(1893 – 1970)
Legendary Catholic Worker activist – a one man revolution
Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. The one who has love, courage and wisdom is one in a million, who moves the world, as with Jesus, Buddha and Gandhi.
Ammon Hennacy was born on 24 July 1893 in Neglio, Ohio. He was active in the radical political movements of his day and campaigned vigorously for the Socialist Party. In 1917, with America’s entry into World War I, Hennacy was arrested for refusing to register for the draft. He was sentenced to five years in Atlanta Penitentiary, and served two, almost half of it in solitary confinement. It was a crushing but ultimately formative experience for the young Hennacy. While in solitary, with nothing to read but the bible, he underwent a deep religious conversion. He concluded that Jesus Christ, who stood to transform the human person from within, represented the greatest revolutionary of all time.
Gradually I came to gain a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said that the Kingdom of God must be within everyone…To change the world by bullets or ballots was a useless procedure. Therefore, the only revolution worthwhile was the one-man revolution within the heart. Each one would make this by himself and not need to wait on a majority.
When he was released from prison, Hennacy devoted himself to realising that ideal of the ‘one-man revolution.’. Among other sacrifices he became a vegetarian and stripped his life down to the level of bare necessities. He refused to pay taxes (which could be use in part to finance war). When withholding taxes were introduced, he deliberately worked as a common-day labourer – picking cotton or other such field work – so that he could be paid in cash. In any case, he made a point to subsist at a level beneath the taxable minimum.
Hennacy described himself as a Christian anarchist – a position that denoted for him the Gospel call to personal responsibility, the insistence on returning good for evil, and his respect for the sovereignty of free conscience. ‘An anarchist,’ he used to say, ‘is one who doesn’t need a cop to tell him what to do.’
In 1952, Hennacy moved to New York and joined the Catholic Worker community of Dorothy Day. He had long been attracted to Day’s commitment to non-violence, and her paper had published a number of his articles about ‘life at hard labour.’ Both Hennacy and the Worker were permanently marked by this association. In his years in New York, Hennacy prodded the community to undertake and practice a more visible stance on behalf of peace. He delighted in selling the Catholic Worker newspaper on street corners, an opportunity to engage in soapbox apostolate. In one of his most effective protest he organised a campaign of civil disobedience against the city’s annual compulsory civil defence drills. In Hennacy’s view, these drills, ostensibly to prepare the city for a nuclear attack, were actually exercises in folly, if not something worse. They would do nothing to save lives in the event of an attack, while such drills did have the effect of preparing the public for the inevitability of war. Hennacy felt it was the Christian’s duty to refuse to collaborate with this dangerous farce. As a result, he along with others including Dorothy day, were repeated jailed until the drills were finally abolished.
In joining the Worker, Hennacy was at the same time moved to join the Catholic Church. He was duly baptised with Dorothy day as his godmother. Hennacy tried hard to reconcile his anarchism with the spirit of Catholicism. But he was never particularly suited to ‘thinking with the Church,’ or with any other community or organisation larger than himself. He was acutely sensitive to the dangers of compromise and hypocrisy, and he could not abide the spectacle of priests and bishops who casually gave their blessing to war. After fifteen years, Hennacy dropped out of the Church. He remained however a devout ‘non-church Christian,’ who set a standard of obedience to Gospel values that few ‘orthodox’ Christians could hope to match.
Eventually Hennacy left New York and moved to Salt Lake City. There he opened Joe Hill House, a house of hospitality for the indigent and homeless, named after the great labour martyr who was one of his heroes. Hennacy continued his work for peace. Every August he undertook a public fast to atone for the dropping of the atomic bomb, adding an additional day of fasting for each year since 1945.
Radical as he was, Hennacy enjoyed the fantasy of one day dropping dead on the picket line. This wish was essentially fulfilled. On 11 January 1970, he collapsed with a heart attack while protesting the impending execution of two convicted murderers. He died three days later.
Dorothy Day, while hurt by Ammon’s defection from the Church, continued to give him credit for his enormous faith, courage and prophetic witness. She was convinced he was ‘the most ascetic, the most hard-working, the most devoted to the poor and the oppressed of any we have met, and that his life and his articles put us on the spot. He was an inspiration and a reproach.’ She regarded him as ‘a modern day John the Baptist, making straight the way of the Lord. Thus she found it easy to overlook his many faults, ‘knowing so well his own strong and courageous will to fight the corruption of the world around him.’
Ammon Hennacy, The Book of Ammon, (Ammon Hennacy, 1963);
Patrick C. Coy, The One Person Revolution of Ammon Hennacy, in Patrick Coy editor A Revelation of the Heart (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).
(Taken from All Saints, Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, edited by Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1997.)