Thursday, January 14, 2016

Connecting the Spirituality of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Payne Theological Seminary

It is my great privilege to teach Spiritual Formation at Payne Theological Seminary. I have been influenced by the spirituality of Howard Thurman, and present Thurman's basic ideas on this. I connect Thurman with the spirituality and prayer life of Martin Luther King, Jr., remembering that Dr. King carried a copy of Thurman's brilliant Jesus and the Disinherited with him. I especially use Walter Fluker's excellent work in this area. Here are notes I sometimes give my students on connecting Thurman and King, as regards spiritual formation and spiritual transformation.


Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King, Jr., share these common themes (Fluker, 158):
  •     The interrelatedness of all life.
  •          The primacy of religious experience.
  •          The moral order of the universe.
  •          The love and power of God.
  •          The dignity and worth of human personality.
  •          The social nature of human existence.

Relating this especially to spiritual formation and spiritual transformation we see connecting points between Thurman and King as follows:

  •          Love of the enemy is the true test of love. (Ib., 161)
  •          Personal “spirituality is inextricably bound to the struggle for social justice and liberation. Spirituality, as personal encounter and commitment to the God of love, provides the ground (the love of God), the means (the power of love) and the goal of social action (a just human society, i.e., human community ordered by love).” (Ib.)
  •          Thurman “does not simply bring the message of truth from God to the religious community, but he leads individuals and the community to have an experience with the divine from which they may gain a sense of wholeness themselves.” (Mozella Mitchell, in Ib., 162)
  •          Thurman’s methodology involves a movement from the inwardness of religious experience (the God-encounter) to the outwardness of religious experience manifested in community and society. (Ib., 163)
  •          “In Thurman and King, the character of community is triadic, i.e., there are three basic elements in their conceptions of community: the individual or persons, God, and the world.” (Ib.) Thurman especially emphasizes the individual and God as primary, and out of which comes true community. King’s deep prayer life shows a commitment to this order as well. (See Lewis Baldwin, Never to Leave Us Alone)
  •          “Martin Luther King, Jr., like the faithful pilgrim, Abraham, according to Thurman, ”looked for a city where the builder and maker is God.” However, the clue to the search for the ideal city was first and foremost within him. This is the lesson, says Thurman, that every crusader for social justice must ultimately learn; [viz.], that which one seeks for “without” is found “within,” for the beyond is within.” (Ib., 164)