In 1935, at the height of his powers, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal trip to India that would forever change him—and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States.
When Thurman (1899–1981) became the first African American to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, he found himself called upon to create a new version of American Christianity, one that eschewed self-imposed racial and religious boundaries, and equipped itself to confront the enormous social injustices that plagued the United States during this period. Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of satyagraha, or “soul force,” would have a momentous impact on Thurman, showing him the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance.
After the journey to India, Thurman’s distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi’s prescient words that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” Thurman went on to found one of the first explicitly interracial congregations in the United States and to deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers—among them Martin Luther King Jr.
Visions of a Better World depicts a visionary leader at a transformative moment in his life. Drawing from previously untapped archival material and obscurely published works, Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt explore, for the first time, Thurman’s development into a towering theologian who would profoundly affect American Christianity—and American history.
"An important portrait of a neglected figure who deserves a wider recognition.”—Booklist, starred review
“Howard Thurman was one of the great prophetic minds and spirits of the 20th century – and this wonderful book does justice to his formation. Don’t miss it!”—Cornel West, author of Race Matters
“In retrospect, great struggles for freedom tend to be viewed as smooth and inevitable social transitions. Thurman historians Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt offer precious details about the circumstances and cultural factors that grounded Howard Thurman’s spiritual leadership. Their engaging storytelling style and careful research will inform and inspire current and future generations."—Barbara Holmes, Professor of Ethics and African American Religious Studies, Memphis Theological Seminary, and author of Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church
“An enlightening, engaging saga that expands our understanding of the global creation of the African American intellectual tradition. The authors deserve high praise for their thorough research, lively style, and for reminding us of Howard Thurman’s cosmopolitan mind, one that reached across racial and national boundaries to meld Black Christianity with Gandhi’s philosophy. The book provides us with powerful lessons necessary for today’s turbulent world.”—Graham Russell Gao Hodges, George Dorland Langdon, Jr. Professor of History and Africana Studies, and author of David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City
“There are too few works that expertly illuminate the luminous life and thought of Howard Thurman. This perceptive and learned book by Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt goes a long way toward remedying that situation.”—Gary Dorrien, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University
“Visions of a Better World brings back all the memories of my time with Howard Thurman—I feel like I am once again listening to him, feeling his presence. We had many talks at his home in San Francisco. His requirement was two hours, preferably three, and no phone calls. These talks were among the most inspiring and instructive moments of my life. His mentoring was spiritual, practical, and mystical. It influences my life to the present day.”—Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. Senior Managing Director, Lazard Freres & Co, LLC
“Dixie and Eisenstadt have given us a true gift. This magisterial book distills the life of Howard Thurman, revealing the depth of his influence on the African American freedom struggle and the power of his faith. Howard Thurman always seemed a step ahead. And this account of his trip to India and embrace of Gandhi is just another example of his prophetic vision. Visions of a Better World takes the reader on an extraordinary journey: one can’t help but be transfixed and transformed by Thurman’s witness." —Eddie S. Glaude Jr., William S. Tod Professor Religion and African American Studies, Princeton University, and author of In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America
“An admirably focused portrait of… Howard Thurman… the authors delineate how Thurman’s brand of theology and philosophy emerged from a desire to reconcile individual spiritual experience and transcendence with broad social change—and how his thinking and teaching inspired a generation…”—Publishers Weekly
“Reveling in the complexity of Thurman's thought and his actions, this book eloquently blends intellectual history and biography and restores Thurman to his rightful place as one of the 20th century's most brilliant and influential religious thinkers. Thurman's early engagements in India and the wider world deeply affected his ideas and his actions as a prophet, a religious leader, and a political visionary. This book deserves a special place in the long intellectual prehistory of the civil rights movement and African American politics.”–Barbara D. Savage, University of Pennsylvania, author of Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion