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Mystical Experience of Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) was an influential African American philosopher, theologian, educator, author, and civil rights leader.  Thurman, along with Mordecai Johnson and Vernon Johns, is widely regarded as one of the three greatest African-American preachers of the early 20th-century. 

Thurman was Dean of Chapel at Howard University and Boston University for over two decades.  In 1944, he helped establish the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco, the first racially integrated, intercultural church in the United States. 

Thurman wrote 21 books, including Meditations of the Heart; Deep River: Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals; and Mysticism and the Experience of Love.

Howard Thurman wrote that “mysticism is defined as the response of the individual to a personal encounter with God within his own spirit.”  He described his mystical experience, which he remembers from his earliest childhood (and which some might classify as nature mysticism), as follows:

“The ocean and the night together surrounded my little life with a reassurance that could not be affronted by the behavior of human beings.  The ocean at night gave me a sense of timelessness, of existing beyond the reach of the ebb and flow of circumstances.  Death would be a minor thing, I felt, in the sweep of that natural embrace.”

He then described the experience of watching ocean storms:

“Again, the boundaries of self did not hold me.  Unafraid, I was held by the storms’ embrace.  The experience of these storms gave me a certain overriding immunity against much of the pain with which I would have to deal in the years ahead when the ocean was only a memory.  The sense held:  I felt rooted in life, in nature, in existence.”

In a later experience, Thurman described the touch of The Divine he felt.  In 1910, when Halley's Comet passed across the sky and terrified him (along with millions of others), Howard’s mother reassured him by saying, “Nothing will happen to us, Howard.  God will take care of us.”  Thurman wrote of the experience:

“In that moment, something was touched and kindled in me, a quiet reassurance that has never quite deserted me.  As I look back on it, what I sensed then was the fact that what stirred in me was one with what created and controlled the comet.  It was this inarticulate awareness that silenced my fear and stilled my panic.  Here at once is the primary ground and basis of man’s experience of prayer.  I am calling it, for the purpose of this discussion, the ‘givenness of God’ as expressed in the hunger of the heart.”

Quoted from “What’s Love Got to Do with It? The Mysticism of Howard Thurman”, a paper prepared for Prairie Group by Rev. Wayne B. Arnason (November 2010).

Photo Credit: Howard Thurman from amistaducc.org.

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