The response to my guest column in the Sunday Times-Picayune on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was most favorable. What brought the most joy was the inquiries I received concerning Howard Thurman. I love Thurman and have often stressed in public worship services and the lectures I gave at Xavier University the importance of Thurman. Therefore I want to offer a brief primer on the man with the hopes that some will go discover more about him.
First off, this is in no way an exhaustive or thorough primer on Howard Thurman. Instead, it is a brief post that will hopefully entice you to delve into the work of and provide you some guidance on one of the greatest spiritual masters of the 20th century.
Second allow me to offer a note on Thurman's writing style: it is clear! Thurman was trained as a writer in a time when clarity was at a premium (see Christianity and the Social Crisis). Pick up almost any early 20th century religious writer and you will notice clarity (oh how I long for those kinds of books). I mention this because you will find yourself reading Thurman's works at quite a rapid pace. You may even be tempted (as I was at one time) to think his books are on the light side; they are not! Take your time reading and savoring his words. The man had something to say, trust me - pay attention to them.
And now a possible order to introduce yourself to Thurman:
1. With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (the only link I have is to one of the giant mega-lo-mart online bookstore, so please ask your local bookseller to order you a copy). This book will introduce you to his life and provide a beautiful panorama of his thought and movements.
2. Jesus and the Disinherited. Thurman's most known and lasting work. A brief but deep offering - almost a pre-liberation theology from an African-American perspective. This was, perhaps, the book of the Civil Rights Movement, it is reported that Dr. King took it everywhere he went - it was with him when he was assassinated in Memphis, TN.
3. From here the writings disperse into the fields of spirituality/mystical studies (practical mystical studies), sermons, meditations that emerged from times of silence before worship and history (spirituals and the account of the church he started). These titles can be found here. I would highly recommend Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. I propose that this book be the model for liberal/progressive church growth/new church start manuals! Also, I would love to have a group of churches and pastors experiment with Thurman's model of worship: before the 11 o'clock hour he would offer a half hour of silence. I would love to see how the practice/balance of silence and spoken/sung worship would transpire today.
I would also recommend A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life, edited by Walter Earl Fluker and Catherine Tumber. This will give you a nice overview of his writings.
Why Thurman? Historically I think he stands as the important bridge transporting the church from the social gospel of the early 20th century to the social gospel for the mid and late 20th century. He fully incorporated racial reconciliation into the ministry of American Christianity (he was the chaplain of the Civil Rights movement). He also broadened the vistas of American Christianity to beauty of the contemplative Eastern traditions. Furthermore, he rooted his life, his preaching, and his scholarly work in the mystical tradition. Which I propose is the only way to assure transformation of the public and personal life - if one is not rooted in a spiritual and life-giving tradition one will burn out and more than likely lose the focus of ultimate reality.
I hope you will now go out and purchase or check out a portion or all of Thurman's works, you will be challenged, enlightened, and uplifted at the same time.
More about Thurman:
Biography from Boston University.
The Howard Thurman Papers Project at Morehouse University
The Psalm of Howard Thurman a documentary which I do not believe has been released yet.