Stephen John Thurston Biography
Stephen John Thurston is the third generation to pastor the New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church. Like his grandfather and father before him, Thurston preaches every Sunday to his Southside Chicago congregation. A charismatic leader and dynamic preacher, his church has grown to over 2,000 members. He is also the president of the National Baptist Convention of America.
Thurston was born on July 20, 1945, in Chicago, Illinois, the second child of Rev. John and Ruth (Hall) Thurston. He grew up in Chicago and attended public school. The most significant influence in Thurston's young life was the church, namely, New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church. New Covenant was founded by Thurston's grandfather, Elijah Thurston, who entered the ministry in 1934 and immediately began pastoring Chicago's Salem Baptist Church at 37th and Langley Avenue. Three years later he moved the church to East 44th Street and reorganized it as the 44th Street Baptist Church. In 1956, after his son John Lee Thurston had joined him in the ministry, the church moved to its present location at 740 East 77th Street and was renamed New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church. John Lee Thurston served as co-pastor of the church until Thurston's grandfather died in 1968, at which time his father took over sole leadership of the church.
At an early age, Thurston was preparing and being prepared to step into his father's shoes to become the third generation to minister at New Covenant. In 1967 Thurston's father invited Martin Luther King, Jr., to preach at New Covenant. He asked King to address three issues: achieving personal goals, improving the welfare those in need, and working to glorify God. Thurston, just 15 years old at the time, found inspiration in King's words.
Thurston graduated from John M. Harlan High School in Chicago in 1970 and attended the now-defunct Bishop College in Dallas, Texas, from where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion in 1975. He also completed advanced studies at Wheaton Christian College in Wheaton, Illinois. He married his grade school sweetheart, Joyce D. Hand, on June 18, 1977. They have four children: Stephen John II, Nicole D'Vaugh, Teniece Rael, and Christian Avery Elijah.
Thurston first ascended to the pulpit of New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church on Easter Sunday of 1971, delivering the sermon "Where Did You Die?" On Easter Sunday three years later, in 1974, Thurston's father laid hands on his son and ordained him. Thurston thus entered the ministry as an assistant pastor under his father's tutelage. Again on an Easter Sunday, just one year later, Thurston made another step in his journey when his father appointed him as co-pastor to serve alongside him in equal capacity. When his father passed away on January 21, 1979, Thurston, like his father before him, became the sole spiritual leader of New Covenant.
Much of the tremendous growth of New Covenant, which has gone from a member of 50 in 1934 to over 2,000 in 2004, can be attributed to Thurston's dynamic and energetic ministry. He was named one of "America's Best and Brightest Young Business and Professional Men" by Dollars and Sense magazine in 1987, and Manya A. Brachear of the Chicago Tribune reported in 2003, "Congregants who have known all three pastors said Stephen Thurston inherited his grandfather's booming voice and conservative values and his father's charisma and activist aspirations." Many of his sermons are available as a transcript or on tape or CD.
Thurston preaches at three services every Sunday morning, hosts two live Sunday radio broadcasts, and has two recorded television shows that broadcast in the greater Chicago area each week—and he is pushing his congregation to establish its own telecommunications systems to increase control of airtime. Conservative in his social values (he's against same-sex marriage and ordination of gays), he actively and unapologetically pushes a political platform.
Along with being a regular guest preacher around Chicago, during the 1990s, Thurston made several world trips. In 1990 he served as the coordinator for the Baptist World Alliance in Seoul, Korea, and traveled to Hong Kong and Honolulu. He visited Ghana and Zimbabwe in 1993, Argentina in 1995, and Australia in 2000. He has also toured Israel and the Holy Lands. Under Thurston's leadership, New Covenant has opened a hospital in Ghana and is building a polytechnical institute there.
Remembering the lessons of his youth, Thurston is a strong voice for the disenfranchised and the poor. He is also a leading advocate for the black community. His propensity to state his positions—both theological and political—from the pulpit have led some to suggest that Thurston is too opinionated and too political. Thurston rebuffs such critics, saying that it is his job to speak loudly and boldly. According to the Online Baptist Standard, Thurston, speaking at a Baptist conference, lamented, "Many of us bring this attitude of indifference into the pulpit. We're right down the middle—not for anything, not really against anything.… We compromise the word of God with the sins of men, so we will not declare the iniquities that are present and real."
Thurston's political involvement has included a push to get more blacks into elected office as a means to create a truly integrated society. "We live in a country where the United States Senate is made up of 100 individuals and not one of them is African American," he told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003. "That's not integration at all, in any stretch of the imagination." Rev. Jesse Jackson, who has been close to both Thurston and his father, told the Chicago Tribune, "Many ministers are focused a lot on faith without works, faith without action, faith without challenge.… Stephen Thurston is a warrior."
In 2003 Thurston was elected as the president of the National Baptist Convention of America, the organizational body of denomination that includes some 3.5 million members of 1,500 churches in 31 states. It is the second-largest black Christian denomination in the country. He won by a very close margin of just 24 votes out of more than 2,000. Because of his political emphasis, his election was somewhat controversial, but many hope that Thurston's charismatic personality and leadership skills will pull together the denomination.
Thurston continued to serve as the pastor of New Covenant while fulfilling his duties as president of the National Baptist Convention. His son, Stephen, Jr., has already preached his first sermon at New Covenant and is preparing to carry on the tradition of the Thurston legacy at New Covenant. Thurston, however, has many more years of sermons to deliver before handing over the reins.
Chicago Sun-Times, September 6, 2003.
Chicago Tribune, October 13, 2003.
"Convention Presidents Address African-American Preachers," The Online Baptist Standard, www.baptiststandard.com/postnuke/index.php?module=htmlpages&func=display&pid=2397 (December 3, 2004).
"Meet the President," National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., www.nbcamerica.net/meet.htm (December 3, 2004).
"The Thurston Pastoral Legacy," New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church, www.newcovenantmbc.com/events/bios/ (December 3, 2004).
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