The Common Good
July-August 1999

Mystic, Prophet, and Seeker

by Larry Bellinger | July-August 1999

The

That Howard Thurman is not a household name is a situation that may soon change. As more and more folks search for an aspect of spirituality in their lives, the facile, self-centered New Age spirituality popularized by Oprah Winfrey's weekday lineup of best-selling authors may give way to the higher ground exemplified by Thurman. A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, edited by Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber, is a marvelous introduction for those unfamiliar with the man described variously as "mystic" and "prophet." For the many influenced by Thurman's prodigious body of work—which includes essays, poems, lectures, meditations, and, of course, sermons—this 340-page compilation is a welcome new dish for an ever-expanding feast.

Born November 18, 1899, in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman was raised in the brutal climate of Jim Crow. It was his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who taught him to value knowledge, though she could neither read nor write. Thurman did his undergraduate work at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and then attended Rochester (New York) Divinity School. He took on his first pastoral role at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio, where he conducted his first experiments with integrated worship in what Luther E. Smith, author of Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet, calls "the context of realizing community."

Thurman's desire to work in academia led him back to Atlanta, and Morehouse and Spellman Colleges, in 1929. He was soon recruited by the legendary Mordecai Johnson, then president of Howard University, to lead religious life at this most prestigious university in black America. In the book, this era is introduced with the sermon "Barren or Fruitful?" which Thurman delivered as he prepared to assume his role. Using Jeremiah 17, Thurman urged his listeners to find their security in God, not in the opinion of others. As Fluker and Tumber note, the denunciation of social elitism was an important theme throughout Thurman's career, particularly as he entered the realm of black society's elite at Howard.

Thurman was throughout his life a seeker, and in 1935 he and his second wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, made an eight-month pilgrimage to India. His experience there is richly detailed in the section titled "What We May Learn From India," which the editors describe as an early draft of a formal report on the trip. The journey brought Thurman into contact with Mohandas Gandhi, who told him that "the greatest enemy that the religion of Jesus has in India is Christianity in India." When throughout his journey Thurman was confronted with the contradictions of Christianity within segregated societies, he answered by distinguishing Christianity from the religion of Jesus.

WHEN HE RETURNED to Howard University, Thurman began experimenting with different liturgies and mysticism in an effort to achieve community within a diverse audience. Thurman addressed the questions of mysticism and ethics in a series of lectures delivered at Eden Theological Seminary in 1939. In the chapter "Mysticism and Social Change," the editors have chosen two lectures from that series that illustrate Thurman's belief that the "goal of the mystic...is to know God in a comprehensive sense;...the vision of God is realized inclusively."

Establishing "community" in Howard's closed cultural environment through inclusive worship practices was a lofty goal. In order to experiment in a more culturally diverse environment, Thurman accepted an invitation to San Francisco to co-found the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (Fellowship Church) in 1944. Fellowship Church was Thurman's answer to the segregated Christianity of America. His writing during this period also led to his first book, Jesus and the Disinherited, published in 1949, which many consider to be the handbook of the civil rights movement. The editors have included two chapters from this, his most popular book, including "Jesus—An Interpretation."

We are fortunate that A Strange Freedom is merely the tip of the iceberg. Fluker and Tumber have been compiling audiotaped material, correspondence, and unpublished work along with relatively unknown published material into a forthcoming three-volume edition titled The Sound of the Genuine: The Papers of Howard Thurman. In November, filmmaker Arleigh Prelow of InSpirit Communications will release a documentary titled Howard Thurman: In Search of Common Ground. Thurman is well on his way to becoming a household name.

Larry Bellinger was administrative assistant at Sojourners when this article appeared.

A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life. edited by Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber. Beacon press, 1998.

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