A Feature Review of
Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography
(Library of Religious Biography)
Reviewed by Ope Bukola
I received my copy of Paul Harvey’s biography of Howard Thurman just before election week. Like many of us, I had consumed hundreds of hours of podcasts, tweets, and articles dissecting the current climate. I voted early, donated where I could, encouraged others to vote. But still, I felt that I wasn’t doing enough to meet the current moment. I still do. It was in this environment of deep restlessness that I started reading Harvey’s “religious biography.” Like many who know Thurman, I was introduced to his philosophy when I read his classic Jesus and the Disinherited. So, I expected to find wisdom in Thurman’s life for persevering in moments of uncertainty. Still, I was surprised by how much his life speaks to today, and gives us a framework to put our work for social change in the context of God’s ultimate work.
Howard Thurman and the Disinherited traces the main stages of Thurman’s life, from his early education to his philosophical explorations and attempts to reimagine religious community in San Francisco and at Boston University. The central tension that Harvey draws out in Thurman’s life is the struggle to balance mysticism and activism, and to “tend to the state of the soul and the state of the world together.”
The operative word is together, as Thurman’s own life shows periods of deep interior examination which lead to transformative social action. One of Thurman’s formative experiences is a trip to India in 1935, which he undertakes as part of a Negro delegation of the American Christian Student Movement. While in India, he grapples with being a representative of the Christian faith while the Church is actively linked to anti-black racism in America and colonial imperialism throughout the world. In confronting questions posed to him about American Christian hypocrisy, Thurman would develop and deepen his views on the true religion of Jesus and its “fundamental significance for the underprivileged and disinherited.” But, his personal examination is not strictly, or even primarily, intellectual. Thurman connected deeply to the Black religious experience, and drew on the Negro spirituals as wellsprings of hidden truths that could only be understood through self-mastery. He valued mystical experiences, especially in nature, that led to a more intuitive knowledge of God. Confronting the practical challenges of the world required diving deeper into one’s interior, and achieving a personal connection with God.
Thurman’s interior examination would compel him to work on building a new type of church. While he trained and mentored many leaders of the civil rights movement, Thurman’s own primary action centered on transforming the church. It started in San Francisco at The Church for the Fellowship for All People, where he attempted to build an interracial congregation in 1944. He resisted the activist church with no spiritual grounding, and also rejected the interior church with no connection to the world. He believed the church could be revolutionary, not by means of explicit politicking, but by providing a respite for the soul and a place to encounter the divine. Thurman carried this dream to Boston, where for a time he led the chapel at Boston University and created a mystical and universalist worship experience. Outside of worship, he led students on a study of spiritual disciplines and thinkers from various religious traditions, in order that they might examine their own souls.
Thurman’s work to reshape Christian community is relevant for those of today who love the church, and long to see the church lead in fighting injustice and proclaiming the gospel for the dispossessed. His vision for the church began with loving individuals and building a community that would “place a crown over their heads that they were always trying to grow tall enough to wear.” If the church could model the radical belief in the dignity and worth of each person, there would be a wellspring of love and accountability for each other. Then true social transformation could occur, one drive not by guilt or paternalism, but out of deep love. Ultimately, these efforts at church transformation do not pan out as Thurman hopes, and he is unable to actualize the beloved community he desires. After retiring from working in institutional roles, he spent much of his time writing, teaching, and counseling leaders like Dr. King to find time to pause and spiritually refuel for their grueling work.
Howard Thurman and the Disinherited is an excellent introduction to Thurman’s life and the development of his philosophy. It is encouraging to see more focus, in and out of academia, on understanding this spiritual giant. This concise volume paints a picture that is encouraging and sobering. Encouraging because it shows that action is possible. But sobering because the work is necessarily unfinished. Thurman was divinely restless, and had many moments of physical and mental exhaustion, not to talk of financial pressure. He embodied the idea that we live and work in the in-between, and our job is to keep seeking the Creator knowing that, as he writes: “Suffering is real and deeply painful, but it is not the last word.”