Thurman, Howard

Mystic, Prophet, and Seeker

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."

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1999
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Dangerous Spirituality

"You have not come to hear a detached, scholarly lecture about the two powerful figures who are on our program. I am deeply and unavoidably attached. Fully engaged. One of them, Howard Thurman, was my adopted father, pastor, and spiritual guide. The other, Martin King, was my adopted brother and leader in the struggle." So began Dr. Vincent Harding, delivering the first Sojourners Spirituality Lecture, excerpted below, on March 10, 1998. Harding's lecture was delivered in Howard University's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel in Washington, D.C., where Howard Thurman once served as dean. —The Editors

In their different and sometimes similar ways, Howard Thurman and Martin King represented a spirituality deeply, solidly based in one place, among one people, about which they had no doubts at all. Just as Jesus of Nazareth represented a spirituality based in one place, among one people, about whom he had no doubts at all. At the same moment, both King and Thurman reached out far, far beyond that ground and that base and saw no contradictions in being grounded and reaching out as part of one motion of spirit and life.

Thurman was—and this was a deep part of his spirituality—a seeker. Thurman was never satisfied with the truth that he had achieved, knowing always that there was more to come, and that he must never think that he had found it all. And so in 1935, Howard Thurman and Sue Bailey Thurman—her name must be connected to his and his to hers, because they were a magnificent team and she was as powerful a figure as you could think of—went to India.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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