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  • True Religion, Mystical Unity, and the Disinherited:Howard Thurman and the Black Social Gospel
  • Gary Dorrien (bio)

The black social gospel leaders that came of age in the 1920s and '30s were long on graduate degrees, simmering anger, racial justice ambition, and lecture circuit eloquence. Most of them already assumed the social gospel when they began their careers. They came through the doors of educational achievement and ecumenical conferences, and a few became prominent by compelling the respect of audiences on both sides of the color line. Mordecai Johnson, building a black intellectual powerhouse at Howard University, epitomized the black social gospel. Benjamin E. Mays, teaching under Johnson at Howard, was very much in Johnson's mold. Howard Thurman, also teaching under Johnson at Howard, for a time worked the social gospel lecture circuit even harder than Johnson and Mays. But Thurman could not stump for racial justice in the activist mode of his role model, Johnson, and his friend, Mays. He did not want to be the American Gandhi, even though people urged him constantly to try. Thurman had a mystical call to be someone else—a pastoral witness to the hidden unity of all things. Today he registers more brilliantly than ever because of it.

Thurman was a product of the Southern black church, the Student Christian Movement, Morehouse College, and Colgate Rochester Seminary. In his early life, he cultivated a nature-mystic spirituality and an ethical critique of authoritarian religion. In his early career, he became a pastor, professor, social gospel leader, and Quaker-influenced mystic and pacifist. Later he became an ecumenical champion of racial integration, a chapel dean, an adviser to movement leaders, a prolific author, and a spiritual influence on Martin Luther King Jr. He may also have become a saint. As a proponent of black social gospel activism, Thurman played his most direct role in the 1930s, when he was a star on the lecture circuit. Then he became a sage and author, exerting a different kind of influence. Then his influence grew after he was gone.

He was born in 1899 to Saul and Alice Thurman, probably in West Palm Beach, Florida, and grew up in the Waycross section of Daytona. Saul Thurman was a large, gentle, reflective, dignified, track laborer for the Florida East Coast Railroad, who did not care for church. On Sundays he sat on his porch and read; one of his favorite authors was freethinking agnostic Robert Ingersoll. He died of pneumonia when Howard Thurman was seven years old. Alice [End Page 74] Thurman, deeply devout and shy, and her mother, Nancy Ambrose, equally devout with a forceful personality, tried to arrange a church funeral, at first unsuccessfully. The deacons and pastor of Mount Bethel Baptist Church refused to bury anyone who died out of Christ. Thurman's grandmother got the deacons to back down, but Alice Thurman had to enlist a traveling evangelist to perform the funeral, who preached Saul Thurman to hell, describing him as an evil reprobate who deserved to burn for eternity. For the evangelist it was an evangelistic opportunity not to squander. For young Howard Thurman, the funeral was an occasion of traumatizing violence. Repeatedly, he asked his mother to assure him that the evangelist had not known his father. Riding home from the cemetery, Thurman vowed he would have nothing to do with the church when he grew up.1

Avoiding Christianity was not really an option for Thurman, as he was devoted to his mother and grandmother, and the church became a refuge in his lonely, awkward youth. For the rest of his life, however, he was averse to authority religion, fear-based religion, and evangelism. He later recalled that when he entered the ministry, it haunted him that he might be violating his father's memory. Alice Thurman supported her three children by cooking and cleaning for white people; meanwhile Thurman's grandmother took chief responsibility for him. She had been enslaved on a plantation near Madison, Florida, and one of Thurman's regular chores was to read the Bible to her. Nancy Ambrose could not read, but knew the Bible thoroughly. Pointedly, she never asked Thurman to read from...


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