Thurman, Howard 1900–1981
Howard Thurman 1900–1981
Theologian, clergyman, writer
A preacher, teacher, scholar, author, poet, and mystic, Howard Thurman was one of the leading lights of the black intellectual community in the twentieth century and an inspiration to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He helped introduce to the movement the ideals of nonviolence as espoused by Indian nationalist Mahatma Gandhi and was instrumental in defining the role of black churches in the struggle for social change. As Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise, wrote shortly after Thurman’s death in 1981, “Howard Thurman believed that the central role of religion is to bring people together and promote harmony in human relations. He advocated a ‘liberation theology’ long before the term came into popular use…. [He] worked behind the scenes, carefully putting together a theology that would reconcile the struggles of the civil rights era with the spiritual concerns of the church.”
Thurman was born in Daytona, Florida, in 1900. Daytona was a small town, except in the winter, when such wealthy northerners as the Rockefellers and the Gambles came to the South for the season. Though Daytona was strictly segregated, the presence of so many northern families softened the racial tensions somewhat. In his autobiography, With Head and Heart, Thurman remembered that the blacks, in their own neighborhoods, were “secure and at home, free to move and go about [their] business as [they] pleased.” Though African-Americans were not persecuted, their opportunities were strictly limited. The city of Daytona provided no schooling for black children beyond the seventh grade, one year short of the requirement for admission to high school. Thurman observed: “Without an eighth grade there could be no demand for a black high school; and if by chance a demand were made, it could be denied on the ground that no black children could qualify.”
Thurman’s academic potential so impressed the principal of the black elementary school, however, that he volunteered to teach Thurman the eighth grade material privately. “At the end of the winter,” Thurman recalled in With Head and Heart, “he informed the public school superintendent that he had a boy who was ready to take the eighth-grade examination and asked permission to give the test. The superintendent agreed to let me take the test, but only on the condition that he examine me himself. I passed, and a short time later the eighth grade level was added to the Negro public school.”
Born November 18,1900, in Daytona, FL; died April 10, 1981, in San Francisco, CA; son of Saul Solomon (a railroad worker) and Alice (Ambrose) Thurman; married Kate Kelly (a social worker), 1926 (died, 1930); married Sue Bailey (a writer and social historian), June 12, 1932; children: (first marriage) Olive Thurman Wong, (second marriage) Anne Thurman Chiarenza. Education: Morehouse College, B.A., 1923; Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, B.D., 1926; postgraduate study at Oberlin School of Theology, 1926-27, and Haverford College, 1929.
Ordained Baptist minister, 1925; Mt. Zion Church, Oberlin, OH, pastor, 1926-28; Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, professor of religion and philosophy, 1929-31; Spelman College, Atlanta, professor of religion and religious adviser, 1929-31; Howard University, Washington, DC, professor of religion, 1932-43, dean of Rankin Chapel, 1935-43; Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, San Francisco, CA, co-pastor and cofounder, 1944-53; Boston University, Boston, MA, professor of spiritual resources and disciplines, 1953-64, minister-at-large, 1964-65; Howard Thurman Educational Trust, San Francisco, director, 1965-81; writer. Visiting professor at numerous colleges and universities and guest lecturer at more than five hundred schools, churches, and other institutions.
Awards : Honorary degrees from Morehouse College, 1935, Colgate-Rochester School of Divinity, 1935, Wesleyan University, 1946, Howard University, 1955, Oberlin College, 1958, Ohio Wesleyan University, 1954, and Tuskegee Institute, 1956; named one of 12 great preachers of the twentieth century by Life, 1953;
Even with an eighth grade diploma in his hand, Thurman could not continue his education in Daytona; indeed, there were only three black public high schools in the state of Florida. Though the family was poor, they managed to enroll Howard in a church-supported high school in Jacksonville, where he lived with a cousin, doing chores in exchange for room and board. This plan was nearly derailed when he went to board the train to Jacksonville, only to find that his battered trunk, because it had no handles and was tied shut with rope, could not be checked as baggage and had to be sent as freight an extra charge. Having spent all his money on his ticket, Thurman sat down on the station steps and began crying in frustration. A stranger, a black man dressed in overalls, asked him what the trouble was. When Thurman explained, the man went to the ticket paid When explained the freight went to the ticket agent, paid the freight charge, and walked away. Thurman never learned the man’s name or saw him again.
Thurman’s stint in high school also proved to be a struggle. After the first year he was unable to live with his cousin, and with most of his money going toward his rent, he often did not get enough to eat and his health was poor. In spite of such difficulties, he graduated as class valedictorian in 1919, an honor that won him a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta.
When he entered Morehouse, Thurman had not thought of becoming a minister and majored in economics. He was deeply interested in religion and philosophy, though, taking every course Morehouse offered in those fields. Licensed as a lay Baptist preacher when he was 21 years old, he as yet felt no clear vocation to the ministry. A summer school course in philosophy at Columbia University led him further in that direction, but it was not until his senior year that he decided to attend the seminary. Even then he was not sure where that course of study would lead him.
Thurman graduated with honors in the spring of 1923 and applied to Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York. The school had a strict racial quota: no more than two black students were admitted in each class. It was Thurman’s first experience living in “a totally white world,” and one he found “staggering.” “All my professors were white men,” he wrote in his autobiography, “who seemed quite old to me, compared with the more youthful teachers of my Morehouse days… The general atmosphere at Rochester contrasted sharply with the more personal and responsive ambience of Morehouse College.”
Thurman was readily accepted by his white classmates and was elected class president; still, numerous small incidents occurred to remind him that he was a black man in a predominantly white society. His belief in the universality of the Christian message of love was sometimes tested, but his experience at Rochester ultimately served to confirm his conviction that the “magnetic field of ethical awareness” must be extended to all people, a belief he carried with him throughout his life.
It was not until the summer after his first year in the seminary that he finally made the decision to be ordained. The moment of truth came while he was serving as assistant to the minister of a Baptist church in Virginia, taking over pastoral duties while the minister was on vacation. On his first night in the parsonage, he received a call from the local hospital, where a patient who was dying had asked for a minister. Thurman explained to the nurse that the regular minister was away, and she asked him if he was a minister. “In one kaleidoscopic moment I was back again at an old crossroad,” Thurman remarked in his autobiography. “A decision of vocation was to be made here, and again I felt the ambivalence of my life and my calling. Finally I answered. ’Yes, I am a minister.”’
Thurman was ordained a year later and after graduating first in his class from Rochester in 1926, accepted a position as pastor of a black Baptist church in Oberlin, Ohio. His reputation as an inspiring preacher spread rapidly, drawing both blacks and whites from Oberlin College, the town, and the surrounding area. Within a few months, Mount Zion Baptist Church had an integrated congregation, something almost unheard of in America at that time.
Thurman’s tenure at Oberlin was short-lived due to a chance encounter with the ideas of the man who was to be his greatest spiritual mentor. While at a church conference, he casually picked up a secondhand copy of Finding the Trail of Life, by the Quaker philosopher-mystic Rufus Jones. In Howard Thurman: Portrait of a Practical Dreamer Elizabeth Yates wrote that Jones was “a man with whom [Thurman] felt instant kinship…. Somehow [Jones] had been sure that God was for him and would not let go of him…. He, too, was convinced that what counted most was always ’religion and experience, not theory and theology.”’
In 1929 Thurman moved to Haverford, Pennsylvania, to study with Jones. In his autobiography, Thurman referred to his time at Haverford as “a crucial experience, a watershed from which flowed much of the thought and endeavor to which I was to commit the rest of my working life. These months defined my deepest religious urges and framed in meaning much of what I had learned over the years…. The ethical emphasis in [Jones’s] interpretations of mystical religion dealt primarily with war and peace, the poverty and hunger of whole populations, and the issues arising from the conflict between nations. Paradoxically, in his presence, the specific issues of race with which I had been confronted all my life as a black man in America seemed strangely irrelevant. I felt that somehow he transcended race; I did so too, temporarily, and, in retrospect, this aspect of my time with him remains an enigma.”
In the fall of 1929 Thurman was offered a teaching post at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges. It was here that he began to consider how to apply his religious insights to social problems. His discussions with students, he wrote in his autobiography, “came around to the central problems of self-realization as black men in American society. Invariably, we asked, Why are we in college? What are we trying to find? How can we immunize ourselves against the destructive aspects of the environment? How [can we] manage the carking fear of the white man’s power and not be defeated by our own rage and hatred?” At this time, too, he began studying the insights of the black religious tradition, especially those contained in the words of spirituals, an analysis that culminated in his first book, Deep River.
In 1932 Thurman moved to the School of Religion at Howard University, where university president Mordecai Johnson was striving to build a community of first-rate black scholars. As a social ethics teacher and dean of Rankin Chapel, Thurman joined Ralph Bunche, Carter G. Woodson, Benjamin Mays, and many others on the faculty of the finest black university of its day. One of Thurman’s most prominent students, James Farmer, who founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and served as its chairman for many years, wrote about his memories of Thurman in his own autobiography, Lay Bare the Heart: “When Thurman occupied the university pulpit, Rankin Memorial Chapel was packed…. so mesmerizing was his resonant voice and so captivating was the artistry of his delivery.” Thurman directed Farmer’s master’s thesis, and introduced him to the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. “Farmer grew captivated by the social concern that Thurman added to his intoxicating brew of poetry and mysticism,” observed Keith Miller in Voice of Deliverance.“He followed Thurman in becoming a pacifist and a Gandhian.” The principles of nonviolent resistance to oppression that Farmer learned through Thurman were later put to use in freedom rides, sit-ins, and civil disobedience during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Thurman encountered Gandhi’s ideas in the 1930s, when India’s campaign against British colonialism was at its height. Many African-Americans had been fascinated by the struggle and wondered if Gandhi’s principle of ahimsa —a doctrine that forbid harming any living being—could be applied to the American racial situation. In 1935, Thurman and his wife were asked to be part of a delegation of African-Americans to visit India, Burma, and Ceylon on behalf of the World Student Christian Federation. Thurman had reservations about going abroad as a representative of an American Christianity that still practiced segregation, but when the committee sponsoring the trip assured him that he would not be expected to defend the practices of American churches, he accepted the invitation.
The delegation left for India in the fall of 1935 and remained there until the following spring. Thurman spoke to numerous gatherings of Asian students and had many conversations with Hindus, Moslems, and Buddhists. He was often challenged to defend Christianity in the light of the oppression of people of color by white Christians; his response, as he set it forth years later in his book Jesus and the Disinherited, was to make a distinction between institutional Christianity and “the religion of Jesus.”
Responding to his Asian questioners, Thurman spoke of Jesus’ status as a member of an oppressed and colonized minority in the Roman Empire. “The basic fact,” he explained in his autobiography, “is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker [Jesus] appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus…. Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”
The climax of the journey to India was Thurman’s meeting with Gandhi. They talked for three hours at the Indian leader’s ashram—a secluded Hindu dwelling—discussing the Indian struggle for independence and the African-American struggle for equality.
Thurman returned to Howard University to incorporate Gandhi’s message into his teaching and his preaching. He remained at Howard until 1944, when he was offered a position as co-pastor of a new church that was forming in San Francisco. The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples was conceived as a nondenominational, interracial congregation. Thurman saw it as a chance to realize his dream of a religious community in which there would be “neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Moslem, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself,” Yates quoted him as saying in Howard Thurman. He took the job, at a much lower salary than his Howard professorship, and began to reach a wider audience. He was invited to preach in churches and lecture at colleges all over the United States, and in 1953, the year he left San Francisco for Boston University, Life named him one of the 12 best preachers in the United States.
It was also during this period that Thurman became an author. His first book, Deep River, grew out of a lecture he delivered at Harvard University entitled “The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death.” In it he developed his idea of the black religious tradition as a resource for both enduring and overcoming oppression. A few years later, in Jesus and the Disinherited, he expanded on this theme, setting forth his blend of Christian mysticism, social ethics, and Gandhian nonviolent resistance. This book was a favorite of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who often paraphrased it in his speeches.
King, who was in his last year of doctoral studies at Boston University when Thurman joined the faculty there, had a close relationship with the older minister. In There Is a Balm in Gilead, Lewis Baldwin quoted King’s friend Dr. Philip Lenud as saying, “[King] loved and respected Thurman…. [Thurman] had a personal, spiritual influence on Martin that was so lofty, and that helped him to endure. The spiritual and moral energy Thurman generated influenced him so much.” King himself called Thurman one of “the outstanding Christian personalities of the nation.”
Thurman remained at Boston University until his retirement in 1965, serving as Dean of March Chapel—the first African-American to hold such a post at a predominantly white university—and as professor of spiritual disciplines and resources. Upon his retirement he continued to write, lecture and head the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, a foundation devoted to the education of black youth, until his death in 1981.
In 1988 Boston University published a testimonial memoir entitled Howard Thurman: His Enduring Dream, in which many who had known Thurman told what he had meant to them. One of those quoted was civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who recalled: “Dr. Thurman was a teacher of teachers, a leader of leaders, a preacher of preachers. No small wonder, then, that Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, Samuel Proctor, Vernon Jordan, Otis Moss, and I sat at his feet, for we knew it was a blessing to give this prophet a glass of water or to touch the hem of his garment…. As an activist I was attracted to Dr. Thurman, for he always challenged me and mine to move to what he called “the irreducible essence”—and I searched for that irreducible essence…. His point was that if you ever developed a cultivated will, with spiritual discipline, the flame of freedom would never perish. The irreducible essence, the cultivated will with spiritual discipline, would never perish…. He sowed the seeds that bred generations of activists who tore down ancient walls of oppression. Howard Thurman was our gallant leader.”
Deep River: An Interpretation of Negro Spirituals, Eucalyptus Press, 1945, revised edition, Harper, 1955.
The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, Harper, 1947.
Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness, Beacon Press, 1948.
Jesus and the Disinherited, Abingdon, 1949, reprinted, Friends United Press, 1981.
Meditations of the Heart, Harper, 1953, reprinted, Friends United Press, 1972.
The Creative Encounter, Harper, 1953, reprinted, Friends United Press, 1972.
Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, Harper, 1959.
Mysticism and the Experience of Love, Pendle Hill, 1961.
The Inward Journey, Harper, 1961, reprinted, Friends United Press, 1973.
Disciplines of the Spirit, Harper, 1963.
The Luminous Darkness, Harper, 1965.
The Centering Moment, Harper, 1969, reprinted, Friends United Press,1984.
The Search for Common Ground: An Inquiry Into the Basis of Man’s Experience of Community, Harper, 1971, reprinted, Friends United Press, 1986.
With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, Harcourt, 1980.
For the Inward Journey: The Writings of Howard Thurman, selected by Anne Spencer Thurman, Harcourt, 1984.
Baldwin, Lewis V., There Is a Balm in Gilead, Fortress, 1991.
Farmer, James, Lay Bare the Heart, Arbor House 1985.
MacKechnie, George K., Howard Thurman: His Enduring Dream, Boston University, 1988.
Miller, Keith D., Voice of Deliverance, The Free Press, 1992.
Thurman, Howard, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, Harcourt, 1980.
Thurman, Howard, For the Inward Journey: The Writings of Howard Thurman, Harcourt, 1984.
Yates, Elizabeth, Howard Thurman: Portrait of a Practical Dreamer, John Day, 1964.
Atlantic Monthly, October 1953.
Black Enterprise, July 1981.
Life, April 6, 1955.
Nation, January 5-12, 1980.
New York Times, March 22, 1953.
November 18, 1900
April 10, 1981
Minister and educator Howard Thurman, whose career as pastor, scholar, teacher, and university chaplain extended over fifty years, was the author of over twenty books. One of the most creative religious minds of the twentieth century, Thurman touched the lives of many cultural leaders within and beyond the modern civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Alan Paton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, Rabbi Alvin Fine, and Arthur Ashe. "The search for common ground" was the defining motif of Thurman's life and thought. This vision of the kinship of all peoples, born of Thurman's own personal struggles with the prohibitions of race, religion, and culture, propelled him into the mainstream of American Christianity as a distinctive interpreter of the church's role in a pluralistic society.
The grandson of slaves, Thurman was born in Daytona, Florida, and raised in its segregated black community. He was educated in the local black school, where he was the first African American to complete the eighth grade. He attended high school at Florida Baptist Academy (1915–1919), one of only three public high schools for blacks in the state. Upon graduation, Thurman attended Morehouse College (1919–1923) and Rochester Theological Seminary (1923–1926). After serving as pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio, for two years (1926–1928), he studied with the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones in the spring of 1929. He served as director of religious life and professor of religion at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges (1929–1930), and dean of Rankin Chapel and professor of religion at Howard University (1932–1944).
Thurman was cofounder and copastor of the pioneering interracial, interfaith Fellowship Church for All Peoples in San Francisco from 1944 to 1953. In 1953 he assumed the dual appointment of professor of spiritual resources and disciplines and dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He founded the Howard Thurman Educational Trust in San Francisco in 1961, which he administered after his retirement in 1965 until his death in 1981.
The Faith Project. Public Broadcasting Service. "This Far by Faith," April 2003. Available from <http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/howard_thurman.html>.
Fluker, Walter, and Catherine Tumber, eds. A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Mitchell, Mozella Gordon. Spiritual Dynamics of Howard Thurman's Theology. Bristol, Ind.: Wyndham Hall Press, 1985.
Smith, Luther E. Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981.
walter earl fluker (1996)