11 min read

Howard Thurman: Psilocybin's Mystery Minister

Uncover the captivating tale & enigmatic legacy of Howard Thurman and his role in a pioneering psilocybin study that shaped psychedelic research.
Howard Thurman, mystic, theologian, and civil rights advocate
Howard Thurman, mystic, theologian, and civil rights advocate

Taking drugs in church is not a normal occurrence, but if it were, I'd probably consider attending church myself.

Enter Boston University's Marsh Chapel on Good Friday, circa 1962.

If you're a jaded atheist like Mustafa and unfamiliar...

Good Friday is two days before Easter Sunday and is a significant day for Christians as it commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, which is considered the most pivotal time in the history of the world.

It is a day of sorrow, penance, and fasting, and it symbolizes the sacrifices and suffering in the life of Jesus.

In other words, Good Friday is a spiritually charged day for Christians.

Walter Pahnke β€” a doctor & minister at Harvard, hypothesized that psychedelic drugs, in this case psilocybin, could facilitate a "mystical" experience in religiously inclined volunteers who took the drug in a religious setting.

He further hypothesized that such experiences would result in persisting positive changes in attitudes and behavior.

Pahnke thought it would be best to test his theory in a religious community where people already felt strongly about their beliefs.

He wanted to create a modern atmosphere that was similar to the ritual use of psilocybin by Mesoamerican and other indigenous cultures β€” but within the constraints of a controlled scientific study.

He didn't set out to investigate whether psilocybin was capable of producing a mystical experience irrespective of preparation and context though.

Instead, he designed the experiment to explore whether participants who received psilocybin within a highly supportive, suggestive environment would report similar elements of a classical mystical experience (as defined by the questionnaires) compared to participants who did not receive psilocybin.

Hence, he chose a group of Christian students who knew each other, during a Good Friday church service.

So, before church services commenced at Boston University's Marsh Chapel on Good Friday β€” Pahnke gave small capsules to 20 protestant divinity students.

Half of the capsules contained 30 mg of Psilocybin, and the other half contained a placebo in the form of nicotinic acid, also known as Niacin πŸ’Š

There are no experiments known to me in the history of the scientific study of religion better designed or clearer in their conclusions than this one.
β€”Walter Houston Clark, 1961 recipient of the American Psychological Association's William James Memorial Award for contributions to the psychology of religion.

The Good Friday experiment holds a prominent position within the pantheon of psychedelics research, as it is frequently referenced for its groundbreaking approach.

But, the whole thing wouldn't have happened if it weren't for a forgotten character in the annals of psychedelic culture.

This forgotten character was none other than Reverend Howard Thurman, who was a black minister at Boston University's Marsh Chapel at the time.

To give you some context...

This is 1961, so racism was deeply ingrained in American society.

Segregation was legal in many parts of the country, and Black people were routinely denied equal access to jobs, housing, education, and public accommodations.

So, being black was already tough.

Thurman studied non-violence under Mahatma Gandhi and became Martin Luther King Jr's mentor while earning his Ph.D. at Boston University.

He advised King during his recovery from a stabbing incident, urging him to reflect on life's purpose and rest from the pressures of activism.

Thurman directly influenced Martin Luther King Jr. with non-violent ideas he learned from Gandhi and got the American Civil Rights Union to adopt the strategy of non-violence as well.

He also emphasized the link between spiritual cultivation and social activism, influencing King's understanding of the connection between spirituality and social change.

King was spiritually influenced by Thurman's teachings and quoted him extensively in his sermons.

The relationship between Thurman's mysticism and King's activism offers insight into how spiritual and social transformation can intersect in individuals' lives and society β€” and then there's psilocybin in the middle of all of it πŸ„

I'm not sure if psychedelics or psilocybin played a direct role in Howard Thurman's work, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did, and it's certainly possible that he brought up the topic to Martin Luther King Jr. at some point as a potential tool that might be helpful to their pursuits.

Thurman was fascinated by the political implications of the mystical experience produced by psilocybin, which is one of the main reasons that convinced Walter Pahnke to work with him.

This was one of the key motivators that drove Howard Thurman to partner up with a bunch of psychedelic cowboys like Walter Pahnke and Timothy Leary to experiment on 20 students from the Andover Newton theological seminary on Good Friday in 1961.

Something extraordinary had taken place which had never taken place before.
All of a sudden I felt sort of drawn out into infinity, and all of a sudden I had lost touch with my mind.
I felt that I was caught up in the vastness of Creation ... huge, as the mystics say... I did experience that kind of classic kind of blending .... Sometimes you would look up and see the light on the altar and it would just be a blinding sort of light and radiation .... The main thing about it was a sense of timelessness.
The meditation was going on all during this time, and he [Rev. Howard Thurman] would say things about Jesus and you would have this overwhelming feeling of Jesus.
It was like you totally penetrated what was being said and it penetrated you... Death looked different.
It became in focus... I got the impression, the sensation ... that what people are essentially in their essence that somehow they would continue to live.
They may die in one sense, the physical sense, but their being in heaven would survive...
We took such an infinitesimal amount of psilocybin, and yet it connected me to infinity.
β€”Transcript of the long-term follow-up interview with Reverand SJ, Participant of The Good Friday Experiment

As for the results of the experiment, the average score of the experimental subjects exceeded that of the control subjects.

In the open-ended portion of the long-term follow-up questionnaire, experimental subjects wrote that the experience helped them to resolve career decisions, recognize the arbitrariness of ego boundaries, increase their depth of faith, increase their appreciation of eternal life, deepen their sense of the meaning of Christ, and heighten their sense of joy and beauty.

Both the six-month and the long-term follow-up questionnaire results support Pahnke's hypothesis that the subjects who received psilocybin, more so than the controls, experienced substantial positive persistent effects in attitude and behavior.

The experimental subjects unanimously described their Good Friday psilocybin experience as having had elements of a genuinely mystical nature and characterized it as one of the high points of their spiritual life β€” no pun intended πŸ™ƒ

While the experiment was largely a success, there was surely some unexpected turbulence as well.

Most notably, Pahnke gave one guy a shot of Thorazine as a tranquilizer but failed to report the incident out of fear of opponents of his research taking the incident out of context and exaggerating it to limit the research of substances that were already severely restricted.

There's some comedy in the incident as well.

It turns out the guy was deeply moved by Howard Thurman's sermon β€” specifically, the part where he emphasized that it was the obligation of all Christians to tell people that there was a man on the cross.

So, while high on psilocybin β€” this dude goes outside the chapel to preach the gospel.

He not only likely saw just a man on the cross, but that man might have even been more colorful and animated than usual!

While he's outside, a struggle ensues when the group leaders, worried for his safety, try to bring him back inside.

That didn't work, so Pahke tranquilized him with a shot of Thorazine so he could chill TF out πŸ˜…πŸ’‰πŸ₯±

When u sign up to do drugs at Church but get Tranquilized instead
When u sign up to do drugs at Church but get Tranquilized instead

This incident was also very influential in abandoning the use of tranquilizers in favor of providing a supportive environment and letting the drug run its course in subsequent psychedelics research studies.


The Good Friday Experiment is an important and seminal study in psychedelics research.

Moreover, we should be grateful for all the lesser-known individuals like Howard Thurman et al. who took the risks to make it happen together with Walter Pahnke & Timothy Leary.

Modern psychedelics research is similar in that the vast majority of scientists, researchers, underground facilitators, and even regular individuals who share their experiences with psychedelics are mostly anonymous β€” but, without their collective dedication, we wouldn't be here today.

So, I would like to dedicate today's newsletter to all of those folks.

Thank you, for your dedication, passion, and hard work β€” even if you don't advertise any of it πŸ™πŸΌπŸ˜Šβ€οΈ

Until next time...

With gratitude & blessings...
Your friend,

β€”Dr. D


πŸ“Ί P.S: Here's a video clip of Rick Doblin talking about Howard Thurman and The Good Friday Experiment on The Joe Rogan Experience via YouTube [7:45]

By the way, I couldn't get a hold of a copy of the original study, but thankfully, Rick Doblin decided to do a long-term follow-up on the original study over 25 years later.

You can find Doblin's follow-up study, and criticism, along with additional resources like Howard Thurman's original sermon, etc. on MAPS.

Mustafa's Meme

Modern Augmented Reality vs. Ancient Augmented Reality - Funny Apple Vision Pro & Magic Mushrooms Meme
Modern Augmented Reality vs. Ancient Augmented Reality β€” the latter has a 1-hour boot-up time, but still...

What Mustafa's Pondering

⭐ = Mustafa's favorites

πŸ”Š Podcast: Blisshrooms is an excellent RadioLab podcast where Reverand Mike Young, who participated in The Good Friday Experiment is interviewed β€” via RadioLab.org [23:14] ⭐

πŸ”Š Podcast: The Power Of Psychedelic Therapy for veterans, since suicide rates amongst active-duty service members are at an all-time high β€” via NPR [36:21]

πŸ”Š Podcast: Psychedelics without the hallucinations: A new mental health treatment? Interesting discussion with David E. Olson about how his lab is researching new drugs that are as effective as psychedelics without the hallucinations β€” via Big Brains Podcast / University of Chicago [32:26]

πŸ“Ί Video: A funny & highly entertaining animated trip report from comedian Duncan Trussell on his first time smoking 5-MeO-DMT β€” via YouTube [5:05] ⭐

πŸ“Ί Video: Johns Hopkins University's Congressional Briefing panelists explain how psychedelics could transform mental health treatment, even as pursuing such research, and funding, remains challenging β€” via Johns Hopkins University [43:20]

πŸ“° Article: The Colonization of the Ayahuasca Experience explores the potential of Ayahuasca tourism leading to economic exploitation, environmental damage, and cultural appropriation, raising concerns about its impact on indigenous communities and their healing traditions.

πŸ“° Article: It looks like the Ukrainian Military is experimenting with Ibogaine to treat traumatic brain injuries. Also, MAPS is planning an educational program around MDMA for PTSD in Ukrainian therapists as refugees in Poland β€” The Intercept

πŸ“° Article: Harvard-affiliated hospitals in Boston are conducting research into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, including MDMA, ayahuasca, and psilocybin, for treating addiction, PTSD, and end-of-life care β€” via Boston Magazine

πŸ“° Article: As 'magic mushrooms' got more attention, drug busts of the psychedelic drug went up. What a dumb use of police resources πŸ™„ β€” via NPR

πŸ›οΈ Policy: Congress is on track to approve legislation that would mark a significant advance in U.S. policy toward psychedelics, which would involve a provision in the annual defense bill that will run clinical trials for members of the military with PTSD β€” via The Intercept

πŸ›οΈ Policy: Congress greenlights psychedelic treatment bill for active duty service members suffering from PTSD β€” via Texas Tribune

πŸ”¬ Study: AI Program Finds Thousands of Possible Psychedelics: Researchers use AlphaFold, an AI protein-structure-prediction tool, to identify hundreds of thousands of potential new psychedelic molecules for developing antidepressants. This technology is likely going to be a game-changer for psychedelics research. There's also an interesting discussion on Hacker News. Here's the Nature paper β€” via Scientific American ⭐

πŸ”¬ Study: Effects of DMT on mental health outcomes in healthy volunteers: Research into the therapeutic potential of DMT monotherapy is limited due to small sample sizes, but studies show reductions in depression severity and trait anxiety following DMT administration, along with decreases in Neuroticism β€” via Nature

πŸ”Š Podcast: An interesting biographical episode on Margaret Mead, an idiosyncratic figure in psychedelic history, and her various research interests and influence in ushering in the psychedelic era. While you're at it, you might be interested in this related episode with author Benjamin Breen as well β€” via NPR [37:11] / [51:08]

πŸ—žοΈ News + πŸ’° Business: MAPS Public Benefit Corporation Announces Oversubscribed Series A Financing and Renames to Lykos Therapeutics

πŸ“Ί Video: How psychedelics are helping families and veterans heal from anxiety, depression, and PTSD β€” via CBS Mornings / YouTube [29:59]

πŸ“° Article: Studying psychedelic meaning as its own variable of interest, beyond therapeutic outcomes, is gaining traction in academic circles, with initiatives like UC Berkeley's and Harvard's joint program β€” via VOX

πŸ“° Article: The Evolutionary Origins of Psychedelics β€” A brief article from an evolutionary biologist exploring the question of why some organisms make psychedelic chemicals and how plants and herbivores can help us understand such question better β€” via TIME

πŸ“Ί Video: For decades, most rhetoric about psychedelics focused on their negative effects. This might make it seem like we know all there is to know about bad reactions to psychedelics - but how much do we really know? In this talk at ALPS 2023, Abigail Calder aims to separate fact from fiction and give an update on the unwanted, negative effects that can occur with psychedelics, in all settings β€” via YouTube [1:02:12] ⭐

🎢 Tool: Wavepaths Music for Psychedelic Therapy β€” This interesting tool claims to provide expertly curated therapeutic playlists and soundscapes for healing journeys. Allegedly, their playlists aren't one size fits all and instead, are scientifically tuned for therapeutic impact. I'll be testing this out β€” via WavePaths.com

πŸ’° Business: Psychedelics Are Going Mainstream. Investing in Them Hasn’t (non-paywall) β€” The article discusses how psychedelic industry stock performance has declined recently and how Wall Street and big pharma have been hesitant, despite the therapeutic potential and ongoing research funding. Even with financial concerns, the industry has seen funding, including a $100 million stock sale by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies β€” via The New York Times

πŸ’°πŸ”Š Business + Podcast: De-Risking Investing in Psychedelic Companies β€” Discussion of critical catalysts of FDA approval for the first psychedelic therapy and the top 3 psychedelic companies for investing. This episode convinced me to sell my positions in MNMD and instead re-allocate my bets to COMPASS and ATAI as those seem to be the least risky β€” via Seeking Alpha [48:11] ⭐

πŸ”¬ Study: A small trial study with veterans indicates that ibogaine reduces traumatic brain injury (TBI) symptoms, including PTSD and depression, by over 80% on average. The trial followed 30 male veterans with TBI who sought ibogaine treatment in Mexico. One month post-treatment, participants showed significant reductions in PTSD, depression, and anxiety symptoms β€” via Nature

πŸ“° Article: Breathing Their Way to an Altered State (non-paywall) β€” A discussion of the growing acceptance of psychedelics in mainstream medicine, the use of holotropic breathwork in therapeutic training, and insights gained by participants in altered states. It also emphasizes the importance of proper training and supervision in administering psychedelic experiences β€” via The New York Times

πŸ“Ί Video: Here's a great discussion with two of my favorite people, Steven Pinker & Sadhguru, talking about consciousness from the scientific and the metaphysical perspective β€” via YouTube [1:50:26] ⭐

πŸ“Ί Podcast: Indigenous Wisdom from Arctic Siberia: A legendary indigenous Arctic Siberian woman, Snow Raven, delves into the rich tapestry of her heritage, from sharing the ancient traditions of mystical shamanism to mimicking birds and animal sounds to go into trance. If you haven't heard her music, it's incredible! β€” via YouTube [1:25:09] ⭐

Mustafa's Art Corner
"Blitz Beach" β€” Psychedelic Art / Acrylic on Canvas by Artist @mint_beastwood
"Blitz Beach" β€” Acrylic on Canvas by Artist @mint_beastwood

Mustafa's Meditation

"It’s a wondrous thing, that a decision to act releases energy in the personality. For days on end, a person may drift along without much energy.
Having no particular sense of direction and having no will to change. Then, something happens to alter the pattern.
It may be something very simple and inconsequential in itself. But it stabs awake, it alarms, it disturbs.
In a flash, one gets a vivid picture of oneself, and it passes. The result is decision. Sharp, definitive decision.
In the wake of the decision, yes, even as a part of the decision itself, energy is released. The act of decision sweeps all before it, and the life of the individual may be changed forever."
―Howard Thurman, Theologian, Philosopher & Mystic