Howard Thurman

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Howard Thurman Stained Glass from Howard University chapel photo from Wikimedia Commons

Howard Thurman  

Theologian and Mystic (1899–1981)  

Howard Thurman, who was born in segregated Daytona Beach, Florida, was raised by his mother and grandmother— the latter, a former slave. From her, he said, he learned “more about the genius of the religion of Jesus than from all the men who taught me Greek. Because she moved inside the experience and lived out of that kind of center.”  

After studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Thurman studied for ministry at Rochester Theological Seminary. A turning point in his life came in 1935 when he traveled for six months in India and met Mohandas Gandhi. On his return he became an early link between Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence and the later civil rights movement. But his travels also caused him to think more critically about Christianity and its compromises with social injustice. From this came his book Jesus and the Disinherited, which examined the ministry of Jesus as a resource for resolving the race crisis. Thurman saw Jesus as a member of an oppressed people, living under occupation, united with all the disinherited people of the world who stand “with their backs against the wall.”  

In later books Thurman explored the nature of religious experience: “the finding of man by God and the finding of God by man.” Thurman’s brand of mysticism was an intense awareness of “a conscious and direct exposure” to God, in which “we find our true dignity and the sacred core of our being.”  

“There is in every person an inward sea, and in that sea there is an island [on which] there is an altar and standing guard before that altar is the ‘angel with the flaming sword.’ Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inner authority.” —Howard Thurman 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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