Jonathan Daniels: Following Jesus all the way to the cross

There will be a pilgrimage commemorating the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels on Saturday, August 12. Click here for more information.

Do you know that a saint was born and raised in nearby Keene, New Hampshire?

His name is Jonathan Daniels. He is recognized as a “martyr” by the Episcopal Church and he is memorialized in A Great Cloud of Witnesses with his own “day” – August 20. That was the day he suffered martyrdom in 1965. Here is a brief summary of a short but remarkable life.

Jonathan was born March 20, 1939 in Keene. His family attended St. James Church. He left Keene to go to college at the Virginia Military Institute where he was valedictorian. After a brief time in graduate school at Harvard, Jonathan felt called to the priesthood and studied at the Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, MA. It was the 1960s and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. invited northern clergy to come to the South and work in the Civil Rights Movement. Jonathan went with several other seminarians for a short three-day visit. In that brief time in Selma, Jonathan was not particularly inspired but he missed the bus taking his group back home. He had to stay another week and in that week he recognized the sin of racism and made a commitment to address it.

In the summer of 1965, Jonathan lived in Alabama where he worked to integrate the Sunday school of an Episcopal Church (his efforts were not well received), tutored children, worked to register voters and protested outside “whites only” businesses. It was during one of those protests that he was arrested along with 20 others. They were taken to a jail in Haynesville. The conditions in the jail were horrific. Overcrowded, no running water.

After six days, Jonathan was in the last group to be set free. They went around the corner to a store that served all people – regardless of color – to get a soda. But Tom Coleman, a volunteer deputy, stopped them at the door, threatening them with a shotgun. He pointed the gun at Ruby Sales, a seventeen year-old black girl. Jonathan sensed he was about to pull the trigger. As he pushed Ruby out of the way, Coleman fired, killing Jonathan.

Photo: Former Varner’s Cash Store – where Jonathan was murdered.

When Martin Luther King was told what happened, he said,

“One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels.”

At Coleman’s trial, an all white jury declared him “not guilty.”

Ruby Sales went on to seminary and many years of service among the poor.

In 2015, I went on a pilgrimage to the places Jonathan worked in the Selma area. The last stop was the jail in Haynesville and the exact place where he died. With other pilgrims I knelt there to pray. And as I did I felt the spirit of one who had followed Jesus all the way to the cross.

Photo: Montgomery Advertiser

The work of the Civil Rights Movement is far from done. The attempts to roll back voting rights, the mass incarceration of black men (The New Jim Crow), income inequality are just a few examples of the work that remains. We all know this is a national injustice, not simply a southern problem.

The Episcopal Church is committed to addressing the sin of racism.  Our Church has put vast resources behind an initiative called, “Becoming Beloved Community”– a set of commitments around which Episcopalians may organize our many efforts to respond to racial injustice and grow a community of reconcilers, justice-makers, and healers. A group called Bishops United Against Gun Violence speak about the “Unholy Trinity” – poverty, racism and gun violence.

Maybe, if you and I can grow in awareness, and hang on to the idealism of our saintly neighbor, Jonathan Daniels, who remains forever young, a path of action for justice will be revealed to us in the “beloved community” he described in a Bible he gave to friends on Easter Sunday 1965:

“We dream of a beloved community in which white men and black men, old men and young men, whole men and sick men, will join hands in the way of the Cross and find there the life broken, shared and renewed for them all, the unspeakable glory of God.”


There will be a pilgrimage commemorating the life and witness of Jonathan Daniels on Saturday, August 12. Click here for more information.