John D. Turner, Cotner Professor of religious studies and Mach University Professor of Classics and History, died Oct. 26, following a short battle with cancer. He was 81.
Turner was born July 15, 1938, to Warren O. and Dorothy (Holdsworth) Turner in Glen Ridge, New Jersey. He spent his early childhood listening to his mother play the piano, summering at Cape Cod and taking many trips to the shore, beginning his lifelong love of swimming in the ocean.
Turner graduated from Trinity Pawling Preparatory School in 1956, where he was a member of the football and track teams. He then attended Dartmouth College, majoring in philosophy and mathematics. He was a member of Phi Tau Fraternity and the swim team. He joined Army ROTC and was activated into the Army at the rank of second lieutenant before being honorably discharged in 1968.
Turner earned a bachelor of divinity and master of theology at Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Afterward, he enrolled in graduate school at Duke University. At Duke, his thesis adviser introduced him to the ancient Gnostic documents that had been found in a cave near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, now known as the Nag Hammadi codices.
Turner joined a group of scholars led by James Robinson of Claremont Graduate University to reconstruct, translate and write commentary on these documents, and wrote his dissertation on the Book of Thomas (the Contender) from this corpus of literature.
After earning his doctorate in religion in 1970 from Duke, Turner continued to work in Claremont, also serving as assistant dean. He then went to the University of Montana-Missoula. After the Cotner College School of Religion’s decision to close in Lincoln, the organization put its resources to the establishment of a religion program at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and Turner served as the first professor in the program, arriving at Nebraska in 1976. He was responsible for all religious studies courses for close to two decades, and was instrumental in forming the curricula for the minor, and eventually, the major.
Turner was among the first to publish critical editions of the Nag Hammadi codices and a translation for general readers, “Nag Hammadi Library in English.” These texts have gone on to revolutionize our understanding of the development of Christianity, suggesting that the religion had a much broader and more diverse range of followers in its early centuries than had been thought possible.
The research of these documents gained a global following, and Turner served as member of the UNESCO International Committee for the Nag Hammadi Codices and the editorial board for the French language Nag Hammadi project at the Université Laval in Québec City.
Turner earned a University of Nebraska Outstanding Research and Creativity Activity award in 2003, having earned the same award from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2002.
In the community, Turner enjoyed sharing his vocal music talents through membership in choirs at First Plymouth Congregational, First United Methodist and First Presbyterian Churches and Lincoln Choral Artists. He was also a member of the Hartley Neighborhood Association, Lincoln Choral Artists board of directors, Arts for the Soul and Faculty Senate.
Turner is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Sterns; daughter Angela Turner; stepdaughter Sarah Elizabeth Sterns; brother Warren H. Turner; and many in-laws, nieces, nephews and friends. He was preceded in death by his parents and sister, Marjorie; sister-in-law, Lee Turner; niece, Pam Turner; and stepmother, Madge Turner.
Services are 3:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at First Presbyterian Church, 17th and F streets. The family requests no flowers, and memorials may be sent to the family for designation to the John Turner Religious Studies Student Scholarship Fund.