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A Reflection on Jonathan Daniels, Social Justice, and the Modern Celtic Movement

By Dr. Barbara Cook

On Sunday, August 11, St. James Episcopal Church in Essex Junction celebrated the life and work of Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a white seminarian and U.S. civil rights martyr, during their “Eucharist with a Celtic Twist.” Daniels’ story is one I was not familiar with, but it is one that inspired me to think about ways I can add action to my concerns for social justice.

Like many of us in the 1960s, Daniels wrestled not only with vocation, but the meaning of life and death. Interested in ministry, medicine, law, and writing, he experienced a conversion on Easter Day 1962 at the Church of the Advent in Boston and entered the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. In 1965, Daniels was drawn by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his televised appeal to come to Selma to secure for all citizens the right to vote. He requested a leave of absence from seminary to work in Selma where he would be sponsored by the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity.

Daniels and African American social activist Ruby Sales worked together to integrate public places and register black voters after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. On August 14, 1965, in Hayneville, Alabama, Daniels and Sales were jailed, along with Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe and civil rights worker Joyce Bailey, for joining a picket line. They were all unexpectedly released. But aware that they were still in danger, they carefully walked to a small store nearby to purchase sodas. There they were confronted at the entrance by a white man with a gun who was cursing at the 17-year- old Sales. Daniels pulled her to one side and shielded her from the man’s threats. However, he died instantly when Tom Coleman, a county special deputy and unemployed highway worker shot him. Coleman was later acquitted by a jury of 12 white men.

The letters and papers Daniels left bear eloquent witness to the profound effect Selma had on him. He wrote, “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 nations shout … We are indelibly and unspeakably one.”

Daniels’ story, told within the formality of the Eucharist, gave us all something to reflect on as we moved to the discussion/reflection portion of the service. Amma Kim, our priest in partnership, asked us to consider what experiences in our lives were brought to mind by his story and the readings of the morning. We also were asked to reflect on what ways the witness of Daniels might have inspired us to go deeper into our relationship with God. Following our very quiet and reflective discussion, Amma Kim asked our guest, Rebecca Flewelling, a member of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Burlington and racial healing educator, to say a few words. She came to the front and beautifully sang “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” for us. She then talked briefly about how Daniels had inspired her. It was a perfect transition to Communion.

Following the service and a brief coffee hour, Flewelling told us more about how Daniels had inspired her. She and her husband, the Rev. F. Lauren Flewellling, were friends of Daniels. Lauren was his classmate at seminary. Daniels had planned to be part of their wedding party but came to the couple and explained that he felt called to go to Selma. After Daniels’s tragic death, the Flewellings continued to be inspired by his activities in working for social justice for all. Rebecca has served several higher education institutions in senior administrative positions, including as advisor to five University of Vermont presidents. Her life is an inspiration as is that of Daniels.

So, the question that came to my mind, and maybe others is this: In what way is a celebration of Jonathan Daniels and Celtic spirituality related? It was suggested to me that one major tenet of the emerging modern Celtic movement is social justice. From the beginning of the Celtic movement in the 1930s George MacLeod brought students, ministers, and unemployed laborers together to rebuild a ruined abby on the Island of Iona, off the coast of Scotland. His efforts to rebuild the physical structure by helping those in need would lead to the development of the Iona Community, an international ecumenical community. The basis of the fellowship of the Community were four emphases: mission, political involvement, a ministry of healing, and worship.

Daniels’s goal of finding social and civil justice for all—specifically those in the American South in a time of racial unrest during the Civil Rights Movement—seems grounded in tenets also found in the modern Celtic movement.


Featured image of Jonathan Daniels By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45648799

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