Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet
The Baptist tradition to which I belong has not produced many mystics or contemplatives. One of our few mystics was Howard Thurman (1900-1981), a pioneering African-American theologian and a prophetic voice for justice and peace–and for reconciliation between races, religions, denominations, and nations.
Born in Daytona Beach, FL, Thurman was raised in a family in which his mother was a devout Christian, but his father had no such faith. When his father died, Thurman never forgot–and never got over–the fact that the local Baptist preacher pronounced him in hell at the funeral. His grandmother, a former slave, would have him read the Bible to her–but never the letters of Paul because the slavemaster had used Paul’s writings (e.g., “all ye slaves, be good slaves”) to keep his human property “in their place.”
A brilliant student, Thurman won a full scholarship to Morehouse College, but was mugged before he could purchase his train ticket from Daytona Beach to Atlanta, GA. A stranger purchased that ticket for him. This incident later became a favorite Thurman illustration that NONE of us “make it on our own.” In addition to divine providence (or the human agents thereof), all of us who succeed at ANYTHING owe our success to countless others, including those whose names we never know.
The stranger’s help was not squandered; Thurman graduated Morehouse College as class valedictorian with a B.A. in religion & philosophy. After being denied entrance to Newton Theological Institute, the oldest Baptist seminary in the U.S. (now part of Andover-Newton Theological School) on account of race, Thurman went on to earn a B.D. from Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School), again at the top of his class. He pursued further study at Haverford College with the famous Quaker mystic & philosopher, Rufus Jones. Later, he was able to travel to India (on a trip co-sponsored by the YMCA–then still a recognizably Christian organization–and the Fellowship of Reconciliation) and meet with Gandhi, who told him that the future of nonviolence would be with the “Negro struggle” in the United States.
After briefly teaching in his alma mater, Morehouse College, Thurman became Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (1932-1944). Then as now, Howard University was the most prestigious historic African-American university in the U.S.A. and Thurman’s role combined that of pastor to students, chapel administrator and scheduler of speakers, and teaching in the university’s divinity school and undergraduate religion department.
Thurman left his tenured position at Howard in 1944 to found the first thoroughly interracial and ecumenical church in the nation, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, CA. It still exists today. From 1944 to 1953, Thurman was the founding pastor of “Fellowship Church” as it was popularly known. A pacifist and conscientious objector, he nonetheless had to minister to the families of American military personnel during the last part of World War II–and simultaneously minister to Japanese Americans returning from “detention camps.”
From 1953 until his retirement in 1965, Thurman was the dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, serving as that prestigious university’s first full time black faculty member. At BU, Thurman influenced generations of students, including a young Baptist preacher working on a Ph.D. in philosophical theology named Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thurman wrote 20 books on subjects ranging from slave songs and Negro Spirituals, to mystic themes in theology, to works of ethics and cultural criticism. His most famous work was a slim volume on Jesus, Jesus and the Disinherited which influenced many of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and anticipated many of the themes of (the nonviolent strands of ) liberation theology. His work on ecclesiology and on reconciliation between peoples influenced the view of “community” in King and other later African-American (and other) theologians.
Thurman has his weak spots. In my view, his atonement theology is far too subjective and his view of the historical Jesus still too rooted in classic liberalism. Doubtless because of the negative experience with the preacher and his father, Thurman’s ecclesiology allows little room for church discipline or, indeed, for much sense of distinction (NOT to say “isolation”) between church and world. Others would have other criticisms.
Yet to recognize weak-spots is not to fail to see the strengths of this Baptist giant: Rooting radical social action DEEP in contemplative spirituality; connecting the traditional spirituality of the Black Church to both Medieval and Quaker mysticism–keeping the latter from becoming docetic; remembering Jesus’ solidarity with the “disinherited” (and, therefore GOD’s thorough solidarity with all marginalized and oppressed persons) long before it was fashionable to speak of a “preferential option for the poor.” And, not least of his achievements, breaking the damnable (and damned) color line in the church, the heresy that still–to this day–makes 11 a.m Sunday the most segregated hour in the nation. The “church growth” gurus, white and black, who would make mega-churches via “homogeneity principle” that everyone is better off with their “own kind” are heretics and Thurman’s achievement in Fellowship Church is a rebuke of their blasphemous ways.
For the witness of Howard Thurman, O God, let us give thanks.
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