection of one of the most eminent Universalist ministers to be a blow to the denomination.

Turner remained only a few years in Charlton. In 1831, because of a financial crisis, the church had to let him go. After spending a few months supplying in Augusta, Georgia, Turner settled with the Unitarian congregation in Fishkill, New York. He stayed there until his retirement in 1840. In 1852, a few months prior to his own death, Turner served as pallbearer at the funeral of Hosea Ballou.

Edward Turner’s reputation as a Universalist builder suffered eclipse as a result of his becoming a Unitarian. The 1961 Unitarian Universalist merger has prepared the ground for re-evaluation of this early Universalist and Unitarian leader.


The notebooks, correspondence, and family papers of Edward Turner are in the Universalist Special Collection at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The correspondence, besides letters to and from family members, includes letters from Hosea Ballou, Paul Dean, David Pickering, Jacob Wood, Russell Streeter, Sebastian Streeter, and other Universalist ministers, most of which shed light on the Restorationist controversy. There are also letters from Unitarians Samuel J. May, James Walker, and Aaron Bancroft. A series of letters written by Turner to his daughter Mary Weld tell the story of the Restorationist controversy and the loss of the Charlestown settlement from his point of view. Earlier letters addressed to Turner, written by John Murray and George Richards, were published in Elbridge Gerry Brooks, “Letters of Murray and Richard,” Universalist Quarterly (1872).

Turner’s published works include numerous sermons, some in pamphlet form, others in various denominational magazines such as the Universalist Magazine, the Christian Repository and the Christian Telescope. He contributed to the Gospel Visitant (1811 and 1817-18) and edited the Evangelical Repertory (1823-24). Long after he had ceased to be a Universalist, Turner contributed an article on the evolution of belief among Universalists to the Universalist Quarterly (1849).

Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s two-part biographical study, “Edward Turner,” in the Universalist Quarterly (1871) preserves part of Turner’s history. A. St. John Chambre wrote a critique of the articles by Brooks, “Hosea Ballou and Edward Turner—A Contribution to the ‘Truth of History,'” in the Universalist Quarterly (1873). An appraisal of Turner’s role in the Restorationist controversy can be found in Peter Hughes, “The Restorationist Controversy: Its Origin and First Phase, 1801-1824,” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (2000).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted April 27, 2001