Black Mysticism

When we think of mystics, our list rarely includes black mystics. We name people like Hildegaard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, St Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, and more. These are all white or Spanish.


There is a rich tradition of mysticism in black spirituality. Again, our culture has focused predominantly upon whiteness, and thus has not raised our black mystical brothers and sisters up for celebration.


If we can name any black mystic, we usually name Howard Thurman, an American author, philosopher, theologian, mystic, educator, and civil rights leader. The Center for Contemplation and Action’s daily devotional offered this insight into Howard Thurman’s contributions to mysticism:


Here’s an insightful description of how Thurman’s significant influence was built upon his commitment to contemplation and action:


The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman contributed much to the incorporation of the contemplative in social/racial justice efforts. An African American theologian and mystic, Thurman was reared in an African American Baptist Church, . . . [and] served as spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and thus played a critical role as a “behind the scenes” leader in the development of an alternative to violence in the dismantling of racial injustice in America.


Thurman chose to engage in work that would serve all people and to use the contemplative experience as a path to peace, joy, and power. . . . [He] had the prophetic ability to make a connection between the silence and scrutiny of one’s inner life and the work for social justice. (The Meaning of Life — Center for Action and Contemplation (


There are more. Today I want to highlight a few womanist mystics. Womanism, for those who are not familiar with that term, is feminist theology within the black tradition.


To name a few:


Thea Bowman, a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration born in Mississippi.  For Sr. Bowman, Black American spirituality

"is rooted in our African heritage, with its ways of perceiving and valuing reality, its style of expression, its modes of prayer and contemplating the divine. It is colored by our Middle Passage, Slavery, our Island and Latin experience, segregation, integration, and our on-going struggle for liberation. [3]


For Sr. Thea, “God is present in everything. In the universe, in creation, in me and all that happens to me, in my brothers and sisters, in the church, and in the Eucharist—everywhere.” [4] (Images — Center for Action and Contemplation (


Mysticism is not all ecstatic visions. People who have endured great suffering and let it open them to a new consciousness or perspective are often mystics. In that sense, Sojourner Truth is counted among the mystics. Sojourner Truth knew deep in her soul that God was on her side, that God would work tirelessly to create justice for her people.  This faith, this strength in God is the foundation that gave Sojourner Truth the strength to work as powerfully as she did for the abolishment of slavery.


Then there is Jarena Lee:


Jarena Lee (1783–1864) was the first authorized woman preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her spiritual autobiography—the first by an African American woman published in the United States—describes her childhood and her journeys across the United States. Though born to free black parents, she was hired out from the age of seven and worked far from her family and home in Cape May, New Jersey. A mystical encounter gave Lee the courage and calling to preach.


An impressive silence fell upon me, and I stood as if some one was about to speak to me . . . to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice which I thought I distinctly heard, and most certainly understand, which said to me, “Go preach the Gospel!” I immediately replied aloud, “No one will believe me.” Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say, “Preach the Gospel; I will put words in your mouth, and you will turn your enemies to become your friends.” . . .


I . . . told [the minister] that the Lord had revealed it to me that I must preach the gospel. He replied . . . as to women preaching, he said that our Discipline . . . did not call for women preachers. This I was glad to hear . . . but no sooner did this feeling cross my mind, than I found that a love of souls had in a measure departed from me; that holy energy which burned within me, as a fire, began to be smothered. This I soon perceived. O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. . . . And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? Seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man. . . .


Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour . . . and the gospel? . . . But some will say that Mary did not expound the Scripture, therefore, she did not preach, in the proper sense of the term. To this I reply . . . perhaps it was a great deal more simple then, than it is now—if it were not, the unlearned fisherman could not have preached the gospel at all. . . .


If then, to preach the gospel by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord? . . . As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labor according to what I have received, in his vineyard. . . .

Reference: Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account of Her Call to Preach the Gospel (Pantianos Classics: 2017, 1836), 14, 15, 16. (Gift of Heaven — Center for Action and Contemplation (


I could keep listing more and more black mystics in our history. I encourage you to seek out their voices. Pick up a book on black mystics. Read the books written by and about the mystics above. Allow your heart and soul to open and learn from this powerful tradition. 


You will be blessed. You will be transformed.


God’s invitation to justice will grow in your heart.