I came to know about Howard Thurman, like many do, through hearing about him in relation to Martin Luther King (Jr and Sr). He was a classmate with MLK Sr at Morehouse College. And then, during Thurman’s first year as Dean of the Boston College Chapel, Thurman overlapped with MLK Jr as he was finishing up his Ph.D. It is said that MLK Jr carried a copy of Jesus and the Disinherited with him during his Civil Rights years. Their relationship is probably not as formative to King as I had thought earlier, but there are many letters between them.
Regardless of his relationship with King, Howard Thurman is a path-breaking man. His father died young, and as the story at the beginning of the book says, “I said, ‘One thing is sure. When I grow up and become a man, I will never have anything to do with the church.'” His father died when he was seven, and because his father was not a member of the church, the pastor initially refused to allow a funeral at the church. After being pressured to permit the burial, the pastor refused to participate. A traveling evangelist agreed to do the funeral but turned it into a spectacle for evangelism instead of a memorial.
Despite the early negative relationship to the church, Thurman had an early mystical experience calling him to be a minster. Throughout his life, he was a mystic in orientation. I am not going to cover his whole career; you can read his Wikipedia page for a summary, or the memoir for more detail. After becoming a pastor, teaching, and serving as chaplain at Morehouse and Spelman, serving as a Dean at Howard University Chapel and a faculty member, he left the academic world in 1944 to co-pastor an intentionally interracial church in San Francisco. It is one of the earliest intentionally interracial congregations with Howard Thurman as co-pastor, but the only paid pastor and primary lead for most of the time. After nine years, Thurman became the Dean of Boston College Chapel, the first Black man to have a similar position at a predominately White University. He remained there 12 years until 1965 when he officially retired and led the Howard Thurman Educational Trust until he died in 1981.
In addition to his work breaking down racial lines, preparing others for ministry and being writer, speaker, preacher, and mentor, he was important to interreligious dialogue, the international peace movement, and sociology of religion. He and his equally formidable wife, Sue Bailey Thurman and two others, spent nearly a year touring India in the 1930s to learn about the non-violent protests, share about the state of Black oppression in the US, and eventually meeting with Gandhi. That trip to India impacted the rest of his ministry, not just because of how it influenced his orientation toward non-violence, but also in how he thought about and interacted with non-Christians, especially as a Black man in Jim Crow-era United States.
I felt the heat in the question “If Christianity is not powerless, why is it not changing life in your country and the rest of the world? If it is powerless, why are you here representing it to us?” Hearing this, our party went from campus to campus, city to city, town to town, talking and lecturing and sharing. This question also presented a definite problem to the missionary, particularly the American missionary.
and this recounting of a conversation with Gandhi
At the final leavetaking, I said, “Will you now, ending, answer just one question? What do you think is the greatest handicap to Jesus Christ in India?” It was apropos of something lie had said to me about Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. I wanted to know his real thought about the chief obstacle in his own country which prevented the spread of Christianity. He answered, “Christianity as it is practiced, as it has been identified with Western culture, with Western civilization and colonialism. This is the greatest enemy that Jesus Christ has in my country—not Hinduism, or Buddhism, or any of the indigenous religions—but Christianity itself.”
The mysticism of Thurman did not come out in this autobiography as much as the book of audio clips I listened to last year. But it was here. This quote from the end of the book, I think is a good summary of the type of mystical discussion that there is here.
It is important in this accounting that at bottom all of this was a part of my meaning of God in the common life. God was everywhere and utterly identified with every single thing, incident, or person. The phrases “the God of Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob,” or again, “the God of Jesus” were continuously luminous to me in my journey. I prayed to God, I talked to Jesus. He was a companion. There was no felt need in my spirit to explain this companionship. There never has been. God was a reality. Jesus was a fact. From my earliest memories, Jesus was religious subject rather than religious object. It was Jesus with whom I talked as I sat under my oak tree fingering the bruises and scars of my childhood. Such was the pretheological ground for me when both life and time spread out before me. The older I have grown, the more it is clear that what I needed to hold me to my path was the sure knowledge that I was committed to a single journey with but a single goal—a way toward life. In formal and religious terms this meant for me the disclosure of the Will of God. And from this flowed an inescapable necessity: to be totally involved. What I did with my life had to be secure in the inclusive sense that only the word “total” can signify. The ground of many of the boyhood experiences I have described stands out clearly as part of this single fabric.