Howard Thurman: Autodidact and Cosmopolitan!

What the world needs is people who have come alive!

Howard Thurman

I started reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited in 2020 at the recommendation of either the librarian and/or President Alton Pollard, III, who called him a mystic-activist in his book: Mysticism and Social Change: The Social Witness of Howard Thurman published in 1992 (I haven’t yet read this; see review here). In Thurman’s Jesus and the disinherited I recognized the Jesus Christ that I too was taught to follow as a child, and tried to so much as an adult. Now, I’m reading two new books published in 2020 on Thurman.

The title for this blog post is from an older 2019 book Southern Religion in the World by Paul Harvey. I LOVE that Harvey describes Thurman as an “autodidact” and “a man of the world.”*** This post contains some of my notes, including links to other resources on Thurman. I’m most interested in his Indian influences, love of books and libraries, and great love for all people.

Gregory C. Ellison, II. Anchored in the Current: Discovering Howard Thurman As Educator, Activist, Guide, and Prophet. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2020. Available at LPTS (authorized users only).

Paul Harvey. Howard Thurman and the Disinherited. Eerdmans, 2020. Available at LPTS [authorized users only].

Paul Harvey. Southern Religion in the World: Three Stories (Athens, Univ of Georgia Pres, 2019). Chapter 2. The Meaning of All His Strivings: Howard Thurman’s Spiritual Quests. This is the second of the three stories documented by Harvey and here are some brief notes from it: Thurman was born in 1899 in West Palm Beach, Florida, and died in 1981. He lost his father at the age of seven and was mostly raised by his mother and grandmother. He grew up in the Baptist Church but was wary of it. He went to a Black Baptist high school in Jacksonville. Later, he set up the Howard Thurman Educational Trust to help others because of the providence, as he’d call it – of getting money when he desperately needed – demonstrating the interconnectedness of the web of life.

“Early on in his life, he staked his success on books and academic success. … at Morehouse College (1919-1923) he claimed to have read every book in its library; later, when he attended a seminary and other institutions with more abundant libraries, he consumed books with the near hunger of a autodidact.”

Paul Harvey. Southern Religion in the World: Three Stories (Athens, Univ of Georgia Pres, 2019). Chapter 2. The Meaning of All His Strivings: Howard Thurman’s Spiritual Quests.

Major influences on Howard Thurman (besides books and libraries!) : YMCA as an important training ground for his social gospel and connections with people who would become mentors like Mordecai Wyatt Johnson (future President of Howard University); Morehouse College, Atlanta, where he met Benjamin Mays who became a lifelong friend; 1923-26, American Baptist Theological Seminary in Rochester, NY where he took classes with Canadian theologian George Cross, who became his primary mentor but was unable (like many who came later) to understand Thurman’s “commitment both to theological ideas in the abstract and African American liberation in the flesh”; 1929, he spent a semester at Haverford College where he was tutored by the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones and gained “confidence in the insight that the religion of the inner life could deal with the empirical evidence of man without retreating from the demands of such experience.” He lost his first wife, got depressed but then met Sue Bailey.

Turning point and key to much of his later influence comes in 1935-36. With his wife Sue Bailey, a six month “pilgrimage of friendship” of black Americans to India, Burma (now Myanmar) and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with another couple. He did not really want to go (for a variety of personal reasons as well as not wanting to be put into the position of defending indefensible American Christian practices), proselytize). He and his wife and the other couple with whom they were traveling become the first African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi. Thurman also met Rabindranath Tagore but did not get along with him as well as he hit it off with Gandhi. Conversations with Gandhi helped Thurman develop his own genuine voice to include a broad international political vision that was grounded in Christ and promoted intercultural understanding.

If you can’t get a copy of Southern Religion, here’s an article by Harvey, Meet the theologian who helped MLK, Jr. see the value of non violence: In Urban Faith, 2018.

Non violence is not just a tactic or strategy but a lifestyle.

2020 – Jesus and the Disinherited at the recommendation of my President Alton Pollard, III.

Books yet to read:

Howard Thurman. Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. 1959.

Howard Thurman. For the Inward Journey.

Howard Thurman. Head and Heart.

Quenton Dixie and Peter Eisendstadt. Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the African American Origins of Non Violence. Beacon Press, 2011. (Catalog record link:

Gary Dorien. Breaking White Supremacy (only the section on Thurman). (Mentioned in Harvey)

Films to watch:

The Psalm of Howard Thurman

Backs Against the Wall: The Howard Thurman Story (2019, PBS) – Trailer here on YouTube. There is a lovely quote from Alton Pollard, III here: “People sometimes seem to think that nonviolence was very endemic to the African American community as a way of life, when in fact it was not. And even Thurman is very clear that non violence was a cultivated experience for most rank and file people, including leadership.” A discussion guide of the documentary, with complete quotes used in the film, is available here.

Lost Lectures found at Morehouse.

Conversations with Howard Thurman, pt. 1 and pt. 2. On YouTube, link for pt. 1

Bibliography (very preliminary and I’m still brainstorming my research questions!)

Howard Thurman Chronology. Howard Thurman Papers Project, School of Theology, Boston University. URL:

Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. (Oct. 2, 2014). When Howard Thurman met Mahatma Gandhi: Non violence and the Civil Rights Movement. URL: (Non violence is the only form of direct action the Mahatma says in answer to Thurman’s question: Is non violence a form of direct action?)


Barren and Fruitful – link forthcoming.

The Sound of the Genuine” by Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman (1899-1981). In Crossings Reflection #4, University of Indianapolis.

*** We joke in my family about one of the labels I’ve chosen for myself: Woman of the world, which I very simply explain as citizenship on earth as it is in heaven – i.e. cosmopolitanism – but nobody understands! I guess you have to be a mystic-activist to get it!

Published by Dr. Anita Coleman

The one and only Biblio Prof :)

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