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  • True Religion, Mystical Unity, and the Disinherited:Howard Thurman and the Black Social Gospel

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 Paul's epistles, except 1 Corinthians 13. Later she explained that during her youth the slavers recited Paul's statements about slavery and she vowed that if freedom ever came to her, she would have no further dealings with the apostle Paul.

In Thurman's early youth, Daytona was not as harshly racist as most of the Deep South. Founded in 1876, the town grew in the 1880s with the growth of the citrus industry, attracting wealthy Northern migrants. Daytona Beach and Sea Breeze attracted tourists, blacks shared in Daytona's civic and political life, and the railroad aided the citrus business. In 1904 Mary McLeod Bethune founded a training school for girls in Daytona. The more that Daytona prospered, however, the more violently racist it became. White Southerners came for jobs and brought [End Page 75] the full vengeance of Jim Crow with them. Thurman watched it happen with horror. He grew up believing that having a white friend was simply unthinkable. The Klan controlled politics in Daytona Beach, and the entire state of Florida had only three public high schools for black children. Thurman later recalled: "There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person. The threat of violence is ever present, and there is no way to determine precisely when it may come crushing down upon you." In his experience, the only whites that treated blacks as fellow human beings were the rich Northern families that wintered in Daytona, especially the Rockefellers and Gambles.2

Meanwhile he cultivated a nature-mystic spirituality at the ocean. Thurman watched the stars etch their brightness on the "face of the heavens" and felt that he, the sea, the sand, the stars, and all else were one lung through which all life breathed. He was part of a vast rhythm enveloping all things and all of it was part of him. The ocean at night gave him "a sense of timeliness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances." He loved, especially, the storms that swarmed up the Florida coast, enthralled by the power of hurricanes. Thurman exulted in his connection to natural powers that laid waste to human constructions: "The boundaries of self did not hold me. Unafraid, I was held by the storm's embrace." In later life, the memory of his identification with the storms gave him "a certain overriding immunity" from inner pain and outward evil, because he felt rooted in life.3

Self-conscious, pigeon-toed, and overweight, he studied hard and was admitted to Florida Baptist Academy in Jacksonville. Thurman joined the school's YMCA branch and became its president. Many black social gospel ministers and activists had a YMCA turning-point story, but for Thurman, the YMCA was transformational, not just a turning point. His first YMCA conference at Kings Mountain was in 1917. The next year he heard Mordecai Johnson give a scintillating speech and found a model of who he wanted to be. Thurman shied away from approaching Johnson, but wrote a tender, vulnerable letter to him. He told Johnson his story of poverty, deprivation, losing his father, earning straight A's, leaving home for high school, and eating one meal per day. He pleaded to Johnson, "Please take a personal interest in me and guide me and God will reward [End Page 76] you, for you are God's trustee." He closed on a plaintive note, confessing that he felt discouraged in his decision to become a minister: "Sometimes I think nobody cares, but thank God, Jesus does, mother does, and I believe you do."4

Johnson replied graciously and pointedly, telling Thurman to go to college and seminary. Don't take a short cut, Johnson said; there is no substitute for higher education. Thurman graduated first in his class and won a scholarship to Morehouse. He had classmates who chafed at Morehouse's regime of no drinking, no smoking, no dancing, no card playing, and no dating of Spelman students without a chaperone. But this was Thurman's chance to get a different life, so he accepted the regime. He respected Morehouse president John Hope enormously; to Thurman, Hope's weekly chapel talks formed the centerpiece of a Morehouse education. Thurman excelled at Morehouse, winning contests and debate prizes, the class presidency, and top-of-the-class standing. He thrived under Hope's paternalistic rule, and was trained in debate by a young theology professor, Benjamin Mays.

From sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, Thurman got a lesson in humility. Thurman returned from a summer course at Columbia University a bit full of himself, impressed by his performance in a course on "Reflective Thinking," an introduction to skeptical inquiry in the mode of John Dewey's pragmatism. Thurman judged that Morehouse was woefully short on critical inquiry, expressing this opinion volubly. He thought his aggressive classroom behavior made him a model student. Frazier took a different view, prohibiting Thurman from saying another word in his class. Even the word "present" at roll call was forbidden; Frazier had heard all he could stand from Thurman. Years later, when Thurman and Frazier were faculty colleagues at Howard University, they said nothing about their previous acquaintance.5

In college Thurman spoke frequently for the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). SCM was a fusion of YMCA and YWCA activists, and FOR was an international religious pacifist organization. These were the two major activist organizations to evolve out of the ecumenical movement, and both were tremendously important for Thurman. He later said of his work in FOR: "I found a place to stand in my own spirit—a [End Page 77] place so profoundly affirming that I was strengthened by a sense of immunity to the assaults of the white world of Atlanta, Georgia."6

Politically, Thurman blended Dewey-style pragmatic Socialism, civil rights liberalism, and anti-imperial Christian pacifism during his years at Morehouse, and his activism gave him a sense of holding a wonderful secret. Religiously he had a pronounced mystical temperament, but little language for it. Then he enrolled at Rochester Seminary, where Johnson had gone after graduating from Morehouse. Thurman regarded his move to Rochester as the bravest thing he ever did, because he had never lived in a white world. Every Rochester Seminary professor was white, male, and old, and everything felt formal and reserved to Thurman. He took refuge in the library, a place of innumerable marvels and delights to him. Eventually he realized that he was smarter and more motivated than his classmates, notwithstanding, as he put it, that "this world belonged to them."7

The YMCA and SCM had extensive networks in the Northeast for which Thurman spoke throughout his seminary years. He got really good at it, and his self-confidence soared. Near the end of his senior year Thurman had an awkward moment with his favorite professor, theologian George Cross, a Canadian neo-Kantian trained at the University of Chicago. Cross told Thurman that he had "superior gifts" suited for making "an original contribution to the spiritual life of the times." But he urged Thurman to let others lead the battle for civil rights, because politics is grubby and transitory. It would be a "terrible waste" of Thurman's extraordinary gifts if he devoted himself to civil rights activism. Cross urged Thurman to aim higher: "Give yourself to the timeless issues of the human spirit." Thurman was stunned speechless. Cross retreated momentarily, acknowledging that perhaps he had no right to speak in this way, not knowing what it was like to be in Thurman's situation. But then he pressed on, promising he would get Thurman admitted to a prestigious doctoral program in Europe. Shortly afterward, Cross fell ill and died. Thurman was left with the ambiguous memory of a powerful and caring teacher "who did not know that a man and his black skin must face the 'timeless issues of the human spirit' together."8 [End Page 78]

Thurman struggled for many years to sort out what that meant for him. He wanted to speak and write about spiritual matters that he conceived to be universal, and he had to address the terrible reality of racial oppression. How he could do either thing without violating the other was a puzzle to Thurman. He was already wrestling with this issue when he discovered another profound influence in his life, the work of a white South African novelist he never met, Olive Schreiner. In 1925, attending an SCM retreat in Pawling, New York, Thurman heard a story, read aloud, about a hunter that broke the bars of a cage to set free beautiful wild birds. Schreiner's story overwhelmed Thurman like nothing he had ever heard. It seemed to him that his entire life had been a preparation for this riveting illumination of the deep natural unity of all things. Thurman's nature mysticism had been a guilty secret, something he could not intellectualize, much less express to others. Schreiner's romantic spiritual sensibility and gorgeous writing resonated powerfully with Thurman. He became an expert on her corpus of novels and social criticism.9

Schreiner had the gift of radical imagination, writing works of feminist daring and rebellion, and she expressed Thurman's conviction that helping the afflicted and belonging to the universe went together. Yet Schreiner was a commonplace racist. Though not a vicious type of racist, she was a sufficiently typical white South African to be shabby on this subject. In seminary, and for years to come, Thurman struggled to absorb the paradox. How could Schreiner's vibrant humanity break down on something so momentous? How could he have a racist soul mate? Thurman wished he could have met Schreiner, who died in South Africa in 1920. But he would not leave her behind. Schreiner rebelled against the oppression she knew personally, and her brilliant romantic vitalism enabled Thurman to recognize his own.

Thurman married a social worker from Atlanta, Katie Kelley, who ran a tuberculosis clinic in Morristown, New Jersey, while Thurman studied at Rochester. The couple moved to Oberlin, Ohio, for his first pastoral call, at Mount Zion Baptist Church. Thurman hoped to continue his studies at Oberlin School of Theology, but that desire faded. He preached didactic sermons about modern theology and biblical criticism, sharing the riches of his learning, which some of his college-town congregants appreciated and others emphatically [End Page 79] did not. Averse to evangelism, Thurman came early to a signature theme. He undertook mission work to share and receive, not just to give. He yearned to be spiritually connected to other people, which drew him to help others recognize their spiritual unity in the love of God. A visitor from China, after weeks of attending services, told Thurman that when he closed his eyes in Thurman's church he was back in his Buddhist temple experiencing the renewal of his spirit. This remark was a breakthrough for Thurman: "I knew then what I had only sensed before. The barriers were crumbling. I was breaking new ground. Yet, it would be many years before I would fully understand the nature of the breakthrough."10

Thurman was uneasy about giving himself to a form of spirituality in which he had little training. Where was he going? What language should he use? One day, while making an early exit from a religious education convention that bored him, he noticed a book table near the exit. He bought a little book by Quaker mystic Rufus Jones, Finding the Trail of Life, for ten cents, sat on the church step, and read the entire book. Thurman was enthralled; he had found his spiritual mentor: "When I finished I knew that if this man were alive, I wanted to study with him."11

Rufus Jones was the apostle of mysticism in American liberal Protestantism. A prolific spiritual writer and philosopher at Haverford College, he was the product of an intense Quaker upbringing in Maine, an undergraduate education at Haverford College, an early career as a popular Quaker writer and lecturer, and a half-completed graduate education at Harvard in philosophy. Raised by three strong-willed women and an emotionally distant father, Jones idolized his Aunt Peace, who radiated spiritual serenity. As a college student, reading Emerson, Jones discovered the word "mysticism," recognizing that it named the kind of religion in which he had been raised. Reading George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, Jones discovered that his seemingly strange dogmatic sect belonged to a great spiritual tradition of mystical faith. The Society of Friends was supposed to be a catalyzing religious movement of a mystical type, inaugurating a universal religion of the Spirit. Jones devoted his career to exemplifying and explicating what that meant, writing books about the inner light of the Spirit and its redemptive, peacemaking, justice-making work.12 [End Page 80]

Finding the Trail of Life happened to be autobiographical, but many of Jones's books had an autobiographical slant, as he believed that the only real starting point for religion or theology is in personal experience. Repeatedly he said that religions of external authority are soul-deadening: "The moment a religion becomes a system of thought or a crystallized truth, its service to the world is over, it can no longer feed living souls, for it offers only a stone where bread is asked." True religion always begins with a manifestation, "a revelation of God and the soul's answer to it." The way of true religion is that of spiritual immediacy and practical authentication; it asks only to be tested by direct experience. We are called to test the beauty and power of God's Spirit in the world. Steeped in post-Kantian idealism, even before he studied with Josiah Royce at Harvard, Jones played up that his brand of liberal mystical religion folded seamlessly into the modern West's richest philosophical tradition: "It is in harmony with all the great leaders of modern philosophy, notably Descartes, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, all of whom build their systems on the immediate testimony of self-consciousness."13

With Kant, Jones said it is futile to look for God through logic or empirical reasoning. Against Kant, Jones said that conscience depends on the existence of God, not the other way around. We must look for things where they belong, Jones argued. We do not look through a microscope to find love, sympathy, goodness, or patience. These realities are "facts of personal life" belonging to the realm of spirit. Similarly, in looking for God, "we must include under the knowledge-process our entire capacity for dealing with reality." God must be sought where God could be found, in the spiritual realm where spirit manifests itself. Jones contended in book after book that all attempts to find God apart from the personal life are doomed to fail.14

There is a door that opens to the Holy of Holies. Science cannot open it, but the door is accessible to anyone who interrogates one's subjectivity and discerns the movement of God's Spirit. Jones reasoned that social science is more useful to theology than natural science, because society is an essential condition of self-consciousness and personality. There can be no self without many selves; self-consciousness is a possibility for each self only in a world in which self-consciousness already exists. Personality involves interrelation at every stage of its development. Thus, religious thinking needs social science, to a point. The self's [End Page 81] realization of spiritual being—personality—must be won by a self's will to be, not by social influence. Until this personal force asserts itself, society can do nothing to make a person. A self is created by its struggle to attain something personal that is not yet one's own. The ideals of consciousness propel and direct, passing into life, making a self what it becomes. Jones stressed the negative upshot: The more we comprehend that God is self-revealing Spirit, "the less it is possible for us to stop satisfied with a record." Revelation is not a thing that anyone comes to possess. It is the flame that kindles one to seek God's presence and grace.15

Thurman wrote to Jones, asking to study with him on a special arrangement. A semester spent with Rufus Jones would be worth more to him than the doctorate he had previously wanted. Numerous obstacles stood in the way of getting to Haverford. Katie Thurman was seriously ill with tuberculosis, and the couple had a baby daughter. Thurman had a full-time job, he needed to provide for his family, he would need financing for his studies at Haverford, and Haverford (like most Quaker colleges) did not accept black students. Swiftly Thurman solved these problems. He resigned from Mount Zion church, turned down Johnson's offer to teach at Howard, accepted a joint appointment at Morehouse and Spelman, which placed Katie near her family, obtained a fellowship from the National Council for Research in Higher Education, and got Jones to arrange his admittance. In the spring semester of 1929, Thurman became Jones's daily companion. He attended Jones's lectures, joined a seminar for local philosophers on Meister Eckhart—"exciting and stimulating beyond anything I had known before"—and participated in Quaker meetings. Gently, Jones invited Thurman to a life of mystically inspired faith, teaching, ministry, and social activism.16

Jones was not the kind of mystic that blurred moral distinctions by naming everything "God." He opposed dualistic theologies that drove God out of the world and pantheistic theologies that negated God's capacity for transcendence. Thurman welcomed this approach, and appreciated that Jones was committed to antiwar and anti-imperial activism; Jones played a leading role in founding the American Friends Service Committee. In most respects Thurman found a model in Jones. But it puzzled him that they never talked about race. Jones apparently believed that race should not matter and therefore it should not be discussed. Thurman, to his surprise, caught something of this attitude: "I felt that somehow he transcended race; I did so, too, temporarily." It was a new experience for Thurman, and a relief, not to have to think about being black. [End Page 82] But Jones's apparent racial blindness was confounding. Was it really possible to disregard race in racist America? Even if Jones somehow carried out the ideal of race-blind liberalism, how could he ignore the brutal reality of racism that all black Americans had to endure?17

This aspect of Jones's witness remained an enigma for Thurman. For ten years Thurman rarely wrote or spoke about mysticism, even as he taught courses on it at Morehouse and Howard. It took him that long to speak confidently about interreligious experiences of God and the mystical way of knowing. Upon coming out, he sprinkled his writings with quotes from Jones and moved further away from Christian categories than Jones found to be necessary or desirable. Thurman treasured Jones's gift of sharing his spiritual experience in a personal way that caused no embarrassment; he possessed the same gift in abundance. But Jones's failure to deal with racial oppression left a chasm between Thurman and his spiritual mentor.

Having turned down Howard University and returned to Atlanta so Thurman could have a semester with Jones, Thurman suffered the consequences. He felt battered by the relentless racism of Atlanta. The city was so violently oppressive that he thought constantly about the parallels between the oppression of blacks and the suffering of Jesus. Spelman's formidable president Florence Read added to Thurman's distress, clashing with him over her patronizing treatment of students and, indirectly, her refusal to acknowledge that the era of white presidents leading black colleges had passed. In 1928, responding to the recent fate of the spirituals, Thurman made a case for memory and renewal, urging Spelman students not to disparage their heritage. In 1930 he lost his beloved Katie, who died after a long battle with tuberculosis. For two years Thurman stopped writing letters, grieving silently. Then he relented to Johnson's persistent invitation and moved to Howard, marrying a YMCA national secretary, Sue Bailey, just before he left.18

Thurman was already a star on the lecture circuit when he moved to Howard. Johnson needed him desperately because many Howard professors looked down on black churches and ministers. Ralph Bunche, E. Franklin Frazier, Rayford Logan, and others claimed that churches were hopelessly insular and conservative, and that Johnson belonged in a Baptist pulpit, not running Howard University. As soon as Johnson took over at Howard, he pressed Thurman to join him, believing [End Page 83] it was not too late for social gospel Christians to transform the churches. Churches had a crucial role to play in the struggles for racial justice, social justice, and a new world order. Johnson gave that speech every week. He desperately needed allies in this cause, specifically, Thurman and Mays. Once they came—Thurman in 1932 and Mays in 1934—Howard had a powerful social gospel trio advocating civil rights liberalism, Christian socialism, liberal theology, anti-imperial internationalism, Gandhian nonviolence, and anti-anti-Communism.

Johnson and Mays championed this agenda with deep conviction and no ambivalence about doing so. For Thurman it was always more complicated, and later it became more so. Before Mays got to Howard, officials at the World Student Christian Federation asked Thurman to head up a lecture tour in India. Christianity had a bad name in India, and Thurman was the perfect person to improve its image. Thurman did not want to go. He felt keenly the absurdity of him representing organized American Christianity in South Asia, and he did not want to spend day after day explaining that he was not an evangelist. He had to be convinced that ecumenical officials respected his feelings on this topic. The whole point of the tour was to show there was such a thing as progressive, antiracist, anti-imperial Christianity.

In September 1935, Thurman, Sue Bailey Thurman, and two others commenced a grueling tour of Ceylon, Burma, and India in punishing heat. The group had 265 speaking events in 140 days, plus innumerable panel discussions, interviews, and receptions. Thurman spoke 135 times, attracting huge audiences. He tired of explaining that he had not come to proselytize anybody. Sometimes he had to fend off ministers and missionaries that turned the worship service into an evangelistic occasion.

Very early in the tour, shortly after speaking at a college of law in Colombo, Ceylon, Thurman had a confrontation in a postlecture discussion that helped him clarify what he needed to say about Jesus, Christianity, and Western civilization. A young lawyer asked Thurman bluntly, "What are you doing here?" The lawyer recounted that Christians enslaved Africans in the USA for three hundred years, the slaves were freed by economic forces, not Christian idealism, and white Christians went on to oppress and terrorize blacks: "In light of all this, I think that for a young intelligent Negro such as you to be over here in the name of a Christian enterprise is for you to be a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. Such I consider you to be. Will you please account for yourself and your very unfortunate position?"19 [End Page 84]

Thurman caught his breath, thanked the lawyer for his frankness, and explained that he had not come to convert anybody. Neither was he there to be an exemplar of what Christianity did for black Americans: "I am Christian because I think that the religion of Jesus in its true genius offers me very many ways out of the world's disorders. But I make a careful distinction between Christianity and the religion of Jesus." The churches, Thurman said, worshipped power just like institutions that made no pretense of following Jesus: "I am dead against most of the institutional religion with which I am acquainted. I belong to a small minority of Christians who believe that society has to be completely reorganized in a very definite egalitarian sense if life is to be made livable for the most of mankind." Thurman concluded that the religion of Jesus repudiated the evils underlying imperialism and racism.20

For Thurman, this exchange became a turning point to an interreligious spirituality that let go of privileged claims for Christianity. He was asked constantly if Christianity was powerless before the color bar. If Christianity was not powerless, why was the racial situation so terrible in America? And if Christianity was powerless, why bother to put a good face on it in South Asia? Thurman stuck with his "religion of Jesus" answer and tried not to be defensive about it.

In India Thurman had an awkward meeting with Rabindranath Tagore and a sublime meeting with Kshiti Mohann Sen. Tagore, a Pirali Brahmin and Bengali polymath from Calcutta, was revered in India. He wrote lyrical poetry, modernized Bengali art by introducing new prose and verse forms, and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, the first non-Westerner to do so. Tagore combined a fiercely nationalist opposition to British colonialism with a humanistic internationalism and universalism, epitomizing the Bengal Renaissance. Thurman's group journeyed to Tagore's university and ashram Santiniketan, where Tagore spent an hour with the two Thurmans, more or less. Tagore had trouble focusing, seeming to be in a dialogue with himself. Thurman later recalled, "I felt his mind was going through cycles as if we were not even present. Then he would swing back from that orbit, settle in, take us into account, and sweep out." Thurman's encounter with Sen was dramatically different. Sen taught Sanskrit at Santiniketan, and, in a morning get-together, he and Thurman bantered about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. In a second meeting that afternoon, Thurman experienced the most profound connection with another person he had ever felt. He felt united with Sen on a spiritual ground unmarked by cultural or linguistic difference, confirming Thurman's belief that mystical experience was the wellspring of all religions—a [End Page 85] pure experience of a nameless and formless divine reality: "This was a watershed experience of my life. We had become a part of each other even as we remained essentially individual."21

Near the end of the tour, Thurman's group met with Gandhi at Bardoli, a small town near Bombay, where the Congress Party had an encampment. Gandhi greeted the group warmly outside his bungalow tent and peppered them with questions about African American history, discrimination, religion, and education. Bailey Thurman asked Gandhi why he excluded native Africans from his campaign in South Africa. Gandhi might have explained that during his early career he held the customary white supremacism of his caste and acquired a keener grasp of white racial bigotry only after battling South African bigotry and studying the career of Booker T. Washington. With Thurman's group he cut to a formula answer—including native Africans would have put them in danger, because they did not understand ahimsa (nonviolence).22

Thurman asked if nonviolence was a form of direct action; Gandhi replied, "It is not one form, it is the only form." Nonviolence was meaningless without direct action. One cannot be passively nonviolent. Gandhi said that nonviolence, despite beginning with the negative particle "non," is not a negative force. It is a self-acting force "more positive than electricity and more powerful than ether." Thurman asked if any individual could be imbued with it. Gandhi said he would not believe in it if it were exclusive in any way. Any idea of possession is foreign to ahimsa, but if one is imbued with it, one can protect millions of people from the violence of the world. Gandhi analogized that mastering chemistry and biology takes many years, and nonviolence is much harder than chemistry and biology, so no one had mastered it yet. But mastering it is the only thing that really matters. Only through nonviolence can human beings fulfill their destiny, a view that Gandhi attributed to Jesus, via Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You. He probably judged that explaining the Jainist root of ahimsa would be a distraction. The apostle Paul caught it too, Gandhi said, in 1 Corinthians 13. Ahimsa/nonviolence/love is the most powerful force on earth, and ultimately, the only force: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of [End Page 86] Heaven and everything else shall be added to you. The Kingdom of Heaven is Ahimsa."23

Bailey Thurman, realizing that her husband and Gandhi would stay on this plane if indulged, broke in with a practical question: "How am I to act, supposing my own brother was lynched before my very eyes?" Gandhi told her, "There is such a thing as self-immolation." If a group lynched her brother, she should not "wish ill" to the lynchers, nor cooperate with them, nor cooperate with blacks that tolerated the lynchers: "That is the self-immolation I mean. I have often in my life resorted to the plan." Gandhi said his famous starvation strikes would have meant nothing if he had carried them out mechanically. He was still "a very poor specimen" of nonviolence, but worked hard at mastering it.24

It was hard to focus on ordinary things after this fantastical standard had been established. Thurman's group swallowed Gandhi's reply respectfully, realizing it worked for him and he was undoubtedly sincere in it. They did not ask why he refused to oppose the caste system, but Gandhi brought up its worst feature in reply to a question about why his movement had failed thus far to expel the British. The masses, he said, lacked sufficient vitality to sustain a liberation campaign based on ahimsa for two reasons: They were poor and hungry, and they lacked self-respect. Thurman smiled knowingly at the reference to self-respect, but Gandhi cut him off: He did not mean what he figured Thurman was thinking. The Indian masses did not lack self-respect because they were colonized. They lacked self-respect because the Hindu system of untouchability degraded them. A Hindu temple was considered contaminated if the shadow of an untouchable fell upon it. Gandhi opposed this stupendously repressive force by starting with personal gestures, adopting an outcast into his family and describing every outcast as a "Harijan," a child of God.

The meeting ended, and Gandhi asked the group to sing "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" They complied before imploring Gandhi to visit the USA as an ally of Negro Americans. Gandhi said he would come only if he thought he could help, and he would have no right to try until the struggle had been won in India. Thurman said there were striking parallels between the Negro spirituals and everything Gandhi had just said. This comment evoked Gandhi's parting words to the group, immortalized by citation: [End Page 87] "Well, if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world."25

Bailey Thurman lectured extensively about India after the group returned to the U.S. in April 1936, while Thurman resumed his routine of teaching, preaching, writing, and lecturing, now as Dean of Rankin Chapel. At Rankin, Thurman perfected his distinctly dramatic, lofty, poetic, deep-voiced preaching style, featuring long pauses and abstract topics. James Farmer, who studied under Thurman at Howard, heard him preach many times: "When Thurman occupied the university pulpit, Rankin Memorial Chapel was packed. Though few but theologians and philosophers comprehended what he was saying, everyone else thought if only they had understood it would have been wonderful, so mesmerizing was his resonant voice and so captivating was the artistry of his delivery. Those who did grasp the meaning of his sermons were even more ecstatic." Thurman taught in a similar fashion, bringing his spiritual sensibility into the classroom. At Morehouse and Spelman he had already dispensed with textbooks, drawing students into winding discussions of particularity, universality, eternity, temporality, relativity, and other concepts. At Howard, Thurman's reflective style of classroom performance contributed to his growing mystique.26

Most of the time, Thurman did not write or speak directly about the struggle for racial justice. He was averse to didacticism on any topic, especially this one; invitations from white organizations to talk about race struck him as patronizing; and he preferred to discuss religious experience. On occasion Thurman made a half-exception, usually to black audiences, although he always protested that there were better speakers for a speech about race, politics, or both. He discussed his experiences in India with a similar reserve, refusing to say—in contrast to Johnson and Mays—that Gandhi should condemn India's caste system.

In 1940 he made a rare exception, speaking to the Chicago Roundtable of the National Conference on Christians and Jews. The surprise doubled as Thurman echoed Frazier's claim that the Great Migration left many African [End Page 88] Americans worse off. In the premigration South, Thurman said, blacks were oppressed and terrorized, but they never starved, they had a home, and they had the "status of a person," albeit on Jim Crow terms. In the North, black migrants were "forced to be marginal dwellers," struggling constantly for "crass, elemental, physical survival." Losing every shred of community and security cost them nearly every vestige of personhood. Migrant blacks lived in crowded tenements where they were victimized by disease, crime, and exploitation, and threatened with starvation. Thurman reflected that when most blacks lived in the South, some Northern churches were "kindly disposed" to them. When blacks moved to the North, they stopped being lovable to established Northern white and black churches. On the other hand, migrant blacks found more democracy in Northern cities than they experienced in the South. Here and there, blacks in the North got a taste of a better future. Thurman said this taste was the only hope for black Americans. American democracy had to be reinvented to include them.27

Thurman rarely talked like that, however. He chafed at the crudeness of political advocacy, even during his lecture circuit years. Afterwards he got more so, stressing that he was not like Johnson and Mays, eager to assail the evils of racism. His mystical wellspring had claimed him early in life. It claimed more of Thurman after he found a language for it and exemplars of it. Increasingly he lectured about mysticism itself, developing Jones's signature idea of "affirmative" mysticism. Like Jones, Thurman cautioned against ascetical types of mysticism, espousing a worldly, affirmative, personal mysticism that made an ethical difference in society. He never thought of himself as having abandoned the struggle for social justice, since Thurman said that spiritual enlightenment and social justice go together. But, in the late 1930s, Thurman grew dissatisfied with his life and work. It was no longer enough to inspire students and lecture audiences. He felt stifled at having spent his entire career in black institutions. He received tempting job feelers, over which he lingered, tellingly. And he had a falling out with Johnson that made Howard less of a home to him.

First Johnson refused to support Thurman's sabbatical leave in South Asia, a financial blow that Thurman struggled for years to overcome. It galled Thurman to be victimized by Johnson's legendary tight-fisted rule. His admiration of Johnson grew strained, and, on one occasion, Johnson admonished a faculty gathering that Howard University was not to be "used as a basis of operations." Thurman told colleagues the remark was directed at him, [End Page 89] purportedly for using the university as a platform for his lecture career. That tweaked Thurman's moral pride, in a public way. Characteristically, Thurman did not talk about his eroded relationship with Johnson, and he remained a family favorite, visiting Johnson in his home and sustaining their friendship. By the end of the 1930s, however, Thurman was looking for an exit from Howard. Then he turned down the presidency of Morehouse College, and Mays accepted it.28

For thirty years, "We need a Gandhi" was a staple of the black protest tradition, declared and debated in the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, Crisis, and other venues. If Gandhi could bring the British Empire to its knees with nonviolent civil disobedience, why couldn't African Americans do something similar? Farmer, cofounding CORE in April 1942, took the question very seriously and personally. But Farmer was barely employed by FOR and in no position to achieve Gandhi status. For nearly twenty years, until Martin Luther King Jr. shot into prominence, the person that journalists, intellectuals, and activists usually nominated for the American Gandhi role was Thurman, if only he would step up to it.29

The Pittsburgh Courier put it bluntly in August 1942, noting that Thurman was a star performer on the social gospel lecture circuit. He was a mystic, but not lacking "a practical turn of mind," especially about politics. He had a Gandhi-like brilliance, with Gandhi-like spiritual qualities. In short, Thurman was "one of the few black men in this county around whom a great, conscious movement of Negroes could be built, not unlike the great Indian movement with which Gandhi and [Congress Party leader Jawaharlal] Nehru are associated."30

But Thurman disappointed the many who held movement ambitions for him. He heard it through the 1940s, when the tone was usually plaintive or demanding. He heard it after the civil rights movement erupted, when the tone was often accusatory. Some said he retreated to self-indulgent mysticism. Some said he dishonored African American experience by dwelling on the unity of human experience. Then the sit-in explosion of 1960 set off protest wildfire [End Page 90] and Thurman was accused of sitting on the sidelines while blacks put their bodies on the line for justice.

He had a favorite story on this theme, which he told to Ebony senior editor Lerone Bennett. In Thurman's telling, Reinhold Niebuhr had barely mentioned Thurman's name at a speaking engagement at Howard when a student in the audience interrupted to say, "I'm glad you mentioned that man. He is the great betrayer of us all. We were sure that he had the makings of a Moses and then he turned mystic on us." Many years later, reflecting on his life, Thurman gave a capsule version of his usual reply: "I have never considered myself any kind of leader. I'm not a movement man. It's not my way. I work at giving witness in the external aspect of my life to my experience of the truth. That's my way—the way the grain in my wood moves."31

His best-known saying was a variation on this theme: "Do not ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and do it. For what the world needs is people who are truly alive." Thurman did not play an active role in the civil rights eruption of the 1950s for the same reasons that he held back before it. He was not a movement person, he disliked politics and political strategizing, his spirituality had an inward pull, and he was temperamentally reserved and a loner. Yet Thurman created Gandhi-expectations in the first place by lecturing constantly. In the mid- and late 1930s, he crammed his calendar with appointments, sometimes speaking several times per day in different cities. He spent so much time lecturing that Johnson worried that he had veered out of control.32

Thurman relied on trains, having never learned to drive. He shared with Johnson a rare ease in speaking to white audiences, and a gift for doing it. Johnson, like King, used different styles with black and white audiences, although, in his later career, Johnson worked at reducing the difference. Thurman was the same everywhere. He did not employ different rhetorical styles with black and white audiences. He used the same allusive, eloquent, elevated, dense, poetic, and intimate style wherever he spoke. He had a gift for making listeners feel he was speaking directly to them, and he loved to give speeches. Thurman needed a lot of time to himself, and thus he craved the down time he experienced on trains, where he pored over train schedules.

To Thurman it was pointless to scold whites about racism, and winning the sympathy or pity of a white audience was even worse. Prone to mood swings [End Page 91] and depression, he fought off both during the war years. In 1940, FOR leader A. J. Muste asked Thurman to serve as a vice-chair of FOR. Thurman stewed for ten days before accepting. He felt conflicted between his obligations to be true to his pacifism and to help black Americans serving in the military. After America intervened, Thurman registered for the draft as a conscientious objector and retained his membership in FOR, but never publicly opposed the war. Meanwhile he stewed over his vision of a new kind of Christian ministry. Thurman dreamed of a progressive interracial Christianity espousing a universal religion of Spirit, nonviolence, and what was then called "inter-culturalism." Writing a book about it would not have been enough. As it was, Thurman still had not published a book in 1944, and he had tired of Howard. The dream was to launch an interracial community based on Thurman's kind of religion. The closest approximation to it was Fellowship Church in Philadelphia, an interracial group sponsored by the Society of Friends meeting once per month, where Thurman sometimes preached. He promised to become the group's minister if it developed into an every-week religious community. But that didn't happen, and in 1943 Muste told Thurman that a Gandhian cooperative in San Francisco led by their friend Muriel Lester was seeking to build an interracial religious congregation at a building owned by the Presbyterian Church.33

The group wanted a black copastor for what became the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, otherwise called Fellowship Church. Thurman took a leave of absence to pursue his dream, and everyone who was close to him—especially Johnson, Mays, and Bailey Thurman—were distraught, hoping he would get over it. At Rankin Chapel, Thurman preached to crowds numbering up to five hundred. Fellowship Church, holding its first service in December 1943, before Thurman got there, drew a crowd of sixty-six. It averaged about forty the following year, even after Thurman got there in July. How could that be a good move? Thurman replied that building something new that he believed in meant everything to him. He threw himself wholly into Fellowship Church, severed its Presbyterian connection in 1945 to ensure its interracial standing, and resigned from Howard in 1946, shortly before his white copastor resigned. Thurman reveled in combining aspects of liturgical, Quaker, liberal Protestant, and black church traditions. He built a meditation room containing a statue of the Buddha, a painting of Gandhi (by Thurman), and sacred texts of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and other faiths. He thrived in church ministry, [End Page 92] greatly reducing his outside lecturing. By the early 1950s, Fellowship Church had an average weekly attendance of two hundred.34

To Thurman the religion of Jesus and the inward presence of God's illuminating Spirit were enough. Though inclined to emphasize his positive religion, he believed that organized Christianity misrepresented Jesus and thus betrayed the hope of the disinherited. Jesus was the exemplar and medium of God's love and spiritual power, and Christianity did not own Jesus. Cutting back on the lecture circuit gave Thurman time to write, an ambition he had repressed during his years of enthralling lecture crowds. His first book was his masterpiece, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949). It had gestated for twenty years, growing out of a course that Thurman taught at Spelman on the life of Jesus. The book, like the course, explicated "the significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall." Thurman identified with the special concern of the gospel for the poor and oppressed. He took little interest in formal theology and no interest in theological orthodoxy. He put it bluntly: "I belong to a generation that finds very little that is meaningful or intelligent in the teachings of the Church concerning Jesus Christ." For example, traditional atonement theory was not saving for oppressed people: "I do not ignore the theological and metaphysical interpretation of the Christian doctrine of salvation. But the underprivileged everywhere have long since abandoned any hope that this type of salvation deals with the crucial issues by which their days are turned into despair without consolation." Thurman wanted nothing to do with the kind of Christianity that espoused "essentially an other-worldly religion."35

Yet the spirit of Jesus was precious to him, "so perfect a flower from the brooding spirit of God." Christianity is true, Thurman said, as the religion of Jesus and the claiming of God's inward spiritual presence. The blending of the ethical and spiritual in Christianity is intrinsic to its true character. He emphasized the ethic of "love your enemies" and, thus, for African Americans, the ethical and spiritual imperative of finding a way to love their white oppressors.36

Thurman looked hate in the eye, noting that hate burned hotter at some times than others, but "in season and out of season," oppressed people were always intimately acquainted with hate as its victims. In wartime, he wrote, hatred is always in season. Hate becomes respectable as an effect of war psychology and propaganda, "even though it has to masquerade often under the guise of patriotism." Thurman observed that hostility toward blacks and other nonwhite [End Page 93] groups spiked after America entered World War II, "especially in trains and other public conveyances." Shortly after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, a Chicago taxi driver exclaimed to Thurman, "Who do they think they are? Those little yellow dogs think they can do that to white men and get away with it!" The uninhibited language was revealing to Thurman. War hatred apparently eliminated normal restraints on common bigotry. Racism was commonplace all the time, but war gave social license and even a patina of respectability to racist feelings that usually stayed beneath the surface.37

Thirty-five years later, in his memoir, Thurman reflected on the ravages of racism by telling a story about his mother. Alice Thurman came to live with her son in San Francisco near the end of her life. The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples was bewildering to her. She could not fathom and did not like its race-mixing. She trusted her son and tried to be gracious to his guests, but it greatly disturbed her to have to deal with white people in his home and church. In her last days, confined to Stanford Hospital, Alice begged Thurman to take her home. She was terrified at being surrounded by Buckra: "The first chance they get, you don't know what they will do to you. I'm scared to go to sleep at night, and you just have to take me out of this place." Thurman took his mother to his home to die in peace.38

Jesus and the Disinherited had chapters on Jesus, fear, deception, hate, and love. The chapter on love circled back to the opening chapter on the religion of Jesus: "The religion of Jesus says to the disinherited, 'Love your enemy. Take the initiative in seeking ways by which you can have the experience of a common sharing of mutual worth and value. It may be hazardous, but you must do it.'" Thurman acknowledged that racial oppression made it very difficult for blacks to view whites as belonging to a common humanity with them: "The fact that a particular individual is white, and therefore may be regarded in some overall sense as the racial enemy, must be faced; and opportunity must be provided, found, or created for freeing such an individual from his 'white necessity'"39

The book was slow to find an audience, but found one after the civil rights movement got rolling, providing inspiration for King and many others. Many readers, including King, read it for clues to how they should appropriate Niebuhrian criticism. Thurman and Reinhold Niebuhr were friends, sharing social justice commitments and an easy camaraderie, and Thurman appreciated Niebuhr's attacks on the moralistic sanctimony of the Protestant establishment. [End Page 94] But Niebuhr ridiculed liberal ministers for conflating the way of Jesus with the way of Gandhi. According to Niebuhr, Jesus taught a vertical ethic of love perfectionism that was heedless of pragmatic consequences and had nothing to do with solving sociopolitical problems. Jesus did not teach that returning evil with the truth-force of love would save the world. Moreover, Gandhian resistance was always coercive, despite what Gandhians said, which in some ways made it less worthy of respect than the self-interested forms generated by power politics. Thurman struggled with these aspects of Niebuhr's critique. He appreciated that Niebuhr advised black Americans to use the boycott and sit-in method, and that Niebuhr exempted black Americans from his attacks on Christian pacifism. He also accepted that Niebuhr was right about the coercive aspects of Gandhian resistance; Thurman was not trying to win a prize for moral innocence. He rejected Niebuhr's thesis, however, that the love ethic of Jesus was irrelevant to the problems of politics and society. Thurman believed in the transformative moral power of love divine in every realm of society. The point of social ethics was to apply the love ethic everywhere, including the social realm, unleashing its saving force.40

Thurman insisted that the difference between holding due regard for the wellbeing of others, and lacking it, is central to everything else in Christian ethics. The religion of Jesus does not call people to base their actions toward others on their personal or material interests. It calls people to relieve human suffering out of love for others and to build structures of social justice so all people may be freed from the shackles of hatred, torment, oppression, and selfishness. It helps to be mystical, Thurman said; otherwise the full import of spiritual transformation cannot be grasped. Mysticism is about the unity of all things—the realization that all life is one. Human beings are meant to participate in the transformation of all being into the vision of God: "The mystic is forced to deal with social relations because, in his effort to achieve the good, he finds that he must be responsive to human need by which he is surrounded, particularly the kind of human need in which sufferers are victims of circumstances over which, as individuals, they have no control."41 [End Page 95]

Thurman's later books were mystical in that vein, evincing an interreligious spirituality lacking the gritty particularity of Jesus and the Disinherited. His first book had stewed in him for twenty years. His later books reflected his later interreligious turn, while still invoking the religion of Jesus. He reasoned that some people come to God through nature, others find their way to God through the witness of Spirit-filled people, and whoever seeks God "with all of his heart will someday on his way meet Jesus." Like Jones, Thurman taught that the way of Jesus is the way of true religion—living in God's presence "with renewed minds and chastened spirits." But like Jones, Thurman opened the door to a religion of spirit dispensing with any need to make this confession. To idealize only the spiritual life and religion of Jesus was to cut loose from having to believe anything in particular about Jesus to know God fully. For Thurman, the touchstone was the experience of divinity that produces moral fruit; Jesus was an exemplar of this spiritual ideal. What mattered was "to focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of Life."42

Everything rested upon the existence and recognition of the Spirit of God as "the unifying principle of all life." The mission of the church is to be an exemplar of Spirit-filled community and build the commonwealth of God. To know the inner presence of God's Spirit is to know one's spiritual unity with all creatures and creation, as Jesus showed. Alienation from other people is alienation from God's Spirit: "When I have lost harmony with another, my whole life is thrown out of tune. For the sake of my unity with God, I keep working on my relations with my fellows. This is ever the insistence of all ethical religion."43

Thurman preached this gospel at Fellowship Church until 1953. He wanted the congregation to be a model of inclusive and progressive religion and a catalyst for an interracial church movement. He made an impressive beginning toward the former goal, although Fellowship Church was predominately middle-class, with a white majority. Thurman kept saying the congregation needed to reach beyond its middle-class base, but it never did, and it did not catalyze a national interracial church movement, although it spawned a few West Coast interracial congregations. Cities became even more segregated in the 1950s, with blacks and whites living at greater distances from each other. [End Page 96] White ministers that made an issue of racial justice were often fired, and others tried and failed to integrate their congregations. Thurman's Fellowship Church stood out for trying, in his case on a postconfessional model. White Protestant congregations usually did not see why they should outgrow their ethnic families of origin. Even when they saw the need, they made weak or clueless attempts to do it. Moreover, black congregations were not willing to give up what they had to pursue a Thurman-like interracial dream.

Thurman and Mays believed that segregated black churches were obstacles to the civil rights movement and that racial justice, in the churches, began with abolishing the color line. They also believed that racially segregated congregations would not last. Both said it forcefully, condemning segregation in the churches as a betrayal of the gospel. After Montgomery propelled black churches into the movement, Mays insisted there would be no black churches or white churches by the end of the century. Racial integration would abolish segregated Christianity. This vision of the integrated church brought out Mays's lyrical voice. The process of desegregation, he claimed in 1964, was unstoppable: "So the churches will have no choice; they will follow. Powerful laymen, supporting their minister in his desire to live as well as preach the gospel, will free his hands. The guilt that besets the minister's conscience because he preaches what he cannot practice will be washed away, and there will be peace in his soul."44

That was just the beginning; real integration was the payoff: "Within his heart every church member will feel better, for his conscience will no longer trouble him. Negroes will worship in and join white churches. White people will worship in and join Negro churches. How many? It doesn't matter! God's people will be free to worship God anywhere they choose." In the South, Mays envisioned, black ministers would be invited to speak to white Christians, just as white pastors had long been welcome to preach in black churches. Some congregations would have black and white copastors. "In that day Negro and white Christians will worship together, sing together, pray together, share each other's joys and sorrows. And none shall be afraid. We will then know that our greatest fears are fears of things that never happen. And God will bless us."45

That was Thurman's goal and expectation at Fellowship Church. Like Mays, he said the integrated church that was coming would sustain, in some way, the [End Page 97] rich and redemptive history of the black church. This assurance was vague and parenthetical, always overshadowed by Thurman's insistence that the next Christianity had to be interracial, interreligious, multicultural, and universalistic. In 1959, six years after he left Fellowship Church to become Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, Thurman published a book about Fellowship Church, Footprints of a Dream. He ended it by calling for "a common meeting place in which there would be no Negro church and no white church, but the church of God—that is the task we must work to finish."46

Thurman and Mays were wrong about the imminent triumph of racially integrated Christianity, but gracious about being surpassed. Johnson, Thurman, and Mays were thrilled by King's ascendance and their connections to him. The sit-in wildfire of 1960 and King's subsequent commitment to civil disobedience amazed them. Sometimes they confessed surprise at what they wrought. Johnson registered the least surprise, having claimed all along it was coming. He and Thurman had opposed sit-in protests at Howard in 1943 and 1944, but only because Howard relied on funding from Congress. Mays was similarly constrained as a pillar of the black establishment in Atlanta, which demanded no SCLC disruption in Atlanta. Johnson, Thurman, and Mays were keenly mindful of what separated them from King's band that raised hell in Birmingham, St. Augustine, Selma, and Chicago. They took pride in paving the way to it and did not exaggerate what they accomplished.

Thurman finished his career as a chapel dean and Professor of Spiritual Disciplines at Boston University, where he had a hugely successful ministry, drawing overflow crowds to Marsh Chapel, and where he befriended King during King's doctoral studies. His sermons expounded a mystical vision of spiritual unity and an ethical-spiritual commitment to nonviolence, urging that all forms of violence, oppression, and prejudice offend against the divine good. True religion is grounded in the mystical experience of God's presence, and it makes no compromise with violence or oppression. Religious truth is never conferred by outside authority, for religions are true only to the extent that they teach and practice universal love. Contrary to Niebuhr, who used the word "perfectionist" as an epithet, Thurman insisted that the perfectionist principle defines true religion. The very point of true religion is to be transformed by love divine. It is natural to kill one's enemies, but true religion is a call to transformed existence: "The insistence here is that the individual is enjoined [End Page 98] to move from the natural impulse to the level of deliberate intent. One has to bring to the center of his focus a desire to love even one's enemy."47

Thurman held out for the possibility of spiritual transformation and conceded no exceptions to the universality of the good. The hope of the disinherited is to be included in the flourishing of democracy and the saving work of God's Spirit. If moral truth is not universal, it is neither moral nor true. The disinherited, while coping with their oppression, needed to claim their rights without reproducing the world's mendacity and hatred. Thurman and Mays had a similar experience of giving themselves more fully to their ideals with age, and they said the same thing about how it happened: they grew in their sense of the presence of God. They would not have believed that the good prevails had they not believed that a really existing God wills the good. Thurman put it positively: "The disinherited will know for themselves that there is a Spirit at work in life and in the hearts of men which is committed to overcoming the world. It is universal, knowing no age, no race, no culture, and no condition of men."48

King echoed these words in his close to the speech that electrified the Montgomery boycott on its first night and launched him as a movement leader, on December 4, 1955. He had heard Thurman speak many times. He had consulted with Thurman about his career options and even considered taking over at Fellowship Church. He pored over Thurman's books, especially Jesus and the Disinherited and Footprints of a Dream. In his early ministry, King quoted or borrowed from Thurman numerous times, notably in his sermons "A Religion of Doing," "Overcoming an Inferiority Complex," and "Living under the Tensions of Modern Life." After King broke through in Montgomery, Thurman advised him behind the scenes, usually about self-care or leadership. King was a figure of singular greatness and importance; nobody compares to Martin Luther King Jr. But there are ways in which Thurman reached higher, and his legacy grows evermore.49 [End Page 99]

Gary Dorrien
Union Theological Seminary
Gary Dorrien

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit (Blackwell, 2012), which won the Association of American Publishers' PROSE Award in 2013, and The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel (Yale, 2015) which won the Grawemeyer Award in 2017.


1. Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1979), 4-6; Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (New York: Harper Brothers, 1959), 15-16. This discussion adapts material from Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900-1950 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 559-66; and Dorrien, Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

2. Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949; reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996), 39 (quote); Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, eds., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, Essays and Selected Documents (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).

3. Howard Thurman, Introduction to A Track to the Water's Edge: The Olive Schreiner Reader, ed. Howard Thurman (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), "face," xxvii-xxviii; Thurman, With Head and Heart, "a sense," "the boundaries," and "a certain," 8.

4. Howard W. Thurman to Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, June 18, 1918, in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. 1, My People Need Me, ed. Walter Fluker (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 1-3 (quotes).

5. Thurman, With Head and Heart, 40–41; Fluker, "Biographical Essay," in Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 1:lvii; E. A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1924). Burtt used two textbooks in the course: John Dewey, How We Think (Boston: Heath, 1910); and Laurence Buermeyer,, An Introduction to Reflective Thinking (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1923).

6. Thurman, With Head and Heart, 265 (quote).

7. "Howard Washington Thurman," The Torch, Morehouse College Yearbook, 1923, in Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 1:25; Thurman, With Head and Heart, 48 (quote); Quinton H. Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman's Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011), 20-21.

8. Howard Thurman, "Let Ministers Be Christians!" Student Challenge, January 1925, 1, 14; Thurman, "The Perils of Immature Piety," Student Volunteer Movement Bulletin, May 1925, 110-13; Thurman, With Head and Heart, 60-61 (quotes).

9. Thurman, Introduction to Track to the Water's Edge, xxvi; Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm (1885; reprint, Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1924); Schreiner, Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1897); Schreiner, Women and Labor (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1911); Shreiner, Dreams (Boston: Little, Brown, 1900); Schreiner, Stories, Dreams and Allegories (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1923); Ruth First and Ann Scott, Olive Schreiner: A Biography (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990); Dixie and Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World, 35.

10. Thurman, With Head and Heart, 73-74 (quote).

11. Ibid., 74 (quote); Rufus M. Jones, Finding the Trail of Life (New York: Macmillan, 1931).

12. Rufus M. Jones, "Why I Enroll with the Mystics," in Contemporary Theology: Theological Autobiographies, 2 vols., ed. Vergilius Ferm (New York: Round Table Press, 1932), 1:191-215; Jones, The Story of George Fox (New York: Macmillan, 1919); Jones, George Fox, Seeker and Friend (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1930); Jones, Practical Christianity (Philadelphia: John C. Winston, 1899); Jones, Quakerism: A Religion of Life (London: Headley Brothers, 1908); Elizabeth Gray Vining, Friend of Life: The Biography of Rufus M. Jones (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1958); Dorrien, Making of American Liberal Theology, 364-71.

13. Jones, Practical Christianity, "the moment" and "a revelation," 188-89; "it is," 196.

14. Rufus M. Jones, Social Law in the Spiritual World: Studies in Human and Divine Inter-Relationship (Philadelphia: J. C. Winston, 1904), "facts" and "we must," 43-44.

15. Ibid., 31 quote).

16. Thurman, With Head and Heart, 76 (quote); Howard Thurman to Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, May 23, 1928, and Katie Thurman to Florence M. Read, July 18, 1928, in Thurman, Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 1:125-26.

17. Thurman, With Head and Heart, 77 (quote).

18. Howard Thurman, "The Message of the Spirituals," Spelman Messenger 45 (Fall 1928): 4-12, in Thurman, Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 1:127-37; Thurman, "Religious Ideas in Negro Spirituals," Christendom 4 (Autumn 1939): 515-28; Thurman, Deep River: An Interpretation of Negro Spirituals (Mills College, CA: Eucalyptus, 1945).

19. Howard Thurman, Colombo Journal, October 1935-December 1935, in Thurman, Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 1:303 (quotes); Detailed Schedule of the Negro Delegation in South Asia, October 21, 1935 to April 1, 1936, in ibid., 283-97.

20. Thurman, Colombo Journal, 1:303 (quotes).

21. Thurman, With Head and Heart, 130, 129 (quotes); see Rabindranath Tagore, The Religion of Man (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1931); Kshiti Mohan Sen, Hinduism (New York: Penguin, 2005).

22. Mahadev Desai, "With Our Negro Guests," Harijan, March 14, 1936, in Thurman, Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 1:333-37; Thurman, With Head and Heart, 132-35; Mohandas Gandhi, "From Slave to College President," Indian Opinion, October 9, 1903; Gandhi, "An Example to Copy," July 29, 1933; Nico Slate, Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-22.

23. Desai, "With Our Negro Guests," 1:335, 336 (quotes); Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God is Within You: Christianity Not as a Mystic Religion but as a Theory of Life (London: Heinemann, 1894).

24. Desai, "With Our Negro Guests," 1:336-337 (quotes).

25. Ibid., 337 (quotes); Thurman, With Head and Heart, 134.

26. James Farmer, Jr., Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Arbor House, 1985), 135 (quote); "Thurman Finds Indian, Negro Problem Same, Tells Howard Faculty of His Talk with Mahatma Ghandi," Norfolk Journal and Guide, May 9, 1936; Sudarshan Kapur, Raising Up a Prophet: The African American-Encounter with Gandhi (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 90-91; G. James Fleming, "Preacher-At-Large," Crisis 46 (August 1939): 251-53; Howard Thurman, "India Report," February 10, 1938, in Thurman, The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. 2, Christian, Who Calls Me Christian?, ed. Walter Fluker (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 137.

27. Howard Thurman, "A 'Native Son' Speaks," The Advocate, May 17, 1940, in Thurman, Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 2:247-51, quotes at 250-51, 248; E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932).

28. Rayford W. Logan, Howard University: The First Hundred Years, 1867-1967 (New York: New York University Press, 1969), 379 (quote); Howard Thurman to Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, August 13, 1938, in Thurman, Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 2:187.

29. Farmer, Lay Bare the Heart, 101-8; August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE, A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

30. Peter Dana, "Dr. Thurman Speaks on Indian Question," Pittsburgh Courier, August 29, 1942, quotes; Editorial, "If We Had a Ghandi," Pittsburgh Courier, February 28, 1931; Editorial, "Will a Gandhi Arise?," Chicago Defender, November 5, 1932; Dixie and Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World, 117-18.

31. Lerone Bennett, Jr., "Howard Thurman: 20th Century Holy Man," Ebony, February 1978, "I'm glad," 76, "I have never," 84; Benita Eisler, "Keeping the Faith," Nation, January 5, 1980, 24.

33. A. J. Muste to Howard Thurman, September 9, 1940, and Howard Thurman to A. J. Muste, September 20, 1940, both in Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 2:264, 265; Ambassador of Reconciliation: A Muriel Lester Reader, ed. Richard Deats (Santa Cruz, CA: New Society, 1991).

34. Thurman, With Head and Heart, 139-62; Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 22-30; Dixie and Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World, 166-77.

35. Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 7, 30, 29 (quotes).

36. Ibid., 16 (quote).

37. Ibid., 78 (quote).

38. Thurman, With Head and Heart, 155-56.

39. Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 78-79, quotes at 100.

40. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1932); Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935); Howard Thurman to Reinhold Niebuhr, December 28, 1934, Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 1:229; Niebuhr to Thurman, December 31, 1934, Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, 1:230.

41. Howard Thurman, Deep is the Hunger: Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951), 44-45 (quote); Kenneth E. Kirk, The Vision of God: The Christian Doctrine of the Summum Bonum (New York: Longmans, Green, 1931), 451.

42. Thurman, Deep is the Hunger, "with all" and "with renewed," 176, 177; Howard Thurman, The Inward Journey (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961), "to focus," 7; Rufus M. Jones, "How Shall We Think of Christ?," in Religious Foundations, ed. Rufus Jones (New York: Macmillan, 1923), 15-29.

43. Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (New York: Harper & Row, 1953), 120-21 (quotes).

44. Benjamin E. Mays, Seeking to Be Christian in Race Relations (New York: Friendship Press, 1957; rev. ed., 1964), 79 (quote).

45. Mays, Seeking to Be Christian in Race Relations, 79 (quote); see Barbara Dianne Savage, Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 217.

46. Thurman, Footprints on the Road, 157 (quote); Albert S. Broussard, Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900-1954 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1993), 185-90.

47. Howard Thurman, Mysticism and the Experience of Love (Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1961), 19 (quote); Thurman, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, ed. Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 95; Thurman, Footprints of a Dream, 144.

48. Mays, "Why I Believe There is a God," 7; Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, "the disinherited," 108-9; Howard Thurman, The Search for Common Ground: An Inquiry into the Basis of Man's Experience of Community (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1986).

49. Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Religion of Doing" (July 4, 1954), The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr., vol. 6, Advocate of the Social Gospel, ed. Clayborn Carson, Susan Carson, Susan Englander, Troy Jackson, and Gerald L. Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 170-74; King, "Overcoming an Inferiority Complex" (July 14, 1957), ibid., 6:303-16; King, "Living Under the Tensions of Modern Life" (September 1956), ibid., 6:262-70.

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