Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman (1899-1981)

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.” HT

“In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.” HT

Born in Florida in 1899, Howard Thurman was the grandson of enslaved people, but he became one of the most celebrated religious figures of the 20th century.  He was the co-founder of the first major interracial, interdenominational church in the United States. He practised what is now called ‘contemplative spirituality’.  He was called a mystic because he believed religious experience was best explored within. In the 1930’s, after a historic meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, Howard Thurman became one of the early advocates for nonviolence resistance. He was a moral anchor for the civil rights movement and a spiritual mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. To those on the front line of the movement, he provided a spiritual prospective that was empowering.

Howard Thurman was an outspoken critic of the church for its part in the nation’s deep racial divides.  In his book Jesus and the Disinherited, he offered a revolutionary new way of understanding the life of Jesus which spoke directly to the oppressed and disinherited. It described what it meant to be involved in such a struggle as a spiritual matter, as a matter of faith and not just the effort to change laws for the gaining of civil rights. “I would have to find out what was the word that the religion of Jesus had to say to the man with his back against the wall.” Just like Jesus, living in a Jewish community under Roman rule, “The African Americans didn’t have any rights… But they could choose to ground themselves in their own inherent dignity and worth.”

To Howard Thurman, Jesus was not defined by his historical context and belonged to no age, no creed and no race. Like Jesus his teacher, Thurman’s main concern was the soul of humankind. His focus was true freedom. “But seek ye first the kingdom of God………….” Matt 6:33. To Thurman this meant going within and finding one’s own inner stillness, the home of integrity, being whole and undivided. The issues raised in this book resonate with my experience living in South Africa during the apartheid years. Although the book was published in 1949, the social issues persist and remain a challenge.

Rosemary Rowe

Find out more: Backs Against The Wall: The Howard Thurman Story (2019)