(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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.