Jonathan Myrick Daniels, August 14

(Note: See my August 5 blog post: Jonathan Myrick Daniels – a modern day Christian martyr)

August 14 is the annual commemoration of the American Episcopal Church of Jonathan Myrick Daniels (March 20, 1939-August 20, 1965), a martyr for the sake of Jesus’ gospel of love and justice. The Collect (or prayer) appointed for this day:

O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the Mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and 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.

Honoring Daniels’ memory and legacy, I share excerpts from his reflections.[1] His words, for me, bespeak a faithful life; one that prepared him (though he, as any of us, could not know when or how) for a holy death.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels

In March 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., summoned people of good will to come to Selma, Alabama, to take part in a protest march to Montgomery, the state capital, as an outward and visible sign of support of civil rights for all. Daniels, then a student at the Episcopal Theological Seminary, Cambridge, Massachusetts, during a service of worship experienced an epiphany.

Reflection 1: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat[2] with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary’s glad song. “He hath showed strength with his arm.” As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled “moment”…Then it came. “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 then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.

In Selma, the marchers’ paths were obstructed by police officers. Daniels described one encounter in the vivid detail of intense human confrontation. Contemplating this experience (particularly his closing words: “Had I been freely arranging the order for Evening Prayer that night, I think I might have followed the General Confession directly with the General Thanksgiving – or perhaps the Te Deum”, which I interpret as his expression of Spirit-liberating thanksgiving and praise arising from his honest confession of his sinfulness), I discern in Daniels a rare capacity and a rarer willingness to recognize the commonality of all humanity, especially across lines of conflict; that acknowledgement shattering an egoistic self-righteousness that had been bolstered by his self-assurance of the goodness of his cause.

Reflection 2: After a week-long, rain-soaked vigil, we still stood face to face with the Selma police. I stood, for a change, in the front rank, ankle-deep in an enormous puddle. To my immediate right were high school students, for the most part, and further to the right were a swarm of clergymen. My end of the line surged forward at one point, led by a militant Episcopal priest whose temper (as usual) was at combustion-point. Thus I found myself only inches from a young policeman. The air crackled with tension and open hostility. Emma Jean, a sophomore in the Negro high school, called my name from behind. I reached back for her hand to bring her up to the front rank, but she did not see. Again she asked me to come back. My determination had become infectiously savage, and I insisted that she come forward – I would not retreat! Again I reached for her hand and pulled her forward. The young policeman spoke: “You’re dragging her through the puddle. You ought to be ashamed for treating a girl like that.” Flushing – I had forgotten the puddle – I snarled something at him about whose-fault-it-really-was that managed to be both defensive and self-righteous. We matched baleful glances and then both looked away. And then came a moment of shattering internal quiet, in which I felt shame, indeed, and a kind of reluctant love for the young policeman. I apologized to Emma Jean. And then it occurred to me to apologize to him and to thank him. Though he looked away in contempt – I was not altogether sure I blamed him – I had received a blessing I would not forget. Before long the kids were singing, “I love —.” One of my friends asked [the young policeman] for his name. His name was Charlie. When we sang for him, he blushed and then smiled in a truly sacramental mixture of embarrassment and pleasure and shyness. Soon the young policeman looked relaxed, we all lit cigarettes (in a couple of instances, from a common match, and small groups of kids and policemen clustered to joke or talk cautiously about the situation. It was thus a shock later to look across the rank at the clergymen and their opposites, who glared across a still unbroken wall in what appeared to be silent hatred. Had I been freely arranging the order for Evening Prayer that night, I think I might have followed the General Confession directly with the General Thanksgiving – or perhaps the Te Deum.[3]

Daniels wrote of his awareness of his innate human brokenness (in the following reflection voiced in his sense of self-righteousness and impurity of motive) and, in that, his perception of the unfathomable mystery and miracle of Christ’s life coming alive in him.

Reflection 3: I lost fear in the black belt[4] when I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and Resurrection, that in the only sense that really matters I am already dead, and my life is hid with Christ in God.[5] I began to lose self-righteousness when I discovered the extent to which my behavior was motivated by worldly desires and by the self-seeking messianism of Yankee deliverance! The point is simply, of course, that one’s motives are usually mixed, and one had better know it.

Daniels also wrote of his shared connection and sacred union with all followers of Jesus, present and past, the latter, that “great cloud of witnesses” of whom the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (12.1) speaks. For Daniels, Jesus not only is the source of this connection and union, but also (given his words, “…whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfills and ends all songs…”) the One who brings to fruition God’s divine action proclaimed in the Magnificat. Thus, Daniels could sing with Mary, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour…He hath showed strength with his arm…He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.”

Reflection 4: As Judy[6] and I said the daily offices[7] day by day, we became more and more aware of the living reality of the invisible “communion of saints” – of the beloved community in Cambridge who were saying the offices too, of the ones gathered around a near-distant throne in heaven – who blend with theirs our faltering songs of prayer and praise. With them, with black men and white men, with all of life, in Him Whose Name is above all the names that the races and nations shout,[8] whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfils and ends all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably One.


[1] The Daniels’ writings were drawn from the text, Biographical sketches of memorable Christians of the past, composed by James E. Keifer and posted on the website of the Society of Archbishop Justus (SoAJ) ( SoAJ, named after Justus, Archbishop of Canterbury (624-627 C.E.) seeks to promote unity among Christians, especially Anglicans, via the internet. The headings – Reflection 1, 2, 3, 4 – are mine.

[2] The Magnificat or Song of Mary, based on Luke 1.46-55, is recited or sung at Evening Prayer.

[3] Te Deum, an early Christian hymn of praise; its title taken from the opening words in Latin, “Te Deum laudamus,” oft rendered, “Thee, O God, we praise.”

[4] Alabama soil, though in many places composed of brick-red clay, of darkest color is referred to as “the black belt.” Hence, Daniels’ term here is without racial overtones.

[5] A reference to Colossians 3.1-4, particularly verse 3 (italics mine): If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

[6] Daniels’ friend, fellow seminary student, and civil rights activist Judith Upham.

[7] Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

[8] A reference to Philippians 2.5-11, particularly verses 9-11 (italics mine): Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels – a modern day Christian martyr

A half century ago, many African American citizens, among multiple daily indignities of racial inequality, verily iniquity, suffered the denial of voting rights and the freedom to shop at many commercial enterprises that established and enforced a “whites only” policy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during a particularly fertile and fractious period in the formal Civil Rights Era, joined with others in naming Alabama, a state with an acutely egregious record of race un-relations, as the proverbial ground-zero; the chosen site for prayerfully peaceful, but also potentially explosive prophetic confrontations via public demonstrations. Following the March 7, 1965, “Bloody Sunday” police attacks on marchers at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, King summoned all people of good will, especially clergy and students to take active part in public protests. Jonathan Myrick Daniels answered King’s gospel clarion call.

Jonathan Daniels, VMI 1961 Born March 20, 1939, in Keene, New Hampshire, Daniels was a valedictorian of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), Class of 1961, and later a Harvard University graduate student in English literature. Responding to a long-simmering call to the ordained ministry, Daniels, in the fall of 1963, entered Episcopal Theological Seminary (since 1974, renamed Episcopal Divinity School) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Jonathan Daniels, 1965

In March 1965, Daniels with several seminarians traveled to Alabama to join a weekend march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. He and Judith Upham, a friend and fellow seminarian, missing their bus ride back to Cambridge, rethought their journey, arriving at a shared discernment to spend the remainder of the semester in Alabama.

(On a personal note, I did not know Jonathan Daniels. I do know, love, and admire Judith Upham, a priest, stalwart soul, and valiant civil rights activist of long and faithful service to the church and the world.)

Jonathan Daniels and the West childrenJudith Upham and the West children

In Selma, Daniels and Upham lodged with Alice and Lonzy West and their children, an African American family who made their home a welcome place for “outside agitators”, the white-establishment’s derisive sobriquet for all activists. Among many efforts, they sought to integrate the local Episcopal Church by inviting black folk to share in worship.

In May, Daniels took and passed his end of semester exams. In July, returning to Alabama, he helped to assemble a directory of governmental services for those in need, tutored children, and registered voters. (Not incidentally, on August 2, 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, providing long-prayed federal management and enforcement of the constitutional right to vote for all American citizens.)

On August 14, Daniels and other protesters picketing “whites only” stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama, were arrested and incarcerated in nearby Hayneville. Released on August 20, whilst awaiting transport to Fort Deposit, Daniels, Father Richard Morrisroe, a white Roman Catholic priest, and Ruby Sales and Joyce Bailey, black civil rights activists, seeking refreshments, approached Varner’s Cash Store, which did not abide by the “whites only” policy. Their path was blocked by Tom Coleman, a volunteer Special Deputy, who aimed his shogun at Sales. Daniels shielded her. Coleman fired. Daniels died instantly. Morrisroe and Bailey ran. Coleman fired again, striking and injuring Morrisroe. Coleman, charged with manslaughter, claimed self-defense. At trial, he was acquitted by an all-white jury.

King adjudged Daniel’s self-sacrifice as “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.” In 1991, the Episcopal Church named Daniels a martyr, August 14 being the annual day of remembrance. In this 50th anniversary year of his death, during the weekend of August 14-16, special events will be held in Alabama – among them, a mass pilgrimage to the sites of Daniels’ incarceration and death; the dedication of a memorial in his honor by VMI; and services of worship, at one of which the preacher will be the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop-Elect, the Right Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, the first black person elected to this position.

Michael Bruce Curry

The Apostle Paul, in his 1st century epistle to the Christian community in the Asia Minor town of Colossae, wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church.”[1] Paul did not (nor do I, his namesake) believe that Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection were deficient in any way – thus, requiring completion by the addition of Paul’s afflictions encountered and enduring during his ministry – as a pathway to God’s universal and unconditional life of love and justice, now and eternally. Nor did Paul (or this Paul) believe that to take up the cross and follow Jesus one must necessarily and literally die. Rather because of the Spirit-given mystical union between Jesus and his followers, Paul believed (and I believe) that any service and suffering for the sake of the gospel is of the same nature and has the same salvific effect as “Christ’s afflictions.”

Jonathan Myrick Daniels died in saving the life of Ruby Sales. In that singular act of selfless, costly, fatal service, he is an inspiration for all people of good will who, since his time and now, writhe in visceral anguish at the abiding disparities of opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” divided along bright, yet shadowy lines of race, and who, therefore, in daily living, seek to act that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Illustrations: (1) Jonathan Myrick Daniels as a VMI student, (2) in 1965, (3) with some of the West family children; (4) Judith Upham with some of the West family children. (5) The Right Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and Presiding Bishop-Elect of the American Episcopal Church

[1] Colossians 1.24