DCB/DBC Mobile beta


New Biographies

Minor Corrections

Biography of the Day

JURY, ALFRED FREDMAN – Volume XIV (1911-1920)

d. 28 Sept. 1916 in Liverpool, England


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

TURNER, WILLIAM, Moravian missionary; b. 3 July 1743 in Halifax, England; d. 1804 in Fulneck (near Pudsey), England.

William Turner, a wool carder by trade, came of an Anglican family, but in June 1762 he joined the Moravian Brethren; the following year he was accepted as a member of their congregation at Fulneck. There in the late 1760s he undoubtedly met Jens Haven* and Christian Larsen Drachart* who were attempting to organize a Moravian mission to the Labrador Inuit. In 1771 Turner became one of three English bachelors in a party of 14 persons, most of whom were German or Danish, sent to establish such a mission. A junior member of the group, he rose slowly in status, having to learn both German and Inupik. He was apparently competent in the latter by late 1775, and three years later he was allowed to preach his first sermon in that language.

The objective of the mission, which centred on Nain on the Labrador coast, was to create settled coastal communities of Christian Inuit. One impediment to this goal was the reliance of the natives on the caribou for meat, skins, and sinew, which necessitated their making lengthy expeditions inland in summer and sometimes in winter. Mission authorities were concerned that the hunt, which took the Inuit beyond the Moravians’ direct influence, should be as brief as possible and that all the meat and skins should be brought out to the coast. Mission superiors also considered the feasibility of sending a missionary to accompany the hunters on a regular basis, not only to urge speed but also to ensure that converts did not relapse into their old ways. In 1780 Turner was sent on two journeys inland from Nain, his task being to provide the information upon which mission policy could be based.

Alone with local Inuit, Turner travelled for most of February, and again from 8 August to 25 September, suffering in mind and body on both occasions and deriving no enjoyment from his adventures. He was the only Moravian in Labrador ever to accompany the Inuit on a hunt, and possibly the first white man to do so in Canada. His journals provide a unique and valuably detailed account of the caribou hunt and of the Inuit way of life on the Labrador plateau before the introduction of firearms. More immediately, his experiences evidently persuaded the mission authorities that it was not possible to control the caribou hunt, since the Inuit travelled long distances over difficult terrain, broke up into small, constantly shifting bands, and endured considerable hardships.

In 1782 Turner left Nain to join the staff of a new station called Hoffenthal in German or Hopedale in English, and built that year under Haven’s direction. Now recognized as a competent and experienced missionary, he was ordained deacon on 12 May 1784 and given permission to marry. As was frequently the case, Turner’s marriage, on 25 August to Sybilla Maria Willin, probably from the Moravian settlement at Barby, Saxony (German Democratic Republic), occurred shortly after his ordination. Wives were often provided to missionaries by the European settlements, and it is probable that the couple had never met before Maria’s arrival at Hopedale four days earlier.

In 1789 Turner made a short trip to England, returning to Hopedale in July 1790 as one of its senior missionaries. The early 1790s were a difficult time for the mission in general and for Hopedale in particular, since the Inuit, whether or not they had been baptized, were being strongly attracted south by traders at Baie des Esquimaux (Hamilton Inlet), Sandwich Bay, and other places; this attraction compromised the missionaries’ goals of converting and settling the natives, a task rendered difficult in any case by their religious leaders or angakut [see Tuglavina*]. Between 1790 and 1792 Moravian authorities seriously considered abandoning Hopedale. Not until later in the 1790s were significant gains of converts made.

Possibly the tensions of a difficult period, but certainly ethnic prejudice, led to bad relations between Turner and the German first helper or leader of the Labrador missions, Brother Christian Ludwig Rose. In January 1791 Rose and the Turners had a violent disagreement from which Mrs Turner, who was pregnant with their second child (they already had a son), was obliged to retreat to bed. Their daughter was born in April but survived only 11 days, and Mrs Turner never fully recovered from the difficult birth, which Turner blamed on their tense relations with Rose. In September Turner wrote the Brethren in England that Rose “is such an enimy to the English Brethren as I have never met with in the Congn. he can scarce bear to hear anyone speak of England.” That month Turner was transferred to the Okak station to take charge of trade; he remained there until his retirement to England in 1793, possibly as a result of continuing friction with his German superiors.

J. K. Hiller

Manuscripts relating to the establishment of the Moravian missions in Labrador are held at the Moravian Arch. in Bethlehem, Pa., and in the Moravian Church in Great Britain and Ireland Arch., London. Both the PAC (MG 17, Dl) and Memorial Univ. of Nfld. (St John’s) possess microfilm copies of documentary material. Personal information concerning William Turner was found in the Okak church book, now in the Moravian Mission Arch. in Nain, Nfld. Turner is the author of a journal housed in the Moravian archives in London; edited by J. Garth Taylor, it was published as “William Turner’s journeys to the caribou country with the Labrador Eskimos in 1780,” in Ethnohistory (Tucson, Ariz.), 16 (1969): 141–64.

J. K. Hiller, “The foundation and the early years of the Moravian mission in Labrador, 1752–1805” (ma thesis, Memorial Univ. of Nfld., [1968]).

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

J. K. Hiller, “TURNER, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/turner_william_5E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/turner_william_5E.html
Author of Article:   J. K. Hiller
Title of Article:   TURNER, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1983
Year of revision:   1983
Access Date:   September 28, 2023