Muriel Lester (1885-1968)

A pacifist and social reformer who fought against poverty

Muriel Lester was born into a wealthy Baptist family in England in the late 1800s. Early in her life she showed a non-conformist radicalism in her faith, especially over concerns for social justice. While traveling by train through the slums of London she began to see poverty as a moral challenge. She committed herself to voluntary poverty, moved into the Bow neighborhood of London and began to help poor families as a social worker. She purchased an old church building and turned it into Kingsley Hall, a social service center. Lester mobilized people in the community to determine together what issues to address and how to deal with them. She was able to empower people, especially those who thought they had no power.

During World War I, Lester became a pacifist and joined the newly formed International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR). Her post-war efforts at famine relief launched the movement that became the Save the Children Fund. Through her IFOR connections, she invited the son-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Hindu poet and philosopher, to speak at Kingsley Hall. In turn, he invited Lester to India.

On that visit, she developed a life-long friendship with Gandhi. Gandhi challenged her, “Speak the truth, without fear or exaggeration, and see everyone whose work is relative to your purpose. You are on God’s work, so you need not fear men’s scorn.” When Gandhi came to Britain in 1931 he stayed at Kingsley Hall for three months. As a Christian and as a Hindu, Lester and Gandhi took the teachings of Jesus and applied them to the struggles for freedom from colonial power in India.

In 1933 Lester turned the leadership of Kingsley Hall over to her sister. Lester then became the traveling secretary for IFOR. She conducted prayer schools around the world with people of many different religions: Muslims, Jews and Hindus. Wherever she found violence and injustice, she worked to mobilize people of faith to struggle against those problems.

Muriel Lester lived the message of reconciliation in every sphere of human life, including religious reconciliation. In her own words, she sought to share “the vision of God as Love and Beauty, and the sense of comradeship which brings strength and vigour to the weakest.”