Turkson was born on October 11, 1948 in Wassa Nsuta, in Western Ghana to a Methodist mother and a Catholic father. He studied at St. Teresa's Seminary in the village of Amisano and Pedu before attending St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, New York, where he graduated as a Master of Theology. He was ordained to the priesthood by Archbishop John Amissah on July 20, 1975.
Turkson was a professo at St Teresa's Minor Seminary from 1975 to 1976, whence he entered the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome earning alicentiate in Sacred Scripture in 1980. He returned to St Teresa's for a year, 1980–81, and became vice-rector at St Peter's Seminary in 1981. He also did pastoral work in aparish annexed to the seminary. In 1987, he returned to the Pontifical Biblical Institute to receive a doctorate in Sacred Scripture (1992).
On October 06, 1992, Turkson was appoint Archbishop of Cape Coast by Pope John Paul II. He received his episcopal consecration1993 from Archbishop Dominic Kodwo Andoh, with Archbishops Peter Poreku Dery and Peter Kwasi Sarpong serving as co-consecrators. He served as President of the Ghana Catholic Bishop's Conference from 1997 to 2005, and as Chancellor of the Catholic University College of Ghana since 2003.
John Paul II created Turkson Cardinal Priest of S. Liborio in his last consistory of October 21, 2003. Turkson is the first ghanaian cardinal who participated in the papal conclave of 2005 which elected Pope Benedict XVII. He was described as "one of Africa's most energetic church leaders" by The Tablet, a Roman Catholic magazine published in London.
Immediately following the announcement on 11 February 2013 of the impending resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, at least two bookmakers, Paddy Power and Ladbrokes, made Turkson the favorite to be elected as the new Pope.