Howard Thurman is remembered first and foremost as a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr., but he is also widely regarded as one of the greatest African American spiritual leaders of the twentieth century. He is also the most widely recognized, and universally celebrated, of African-American mystics.
Over a long ministry, which included serving as dean of the chapel at Howard University and Boston University, he became renowned not only as a gifted preacher but also a prolific author of more than twenty-eight books. His writing and his sermons reveal a deep contemplative sensibility, grounded in the encounter with the God who is Love that informed his commitment to social justice and nonviolence.
Howard Washington Thurman was born on November 18, 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, the grandson of slaves; he graduated from Morehouse College in 1923. Ordained a Baptist minister, he befriended the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones; in 1935 he traveled to India and met Mahatma Gandhi, who shared with Thurman his commitment to promote nonviolence; Gandhi thought that the African American community could be the champions for nonviolence in America.
These prophetic words bore fruit in the spiritual friendship that blossomed between Thurman and MLK at Boston University in the early 1950s— shortly before the younger minister would change history when he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama in 1955–6. Throughout Dr. King’s leadership of the civil rights movement, he continued to correspond with Thurman, who counseled him to remain grounded in nonviolence, which was the way not only of Gandhi but also of Jesus.
It is said that Martin Luther King Jr. carried Howard Thurman’s book Jesus and the Disinherited with him at all times. This book, an unflinching examination of how racism continued to shape American life and American Christianity in the mid-twentieth century, could be seen as a spiritual manifesto that anticipated the Civil Rights movement. It is a deeply contemplative book, brilliantly considering how racism is both a matter of grave injustice and a profound spiritual problem requiring a spiritual liberation for all people. Few books that I have read, at any rate, so eloquently detail the essential unity of spirituality and justice.
While his relationship with King alone would mark Thurman as a true, if under-appreciated, hero; when we consider also the rich mystical sensibility that characterizes Thurman’s sermons and writings, it is clear that he is one of the great twentieth-century Christian contemplatives. Indeed, I believe that, if America were not such a racist nation, Thurman would easily be as well known in contemplative Christian circles as his white peers like Thomas Merton or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Even the titles of his books display his mystical heart: Deep Is the Hunger, Meditations of the Heart, The Inward Journey, The Luminous Darkness, and The Centering Moment all speak to Thurman’s rich recognition that the heart of Christian spirituality concerns how inner transformation shapes outer behavior.
Thurman brought a keen intellect to his study of spirituality, but he always recognized that Christian mysticism is grounded in love. In his Pendle Hill pamphlet Mysticism and the Experience of Love, Thurman defined mysticism as “the response of the individual to a personal encounter with God within his own spirit.” Recognizing that God is love, Thurman understood that love calls us away from and beyond our human tendency to judge, and that authentic love is related to vulnerability, to freedom, and to the willingness to suffer with and on behalf of the beloved.
Thus, “God is Love” means something far more than mere sentimentality: it is an invitation into an awe-inspiring power that can literally change the world. “The mystic experiences unity, not identity, but it is a unity that penetrates through all the levels of consciousness and fills him with a sense of the Other,” wrote Thurman. “He discovers, however, that it is not possible to keep the consciousness of the presence of God alive at a high point in his experience over long time intervals . . . He comes upon the fact that deep within the structure of his own personality and life are the things which obscure and blot out his vision.”
For Thurman, the key to retaining the consciousness of such divine unity was found in what he termed “disciplines of the spirit,” including growing in wisdom, suffering, prayer, and reconciliation—all key elements not only in inner, spiritual growth, but also in the challenging but necessary work of struggling for social justice.
Although Jesus and the Disinherited remains Thurman’s undisputed masterpiece, I need to put in a word for his beautiful, and elegantly written biography, With Head and Heart. Meanwhile, Thurman has also been widely recognized for a quotation that was recorded by theologian Gil Bailie, based on a conversation he had with Thurman. Bailie recalls receiving this advice from Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” This conveys a profound mystical truth: that the heart of union with God (union with Love) consists precisely in awakening to who we truly are, and in such coming alive, we give ourselves joyously to God and to others.
To explore Howard Thurman’s wisdom, read any of the books listed above, or check out an anthology like Howard Thurman: Essential Writings (Orbis Books) or A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Beacon Press). We are blessed that Thurman lived recently enough (he died in 1981) that we have audio recordings of many of his sermons and other talks. Some of these are collected in a Sounds True anthology, The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for Our Time. Many more of Dr. Thurman’s audio recordings are available online at the Howard Thurman Virtual Listening Room sponsored by Boston College.
N.B. This post is adapted from Howard Thurman’s entry in Christian Mystics: 108 Seers, Saints and Sages.