Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Advent Week III: Peace

muriel-lester.jpgFor week 3 of Advent, I have chosen that radical Baptist peacemaker, Muriel Lester as my witness to the Word Made Flesh.  Because I said as well as I can before, I am reprinting an article I wrote on Ms. Lester in 2003 below:

Muriel Lester (1883 – 1968): Ambassador of Reconciliation
A Random Chapter in the History of Nonviolence
by Michael L. Westmoreland-White
Monday, 21 April 2003 Muriel Lester, once one of the world’s most famous Christian pacifists, is today little known. This deserves correction since Lester has been positively compared to both Dorothy Day and Jane Addams in her work for the poor and for peace. As far as I can determine, she never participated in a campaign of active nonviolence personally, but she was a key link in the convergence of several movements: the mystical Christian pacifism of Tolstoy, the pragmatic peacebuilding of the early 20th C. labor and feminist movements, the “liberal” pacifism of mainstream non-sectarian Protestantism between the 2 World Wars, and Gandhian satyagraha or active nonviolent direct action. Since Lester, like Day, was a witness to Christian pacifism through the very difficult days of World War II, her story deserves recovery for us, today.

Born in Essex, England in December 1883, Muriel Lester grew up in relative wealth and security. In fact, the sheltered nature of her early life makes her journey into solidarity with the poor and radical Christian peacemaking all the more remarkable. Her father and paternal grandfather were successful in the shipbuilding business, the source of the family money. Her father was also a Justice of the Peace. The latter was somewhat unusual since the Lesters were Baptists and it was still rare, in those days, for “Nonconformists” (people who belonged to one of the Protestant denominations other than the Church of England) to hold a governmental office. The Lester family was prominent in English Baptist life, Henry Lester, Jr. (Muriel’s father) was for years president of the Essex Baptist Union. (Before the 1970s, it was not unusual anywhere in the world for laypeople, especially laymen, to hold major leadership positions in Baptist denominations. Outside the U.S., this is still more common than inside where the “cult of pastoral leadership” — sometimes amounting to pastoral dictatorship! — has marginalized the previous Baptist tradition of strong lay-leadership. As part of their historic views of “liberty of conscience” and the “priesthood of believers,” previous generations of Baptists saw pastors and ordained ministers as “firsts among equals” in the life of the congregation the authority of theologians, ministers, and denominational officials came from their ability to persuade and teach laypeople who reserved the right to interpret Scripture for themselves and to challenge direction and teaching that was less than persuasive to them. Messy as this approach is, I prefer it to hierarchical systems and, speaking as a Baptist, would like to see its revival in our circles in the U.S.)

Along with her brother, Kingsley, and her sister, Doris, Muriel grew strong roots in the spirituality of English Baptist life. Her father taught them to think for themselves, being himself a strong iconoclast against “the old legalisms” of 19th C. Baptist tradition. Muriel was baptized in 1898, at 15, a typical “age of decision” for faith among those who grow up in Baptist circles. She and Doris reorganized and updated the children’s Sunday School programs. Many Baptist leaders in England, including her father, opposed the Anglo-Boer War as a war of imperialist aggression (although pure pacifists were fairly rare among English Baptists by this time). Muriel heard these arguments, but they didn’t take quick root since she was at a militaristic phase of her life, then. Later, discovering the writings of the Russian novelist, Count Leo Tolstoy, Muriel had a “second conversion” to Christian pacifism.

Muriel’s childhood provided a good education and ample opportunities to travel. She contemplated enrolling at Cambridge University, only recently open to “Nonconformists” and it still being fairly rare for English women to seek university degrees. With her fine mind and disciplined lifestyle, Lester would probably have done well in university life and could have become an accomplished scholar in a chosen area of interest. Yet, by this time, her heart had been captured by the call to work for social justice, especially for the poor. She declined to seek university education. Instead, along with her sister, Doris, and with money from the estate of her brother, Kingsley, who died young, she founded Kingsley Hall in the poverty-stricken Bow district of East London in 1914. Kingsley Hall was part settlement house, part “tee-totaling public house” (similar to the later coffee house movement in the U.S), and part non-denominational church with Muriel the de-facto pastor and director. What had brought this upper-Middle Class young woman to such a pass?

Two experiences were crucial in this transformation out of her sheltered life and into radical solidarity with and champion of the poor. The first was a train-ride during her early teen years that took her slowly through the London slums on her way home. Lester observed the sight and smell of poverty close-up for the first time. She asked aloud whether people lived “down there” and received this patronizing and dismissive answer from another passenger, “Oh yes, plenty of people live down there, but you needn’t worry about them, they don’t mind it, they’re not like you, they don’t mind any of these smells. Besides, if they did, they only have themselves to blame. They get drunk. That’s why they’re poor.” Muriel, a lifelong teetotaler, knew that alcoholism could contribute to poverty, but she also knew wealthy people who drank, so she wasn’t ready to accept this answer at face value. Then, in 1902, she visited with her father a “factory girls’ club” in Bow that was having a party. Whatever she saw and experienced there began a profound change in her. Muriel began to go to Bow regularly as a volunteer social worker. In 1912, she and her sister, Doris, rented rooms in a Victorian working class cottage for a base, and then, as they spent more time there, as a residence. This began an experiential education in social radicalism that was to culminate in the production of Kingsley Hall.

While Muriel and Doris were becoming familiar with life in Bow and its problems, Muriel was becoming more skeptical about mainline churches. The churches were not managing to change society in radical ways. She wanted to see the revolutionary dimensions of Christianity make an impact personally in the structures of society. During this time, Lester deepened her study of Tolstoy’s teachings about pacifism and taught these to her Sunday School students. Together, they came to the conclusion that they had to do “Jesus Christ the honour of taking him seriously, of thinking out His teaching in terms of daily life, and then acting on it even if ordered by police, prelates, and princes to do the opposite.”

It was with this radical faith that Muriel and Doris began to ask the residents of Bow to dream with them of a place where they could begin to work on their own problems, not abandoning political or union struggles, but not waiting for such successes before working to improve their lives together. With money from Kingsley’s estate, the sisters purchased an abandoned church building, Zion Chapel, previously used by a Strict and Particular Baptist congregation on Botolph Road in Bow. (Particular Baptists were more Calvinistic than General Baptists. After the two main groups in England merged in the mid-19th Century to become the Baptist Union of Great Britain, those very Calvinistic Baptists that refused to join with the Arminian or General Baptists became known as “Strict and Particular” Baptists.) They worked to transform this former church into a “teetotal pub,” and settlement house — Kingsley Hall. For 18 years, this community center was the base of Muriel Lester’s work among the poor and working classes. It was, in many ways, as radical a center as any socialist could imagine, but it was never a secular enterprise: Muriel, Doris, and many of the residents practiced silent, listening prayer similar to Quaker practices. Once a week, they gathered for Bible study, especially the teachings of Jesus, asking if and how His teachings answered the questions and problems of the poor. The center of their focus was the Sermon on the Mount.

As World War I broke out, Lester resisted the militaristic patriotism of most of England and solidified her nascent pacifism by joining the fledgling Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1914. She later recalled the launching of the F.O.R. in these words:

In December 1914, a hundred or so Christians of all sects met in Cambridge, drawn together by the immovable conviction that a nation cannot wage war to the glory of God. The doctrine of the Cross, self-giving, self-suffering, forgiveness, is the exact opposite of the doctrine of armies and navies. One must choose between the sword and the Cross. Thus the Fellowship of Reconciliation was formed, providing us with anchorage as well as with a chart for all adventuring. (From It Occurred to Me by Muriel Lester, pp. 61-62.)

Not all other English Christians agreed. Along with others in the F.O.R., Lester received condemnation from many churches for refusing to pray for British victory. Lester claimed that a “victor’s peace” would sow the seeds for future wars. Considering that most historians agree that many of the roots of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany and of World War II grew out of the vengeful terms of the Treaty of Versailles which ended WWI (and sought to punish Germany and make it solely responsible for the war), Lester insight shows great wisdom. When the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) was founded four years later in 1919, Lester quickly joined it as well, shortly after its first meeting in Holland.

Meanwhile, in 1921, Lester was elected for a term on the city council of the Poplar borough of London. Bow constituted roughly a third of the borough and Muriel was elected on a Fabian socialist platform. In her city council post, Lester was able to address many of the political dimensions of the social ills of the inner city, but she did not stop engaging in direct aid and community organizing. In 1923, Muriel and Doris Lester co-founded a “Children’s House” in Bow as an alternative to the grim orphanages of the day. In 1927, she used an inheritance to construct a new Kingsley Hall and to expand to Dagenham, another poor district of East London.

The residents of Bow did not consider Muriel to be just another social worker or even a politician who was “on their side.” Despite her wealthy background, she was claimed as “one of them” and they adopted her as their “parson” since few of them found themselves at home in any church other than Kingsley Hall. Muriel described herself as needing to perform the “priestly functions” for the “little company of the believers of Christ.” She led Sunday worship, re-wrote hymns, led prayers, provided pastoral care, officiated at communion services (Holy Eucharist; most often called “the Lord’s Supper” in the Baptist circles that Lester knew best) and (adult) baptisms and marriage services, blessed babies, organized a nursery school, initiated a men’s adult school, and started other programs. Although her theology broadened from the conservative evangelicalism of her childhood, Lester never lost a sense of the need to bear witness to the gospel in personal as well as social terms. Throughout her life, she invited people to follow Christ and become part of this radical fellowship of believers. Although she never sought formal ordination from any established denomination for herself, Lester championed the ordination of women to the gospel ministry, eventually writing a book-long defense called Why Forbid Us? (Shanghai: Christian Literature Society, 1935). Lester eventually developed a following as a writer on Christian topics, including matters of personal and social ethics, prayer and spirituality, and autobiographical devotional books. Although never formally trained in academic theology, Muriel Lester should probably count as the first woman to be a writing theologian among Baptists and one of the earliest among most Believers’ Church bodies.

After WWI, Lester, along with much of the world, began hearing reports about Gandhi’s leadership in a nonviolent struggle for India’s independence from Great Britain. From childhood, Lester had been a strong anti-imperialist (as were many Nonconformists of that era). Now, Gandhi’s active nonviolent struggle connected Lester’s pacifism and anti-imperialism in a new way. In 1926, accompanied by her nephew, Daniel Hogg, Lester made the first of many trips to India, making many lifelong friends, but most notably Gandhi. She wrote about this first trip in her book, My Host the Hindu (London: Williams and Norgate, 1931). Lester returned to India in 1934, 1935, 1938, 1946, and 1949 when she helped to form the Indian chapter of the F.O.R. When Gandhi came to Britain in 1931 for the Round Table Conference on Indian independence, he stayed in Kingsley Hall for three months. (This was shown in one brief scene in the movie Gandhi with no mention of Muriel Lester nor explanation about what Kingsley Hall was or why Gandhi felt more at home there than in the rich ambassadorial suites prepared for him.)

In 1933, Muriel turned over the leadership of Kingsley Hall to her sister, Doris, and became the “traveling secretary” for IFOR, an “ambassador of reconciliation” as Richard Deats’ collection of her works calls her. In this capacity, she began new chapters of the F.O.R., strengthened others, and was a traveling “evangelist for nonviolence and pacifism.” She made nine (9) complete world trips in this capacity, in an era before jet travel made global travel easy. She conducted prayer schools and reached out to adherents of all religions — especially Hindus, Jews, and Muslims — without manifesting the normal prejudices of Protestants of her era. When IFOR broadened its membership basis from an explicitly Christian to an interfaith pacifist organization, Lester was in full agreement with the move.

As traveling secretary for IFOR, Lester still connected peacemaking with work for social justice. She investigated injustices in India under British rule, the effects of Japanese colonization on China and Korea. She would collect documentation concerning various issues and make that part of her speaking and writing. In 1934, during her second visit to India, she traveled around the country with Gandhi to speak out against untouchableness and the caste system. In 1938, after visiting China, she spent two weeks in imperial Japan courageously telling people the atrocities done to the Chinese people by their government and army.

As the Second World War broke out, Muriel Lester continued her world speaking tour. In August 1941, she was returning to Great Britain after having spoken and helped organize F.O.R. chapters all through Latin America. When her ocean liner docked in Trinidad (then British territory), the authorities seized her and detained her for ten weeks. While confined, she attempted to raise the spirits of other prisoners while dealing with her own depression and isolation. Public outcry helped secure her release, but upon setting foot in England, again, she was detained several more days and her passport was confiscated for the duration of the War. This did not deter her from traveling throughout the United Kingdom campaigning against the war. She resumed work at Kingsley Hall and organized food and medical aid for Europeans on both sides of the war, bypassing a blockade to do so. After WWII ended, Lester resumed her international campaigning. Her first trip was to Europe, where she warned that the atomic bomb and the beginnings of the Cold War were threatening the newly won peace. She visited areas devastated by the war and ministered to resistance leaders (nonviolent resistance movements and armed struggles) and to Germans taken as prisoners of war. She organized humanitarian relief efforts.

Lester was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Price but was never awarded it. She believed that women, who had been throughout history the victims of war, could play a special role in working for peace and abolishing war. Her Christian faith led her to live in the power of the resurrection, but it did not lead her to close herself off from the nonviolence of those from other faiths, like her friend, Gandhi. In our post-Cold War days with one remaining superpower rapidly becoming a de facto empire with just the trappings of democracy, with the spread of global terrorism and a merciless global capitalism, with renewed religious and ethnic hatreds and the deliberate weakening of international forces for cooperation and human rights, we face dark times. But the times we face are no darker than the two World Wars Muriel Lester endured and active nonviolence is far more well known now than in Lester’s day. We can take strength from the way she faced her challenges as we face ours.

Richard Deats’ essay on Muriel Lester, “No Moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount” can be found here. 

War is as outmoded as cannibalism, chattel slavery, blood-feuds and dueling – an insult to God and man – a daily crucifixion of Christ.  Muriel Lester

December 16, 2007 Posted by | Christian calendar, heroes, peace | 1 Comment