Thoreau in the World
In 1848, Henry David Thoreau gave a series of lectures at the Concord, MA Lyceum on the topic of Civil Disobedience. He saw the US invasion of Mexico, a peaceful country, as an illegal act, albeit one which resulted in the acquisition of Texas, California, and New Mexico. He also refused to pay the one-penny war tax, which earned him a night’s stay in the Concord jail. His resulting essay, “On Civil Disobedience,” published in 1849, remains one of his most enduring legacies.
On June 7, 1893, a young, British-trained Indian lawyer, Mohandas K. Gandhi, purchased a first-class rail ticket in South Africa. He was riding along, minding his own business, when a group of burly white men in the first-class car surrounded him, calling him by the n-word and ordering him to leave the car. He refused, protesting that he had purchased a first-class ticket. At the next station, the men sent for a policeman, and Gandhi was relieved, assuming that the officer would straighten matters out in his favor.
Instead, the policeman insulted him, and, when Gandhi refused to leave the car, the officer physically ejected the young, slender youth onto the railway, leaving his clothing torn and himself battered and bleeding. At that time, Gandhi realized that the British Empire he idolized—indeed, the very structure of British Law that he so admired and wished to serve—was flawed at the core. He resolved to work to free his own country, India, and force the British to leave, despite its being the “Jewel in the [Colonial] Crown.” Finding the work of Thoreau, in particular the above essay, he adapted it to his own purposes, combining it with Hindu religious philosophy to create a concept he called satyagraha, or “soul-force,” a non-violent means of resisting power and authority. After many years of work, disappointment, and resolution, Gandhi succeeded in freeing India from the domination of the British Raj, although it resulted in his own martyrdom.
Years later, a young theology student at Boston University read the works of both Gandhi and Thoreau, and adapted them to his own people’s struggle for civil rights in America. During his doctoral studies, Martin Luther King found great comfort in his readings of Gandhi and Thoreau.
Tonight, we studied the words of Henry David Thoreau. It is comforting and empowering to know that this gentle man, who died so young—he was only 44, and died of tuberculosis, the most common killer of young people in those days—had such a lasting effect on the freedom of humanity. Transcendentalist, poet, environmentalist, and even a theologian of sorts—Thoreau was, truly, a citizen of the world.