Friday, April 21, 2006

Confederate"Heritage" Month 2006, April 21: John Brown and antislavery Christianity (1)

John Brown saw the world through Christian eyes. A religious understanding shaped his views of politics, family life, history, business, war. The early nineteenth century was a more intensely religious period in America than the time of the Revolution.  Thanks to various waves of revivals and and more mundane efforts of Protestant demoninations to save souls and provide churches for the growing flocks, more people were attending church.  And more people were conceptualizing social and political issues in religious terms. The American Cromwell John Brown was more intensely religious than the average American of those days, though. His contemporaries often spoke of him as a throwback to two centuries earlier, to the time of Oliver Cromwell. Americans today might generally recognize Cromwell's name, and know that he was some kind of religious or political leader in England. Richard Boyer wrote of Brown's presentation of himself as he became well-known at least in antislavery circles due to his role in the Kansas fighting:
As John Brown told of his victories in Kansas and Missouri over this hitherto invincible figure, it was almost as if he were simultaneously creating in himself and with himself an answering legend to that of the gallant slaveholder, the legend of the Bible-reading, hymn-singing Puritan, fierce throw-back to Cromwell's Ironsides of two centuries before who had defeated the cavaliers of King Charles as Brown would defeat the slaveholders of the South. If he never characterized himself thus, he did not need to. The circumstances of his life and ancestry had combined to so suspend him in time, to so keep him in the Puritan ethic of the seventeenth century, or so his admirers felt and said, that they instantly recognized him as an almost exact reincarnation of Cromwell's warriors. Like them, the rhythms of the Old Testament beat within him, offering him succor and strength on the day of battle, and the psalms of David they had sung or recited around campfires two centuries distant were a part of the very core of John Brown. Sanborn was typical in his reaction to Brown when, in an address to Concord schoolchildren in March 1857, he said, "I have lately met a person who so well illustrates in himself the Puritan of Cromwell's time that he seems to me worth describing. ... I refer to the justly famous Captain Brown of Kansas, otherwise known as 'Old Brown' and 'Osawatomie Brown' of whom you have no doubt heard something in connection with recent events in Kansas." It might have puzzled those who saw John Brown as a latter-day Cromwell, as well as a good many other of his contemporaries, had they known that his role in history was later to be described only as that of a solitary fanatic. To them it seemed as if he were in the mainstream, the victor of Kansas, at the very center of the country's greatest crisis, the man who could act when others only spoke, the man who could wield the authority of the gun when most of his admirers, "not men with fists," as Theodore Parker called them, had only the power of rhetoric. (Boyer; 13-14)
Brown's Outspoken Christianity
Some of his religious statements after his capture became instantly famous. Others were contained in letters that came to light over time. For example: I think I feel as happy as Paul did when he lay in prison. He knew if they killed him, it would greatly advance the cause of Christ; that was the reason he rejoiced so. On that same ground "I do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice." Let them hang me; I forgive them, and may God forgive them, for they know not what they do. I have no regret for the transaction for which I am condemned. I went against the laws of men, it is true, but "whether it be right to obey God or men, judge ye." And also:
'He shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hands of the Philistines.' This was said of a poor erring servant many years ago; and for many years I have felt a strong impression that God had given me powers and faculties, unworthy as I was, that He intended to use for a similar purpose. This most unmerited honor He has seen fit to bestow; and whether, like the same poor frail man to whom I allude, my death may not be of vastly more value than my life is,I think quite beyond all human foresight.
Brown's remarkable performance in his interrogation after his capture, wounded and exhausted, at Harpers Ferry, included a number of religious references.  The interrogation was fortunately reported first-hand by a reporter from the New York Herald. It included exchanges such as the following:
Q: "Who sent you - who sent you?" Brown: "No man sent me - I acknowledge no master in human form!" Q (from Virginia Gov. Wise): "Mr. Brown, the silver of your hair is reddened by the blood of crime, and you should eschew these hard words and think upon eternity. You are suffering from wounds, perhaps fatal; and should you escape death from these causes, you must submit to a trial which may involve death. Your confessions justify the presumption that you will be found guilty; and even now you are committing a felony under the laws of Virginia, by uttering sentiments like these. It is better you should turn your attention to your eternal future than be dealing in denunciations which can only injure you." Brown: "Governor, I have from all appearances not more than fifteen or twenty years the start of you in the journey to that eternity of which you kindly warn me; and whether my time here shall be fifteen months, or fifteen days, or fifteen hours, I am equally prepared to go. There is an eternity behind and an eternity before; and this little speck in the centre, however long, is but comparatively a minute. The difference between your tenure and mine is trifling, and I therefore tell you to be prepared. I am prepared. You have a heavy responsibility, and it behooves you to prepare more than it does me."
W.E.B. DuBois also described Brown's attitude toward the Southern slaveholders' version of Christianity at the time he was being held in Virginia for execution:
Against slavery his face is set like flint: "There are no ministers of Christ here. These ministers who profess to be Christian, and hold slaves or advocate slavery, I cannot abide them. My knees will not bend in prayer with them, while their hands are stained with the blood of souls." He said to one Southern clergyman : "I will thank you to leave me alone; your prayers would be an abomination to God." To another he said, "I would not insult God by bowing down in prayer with any one who had the blood of the slave on his skirts." (DuBois; 372)
Earlier Religious Life For Robert Penn Warren in his 1929 biography of Brown, the antislavery fighter was a scamster and insane to boot. His antislavery activities in Kansas were simply a cover for horse and cattle theft. And his religion was nothing but a way to wrap a phony mantle of self-righteousness around his misdeeds. Warren emphasized what he found to be "one of the most significant keys to John Brown's career and character; his elaborate psychological mechanism for justification which appeared regularly in terms of the thing which friends called Puritanism and enemies called fanaticism." (Warren; 446) But whatever the psychological roots of Brown's religious feelings and convictions, there is no reason to doubt that he took his religious seriously, and looked at the world through a religious perspective. Stephen Oates gives this account of Brown in 1832, more than two decades before he arrived in Kansas:
Eventually Brown decided that what the township needed was a church of its own. On January 1, 1832, he organized an Independent Congregational Society in New Richmond [Connecticut], drawing up the articles of faith himself. The society held its services on the second floor of Brown's tannery. Sometimes a minister came to deliver the sermon: on other mornings Brown gave it himself, preaching from the works of the older Jonathan Edwards, whose mystical Calvinism, as expressed in such sermons as "The Eternity of Hell Torments," "The Evil of the Wicked Contemplated by the Righteous," and "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," had powerfully influenced Brown's own beliefs. He told his congregation one Sunday: "Is not the reflection that full, & complete justice will at last be done enough to make the very Heavens & Earth to tremble?" Before him, on the second floor of his tannery, sat his employees and their families, the Delamaters, and his own wife and children. "Providence," Brown went on in his hairing but imperious manner, "unfolds to our darkened minds, Three cardinal traits in the character of the true God, vis Justice, mercy, & love of propriety." Yet there was one attribute men should have above all others. "Humility," Brown  declared, for "What can so properly become poor dependent, sinning, & self condemned mortals, like us ... as humility?" He preached about the nature of sin, too, and wrote of how "Our stupidity ingratitude disobedience we have great reason to mourn [&] repent of." He himself felt that he should expect God's judgments because His mercies had not awakened more of Brown's "love & gratitude, zeal for his honor." In his sermons and his morning Bible classes Brown drew his scriptural examples largely from the Old Testament, reminding his listeners how the wrathful Jehovah of ancient Israel brought famine and pestilence to those who did not "fear the Lord thy God" and failed to "serve him and swear by His name." For "the fear of God," as the Preacher taught in the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, "is the whole duty of man." (Oates; 22)
For better or worse, John Brown conceived his antislavery mission in Christian religious terms. That's not to say he was unaware of its political dimension.  Near the end of his life, he explained to George Stearns, one of the Secret Six:
I believe in the Golden Rule, sir, and the Declaration of Independence. I think that both mean the same thing; and it is better that a whole generation should pass off the face of the earth - men, women, and children - by a violent death than that one jot of either should fail in this country, I mean exactly so, sir.
The apocalyptic vision of that comment is dramatic, and could be used as an example of a certain fanaticism. But we don't have to guess at what he might have done in pursuit of such a vision. Even his bloodiest deeds showed that he was highly disciplined and directed in his use of violence. His reference there was surely to biblical symbolism about the authority of God: "than that one jot of either should fail" would have been immediately recognizable to Americans of his time as a refernce to a statement of Jesus about the Jewish law in the King James Bible translation. However one may judge his deeds or his Christianity, it seems clear to me that his comment about the Golden Rule represented his own values that governed his actions. His conception of his mission in life was both a Christian religious one and a radical-democratic one. It was consistent with John Brown's own conception of himself and his mission that his admirers defined him in religious imagery:
While John Brown still lived, Wendell Phillips, one of the greatest anti-slavery figures, who himself had prior knowledge of Brown's plan, was comparing him to Huss and Wycliffe, martyrs of the Reformation, "who died violent deaths for breaking the laws of Rome," as well as to George Washington, who, "had he been caught before 1783 would have died on the gibbet, for breaking the laws of his sovereign." And in Kansas, William A. Phillips, another who was privy to the plot, one of the foremost newspaper correspondents of his day and later a soldier and congressman of distinction, was soon declaring that the best of an epoch and its men were combined in John Brown. It was during these days of waiting that Emerson said that if John Brown were hanged he would "make the gallows as glorious as the cross," while Victor Hugo, writing from his exile in Guernsey, was pleading for the life of John Brown, declaring that for Americans to take it was like "Washington slaying Spartacus." (Boyer; 21)
(See Sources on John Brown for references.) Tags: , , ,

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