Muriel Lester and her "Chart for All Adventuring"

 

Muriel Lester was a remarkable woman of the 20th century whose story and life can give hope to the 21st. She stood up against injustice, poverty, and racism, and above all, she fought against war and for the nonviolent approach to conflict. During the course of her work, she learned about disappointment and even imprisonment, but she also knew the satisfaction of many grand accomplishments.

Muriel Lester was born in 1884 in London to an upperclass family. Her early years were spent enjoying growing up in Essex. Early memories included railway journeys which passed through East London, and as she recounts in a later article, an older companion on one of these journeys answered her questions about the plight of the inhabitants of this area with, "They get drunk…that’s why they’re poor". Lester’s comment on this memory was, "One believes the grown-ups when one is under twelve".

At 18, after a boarding school education in which she remembers, above all, being "encouraged to think", she spent a winter in Europe with her parents, and came home to be "a young lady at large". During a visit to a friend’s home at the age of 19, she came across Tolstoy’s work, "The Kingdom of Heaven is Within You", and read a chapter on pacifism which, according to her own account, set her on a lifetime course of pacifism action.

At about the same time - she was now 19 - she was invited into the lives of some families in the East End - the same area that she had noticed from the train from her girlhood days. She found friends there - other young women and listeners for the stories she loved to tell, and all the while learning about the realities of the lives of the impoverished. She was joined in her interest in Bow by her sister, Doris. In 1912 the 2 sisters and their brother, Kingsley, bought a house together in Bow and set up housekeeping.

Sadly, Kingsley died in 1914. In 1915, Muriel and her sister founded a social, educational and religious center (she called it a "teetotal pub")for Bow residents, which they named Kingsley Hall. WW 1 was spent largely in Bow, and the Hall was bombed at one point. She recalls talking to the women of Bow at the time…quoting sentiments such as "..You can’t blame the Germans in the zepps, when you come to think of it..they’re only made to do it, same as our men are, poor devils".

In 1921, Muriel and two other young women (one whose father had founded the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) decided to act on a concept called "voluntary poverty", i.e., poverty that was not "compulsory", such as for those in the East End for example. This was related to their concept that gifts of God were meant to be shared equally by all. They formed a group called "The Brethren of the Common Table", with the rule being that all members who had a surplus income for the preceding month put whatever excess they had on the table to be used by those who "needed extra" that month. Their slogan was, "The only Christian, the only rational basis for the distribution of goods is need." One of her stories of this time describes a gift of 600 pounds being given to the "newly formed" Save the Children’s Fund. As a result of her activity with the Brethren, a Home Help agency was set up, which served to both employ women of the community, and give emergency aid to families who needed it.

In the early 20’s, Muriel also served as Socialist Alderman for her localBorough Council. She arranged and got funding (from her father) for London’s first "Children’s House", where "the grown-ups were there as servants of the children". It was opened in 1923 by H.G. Wells. It grew to become a school, nursery school, health club, parent’s association, and Camp Fire Girls center. At around this time, she also was forced into about 8 months of invalidism on doctor’s orders, because of feelings of being "overwhelmed" with the duties of Kinglsey Hall and her other activities. As a result of this, she identified on her own her need for a period of disciplined meditation each and every day, and when she began her own self-devised program to this end, she recovered her health and her strength.

Lester’s religious convictions are described as central to much of herwork, especially her understanding of the Sermon on the Mount. She describes her respect for people who "think eternally and livecourageously", which she feels is "what Christ teaches us to do". Within this framework, she placed her convictions about nonviolence ("one can’t overcome evil with evil"), her work for economic and social justice, and for creative peace. She describes her work in the fight against militarism ("through our own political parties, by our parliamentary votes, by lobbying, demonstrations, public meetings..and our personal witness") She remembers feeling in direct line with Telemachus, who called on the Roman crowds to stop the gladiatorial combat, and who was killed..yet the "murderous games" did come to an end. She had been one of the founders, in 1914, of the Fellowship of Reconciliation - one of a group of about 100 people who met in Cambridge to voice their protest against war and their choice "between the sword and the cross". This Fellowship became her "anchorage" as well as a "chart for all adventuring".

In one of her books, Lester describes hearing for the first time about aman called Gandhi. Soon after, she describes being inspired by reading his paper, Young India, and its call to use the power of nonviolence to gain freedom for the Indian people. She was invited to India in 1926, having recognized the justice of Gandhi’s cause and the parallel between the nonviolence of his movement with her Christian pacifist activities. As she wrote, "it was becoming clear that the two movements had much to learn from each other". This first visit to Gandhi’s ashram, on his 57th birthday, was the first of many, and she became Gandhi’s ally in the struggle for India’s independence and in the building up of a global movement for nonviolence. She remembers hearing from Gandhi’s followers’ that they had learned "the disarmament of the body was not enough, one’s mind also must be disarmed…all self-pity, jealousy and hate destroyed". She also had an opportunity to host him on a visit he made to England, when he stayed at Kingsley Hall for a period of three months. Lester describes one conversation in which she felt Gandhi so clearly described his core beliefs, including, "Truth is God, and the way to find Him is non-violence".

By the 1930’s, she had turned the work of Kingsley Hall to her sister Doris, and worked fulltime as traveling secretary of the (now International) Fellowship of Reconciliation, or IFOR, in which role she traveled the globe as an "ambassador" for peace. In her autobiography, she recounts visiting Germany soon after Neville Chamberlain met with Hitler. She tells of members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Germany who were in danger because of their disobedience of Hitler’s regime. She alsovisited Japan in 1936 and commented that she found "no Japanese enthusiastic for the war, though there was plenty of organized flag waving". Yet, she found that refusal to serve would bring disgrace on one’sancestors. During the years of World War II that inevitably followed, Lester worked on plans to help all victims of the war.

On one International trip during WW II, she was pressured by her government to avoid talking about the war, and was eventually arrested and held in an internment camp in Trinidad for over 2 months. After the war ended, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation was able to meet and regroup again.

From the end of World War II until she was in her eighties, Muriel Lester continued her worldwide work and leadership with IFOR, which continues to play a central role in global peace and justice work today. She also often spoke out as an advocate of the need for women clergy as well as for the role of women in peace making, and continued her writing. Her last letter, written on the morning of her death in 1968, included some disappointed references to events of the Vietnamese war, but ends, "..what a wonderful increase of joy and serenity also occurs …thank God.."

What better way to end than to enjoy a few more of Muriel Lester’s own words: (Re: the suffrage movement, of which she was a part):

"Things will never be the same again…women ..with their zest, their realism, and their common sense…invaded every territory of social life.. They looked at war [and] stripped it of its glamour."

(Re: asking a pastor to modify his prayers): "…once I’d started I’m sure I was unpleasantly logical, no doubt thoroughly perky too". "At Kingsley Hall we refused to pray for victory, knowing that a victor’s peace is usually vindictive and stirs up a passion for revenge a generation or so later".

"The first casualty of every war is truth."

 

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