Howard Washington Thurman

Documentary on Howard Thurman

Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story

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Howard Thurman:  Mystic and Model for Contemplative Living and Sacred Activism


1899-Born in Daytona Beach, FL on November 18.  Raised by his mother and grandmother (who was a slave) after his father dies when Thurman is 7 years old.

1915-Begins high school at the Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville, FL because “coloreds” were allowed to complete only to 7th grade.

1919-Graduates as valedictorian of his class and receives a tuition scholarship to Morehouse College.

1923-Graduates as valedictorian from Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA.

1926-Becomes ordained minister after earning seminary degree from Colgate-Rochester Theological Seminary.  Graduates as valedictorian of seminary class.

1925-Begins ministerial duties as pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Oberlin, Ohio.

1929-Studies philosophy and mysticism at Haverford College with Rufus Jones, Quaker philosopher, mystic, and pacifist.

1930-Secures joint professorship in religion at Morehouse and Spelman College in Atlanta, GA.

1930 First wife, Kate Kelley Thurman, mother of their first child, Olive dies from tuberculosis, acquired from her work as a social worker in the black branch of the Anti-Tuberculosis of Atlanta.

1932 In June, marries activist and educator, Sue Bailey, who later (1934) becomes mother of second daughter, Anne Spencer Thurman.

1932-Assumes post of Professor and Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University in Washington, DC.

1935-Led “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to India, Burma, and Ceylon where he meets Mahatma Gandhi.  Vows to live by teachings of Indian spiritual and political leader.

1944-Co-founds and becomes pastor at the first intentional multi-racial congregation—Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, CA.

1949-“Fellowship Church” grows to 250 members (at least half of whom are White, the remainder Black, Chinese, Japanese and Filipino) with international support from Great Britain, Japan, South Africa, India, Iran, and Taiwan.

1949-Publishes his most famous book, Jesus and the Disinherited using New Testament gospels to describe how a non-violent civil rights movement could be successful.  This book would influence a number of civil rights leaders among them James Farmer founder of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose father was Thurman’s classmate at Morehouse) who carried the book with him whenever he marched).

1953-Life Magazine names Howard Thurman as the twelve “Greatest Preachers of the 20th Century.”  Ebony Magazine designates Thurman as one of the 50 most important figures in African American History.

1953-Leaves Fellowship Church to become first African American Professor and Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, a position he held until he retired in 1965.

1965-Becomes Director of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust and Minister Emeritus at Fellowship Church.

1981-Passes away in San Francisco on April 10, 1981.

Source:, Primary Contributor: Johnetta Richards, San Francisco State University and revised by Lerita Coleman Brown.


 Selected Bibliography

Howard Thurman, With Hand and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981.

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, (1949), 1996 (reprint edition).

Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Howard Thurman, The Centering Moment. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1981.

Howard Thurman, Deep is the Hunger. Richard, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1978.

Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit. Richard, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1963.

Lerita Coleman Brown, An Ordinary Mystic: Contemplation, Inner Authority, and Spiritual Direction in the Life and Work of Howard Thurman. Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, 18, 14-22, 2012.

Quinton Dixie, Peter Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence, Boston: Beacon Press, 2011.

Walter E. Fluker, Catherine Tumber (Eds.), A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998).

Donna Schaper (Ed.) 40 Day Journey with Howard Thurman, Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2009.

Luther Smith, Jr., Howard Thurman-The Mystic as Prophet. Richard, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1991.

Luther Smith, Jr. (Ed.) Howard Thurman: Essential Writings. New York: Orbis, 2006.

Walter Fluker (Ed.), The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman: Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2019.

Recently, the Howard Thurman Papers Projects completed publication of a five volume set filled with selected speeches, lectures, or sermons, and correspondence.  The five volumes are intended primarily for scholars and seminary students writing papers on Howard Thurman but are available for order and purchase from any bookstore or online.

Vocal Recordings by Howard Thurman

The Living Wisdom of Howard Thurman: A Visionary for our Times. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2010 (audio recording of selected Howard Thurman sermons, meditations and talks). Available here.

Howard Thurman Virtual Listening Room at the Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman Collection at Boston University

The website above offers a rich resource of digitized Howard Thurman sermons, talks, and lectures as well as talks and professional activities of Sue Bailey Thurman.

Related Readings on Contemplative Practices, African Americans, and Social Justice

Barbara Holmes, Joy Unspeakable-Contemplative Practices of the Black Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.

Sherry Bryant-Johnson, Rosalie Norman-McNaney, Therese Taylor-Stinson, (Eds), Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color, New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2014.

Robert Ellsberg (Ed.), Modern Spiritual Masters—Writers on Contemplation and Compassion, New York: Orbis, 2009.

Catherine Meeks (Ed). Living into God’s Dream: Dismantling Racism in America, New York:  Morehouse Publishing, 2016.

Therese Taylor-Stinson, (Ed).  Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Stories of Contemplation and Justice, New York:  Morehouse Publishing, 2017.

If you have recently been introduced to the living wisdom of Howard Thurman and want to start reading, here are three great books to start with:

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, (1949), 1996 (reprint edition).

Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Howard Thurman, With Hand and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981.

See other blogs on this site for other insights about Howard Washington Thurman

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