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Howard Thurman (born 1899 - April 10, 1981) in Daytona Beach, Florida) was an influential American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Theology and the chapels at Howard and Boston universities for more than two decades, wrote 20 books, and in 1944 helped found the first racially integrated, multicultural church in the United States.

Early life and education

Howard Thurman was born 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida and grew up in the segregated South.

In 1923, Howard Thurman graduated from Morehouse College as valedictorian. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1925, after completing his study at the Colgate Rochester Theological Seminary (now Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School). He then pursued further study as a special student of philosophy at Haverford College with Rufus Jones, a noted Quaker philosopher and mystic. Thurman earned his doctorate at Haverford.


Thurman was selected as dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University in the District of Columbia in 1932. He served there from 1932-1944.

Thurman traveled broadly, heading Christian missions and meeting with world figures such as Mahatma Gandhi. When Thurman asked Gandhi what message he should take back to the United States, Gandhi said he regretted not having made nonviolence more visible as a practice worldwide and suggested some American Black men would succeed where he had failed.

In 1944 Thurman left his tenured position at Howard to help the Fellowship of Reconciliation establish the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, California. It was the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States. He served as co-pastor with a white minister, Dr. Alfred Fisk. Many of their congregation were African Americans who had migrated to San Francisco from Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas for jobs in the defense industry. The church helped create a new community for many in San Francisco.

Dr. Thurman was then invited to Boston University, where he became the first Black Dean of Marsh Chapel (1953-1965). He was the first black to be named tenured Dean of Chapel at a majority-white university. Thurman was also active and well-known in the Boston community, where he influenced many leaders. After leaving Marsh Chapel in 1965, Thurman continued his ministry as Chairman of the Board and director of the Howard Thurman Educational Trust in San Francisco until his death in 1981.

Thurman was a prolific author, writing 20 books of ethical and cultural criticism. The most famous of his works, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), deeply influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, both black and white, of the modern Civil Rights Movement. (Thurman was a classmate and friend of King's father at Morehouse College. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Thurman while he attended Boston University, and Thurman in turn mentored his former classmate's son and his friends). He served as spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sherwood Eddy, James Farmer, A. J. Muste, and Pauli Murray.

Marriage and family

Thurman was married twice. He had two children: Olive, by his first wife Kate Kelly Thurman (she died in 1930 of tuberculosis), and Anne Spencer Thurman, by his second wife Sue Bailey Thurman. Sue Thurman was also active in civil rights and the religious communities.

He died April 10, 1981 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Honors and Legacy

  • In 1953 Life rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States.
  • Boston University holds the Howard Thurman Papers and the Sue Bailey Thurman Papers, where they are catalogued and available to researchers.
  • Because of Thurman's influence, editors have made new collections of Thurman's writings, which have been published since his death.
  • Planned for 2008, a full-length documentary Howard Thurman of Dr. Thurman's life and work is in production by Arleigh Prelow, an independent filmmaker.

Howard Thurman's poem 'I Will Light Candles This Christmas' has been set to music by British composer and songwriter Adrian Payne, both as a song and as a choral (SATB) piece. The choral version was first performed by Epsom Choral Society in December 2007.


Thurman, Howard. With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman, Chicago:Harvest/HBJ Book, 1981. ISBN 0-15-697648-X


"In the conflicts between man and man, between group and group, between nation and nation, the loneliness of the seeker for community is sometimes unendurable. The radical tension between good and evil, as man sees it and feels it, does not have the last word about the meaning of life and the nature of existence. There is a spirit in man and in the world working always against the thing that destroys and lays waste. Always he must know that the contradictions of life are not final or ultimate; he must distinguish between failure and a many-sided awareness so that he will not mistake conformity for harmony, uniformity for synthesis. He will know that for all men to be alike is the death of life in man, and yet perceive harmony that transcends all diversities and in which diversity finds its richness and significance." From The Search For Common Ground; An Inquiry Into The Basis Of Man's Experience Of Community.

For some unexplained reason, the following quote is widely and incorrectly attributed on the Internet to Harold Thurman Whitman:

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive." The author of this quote is Dr. Howard Thurman. Harold Thurman Whitman is a fictional name.

"When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart."


  • Howard Thurman: Essential Writings (2006) ISBN 1-570766-70-8
  • The Growing Edge (1956)
  • Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness (1948)
  • Jesus and the Disinherited (1949)
  • Deep is the Hunger: Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness (1951)
  • Christmas Is the Season of Affirmation (1951)
  • Deep River, Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals (1955)
  • Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples (1959)
  • The Luminous Darkness (1965)
  • The Centering Moment (1969)
  • The Search for Common Ground (1971)
  • The Creative Encounter (1972)
  • The Mood of Christmas (1973)
  • A Track to the Water's Edge: The Olive Schreiner Reader (1973)
  • The Growing Edge (1974)
  • The Inward Journey (1975)
  • Disciplines of the Spirit (1977)
  • Temptations of Jesus (1978)

Posthumous- Also, several of his books were reprinted after his death.

  • For the Inward Journey: Writings of Howard Thurman (1984)
  • A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience (1998)
  • Meditations of the Heart (1999)
  • Howard Thurman: Essential Writings (2006)

External links

Faith (for Content):