This past Tuesday, August 14th was the commemoration of the death of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a 20th century Episcopal martyr whose testimony of life is both relevant and worthy of special attention. Born in New Hampshire in 1939, Daniels had a profound Christian conversion experience on Easter Day 1962 at the Church of the Advent in Boston. Shortly after that, he entered the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts (now the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary) with the intention of becoming an Episcopal priest.
In March of 1965, while in seminary Daniels heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s appeal for those who supported civil rights to come to Selma, Alabama. He felt a strong call from God to answer Dr. King’s appeal. He wrote that while sitting in Evensong (sung Evening Prayer, one of the treasures of the Episcopal/Anglican tradition) one evening, he was struck by the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s Song found in Luke 1:46-55, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.” Daniels wrote that when he heard those words, “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.” He asked for a leave from the seminary and went to Selma. He was arrested in Selma with a number of others on August 14, 1965 for joining a picket line. But later that day, he and his companions were unexpectedly released from jail without explanation. It soon became apparent that they were in danger. Daniels and several others went to a nearby grocery store to get something for the group to eat. As one of his companions, 16 year old Ruby Sales, reached the entrance of the store, a man with a gun appeared cursing and threatening the girl. Jonathan pulled her to one side and stepped in front of the angry man as he raised his 12-gauge shot gun. Jonathan was killed instantly by the blast. Ruby Sales went on to attend the same seminary that Daniels did, and today is a committed Christian, and a tireless worker for racial reconciliation.
His letters from Selma witness to Jonathan Daniel’s strong commitment to Jesus Christ that fed and strengthened his resolve to work for racial justice. He wrote: “The doctrine of the creeds, the enacted faith of the sacraments, were the essential preconditions of the experience [of Selma] 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 nations shout…We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”
quotations from Lesser Feast and Fasts 2006