Howard Thurman (1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades, wrote 21 books, and in 1944 helped found a multicultural church.
Early life and education
In 1923, Howard Thurman graduated from Morehouse College as valedictorian . He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1925, after completing his study at the Colgate Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School). Shortly after ordination, he pastored Mount Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio from 1925-1928. He then pursued further study as a special student of philosophy at Haverford College with Rufus Jones, a noted Quaker philosopher and mystic. Thurman earned his doctorate at Haverford.
Thurman traveled broadly, heading Christian missions and meeting with world figures such as Mahatma Gandhi. When Thurman asked Gandhi what message he should take back to the United States, Gandhi said he regretted not having made nonviolence more visible as a practice worldwide and suggested some American Black men would succeed where he had failed.
In 1944 Thurman left his tenured position at Howard to help the Fellowship of Reconciliation establish the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, California. It was the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States. He served as co-pastor with a white minister, Dr. Alfred Fisk. Many of their congregation were African Americans who had migrated to San Francisco from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas for jobs in the defense industry. The church helped create a new community for many in San Francisco.
Dr. Thurman was then invited to Boston University, where he became the first Black Dean of Marsh Chapel (1953–1965). He was the first black person to be named tenured Dean of Chapel at a majority-white university. In addition, he served on the faculty of Boston University’s School of Theology. Thurman was also active and well-known in the Boston community, where he influenced many leaders. During his tenure at Boston University, the famous Marsh Chapel Experiment was conducted (though without his knowledge).
After leaving Marsh Chapel in 1965, Thurman continued his ministry as Chairman of the Board and director of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust in San Francisco until his death in 1981.
Thurman was a prolific author, writing 20 books of ethical and cultural criticism. The most famous of his works, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), deeply influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, both black and white, of the modern Civil Rights Movement. (Thurman was a classmate and friend of King’s father at Morehouse College. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Thurman while he attended Boston University, and Thurman in turn mentored his former classmate’s son and his friends). He served as spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sherwood Eddy, James Farmer, A. J. Muste, and Pauli Murray.
Marriage and family
Thurman was married twice. He had two children: Olive, by his first wife Kate Kelly Thurman (she died in 1930 of tuberculosis), and Anne Spencer Thurman, by his second wife Sue Bailey Thurman. Sue Thurman was also active in civil rights and the religious communities.
He died April 10, 1981 in San Francisco, California.
Honors and Legacy
The Ebony Magazine called Thurman one of the 50 most important figures in African-American history. In 1953 Life rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States. Planned for 2008[dated info], a full-length documentary (Howard Thurman) of Dr. Thurman’s life and work is in production by Arleigh Prelow, an independent filmmaker.
Boston University named the school’s cultural center, in the basement of the George Sherman Union, after Howard Thurman. The university holds the Howard Thurman Papers and the Sue Bailey Thurman Papers, where they are catalogued and available to researchers. Because of Thurman’s influence, editors have made new collections of Thurman’s writings, which have been published since his death.
Howard Thurman’s poem ‘I Will Light Candles This Christmas’ has been set to music by British composer and songwriter Adrian Payne, both as a song and as a choral (SATB) piece. The choral version was first performed by Epsom Choral Society in December 2007. An arrangement for school choirs, that can be performed in one or two parts with piano accompaniment, was first performed in December 2010.
“In the conflicts between man and man, between group and group, between nation and nation, the loneliness of the seeker for community is sometimes unendurable. The radical tension between good and evil, as man sees it and feels it, does not have the last word about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. There is a spirit in man and in the world working always against the thing that destroys and lays waste. Always he must know that the contradictions of life are not final or ultimate; he must distinguish between failure and a many-sided awareness so that he will not mistake conformity for harmony, uniformity for synthesis. He will know that for all men to be alike is the death of life in man, and yet perceive harmony that transcends all diversities and in which diversity finds its richness and significance.” From The Search For Common Ground; An Inquiry Into The Basis Of Man’s Experience Of Community.
For some unexplained reason, the following quote by Dr. Howard Thurman is widely and incorrectly attributed on the Internet to one “Harold Thurman Whitman” (which is, in fact, a fictional name):
“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” [The only place in print this quotation occurs is in Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled, p. xv, where he attributes the quotation to a conversation he had with Thurman.]
“…community cannot feed for long on itself; it can only flourish where always the boundaries are giving way to the coming of others from beyond them — unknown and undiscovered brothers.” From The Search For Common Ground; An Inquiry Into The Basis Of Man’s Experience Of Community, page 104.
“When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.”