Quaker Theology #16  -- Fall-Winter 2009


Howard Thurman and Quakers

By Stephen W. Angell

In 1955, the inaugural year of the Friends Journal, a special issue was published on the theme of the Wider Quaker Fellowship. One of the essays in that issue was excerpted from Deep River, a forthcoming book by Howard Thurman (1899-1981), eminent Christian African American mystical and social gospel theologian, preacher, and prolific author. The first sentence of the authorís identification read as follows: "Howard Thurman, dean of Marsh Chapel, Boston University, is a member of the Wider Quaker Fellowship." (FJ, Nov. 1955, 297) For someone of the breadth of interests and audience that Thurman possessed, making this explicit an identification with Quakerism was remarkable.

The purpose of this essay is to probe the extent and depth of his allegiances, or alliances, to and with Quakers. This is not a topic that has altogether escaped scholarly notice. Gary Dorrien, author of a magisterial three-volume history of liberal Christian theology in the United States, notes the strong Quaker influence on Thurman, attributing that influence with considerable reason to Rufus Jones (1863-1948), the Quaker philosopher, theologian, and social activists whose range of interests strongly prefigured those of Thurman. Dorrien characterizes Jones as Thurmanís role model and "favorite religious thinker." (Dorrien, 2003, 565).

Along similar lines, Leigh Schmidt, author of an insightful monograph on the history of mystical religion in the United States, highlights the "strong Quaker element of prayer, silence, meditation, and nonviolence in Thurmanís work." (Schmidt, 2005, 268). But neither Schmidt nor Dorrien looks at Thurmanís interactions with any other Quakers than Jones, nor does either scholar consider possible areas of ambivalence or disagreement that Thurman might have had with Quakers.

Alongside of Jones, I will suggest three Quakers whose interaction with Thurman were important and deserve examination: Wilmer Cooper (1920-2008), Douglas Steere (1901-1995), and Louise Wilson (b. 1921). I will also argue with Dorrien and Schmidt that, despite a few possible areas of ambivalence or disagreement, Thurman had a durable and strong relationship with Quakerism.

This essay does not assert that Thurman had an attachment to Quakerism exclusive of attachments to other religious denominations. Quite the opposite was true; indeed, his most important religious affiliation, that which he had to the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, was based on the conviction that the soundest religious orientation would be built upon the transcendence of sects, denominations, races, and creeds. A Festschrift for Howard Thurman was published in 1983 by a Quaker press Ė Friends United Press in Richmond, Indiana Ė containing a most unusual "Publisherís Preface" recounting many of Thurmanís connections with Quakers, but also including this vital disclaimer: "As quick as Quakers might have been to want to claim Howard Thurman, they knew that he belonged to everyone." (Young, xii) My intention here, then, is to portray a relationship between Thurman and Quakers that was close and intimate, but not, in any sense, exclusive.

Thurmanís Early Life

Howard Thurman bought one of Rufus Jonesí books, Finding the Trail of Life, a childhood memoir, at a second-hand sale in 1927 when he was serving his first pastorate (in Oberlin, Ohio) and was 28 years old. Thurman immediately felt he had found a kindred spirit in Jones, and resolved to study with him if Jones were still alive. Thurman later recalled that Jones "had what I wanted, a combination of insight and social feeling." (Jennness, 154) That led to Thurman becoming a special student of Jones at Haverford College in the winter and spring of 1929. (Thurman, 1979, 74) What follows is a brief account of his life before his studies with Jones.

Thurman was born in Daytona Beach, Florida, to Saul and Alice Thurman on November 18, 1899. Saul Thurman died of pneumonia when Howard was seven years old. (Jones, too, had lost a parent Ė his mother Ė during childhood, and had written movingly of the spiritual effects of her death on him in Finding the Trail of Life.) Thurman was a part of the Black Baptist church from birth, a connection that at the same time was wonderfully enriching because of his grandmotherís lively and nurturing spirituality, and occasionally very bleak when there were moments that, while possibly well meant, were devastating in their effects on him.

As an example of the latter, one can identify the tension following the death of his father, a good, gentle, unchurched man. His family pastor refused to preach Saulís funeral sermon, and when a visiting minister was procured, he took the opportunity to preach a sermon (with Howard and the family present) that suggested that Saul Thurman was going to hell. After that sermon, Howard exclaimed that he would never to have anything to do with the church when he grew up Ė a vow which, in an important sense, he did not keep, yet at the same time his ministry was that of one who was always aware of how churches can be deeply hurtful. (Thurman, 1979, 4-6)

The hostile, white supremacist world of Daytona Beach environed the cocoon of black, poor Daytona neighborhoods, which fiercely protected their young. Thurman was very poor materially but also quite rich spiritually, in large part as a result of the love and careful discipline that he received from his mother, grandmother, and African American neighbors. The hostile white world had its greatest impact on young Thurman quite impersonally in its utter neglect of the education of black youth. There was, for example, no high school for African American youth in Daytona; the nearest high school that accepted African Americans was in Jacksonville, some ninety miles to the north. Nevertheless, through the determination of his mother, his grandmother, and himself, and some improbable, even miraculous, procurement of finances, Thurman was able to attend high school in Jacksonville, and then obtain an undergraduate degree from the elite African American institution, Morehouse College, in Atlanta. He consistently excelled in his studies, and was admitted (under a quota system, limiting African American admissions to two per year) at Colgate Seminary in Rochester. (Thurman, 1979, 21-46)

In western New York State of the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was as present as it had been in Daytona, and Thurman had uncomfortable personal confrontations with Klansmen there. In recounting his life experiences in a Rochester seminary and his ensuing pastorate in Oberlin, Ohio, Thurman described a series of difficult and challenging encounters, often, but not always, focused on racial issues. The overwhelming theme of his stories was a hard-won yet durable forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace which came from a forthright, loving, and stalwart facing up to the difficulties.

It was during this time that whites first entered into Thurmanís "magnetic field of ethical awareness" (Thurman, 1979, 51), as they had not in the virtually all-black worlds he had inhabited at Daytona and Morehouse. He played a leading role in desegregating his seminary dormitory. He deepened his involvement with the YMCA, with which he had first become acquainted as a high school student, a powerful force for a progressive Christianity on race issues as well as other areas. (Jenness, 151)

Walter Fluker and Catherine Tumber make these obser-vations about his life immediately prior to his studies with Jones:

  • A regular on the ĎYí lecture circuit during the height of segregation, [Thurman] was the student movementís most popular speaker before interracial audiences. . . . Thurman helped pioneer the introduction of theological education at black colleges and universities, and worked to wrest control of black seminary training from white leadership. In the late 1920s, he was appointed the first African-American board member of the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). (Fluker and Tumber, 1998, 4)

  • Rufus Jones and Thurman

    So, in early 1929, the twenty-nine-year-old Thurman traveled to Haverford College to study with the sixty-six-year-old Rufus Jones. Jones at that time was already a significant leader in the Quaker and ecumenical Christian world, a leading authority on mysticism, an activist who had played a large part in founding the American Friends Service Committee (and a lesser role in the establishment of the FOR), a professor on the verge of retirement after a thirty-six-year career at Haverford, and the prolific author of thirty-four books (more than twenty more would follow prior to his death in 1948). (Angell, 2000)

    It was Jonesís experience of and scholarship on mysticism that especially attracted Thurman to him, although their commitment to a progressive Christianity that included pacifism was also a common bond. In 1961, when Thurman was invited to give a Rufus Jones Memorial Lecture under the sponsorship of Friends General Conference, Thurman began by acknowledging his debt to Jones in helping him to establish himself as a scholar of mysticism. Jones had given to Thurman "confidence in the insight that the religion of the inner life could deal with the empirical experience of man without retreating from the demands of such experience." (Thurman, 1961, 3)

    The mysticism that Thurman learned from Jones was skeptical of mere intellectual apprehensions of reality, and he was concerned to subordinate these to a more intuitive, putatively "inner-light"-centered way of submitting to the deepest possible reality. In a 1978 lecture to Unitarian Universalists in Berkeley, Thurman said of Jones, "He had a profound mistrust of the powers of the mind and an absolute devotion to the powers of the mind. He felt that always the role of the thinker was to put at the disposal of the motivations of his life, the best fruits of learning and the mastery of the external world. But this should be done best if the individuals who were seeking it would be inwardly motivated." (Pollard, 1992, 163)

    In his autobiography published in 1979, Thurman gave a more extended account of his relationship with Jones. He recounted how he had received wisdom imparted by Jones in several settings, including philosophy class lectures, a Philadelphia-area seminar on Meister Eckhart geared toward college and university teachers, and the messages that Jones delivered in mid-week meeting for worship at Haverford. Thurman took the occasion to write several essays on various aspects of mysticism, including "one on Spanish [and French] mystics, especially Madame Guyon, and another, a definitive study of the mysticism of St. Francis of Assisi."

    But best of all were their conversations, the occasions for heart-to-heart interchange. Jonesís manner was "utterly informal," and his expressions "anecdotal, sometimes whimsically reflective," but purposeful in showing Thurman possible directions for his work. Furthermore, observed Thurman, Jones "had the gift of intimacy, which allowed him to go to the heart of his personal experience without causing embarrassment to his listener or himself." When Thurman showed skepticism at his elderís habit of regular afternoon naps, Jones invited him to consider that there might come a time when the younger man would see the wisdom of that practice! (Thurman, 1979, 76-77)

    A 1951 account stated that Thurman "acknowledges that Rufus Jones, the saintly philosopher of Haverford College, has had the greatest influence on him of any of his teachers. . . . Like the great Quaker, [Thurman] seeks the inner light of personal guidance and power. He does not strive nor cry, and a bruised reed he will not break." (Christian Century, Sept. 12, 1951)

    Thurman dealt with the issue of race gently in his retrospective observations of Jones. From the time that Thurman had the leading to study with Jones, he had an intuitive sense that Haverford College did not admit African Americans for study in 1929. In fact, it appears that Haverford admitted its first African American student in 1926, (Barbour and Frost, 266) but in the correspondence between Jones and Thurman prior to his coming in 1929, the issue was explicitly raised by Thurman, but not squarely addressed by Jones.

    The latterís correspondence was uniformly encouraging in terms of expressing pleasure at the thought of welcoming Thurman and praising his plan of study. Jones also stated that Thurman would not be charged for tuition. Thurman was able to get a grant from the National Council in Higher Education and appointment as a Fellow by the Council, and the grant was sufficient to meet his other costs. But Jones never addressed the issue of whether Thurman would be admitted to Haverford. (Thurman, 1979, 74-76) It is quite possible that inasmuch as Haverford was purely an undergraduate institution and Thurman already possessed both the B.A. and Bachelor of Divinity degrees, Jones thought it would not be possible to formally admit someone to what was essentially a post-graduate program.

    His actual contact with Jones caused him to realize that for Jones, racial justice was not an ethical issue on the level of war and peace, but that did not affect the ease of their relationship. Thurman wrote, "During the entire time with Rufus, issues of racial conflict never arose, for the fact of racial differences was never dealt with at the conscious level. The ethical emphasis in his interpretations of mystical religion dealt primarily with war and peace, the poverty and hunger of whole populations, and the issues arising from the conflict between nations. Paradoxically, in his presence, the specific issues of race with which I had been confronted all my life as a black man in America seemed strangely irrelevant. I felt that somehow he transcended race; I did so, too, temporarily, and, in retrospect, this aspect of my time with him remains an enigma." (Thurman, 1979, 77)

    Thurmanís writing here is enigmatic as well. When, in 1926, a mentor at Colgate, George Cross, had suggested that Thurmanís life work should transcend race and be focused on "timeless issues of the human spirit," Thurman had been inwardly critical of Crossís statement. He had "wondered what kind of response I could make to this man who did not know that a man and his black skin must face the Ďtimeless issues of the human spirití together." (Thurman, 1979, 60) So race had been a problematic construct in Thurmanís conversations with Cross. In interactions with Jones, was transcending race really less problematic for him?

    In an attempt to shed more light on these issues, I have examined the papers of Howard Thurman, housed at Boston University, and the papers of Rufus Jones, housed at Haverford College. I have unfortunately found little light to be shed by searching in archives. In Thurmanís papers at Boston University, there are letters that are filed under the name of Rufus Jones. These are dated in the early and mid 1930s immediately after his period of study at Haverford. Unfortunately, these letters were not written by Jones himself, but by a woman who was a secretary in the Department of Philosophy at Haverford. The letters were written on half sheets of paper, and they passed on personal news; there is nothing contained in them of philosophical or theological import, and they were written in a condescending tone.

    Thurman did, however, keep in touch with Jones. In his papers, there is a letter informing Jones of Thurmanís departure for India in 1935, and promising to speak with Jones on his return. (Thurman to Jones, Sept. 3, 1935) In Jonesís papers at Haverford, there is nothing that I have been able to discover on Howard Thurman, and archivists at Haverford assured me that I had not missed anything. Before her death, I was able to speak briefly with Rufus Jonesís daughter, Mary Hoxie Jones, then in her nineties, and she categorically denied that Howard Thurman had ever studied with her father.

    Contemporaneous witnesses to Thurmanís studies with Jones seem scarce, but one such testimony is provided by Jonesís Haverford colleague, fellow Quaker, and extensive writer on Christian Spirituality, Douglas Steere: "When I first knew [Thurman] at Haverford in 1928, [actually, 1929] he had come to be near Rufus Jones for a time, and we shared an exciting seminar in Meister Eckhart. Eckhartís lesson that Ďyou can only spend in good works what you have earned in contemplationí must have lodged deeply in Howardís mind and spirit for it has been a theme song of his ever since." Steere was one person from this period of Thurmanís life who kept up his ties of friendship, visiting Thurman frequently during his subsequent thirteen-year tenure as professor and chaplain at Howard University, and then also visiting Thurmanís church during his pastorate in San Francisco. (Gandy, iii)

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