First published: New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979
Core issue(s): African Americans; clerical life; mysticism; racism
Born in Daytona, Florida, in 1900, Howard Thurman lived a life that both witnessed and significantly contributed to the radical transformation of race relations in the United States. As a young boy, he experienced firsthand the heat of Jim Crow and the Deep South. By the time of his death in 1981, though racism was still a reality in the United States, the nation was in a very different place, and Thurman had taken his rightful place alongside the civil rights pioneers who led the way for all people of color.
With Head and Heart is a seminal book for anyone who wishes to learn more about one of the often forgotten leaders of the struggle for racial justice in the United States. Most historians do not consider Thurman to be on the same level as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, or Rosa Parks. However, the dignified and quiet Thurman might just be comfortable with that second-level designation, for from the time of his birth, he took an unusual inward path toward God, one that would shape him as a pastor, mystic, poet, and thinker, and set him apart from many other civil rights leaders.
Thurman writes that his path to God began under a backyard oak tree he often visited as a child. That tree is as good a metaphor as any for the God Thurman grew to know, love, and teach about to any and all who would listen.
When the storms blew, the branches of the large oak tree in our backyard would snap and fall. But the topmost branches of the oak tree would sway, giving just enough to save themselves from snapping loose. I needed the strength of that tree and like it I needed to hold my ground. Eventually I discovered the oak tree and I had a unique relationship. I could sit, my back against its trunk and feel . . . peace. . . . I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit . . . and know that I was understood.
From an early age Thurman revealed himself to be a man on a mission, one marked by the passionate pursuit of spiritual and academic wisdom and a commitment to using his life to build bridges of tolerance and understanding among diverse peoples and beliefs. His journey was unrelenting in its single-mindedness as he set out to acquire as much knowledge as possible about his God and his world.
Thurman relates that his early years were a struggle. His father died young. He attended a “blacks-only” church-sponsored high school at a time when few if any African Americans got much beyond grade schools. “There was never enough food and my health began to suffer,” he recalls. Yet Thurman always found a way to excel and carry on—whether writing a letter appealing for tuition money to a man he had never met (and receiving it) or drilling African American World War I recruits as a way to pay for Morehouse College. Thurman thrived, always seeming to be in the right place, meeting the right people just at the opportune time, and taking every chance he was given.
Choosing church ministry as a vocation, Thurman finally escaped the South of his youth and went north to Rochester Theological Seminary in 1926 where, along with learning to pastor, he challenged the racial assumptions of his day, rooming with two white men, forging deep friendships across the color line (as...
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he would throughout his life), and causing a minor scandal. Thurman always seemed too busy and on the way to pay too much attention to his critics.
As Thurman dug deeper into his traditional faith, he found it lacking and began his lifelong habit of challenging orthodoxy in all its forms. Post-seminary, still thirsty for knowledge, he sought out Quaker philosopher Rufus Jones as his mentor and doctoral adviser at Haverford College. Then, after serving two years as a pastor in Ohio, Thurman was appointed in 1932 as professor of theology and the dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University. During twelve years there, Thurman nurtured a generation of young black men and women and undertook a groundbreaking tour of India, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, and he revolutionized worship at Howard.
In 1944 in San Francisco, Thurman helped found a radically new kind of faith community, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. Thurman describes the vision that called it into being: “We [the founding pastors] were sensitive to the immorality and amorality of the Christian Church in its ineffectiveness in the face of racial discrimination in its own body, as well as in the general society. . . . [W]e were convinced that a way could be found to create a religious fellowship worthy of transcending racial, cultural, and social distinctions.” These were controversial ideals for 1944, when the United States was still greatly divided along clearly defined racial, religious, and cultural lines. However, as Thurman declares in reflecting on this new kind of church and community, “What is true in any religion is in the religion because it is true; it is not true because it is in the religion.” For nine years Thurman and his church community created a brand-new kind of spiritual body, filled with men and women from a wide variety of racial and religions, all religious seekers of truths.
In 1953 Thurman was named dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, a post he held until his retirement in 1965. The final sixteen years of his life were devoted to the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, an enterprise that promoted and financially supported the college education of young African American women and men. As he did most of his life, Thurman wrote extensively at this time. At his death in 1981, he was the author of twenty-one books on a wide variety of subjects, including prayer, theology, and the African American religious experience in the United States.
Thurman’s autobiography gives the reader a powerful look into a life lived in the crucible of race in the United States and at the roles of churches and academia in both advancing and blocking the progress of racial justice in the United States. It is sobering to remember that Thurman was but one generation removed from the slavery of his ancestors, and yet with a fierce energy and an almost matter-of-fact tone, Thurman uses the book to describe his herculean efforts to succeed: as a pastor and preacher, an author, and a leader on campus and in society as a whole. Though Thurman is largely forgotten by mainstream historians, it is important to note that during his lifetime, he was named one of the fifty most influential figures in African American history by Ebony magazine and one of the twelve best preachers in the United States by Life magazine.
Thurman’s autobiography reveals above all a religious curiosity and a willingness, almost from the start of his spiritual journey, to question the religious norms and push the boundaries of what passed for religious orthodoxy. Thurman visited the social radical Gandhi in India, long before he became a safe icon for the world. That encounter caused Thurman to consider truth in light of the religious diversity of India. His founding of the Fellowship Church during World War II and its intentional embrace of diversity, including a besieged and persecuted Japanese American community, was brave and far ahead of its time.
Thurman pushed the bounds of traditional worship and introduced extended silent prayer and liturgical dance when such practices were considered outside of the bounds of “normal” religious practice in Christian churches. Thurman was a mystic before religious America really understood that term. He looked for God not just outside in ritual but also within his mind and heart, in a deep and personal relationship with the universe’s Creator.
Sources for Further Study
- Smith, Luther E. Howard Thurman: The Mystic as Prophet. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1992. This spiritual biography seeks to interpret the theological and philosophical ideas and the thinkers who most influenced Thurman’s life and thoughts. It is a valuable introduction to Thurman by the scholar who has studied the man and his life more than any other person.
- Thurman, Howard. The Search for Common Ground. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1971. This slim volume delves into the mystical side of Thurman’s hope for common ground among religious seekers in the search for God and meaning in this life.
- Thurman, Howard, and Luther E. Smith, eds. Howard Thurman: Essential Writings. Modern Spiritual Masters series. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2006. This book is a good introduction to many of Thurman’s best writings and contains a good cross-section of his thoughts on prayer, God, and race in the United States.