Jonathan Myrick Daniel, Aug 14, 2022

Who Was Jonathan Daniels ?

Sunday is the anniversary of the arrest of seminarian Jonathan Myrick Daniel in 1965 at the height of the racial strife in Selma in 1965. Daniel was killed when he took a shotgun blast that was intended for a black female, Ruby Sales. It killed him instantly. Daniels’ life showed a pattern of putting himself in the place of others who were defenseless and in need.

Describing the incident, Dr Martin Luther King said that “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

What happened to Ruby Sales? Sales went on to attend Episcopal Theological School in Massachusetts which Daniels had attended (now Episcopal Divinity School). She has worked as a human rights advocate in Washington, D.C. She founded The SpiritHouse Project, a non-profit organization and inner-city mission dedicated to Daniels.

The Rev. Gillian Barr in an Evensong in honor of Daniel in Providence RI provides an apt summary of Daniels. “He was a young adult who wasn’t sure what he was meant to do with his life. He had academic gifts, a sense of compassion, and a faith which had wavered from strong to weak to strong. He was searching—searching for a way to live out his values of compassion and his faith rather than just studying them in a book. He was living in intentional community, first at VMI, then at EDS, and then finally with activists in Alabama. His studies, and his prayer life, and his community all led him to see more clearly the beauty and dignity in the faces of all around him, even those who looked very different and came from very different backgrounds than the quiet boy from Keene, NH.”

Links:

Here Am I, Send Me: The Story of Jonathan Daniels . This is an excellent documentary produced in 1999. Highly recommended
Biography
Episcopal News Service Article 2015
Video from 2010 commemoration event

Somebody must visit the sick, and the lonely, and the frightened , and the sorrowing. Somebody must comfort the discouraged, and argue lovingly and convingly with the anguished doubter. Somebody must remind the sick soul that healing is within his grasp and urge him to take the medicine when his disease seems more attractive. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send ? And who will go for us ?” The said I “Here am I. Send me.” – Jonathan M. Daniels – Sermon St. James Episcopal, Keene, NH

A summary of his biography follows: 

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was born in New Hampshire in 1939, one of two offspring of a Congregationalist physician. When in high school, he had a bad fall which put him in the hospital for about a month. It was a time of reflection. Soon after, he joined the Episcopal Church and also began to take his studies seriously, and to consider the possibility of entering the priesthood.

After high school, he enrolled at Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia where at first he seemed a misfit, but managed to stick it out, and was elected Valedictorian of his graduating class.

In the fall of 1961 he entered Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Boston to study English literature, and in the spring of 1962, while attending Easter services at the Church of the Advent in Boston, he underwent a conversion experience and renewal of grace. Soon after, he made a definite decision to study for the priesthood, and after a year of work to repair the family finances, he enrolled at Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1963, expecting to graduate in the spring of 1966.

In March 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, asked students and others to join him in Selma, Alabama to push for voting rights legislation. He and others left on Thursday for Selma, intending to stay only that weekend; but he and a friend missed the bus back, and began to reflect on how an in-and-out visit like theirs looked to those living in Selma, and decided that they must stay longer. They went home to request permission to spend the rest of the term in Selma, studying on their own and returning to take their examinations.

Jon devoted many of his Sundays in Selma to bringing small groups of Negroes, mostly high school students, to church with him in an effort to integrate the St. Paul’s Episcopal Episcopal church. They were seated but scowled at. Many parishioners openly resented their presence, and put their pastor squarely in the middle. (He was integrationist enough to risk his job by accommodating Jon’s group as far as he did, but not integrationist enough to satisfy Jon.) (Our bishop Shannon Johnston served this church as his first congregation). 

As time went on, Jonathan’s anger flared up not only in confronting the white power structure but also dealing with reluctance of Christians to speak against the racial inequalities.  

However, Jonathan gradually saw his work in terms of a larger purpose – the way of the cross. – “ultimately the revolution to which I am committed is the way of the Cross.”  

He was coming to a new realization that as a “soldier of the Cross” he was “totally free- at least to give my life, if that had to be, with joy  and thankfulness and eagerness for the Kingdom.”  

He began to tie in concepts of freedom in terms of doing God’s will -obedience.   

“The Gospel is less and less a matter primary of the intellect. And more and more a matter of living and dying and living anew.” 

“When the Christian first begins to answer with his own feeble love the overwhelming Love of God, he finds himself animated by an attitude that is equally “holy obedience” and “perfect freedom.” In that freedom which is holy obedience, the Christian has only one principle, only one agenda. And that is the dynamic of life –in-response to the loving, judging , healing, merciful revelation by God Himself of His Holy Will.”  

In Camden after a tear gas bombing he found a new depth to the freedom of obedience-

“I think it was when I got tear-gassed leading a march in Camden that I began to change. I saw that the men who came at me were not free: it was not the cruelty was sweet to them (though I’m afraid it is) but that they didn’t know what else to do. Even though they were white and hateful and my enemy, they were human beings too…”

“Last week in Camden I began to discover a new freedom in the Cross: freedom to love the enemy. And in that freedom, the freedom (without hypocrisy) to will and to try to set him free…As I go about my primary business of attempting to negotiate with the white power structure…, there is a new factor – I rather think a new Presence – in our conversations: the “strategy of love.”

On Friday 13 August Jon and others went to the town of Fort Deposit to join in picketing three local businesses. On Saturday they were arrested and held in the county jail in Hayneville for six days until they were bailed out. (They had agreed that none would accept bail until there was bail money for all.). The prisoners were released on August 20 but were not provided with any means of transportation back to Selma.

Stranded in the 100 degree heat, Daniels and the others sought a cool drink at a nearby store Varner’s Cash Grocery Store.  This store was one of the few shops in the area that didn’t impose a “whites only” policy. However, they were met at the door by Special Duputy Tom Coleman with a shotgun who told them to leave or be shot. After a brief confrontation, he aimed the gun of 17 year old Ruby Sales in the party, and Jon pushed her out of the way and took the blast of the shotgun himself. (Whether he stepped between her and the shotgun is not clear.) He was killed instantly.

As Daniels’s companions ran for safety, Coleman fired again, critically injuring Richard Morrisroe, a Catholic priest from Chicago, who survived. 

Not long before his death he wrote:  

“I lost fear in the black belt 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. 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. ” 

“As Judy (seminarian friend) and I said the daily offices day by day, we became More and more aware of the living reality of the invisible “communion of saints”–of the beloved comunity 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, whose Name is Itself the Song Which fulfils and “ends” all songs, we are indelibly, unspeakably One.”

There was large scale public outcry over the shooting; and deep shock that a white unarmed trainee priest could be shot and killed by a policeman for protecting an unarmed girl.  As was the case in numerous race-related crimes during the civil rights era, an all-white jury acquitted Coleman when the defense produced witnesses who claimed that Daniels had a knife and Morrisroe had a pistol and that Coleman was acting in self-defense. The shootings and Coleman’s acquittal were condemned across the country.   

Describing the incident, Dr Martin Luther King said that “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

Daniels was added to the Episcopal Church Calendar of Saints and Martyrs in 1994 to be remembered each Aug. 14, one of 15 martyrs recognized by the church in the 20th century. This is the 50th anniversary of the original shooting. Bishop Johnston will be attending a pilgrimage marking this 50th anniversary in Alabama, from Montgomery to Hayneville.  The grocery store has been demolished  but a historical marker will be dedicated.  

The procession will then return to the Courthouse Square for prayer at a memorial erected in his honour by his alma mater, the Virginia Military Institute; before concluding at the Courthouse with a service of Holy Communion in the courtroom where Coleman was tried and acquitted. Presiding Bishop elect Michael Curry will preach. 

What happened to Ruby Sales? Sales went on to attend Episcopal Theological School in Massachusetts which Daniels had attended (now Episcopal Divinity School). She has worked as a human rights advocate in Washington, D.C. She founded The SpiritHouse Project, a non-profit organization and inner-city mission dedicated to Daniels.

The Rev. Gillian Barr in a Evensong in honor of Daniel in Providence RI provides an apt summary of Daniels. “He was a young adult who wasn’t sure what he was meant to do with his life. He had academic gifts, a sense of compassion, and a faith which had wavered from strong to weak to strong. He was searching—searching for a way to live out his values of compassion and his faith rather than just studying them in a book. He was living in intentional community, first at VMI, then at EDS, and then finally with activists in Alabama. His studies, and his prayer life, and his community all led him to see more clearly the beauty and dignity in the faces of all around him, even those who looked very different and came from very different backgrounds than the quiet boy from Keene, NH.”

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