The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, 80, a leading clergyman, educator and mystic who believed that the central role of religion was to bring people together and promote harmony in human relations, died Friday in San Francisco. He had a respiratory ailment.
Dr. Thurman was a Baptist minister by training and profession, a teacher and administrator at several colleges and universities, including Howard University, the organizer of a successful interracial church in San Francisco in the mid-1940s, during a tour through India, Ceylon and Burma, he became a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolent resistance and the leader of the Indian independence movement. Dr. Thurman had long and close associations with the Quakers in the United States. An eclectic in matters of theology and a synthesizer of ideas, he developed from his studies and experiences a view in which Christianity would "live for the weak as well as the strong -- for all peoples whatever their color, whatever their caste."
Dr. Thurman spread his ideas through his preaching, which was prodigious and which took him all over the United States and to many other countries, and through his books, of which he published 22, including his autobiography. "With Head and Heart," which appeared last year. One year, Life Magazine named him one of the 12 most effective preachers in the country.
In formulating his philosophy of religion, Dr. Thurman spoke of human choice and human freedom. It was his hope that this would stimulate peaceful action for social justice. His most detailed statement of this notion was in his book "Apostles of Sensitiveness."
And it was through his ideas that he helped provide a framework for the leadership of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Dr. Thurman himself was not a man to take part in protests and marches and demonstrations. But his thinking -- together with that of Dr. Mordecai Johnson, a president of Howard, and Dr. Benjamin R. Mays, a president of Morehouse College in Atlanta -- made it natural for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others to turn to these peaceful tactics.
Dr. Thurman expressed these views in a tribute he wrote for a Los Angeles radio station a few hours after Dr. King was murdered in 1968.
"Martin Luther King was the living epitome of a way of life that rejected physical violence as the life-style of a morally responsible people," he said. p"His assassination reveals the cleft deep in the psyche of the American people, the profound ambivalence of our way of life. Something deep within us rejects nonviolent direct action as a dependable procedure for effecting social change. And yet, against this rejection something always struggles, pushing, pushing . . . In [dr. King], the informed conscience of the country became articulate . . ."
Dr. Thurman was born Nov. 18, 1900, in Daytona, Fla. He was brought up by a grandmother, who had been a slave.He went to school -- a circumstance that was unusual for blacks in that time and place -- and got his high school diploma from Florida Baptist Academy, working as a janitor to pay his way. He later graduated from Morehouse College and then from the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y. He was ordained in 1925.
The following year, he returned to Atlanta to teach theology at Morehouse and at the Spelman College for Women. In 1932, he joined the faculty at Howard as a professor of theology and also as dean of the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel.
In 1944, Dr. Thurman moved to San Francisco with the idea of establishing and interracial church. With the Rev. Alfred Fisk, who was white, he founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. In a few years, it had a membership of almost 1,500 people -- blacks, whites and Asians.
In the mid-1950s, Dr. Thurman was appointed a professor and the dean of Marsh Memorial Chapel at Boston University. He was the first black to hold such a position at that institution.
About 1960, he returned to San Francisco and set up the Howard Thurman Educational Trust for the purpose of helping needy students. He continued to preach and to write until his death.
Dr. Thurman received honorary degrees from Washington Univesity, Ohio Wesleyan University and other schools. He was a fellow of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences and the National Council of Religion in Higher Education. He also was an honorary canon of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, a member of the board of the Whitney Young Memorial Foundation and a trustee of Morehouse.
Survivors include his wife, Sue Bailey Thurman of San Francisco: two daughters, Olive Wong of New York City, and Anne Chiarenza of San Francisco; a sister, Madaline, of Daytona Beach, and three grandchildren.