Howard Thurman: Black Theologian, Mystic, and Mentor

Today’s post is by Mary van Balen

The reading from Mark’s gospel about the Gentile woman’s request for Jesus to heal her daughter possessed by a demon is one of my favorites. Jesus had slipped away from the crowds, but the woman found him and threw herself at his feet, asking for help. When Jesus answered that the children must be fed first (a reference to the Jews) and that it would not be right to throw their food to the dogs, she was undeterred. Her faith was more expansive than that, and she told Jesus so. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

It seems her words hit home. Perhaps her faith helped Jesus understand the inclusivity of God’s loving mercy and of Jesus’ own mission. He sent her on her way with the assurance that her daughter was healed.

This reading is especially appropriate these days when the sense of entitlement, privilege, and exclusivity seems to be on the rise, or at the least, more visible. When discrimination against people based on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, beliefs, or just being who they are becomes acceptable, we must respond.

February is Black History month, and it’s appropriate to celebrate people who have seen injustice and taken action. I would like to write about Howard Thurman. I first learned of him years ago from a friend studying at Andover-Newton Theological School. More recently, I took advantage of the “Howard Thurman Retreat Day” offered online by the Shalem Institute. (You can access this retreat if you’d like by visiting

His name remains unfamiliar despite his wide influence as a contemplative, mystic, theologian, pastor, and professor. There are many ways to respond to oppression, and though not in the forefront of marches and demonstrations, Thurman was influential in the Civil Rights movement and served as a spiritual mentor to many involved, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 and grew up in Daytona Beach, Florida. His grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, helped raise him. She shared the deep faith that had helped her survive enslavement, instilling in him a profound sense of identity as a child of God.

Thurman graduated valedictorian from Morehouse college. He studied at Rochester Theological Seminary and upon graduation was ordained a minister. His first pastorate was at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio. There he met Quaker pacifist and mystic Rufus Jones, a professor at Oberlin with whom he would later study.

Thurman taught at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges and was a professor and Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University.

In 1935, along with his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman, and other African Americans, Thurman was invited to join the six-month “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to India, Ceylon, and Burma. Prior to that trip, he and Mahatma Gandhi had corresponded and shortly before returning home, they met. Gandhi was curious about the aftermath of slavery and the conditions of Black people in the United States. They talked about non-violence and civil disobedience, and the importance of maintaining spiritual vitality in order to preserve in their practice.

In 1944, Thurman and Dr. Alfred Fisk founded the Church for the Fellowship All Peoples in San Francisco, California. The first intentional interracial, interfaith congregation in the country, it continues its mission today.

Thurman published numerous books, his most famous being Jesus and the Disinherited that looks at Jesus as a member of a minority class and sees in his life and teachings a guide for marginalized people responding to their oppression. This book greatly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. who carried it with him whenever he marched.

Later in his career, Thurman became a professor and first African American Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Martin Luther King, Jr. was earning his PhD in theology at Boston University at that time and attended Thurman’s sermons. Thurman became his spiritual mentor and shared the wisdom and conversations he had had with Gandhi about nonviolent protest.

Thurman’s understandings of the dehumanizing effects of oppression, the effect of hate and anger on those who allow them into their hearts, the necessity of gathering strength by spiritual practice, and non-violence have much to say to us today.

A number of books about him have been published. You can read his own works, and Boston University’s Listening room has an extensive library of recordings of Thurman’s sermons, talks, and lectures. Listen here:

February 02, 2018 by Mary van Balen 2 Comments
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Dana Greene
Dana Greene
6 years ago

Thank you. As you probably know, there is a statue of Thurman in the Washington National Cathedral, right up at the high altar.

Patience Robbins
6 years ago

Thank you, Mary. This was the encouragement I needed to register for this retreat day.


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