When I was a student at Bishop College, he was sometimes referred to with the type of reverence reserved for legendary figures. He was cited in the sermons of highly respected and widely renown preachers as authoritatively as were Paul Tillich or Reinhold Niebuhr. His books were hard to come by at that time. Howard Thurman (1899-1981), didn't preach at the college during my time there. My only recourse, and that of my ministerial classmates, was to be regaled by stories of him by his contemporaries, by those, like my father, who had heard him when he had preached at Bishop during their time there and by occasional citations of him in sermons.
Today, Thurman is being rediscovered, read again and his contributions to leaders of the modern day Civil Rights era re-examined.
"Thurman's impact was quite impressive. He conversed with great minds such as Rufus Jones, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Marcus Boulware, in his survey of African American orators in the twentieth century (1900-1968), names Thurman the African American theologian of his era and marvels at the depth of his sermons."
"Both Ralph Turnbull and Joseph Washington feel that Thurman makes a unique contribution to the canon of African American preachers, particularly in the areas of theology and spirituality. They also marvel at how Thurman‟s apparent inactivity in the Civil Rights Movement did not diminish his ministerial proficiency. Thurman's historic ministerial and homiletical career – with many more highlights and impressions than are named here – broke down many racial (as well as class, cultural, denominational, and religious) barriers before the formal Civil Rights Movement reached widespread prominence and is worthy of more than a mere mention in the field of homiletical history."
By any measure, his legacy is significant...
From 1932-1944, Howard Thurman was Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he was Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University (1953-1965). In 1944 he founded The Church for the Fellowship of All People, in San Francisco. It is credited as being the first interdenominational, multicultural church in the country. He authored 21 books and hundreds of essays and articles.
Thurman's prodigious intellect and generous spirituality, have led those who knew him and those who have discovered and studied him to think of him as more than a theologian. Dr. Manuel Scott, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Los Angeles and St. John Baptist Church in Dallas, a contemporary and colleague of Thurman, once said to me, 'Howard Thurman was no theologian; he was a mystic'. That's an evaluation is echoed by Martin E. Marty, "At the time Howard Thurman began writing and stressing the mystical side it was very rare to even use the language of it in our culture. He was able to go deep inside himself and reach out and teach other people how to transcend the limits of their own, I'll call it, practical existence."