England, 1931, and Mahatma Gandhi

Bill Jr.:  

In October-November, 1931, Dad, in his role as secretary of the C.L.I.D., was invited by Horace Fort, W.G. Peck and V.G. Demant to visit England for a series of meetings.  William Temple, the Archbishop of Manchester, was in the background.  At the time, a young Joseph F. Fletcher was a student at the London School for Economics and he was very much interested in the ministry of William Temple.  (Eventually, of course, this became the subject of Joe’s first major book, William Temple, Twentieth-Century Christian, well before he became known as an innovative and primary ethicist, particularly in the bio-medical field, and before he became my professor, mentor, and God father to my children.)

Dad took us out of the Demarest schools for those two months saying to the teachers that such a trip would be educationally beneficial.  They obliged by developing two months worth of classes for my sister Marcia and me, which we were to do on shipboard and on our journeys.

We sailed on the S.S. American Banker, a tramp steamer of the United States Lines. It took us twenty-one rough days in the northern Atlantic to get up the Thames.  A vivid memory is of Dad and me going down to the cook’s galley to listen to the World Series between the St. Louis Cards and Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s, the series in which Pepper Martin stole base after base, with Mickey Cochrane, catcher for the A’s vainly trying to gun him down.

The two months were seen through the eyes of this 10-year-old boy in this way:

a. Shock at bread-lines and street apple-venders.  The great depression had hit England before it really decimated the more vast United States;

b. The Tower of London, where so many people had been imprisoned and martyred, and their likenesses in the Wax Museum;

c. Being in a spacious house in cold New Castle where the elder son always called his father, ‘PATER’, and his mother, ‘MATER’;

d. Seeing the movie ‘Trader Horn’ and being more interested in the hunter’s wandering around Africa than our wandering around London;

e. Being in Durham and, as we climbed the cobbled market street up to the plain and solid Cathedral in the evening dusk, hearing for the first time in a conscious way, a boys choir singing Evensong.  To this time, it is still one of my most vivid memories and, at some deep level, had something to do with my moving towards ordination;

f. Being cold and having abysmal ear-aches which, when attending the Lambeth Conference of 1978, hit me again for two weeks down in Canterbury; and

g. Being in a hall for a meeting.  Dad was up on a platform somewhere and Mother told me to sit on the aisle because I was going to see a very great man.  This was confusing since the man was tiny and dressed in a white sheet (sort of like a doctor) and, at first, didn’t seem great at all.  But, as he walked past me down the aisle, I felt ‘heat’.  Was this my first experience of saintly or charismatic power.  It was a vivid experience.


The man, of course, was Mahatma Gandhi, up to negotiate with England following his 1931 ‘Salt March to the Sea’.  His picture, as in the Editor’s Gallery, remains over my computor table to this moment.


Bill Sr.,   THE WITNESS, ‘Talking It Over’ (Feb. 5, 1948):

“The sorry state of our world certainly will be brought home to even the most calloused by the assassination of Gandhi.  He was not only one of the great men of our time but of all time, truly a saint.  It has been nearly two years now since my wife has cried, but as were busily at work in THE WITNESS office catching up on the bundle orders for this number, a newsboy on the corner shouted out the news and the tears came.

“It was in 1931 in London that we had the great privilege of hearing him address about fifty members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.  He was there for conferences on India with British officials and was making no public appearances.  But he had agreed to meet with these kindred souls to tell them why he believed his country should be free.  It was an occasion nobody could forget — the tiny man, sitting cross-legged on a tabl, wrapped in his full white sheet.  He looked old even then though of course he was not.  His arms and legs were like pipe stems.  He was toothless, except for one upper and one lower which did not meet.

“But once he began to speak his presence filled the small hall so that there could have een no person there who was not aware of being in the presence of a man possessed of God.  His audience were people who stood for peace and freedom.  But even so there were those who differed sharply with him — Englishmen who, whatever abstract theories about the rights of others, nevertheless contended that it was England’s God-given duty to rule over colonial peoples.  But Gandhi with his tremendous store of facts, his logic, and above all his faith, convinced even these die-hards of the correctness of his position:  ‘There are no differences between the peoples of India that will not be settled in short order, once the British remove themselves.’

“The British did remove themselves.  And so Gandhi is dead.  Proving, some will say that he was wrong.  Yet is is my belief that his martyrdom will rather prove to be that great single event which will bring to his beloved India that peace and unity for which he worked, fasted and prayed.”

Bill Jr.:  And, of course, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others, read of, about and through the Mahatma.  And there are martyrs a-plenty and things change, even as old customs, heresies and rivalries re-surface continuously.

We took the speedy S.S. Leviathan home.  That trip took only six days but was no where near as much fun as the S.S. American Banker, where the captain used to let me, quite illegally I am sure, come up on the bridge and, for ten seconds or so, hold the wheel.  Besides, Marcia and I had fallen behind in our school work and we had to speed up the studies on the bigger boat so that our teachers wouldn’t be let down.