The story of Jonathan Myrick Daniels is a tribute to social justice, to civil rights, and to equality of all people. His commitment to the work of Christ in our world, inspired by the words of the prophet Isaiah and the Virgin Mary, inspired him to live out his faith in radical ways for his time. His radical life of faith-inspired justice led to a tragic death, though in death, he has become a martyr for his faith, and therefore continues to inspire others by his brave witness. I find his story especially touching in light of the recent racial tension caused by the Travyon Martin case verdict, and also considering the recent repeal of the Voter Rights Act, which was enacted by President Johnson just two weeks before Jonathan’s murder.
Jonathan was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1939. He was shot and killed by an unemployed highway worker in Hayneville, Alabama, on August 20, 1965. From high school in Keene to graduate school at Harvard, Jonathan wrestled with the meaning of life and death and vocation. Attracted to medicine, the ordained ministry, law and writing, he found himself close to a loss of faith when his search was resolved by a profound conversion on Easter Day 1962 at the Church of the Advent in Boston, Massachusetts. In March 1965, the televised appeal of Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma to secure for all citizens the right to vote drew Jonathan to a time and place where the nation’s racism and the Episcopal Church’s share in that inheritance were exposed.
He returned to seminary and asked leave to work in Selma where he would be sponsored by the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. Conviction of his calling was deepened at Evening Prayer during the singing of the Magnificat: “‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”
Jailed on August 14 for joining a picket line, Jonathan and his companions were unexpectedly released on August 20. Aware that they were in danger, four of them walked to a small store. As sixteen-year-old Ruby Sales reached the top step of the entrance, a man with a gun appeared, cursing her. Jonathan pulled her to one side to shield her from the unexpected threats. As a result, he was killed by a blast from the 12-gauge gun.
The letters and papers Jonathan left bear eloquent witness to the profound effect Selma had upon him. He writes,
The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience itself. The faith with which I went to Selma has not changed: it has grown … I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection … with them, the black men and white men, with all life, in him whose Name is above all the names that the races and the nations shout … We are indelibly and unspeakably one.
O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
–The below video provides more information about Jonathan Myrick Daniels’ life, and about his work for social justice in the segregated South:
Here Am I, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels from Episcopal Marketplace on Vimeo.
–Information in this post was excerpted from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, copyright 2010 by the Church Pension Fund.