The Overlooked Spiritual Teacher: Dr. Howard Thurman

johonna-mccants_portraitby Johonna Turner

I enjoy reading about contemplative spirituality and the Bible’s call to holistic discipleship. With each text, I learn more about spiritual disciplines such as silence, solitude and stillness, how they position us for inward transformation by Jesus Christ, and how this personal transformation enables us to transform the world around us. In these writings, I often encounter the same lists of names – the philosophers, priests and prophets from Catholic and Protestant streams who authored great teachings on the spiritual life that are worthy of our attention. They include Saint Theresa of Avila, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Foster. Based on most of these lists, though, it seemed that no Black people nor any other people of color have made noteworthy contributions to the rich literature on contemplative Christian practice. It was only recently while reading the book Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color that I realized a glaring omission in these lists — the name of the African-American spiritual teacher, theologian and mystic Dr. Howard Thurman.

Howard Thurman is perhaps most well known as the spiritual advisor to civil rights leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer. In fact, Howard Thurman and King, Jr.’s father, Martin Luther King, Sr. were family friends as well as colleagues in seminary. King, Jr. was thus exposed to Thurman’s teachings from boyhood and likely encountered them again as a student at Morehouse. He later became Thurman’s protégé when he was enrolled as a seminary student at Boston University and Thurman was one of his professors. In mentoring King and other civil rights leaders, Howard Thurman was a central cultivator of the spiritual roots of the civil rights movement — teaching students, clergy and many others that social and political activism must be grounded in spirituality — in the study of Scripture, in self-awareness, and in the disciplined seeking of God. Dr. Thurman also sowed the seeds of the movement’s commitment to nonviolent resistance, or satygraha (love in action), which he learned directly from Mahatma Ghandi during a pilgrimage of African-Americans to South Asia, which he led in 1935 (while he was a professor at Howard University).

Dr. Thurman sought education in matters of the mind, heart and spirit from disparate sources. Whereas his formal academic training took place at Morehouse College, Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, and the Graduate School of Theology at Oberlin College, he also studied with the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones, and spent a summer at Columbia University studying philosophy. While still in seminary, Thurman began serving as an assistant to the pastor at a Baptist church in Roanoke, Virginia. Upon graduation in 1925, he was ordained as a Baptist minister. Only three years later, he would become the Professor of Theology and Director of Religious Life at Morehouse and Spelman colleges and in 1932 to join the faculty at Howard University as Professor of Systematic Theology and the Dean of Rankin Chapel. In 1944, Professor Thurman left his faculty position at Howard University to co-found the first interracial interdenominational church in the United States, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, in San Francisco, California. Nine years later, Dr. Thurman re-entered the professoriate — but this time at a historically white university. When he accepted the invitation to work at Boston University as the Professor of Spiritual Discipline and Resource, University Preacher, Minister to the University-at-Large, and Dean of Marsh Chapel, he became the first Black dean at a predominantly-white university.

I wish, however, to draw our attention to much more than his prestigious positions, beyond the numerous honorary doctorates Thurman has received, and the hundreds of lectures he has delivered at institutions around the world. I wish to draw our attention to the vast and important contributions Dr. Thurman has made to the literature on contemplative spirituality, the Christian’s call to reconciliation, and the radical life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Thurman is perhaps best known for his 1949 book, Jesus and the Disinherited, in which he responds to a question that first came to him during his trip to South Asia, What is the message of Jesus “for those whose backs are against the wall?” The result is a deep examination of Jesus’ teachings on the transforming power of love in the midst of oppression.

Another more familiar work is Meditations of the Heart (1953), a book of meditations Thurman wrote for use by the members of his multi-racial congregation, the Church of the Fellowship for All Peoples. In Meditation 26, “The Need for Approval,” he writes,

“We cannot escape the need for approval. It is a searching question. From whom do I seek approval and why?…This need of approval that complements the personality, giving to it a sense of well-being and significance, is the very core of the religious assurance. It is here that religion takes on its authenticity and authority in the life of the individual. Stripped of all superficialities, the claim of religion is that the ultimate basis of self-respect, the ultimate guarantor of the life of man, is found in God. To have a sense of being related to Him is the ultimate assurance — to miss this is to miss all.”

Deep is the Hunger (1951), The Inward Journey (1961), The Centering Moment (1969) and The Mood of Christmas (1973) are also collections of meditations, prayers and poems penned by Thurman to help us attend the voice of God and become deeply rooted in His presence; in Thurman’s own words from the Foreword of Meditations of the Heart, “Their purpose is to focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of life.”

Thurman have also given us stirring sermons (for e.g. The Growing Edge, 1956) as well as challenging lectures and essays (for e.g. Mysticism and the Experience of Love, 1961 and Disciplines of the Spirit, 1963) wherein he teaches about the unity of humanity, the relationship between inward discipline and outward action, and the need for spiritual disciplines including suffering, growth and reconciliation. In Footprints of a Dream (1959), he tells us “the Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples) and in the 1979 volume With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman,” he tells us the story of his life.

Thurman died in 1981. One expert on Thurman’s life and work has stated, “Dr. Thurman was way out ahead of his generation and he is, in fact, was a 21st century theologian working in the middle of the 20th century.” This may just be the encouragement we need to return to Thurman’s vast body of writings in our time and look closely at the legacy he left behind.

Recommended Resources:

The Legacy of Howard Thurman: Theologian and Mystic (Video)

Howard Thurman: This Far By Faith

Dangerous Spirituality by Vincent Harding, Sojourners Magazine.

Howard Thurman – An Annotated Bibliography

Johonna R. Turner is a member of Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. An educator, cultural worker and scholar, she has taught American studies and African American studies courses at the University of Maryland, provided training and program development services to community organizing and advocacy groups, and served as a Soros Justice Fellow with the Open Society Institute.

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One response to “The Overlooked Spiritual Teacher: Dr. Howard Thurman

  1. Thank you for this piece Dr. Turner I can validate many of your findings in my own journey. Thank you as well for mentioning the various resources .
    be well,
    Juanita Rasmus

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