American martyr: Jonathan Daniels

Would you risk your life to save another?
August 12, 2007

Jonathan Daniels, a 26-year-old student at Episcopal Theological School (ETS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduate of Virginia Military Institute, and volunteer civil rights worker, was shot and killed on August 20, 1965, by a deputy sheriff as he approached a "cash store" in Hayneville, Alabama. Jon's last act was to thrust Ruby Sales, a black teenager, out of the path of the bullet intended for her.

Upon learning of Jon's death, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: "One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry and career for civil rights was performed by Jonathan Daniels ... Certainly there are no incidents more beautiful in the annals of church history, and though we are grieved at this time, our grief should give way to a sense of Christian honor and nobility, for this church and the movement gave to the world a true follower of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."

When Jon learned of Dr. King's call for northern volunteers to go to Selma, Alabama, his first impulse was to go. Then, he asked, "Could I spare the time: Did I want to spare the time? Did He want…?" Reluctantly he admitted, "the idea was impractical." That evening, Jon changed his mind. He later explained:

"I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat 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' that would, in retrospect, remind me of others -- particularly one at Easter three years ago. Then it came. 'He hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things...' I knew then that I must go to Selma."

After that trip to Selma in March 1965, Jon returned to ETS to complete his exams, then he returned to Alabama. After Jon's death, Bishop John B. Coburn, then dean of ETS, wrote: "It is perfectly clear that he made the decision because of his conviction that that was what God wanted him to do. His action was in response to God. That was the distinguishing characteristic of his Christian life -- and death."

At the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 1994 the commemoration of Jonathan Daniels was approved and entered in the Calendar of the Church Year as August 14.


American Martyr The Jon Daniels Story by the Rev. William J. Schneider, Morehouse, 1992; ISBN: 0819215864 - out of print but may be available used.

Outside Agitator Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama by Charles W. Eagles, Univ of North Carolina Pr., 1993; ISBN: 0807844209

Celebrating Jonathan Daniels: Events in the history of a hero 

The Lectionary, Calendar of the Church Year according to The Episcopal Church,

Jonathan Daniels Resources, and click on Jonathan Daniels

Related Topics: