"Posterity will owe everlasting thanks to John Brown for lifting up once more to the gaze of a nation grown fat and flabby on the garbage of lust and oppression, a true standard of heroic philanthropy, and each coming generation will pay its installment of the debt. . . . John Brown saw slavery through no mist or cloud, but in a light of infinite brightness, which left no one of its ten thousand horrors concealed." Frederick Douglass

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Sunday, May 27, 2018

Shades of Brown: The National Negro Congress, 1937

Source: Black Leadership Analysis
The second National Negro Congress convened in Philadelphia's Metropolitan Opera house on October 15-17, 1937.  The culminating events of the program on October 17 were broadcast on NBC radio nationwide, and the leading black voice was Asa Philip Randolph, then serving as the President of the National Negro Congress.  Randolph was reelected as President of the Congress during this convention.  A special feature of the broadcasted program was a two hundred-voice chorus that performed spirituals, including "Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" and "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," and Mozart's "Gloria in Excelsis." According to the African American publication, The New York Age, the National Negro Congress of 1937 was attended by four thousand delegates.

White Rhetoric. . .

An opening meeting was held at Independence Hall on Oct. 15, and Mayor Samuel Davis Wilson of Philadelphia gave thirteen taps on the Liberty Bell to commemorate the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished chattel slavery in the United States in 1865. However, the episode of the tapping of the Liberty Bell by Mayor Wilson is suggestive of the very racism that the National Negro Congress was concerned to oppose.  Wilson  had “tapped” the Liberty Bell before, in 1936 and more recently, on September 17, 1937, when he did so to represent the states that had ratified the Constitution between 1787-1790.  Although Wilson presented a wooden mallet to the Congress afterward, his speech was less than satisfying, tainted as it was by a tone of racial condescension.  This was particularly clear in his "you people" kind of approach, and his stated expectation that the primary duty of the black Congress was foremost their devotion to the United States Constitution.  The Philadelphia Inquirer thus described the episode:
Mayor Wilson and the Liberty Bell, 1937
(Getty Images)
"The one animating motive which brings you to this shrine of independence," Mayor Wilson said to the 400 assembled delegates, "is your devotion to our Constitution.  For your race, as representatives of the 15,000,000 colored people in America, you are affirming again your unswerving support of the Constitution and your loyalty to it.”
Not only was this political rhetoric, but more so the expressed presumptuousness of the racist society that Mayor Wilson primarily represented.  Certainly, the assembled delegates of the National Negro Congress needed no lecture on devotion to the Constitution.  For black people in the United States, reliance upon the Constitution was their last stand against an ever encroaching white supremacy that had come for their rights and freedoms time and again.  After all, the delegates and attenders of this event were present because of what was at stake for black freedom in 1937, not the survival of the Constitution of the United States.  

. . .And Black Reality

To no surprise, the real concerns that were expressed in the Congress were echoed in A. Philip Randolph's opening remarks, which reportedly were “militantly aggressive” in his “clarion call to Negroes everywhere to unite.” Indeed, the New York Age reported, a “[s]hadow fell over the deliberations of the Congress when Mrs. Ada Wright, mother of Andy Wright of the five imprisoned Scottsboro boys, described her own son's predicament in prison.  Also present was Ruby Bates, “star Scottsboro defense witness” and activists working on behalf of the unjustly imprisoned black youths. The arrest and convictions of these five Alabama youths was a travesty of injustice and racism in the South and became one of the crisis episodes leading to the Civil Rights movement.

Other speakers at the Congress included representatives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Most memorable, however, are the presence of Alaine Locke, then head of the Philosophy Department at Howard University and Sterling Brown, renowned in 1937 as a young poet and author.  Walter White, the notable NAACP secretary from New York City, was also present.

Shades of Brown

In the newspaper coverage surveyed, there is no mention of John Brown's legacy, although his picture was one of four images suspended before the audience, along with those of Abraham Lincoln, Richard Allen, and Frederick Douglass.   The Congress meeting date, October 15-17, resonated with a sense of John Brown, given this was the date of the Harper's Ferry raid some seventy-eight years before.  Philadelphia was a major center of black life and antislavery struggle in the 19th century, and the black community in the City of Brotherly Love had always held Brown in cherished memory.  Max Barber, of Philadelphia, was the head of the John Brown Memorial Association, a black organization based in that city, and was present at the Congress.  Barber was long involved in uplifting Brown's memory.  However, as far as the available record is concerned, honoring John Brown in the 1937 National Negro Congress largely was assumed, not spoken.  This was well, given the movement of history going forward.  Up in Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. had just assumed the pastorate of The Abyssinian Baptist Church, and the Civil Rights struggle of the mid-century was taking on its modern form.  John Brown, even in memory, had long served the black community.  But the 20th century was a new era, of rising black leaders and voices of reason and militancy that would finally render John Brown a revered relic more than a useful political icon.  The times were changing.

Happily, however, the Congress did entail a historical retrospective.  In the closing exercise on October 17, a program was held to honor the memory of Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.  Allen's image linked the National Negro Congress to Philadelphia history and the black struggle.  Honoring this black Christian leader signified the great problem of the United States--the same problem that John Brown also pushed against in his struggle against slavery: the pervasive racism of the white Christian church.--LD

Articles Consulted

"National Negro Congress Will Broadcast Program Over Nation-wide Hook-up," Pittsburgh  Courier,  Oct. 9, 1937, p. 24.

"Rev. C. Mills Tells of Negro Congress," New Castle [Pa.] News, Oct. 23, 1937, p. 2.

"Today," Rochester [NY] Democrat and Chronicle, Oct. 17, 1937, p. 53.

“4,000 Pack Phlia. Opera House At Opening Session Friday Of National Negro Congress,” The New York Age, Oct. 23, 1937, p. 1.

“Liberty Bell Rung for Negro Session,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 16, 1937, p. 2 

“Negroes Pay Honor to Church Founder,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Oct. 18, 1937, p. 2

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Return of a Kansas Classic

In 1900, William Elsey Connelley’s John Brown was issued by the Kansas publisher, Crane & Company, first in a two-part edition without notes (as part of an educational series), and then in one volume with notes.  Connelley is known as one of the leading researchers and authorities on Kansas history, an author of many books and articles covering a wide range of historical and cultural themes. 

William Elsey Connelley
The genius of Connelley’s biography was its Kansas core—his understanding of Kansas territorial history and how John Brown became a legendary figure in the dramatic conflict between proslavery and free state forces.  As a biography, Connelley’s John Brown made no great impact despite receiving some appreciative reviews.  Yet the book’s value as a source on Brown’s Kansas role is invaluable.  Notwithstanding Oswald G. Villard’s celebrated portrayal of John Brown a decade later (1910), no biographer of Brown has understood the abolitionist’s Kansas story as well as Connelley.  Indeed, it is Connelley’s reading of the evidence in context that presents a truer sense of John Brown’s significance in territorial Kansas than has been typically presented.  While Villard surveyed evidence and used interviews with survivors, it is clear that his pacifism and familial Garrisonian bias heavily influenced his interpretation, especially in regard to the controversial Pottawatomie episode.  Unfortunately, it was Villard’s claims that shaped subsequent 20th century writing about Brown rather than Connelley’s fair and studied analysis.

As a lifetime John Brown scholar, it has been my privilege to revisit William Elsey Connelley’s work in a new excerpted, edited, and reintroduced version, John Brown in Kansas.  This is not the entire Connelley biography, but its Kansas core--the central chapters of his book that frame the real history of Brown in territorial Kansas. 

Apart from Connelley’s background material on slavery, this version brings the reader into the territory with Brown in 1855, providing the author’s expert analysis of the territorial conflict, the Pottawatomie episode and its aftermath, and Brown’s overall place in the history of territorial Kansas.

What features are offered in this version?  In style, it is a thoroughly edited and rewritten narrative that preserves Connelley’s work but improves the writing and renders it in a more readable and contemporary format.  

Other features include:

·       Biographical sketch of William Elsey Connelley

·       Introductory essay (with citations) providing background to Connelley’s writing of John Brown

·       Original citations are improved and rendered in a uniform style with additional editorial  notes

·       Bibliography of Connelley’s most important sources

·       Combined acknowledgments from both versions of Connelley’s John Brown

·       Index to the new version

John Brown in Kansas is a privately produced effort, copyrighted with an ISBN number.

It is available through Lulu Publishers (https://goo.gl/MfbWqh), and shortly through Amazon.com and other online sources. –Louis A. DeCaro, Jr., Ph.D.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Confabulation and Fabrication: Russell Conwell on John Brown

Russell H. Conwell (1843-1925) was a big deal.  Born to a pious Methodist farmer and reared "on a 350-acre hardscrabble subsistence farm in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts," Conwell grew up near South Worthington, about 15 miles from Westfield, Mass. He was a climber by all accounts.  He left home in 1861 and enrolled at Yale University to study law, but returned to Massachusetts when the Civil War began.  He enlisted in--and perhaps was responsible for recruiting the entire--Company F, 46th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, where he served as captain.

Conwell as Soldier
Conwell and Company F were mustered out in July 1863.  Conwell was wounded and became sick, but after recovering, he reenlisted, becoming captain of Company D, 2nd Regiment, Massachusetts Heavy Artillery. In 1864, when he went on an errand with permission but without proper documentation in North Carolina, Conwell was courtmartialed and dismissed from the service on May 20, 1864.1

Afterward, Conwell worked as a reporter for the Boston Evening Traveller and the American Traveller, and enjoyed adventures overseas.  He also wrote a number of biographies of contemporary political figures like Presidents Grant, Hayes, and Garfield, and other works of contemporary historical interest, from an account of an 1872 fire in Boston to issues relating to Chines immigration and to the life of the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon.
Writer and Preacher
State Library of Mass.

By 1876, Conwell had changed tracks, finding his vocation in pastoral ministry and leading a feeble Baptist congregation in Lexington, Mass.  He is credited for reviving the church, and three years later was ordained at the Andover Newton Seminary.  His next pastoral charge in 1882 was a step up, when Conwell assumed the pulpit of the Grace Baptist Church, in Philadelphia, Pa.  As one author put it, "Conwell’s energy, organizational skills and gifted oratory attracted many new parishioners, and soon there was not enough room to accommodate all who wished to worship at the church and to listen to the brilliant, entertaining and motivating pastor."2  Conwell's fame preceded him because of his oratorical labors on the Chautauqua circuit, a popular effort in the 19th century that enabled authors and artists of all kinds to present and perform in a kind of big tent show throughout much of the heartland of the United States.  One source says Conwell gave one particular speech entitled, "Acres of Diamond," over six-thousand times.  Conwell also wrote books, including an adaptation of this popular tale, in which is considered a "morality tale" that could sound at times like a sermon, then a lecture, and then a dramatic story-telling.

Acres of Prestige
Wikimedia Commons
Conwell was no theologian, but rather an orator and preacher of the American practical religion, not unlike the contemporary preaching of Joel Osteen, dubbed quite unfortunately as "America's Pastor" by some.3  It was not that his work lacked orthodoxy, but whatever the content of his weekly sermons, he is remembered more for morality tales and themes that uplifted the Puritan ethic of family, community, and education.  His "Acres of Diamonds" told the story of Al Hafed a farmer in the east who enjoyed a contented life until he became obsessed to find diamonds.  After scouring much of the middle east, Al Hafed exhausted his resources and had to return to his home on the River Indus.  It was only then that he discovered that his own land was diamond rich.   Conwell's moral was that one should not think that wealth can be obtained only outside of his own place and context, but that wealth could be made in one's own circumstances.

A partial list of Conwell's books suggest this was the line of his inspirational ministry: Acres of Diamonds (1890, 1915); The Key to Success (1917); Increasing Personal Efficiency (1917); Every Man His Own University (1917); What You Can Do With Your Will Power (1917); Praying for Money (1921); Health, Healing and Faith (1921); Subconscious Religion (1921), and Unused Powers (1922).  [A longer list can be found on the website of Grace Baptist Church of Bluebell, Pa.] As one chronicler put it: "Conwell’s message had a larger purpose transcending contemporary wisdom. The pathway to personal success, he stressed, was largely education. Educated persons, in turn, were obligated to serve the less fortunate and to help them realize their full potential. Further, it was the duty of all to meet the needs of the community. “We must know what the world needs first,” said Conwell, “and then invest ourselves to supply that need, and success is almost certain.”4

Philadelphia Pastor
Grace Baptist Church
To his credit, Conwell's pastorate involved ministries to the poor across ethnic lines, although his interests increasingly led toward education.  In the 1880s, his tutoring of young ministry students led to the formation of a school in the church basement, and then the formation of Temple College in 1887.  Of course, this was the first manifestation of today's Temple University.5  Conwell is also the namesake of one of the theological schools that combined to make the notable Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in Gloucester, Mass.

Confabulation and Fabrication

While all of this is generally interesting for anyone with an appetite for 19th century U.S. history, what captured my interest in Conwell was coming upon the little book he wrote late in life, Why Lincoln Laughed (1922).6   In this work, Conwell included in chapter 8, entitled "Lincoln and John Brown, in which Conwell reflects upon his childhood reminiscences of John Brown the abolitionist.  The gist of the chapter was to contrast Brown was a devout, godly, and heroic man who was dour and humorless, with the warmth of President Lincoln, whom he claimed to have spoken with during the Civil War.  Referring to Brown, Conwell says he knew him "intimately in my boyhood days" as "high minded, probably as anyone who ever lived," and while regarded as a saint by many, "never captured the heart of the people as Abraham Lincoln did, and to-day is virtually forgotten."7

Conwell claimed to have had a "long interview" with Lincoln in the winter of 1864, where he informed Lincoln about his John Brown backstory. He says that he had gone to Washington to plead for a pardon for a friend, but Diane Brenner assures me that this is highly unlikely, and her familiarity with the topic is well studied.8  Equally problematic is Conwell's claim that his father had a wool business partnership with Brown for many years in Springfield, Mass., and "was a frequent and intimate caller at our house."  He writes that his father and Brown were closely associated in the underground railroad and discussed his plans for a slave uprising at their table "again and again for years before the Harper's Ferry raid finally took place." He says that John Brown kept a "summer place" in the Adirondacks, "and when he left there a man remained behind in the old cabin to help the slaves escape." Of course, this is quite incorrect.  According to Conwell, the underground railroad ran from Springfield to Bellows Falls on his father's branch and claimed it was common for his father's woodshed to be filled with fugitives.9

Conwell claimed that Lincoln was very much interested in what he could learn about John Brown.  He says that he told Lincoln that his mother thought Brown a monomaniac despite his father's devotion to him.  "Nobody could be more earnest or sincere than Lincoln, but he could laugh; John Brown could not." Conwell compares Brown, in his "earliest impression as a little boy," to "one of the old prophets" with his "long beard and [he] was always very, very serious."10

"The first great man
I ever saw"
Conwell says his father was a Methodist but he never heard that John Brown was a member of any church, although actually he was a Congregationalist.  He says that Brown was at his house nearly every month, and that his father and Brown would sit at the dining room table and talk late into the night, poring over maps and lists of memoranda.  He describes Brown's voice as "low, even-toned."  He also claims that William Lloyd Garrison had told Brown that his Virginia plan "was a very foolish enterprise."11  It is very doubtful that Brown divulged his Virginia plan to Garrison, whom he respected but would not have trusted.

He says the last time he saw John Brown, he had driven out to our house before leaving Springfield to go to Harper's Ferry, and that his father drove Brown to Huntington railroad station, then known as Chester Village.  He claimed that John Brown wrote to his father from jail in Virginia before being executed, but he does not paraphrase the letter, let alone quote from it.12

In what clearly was an authorized "great man" type of biography by Agnes Burr, Conwell tells his writer that John Brown was a frequent visitor to his childhood home.  He told Burr that Brown was "the first great man I ever saw."13

In an interview with Burr, Conwell dated a visit by Brown to his home as taking place in 1852, when Conwell would have been nine years of age.  According to the account, Conwell had barged into the cold northwest bedroom of their house, thinking that a favorite uncle had come to stay.  Instead he discovered "a giant," who was so long in bed that his toes stood up at the footboard, with long hair "spread out over the pillow and his long gray whiskers."  He claims he was terrified by Brown's "huge size" of "that awful giant." Afterward, he and his brother grew to love JB, a man with a benign smile, "one of the loveliest men we ever knew."14  Indeed, in the account given to Burr, John Brown becomes "Uncle Brown" and had even taken young Conwell to school in his wagon.  He says the last time that he and his brother Charles saw Brown, he had told them to stay at home "with the old folks."15

The Conwell home in South Worthington,
where John Brown visited in the early 1840s
Although he misdates the day of Brown's hanging as Dec. 9, 1859, he repeats the claim that his father had received a letter from Brown in jail, adding that in the letter Brown "sent his love" to him and his brother, "asking them to think of him sometimes in after life as a man who had humbly tried to do his duty."   He says on the day Brown was hanged, his home was full of sorrow and his parents did not eat, and his father wept aloud when the clock struck noon on that "awful day."  Conwell concluded that losing Brown "filled us with extreme prejudices against the people of the South," and "our souls were filled with bitterness and hatred," and he uses this point to emphasize "how useless and fratricidal, after all, that war was.  How much better it would have been to have accepted President Lincoln's recommendation and purchased the slaves of the South at their normal valuation and set them free without revolution and without bloodshed."16

Conwell also told Burr that his family had Frederick Douglass in their home as a guest, and that young Conwell thought him too light-skinned to be a black man.17  He told Burr that his first lectures were given about John Brown, when he sold Redpath's biography, which would have been in 1860, when he was about seventeen-years-old.18

Interestingly, with but one exception, there is no significant mention of Brown in an earlier and more professional biographical work by Albert Hatcher Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell (1899).
Without any apparent reference to his boyhood, instead Smith includes the transcript of Conwell's "Acres of Diamonds" speech, in which Conwell identifies himself with lawyers, whom he lauds for serving humanity.  Among these admirable lawyers, Conwell alludes to--but does not name--George H. Hoyt, whom he had probably met on the lecture circuit.   In the speech, Conwell says that he had  met "one who defended poor John Brown, of Ossawatomie--the indiscreet but martyr-like lover of the slaves."  This lawyer "went from home and safety to meet foes and danger, that the accused might have all of the few privileges known to the slaveholder's law."19

Stutler: Conwell not
an authoritative source
on John Brown
Toward the Truth

After my initial reading of some Conwell sources, I was naturally provoked to interest as to establishing a base line of historicity (if possible) in Conwell's references to John Brown.  My first inclination, upon reading the obviously stylized material in Why Lincoln Laughed was to consult the Stutler Papers.  It is still hard to beat old Boyd B., and sure enough I found some evidence that Stutler was aware of Why Lincoln Laughed--and granted it no historical value.   In 1960, a professor of journalism from Temple University contacted Stutler about Conwell's references to Brown.  Stutler replied that he had Brown's wool business letter books and never saw his name in any of his correspondence.20  In all my studies over the years, neither have I.

In 1963, Stutler got a letter from a Philadelphia admirer of Conwell, recounting the latter's intimate connections with John Brown.   Stutler wrote back, telling the man that after investigation of Brown's papers, he had "found nothing," and did not consider Conwell "an authoritative source."   The man was outraged and wrote back to "deplore" Stutler's conclusions, and then lectured him on Conwell's reliability.21  Given Stutler's disregard for Conwell, I nearly closed the case and moved onto grading final papers (which is what I should be doing now.)   Certainly, Conwell's narratives, conveyed later in life to his admiring bio-stylist, Agnes Burr, and in his own self-flattering, Why Lincoln Laughed, are fraught with confabulations at best, and fabrications at worst.  It is also interesting that the more substantial biography by Albert Hatcher Smith in 1899 has almost no mention of Brown whatever.  It is thus necessary to start at a minimalist baseline.

It is feasible that John Brown was an associate of Conwell's pious Methodist parents, Martin and Meranda Conwell.  The Conwells were abolitionists by reputation and there is no reason to doubt that John Brown probably met them in his early sheep-and-wool surveys throughout the northeast.  I have surveyed this period elsewhere, and I am quite certain that Brown traversed western Massachusetts in the early-mid 1840s when he was honing his specialization as a wool guru.  His travels really kicked into high gear after he partnered with Simon Perkins of Akron, Ohio, when he visited many farms as northward as Vermont and Maine and as southward as Virginia.  His study of flocks and breeds undoubtedly gave the Perkins flock its great reputation, which can be found in contemporary agricultural journals from the mid-1840s.   Often, too, Brown blended antislavery interests in meeting farmers and wool growers, and so the idea that Brown knew and stayed with the Conwells is entirely feasible.

Happily, a local historian named Diane Brenner, from South Worthington, Mass., has been greatly helpful by confirming the following details: Martin Conwell (1812-1874) was a strident abolitionist.  He and his wife Meranda left the Methodist Episcopal Church and joined an antislavery Wesleyan-Methodist church because the latter was pronounced in its view of slavery.  Brenner believes that Russell Conwell's narrative was greatly exaggerated, although she has evidence that Martin and Meranda donated $10 to John Brown's cause.  "It is likely that as sheep farmers and abolitionists they met John Brown during the time he first came to the area to sell wool," Brenner writes.22 This is helpful, although Brown did not so much sell wool as he did examine flocks and breeds.  After 1846, however, he would have been interested in getting Conwell to sell his wool through the Perkins and Brown operation in Springfield.  But since there is no reference to Conwell in Brown's business letters, I doubt this was the case.   I believe it is more likely that Brown and the Conwells knew each other from the earlier 1840s, perhaps from about 1844 or 1845.

Graves of Martin, Meranda, and son Charles Conwell
in South Worthington, Mass. (Find a Grave)  Russell is buried
on the grounds of Temple University in Philadelphia
As to Brown's antislavery interests, he was in touch with the right people.  Brenner says the Conwells "were also likely part of a wider network stretching north through Worthington, into Cummington and Plainfield."  She correctly recalls that Plainfield was where the school run by the Reverend Moses Hallock was located, and where Brown attended briefly as a youth.  Hallock continued there into the 1840s, so this would have been another reason for Brown's visits to the area.  Brenner says some locals in this area were participants in the Underground Railroad along this route.23

What of Russell Conwell's memories of John Brown?   Personally, I doubt any of them are substantial and most of what he has written must range from confabulation to fabrication.  I do not believe the "Uncle Brown" reminiscences are true at all, and certainly his descriptions of Brown are physically incorrect and inappropriate to chronology.  Most obvious, Brown was not a "giant" man.  In 1852, when he describes a visit by Brown in his home, the abolitionist did not have long hair and a long beard, and he was not so tall that his feet would have been propped up on the bed.  This either is fiction or he has confused another visitor in memory.  Since Conwell was born in 1843, he might have had some vague memory of Brown's visits in the later 1840s, but it is doubtful Brown was so frequently in their home, and certainly there was no wool business operation in Springfield that involved the elder Conwell.  For whatever reason, Martin Conwell seems to have had no wool business dealings with Brown in Springfield in the later 1840s.  Still, it is possible that Brown visited them occasionally and that he did talk to Martin Conwell about slavery, although how much Brown revealed at that date is unclear.   Perhaps if Brown assisted fugitives from slavery while in Springfield, he may have looked to the Conwells for some assistance.  But again I doubt there was much frequency, and Brenner doubts very much that the Conwells were that busily engaged in underground railroad activity the way Russell Conwell later recounted the story.
Brown as he looked
in the 1840s

Since Brown knew the Conwells from the 1840s, it is possible that the younger Conwell did see Brown occasionally afterward.  For instance, Brown was in Springfield in February 1852 on business; did he venture out to South Worthington to visit the Conwells?  It is possible.  He traveled through western Massachusetts in late 1852, and then again in February 1853.  Any one of these visits might have entailed stopping by to see the Conwells.  Interestingly, too, Brown visited Springfield after returning from Kansas, in February 1857, when it is even more likely that he would have sought out the aid of the Conwells (this may be when he received $10 from Martin Conwell, but I'd have to confirm that with Diane Brenner).   More likely, he seems to have been in Springfield for an extended visit in March-April 1857, and one might wager that this visit included a meeting with the Conwells.  There is no evidence in Brown's letters that he returned to western Massachusetts after 1857, although it is possible that he made a flying visit there sometime in late May-early June 1859.  But without any evidence of a stop, the idea that a bearded John Brown ever visited the Conwell household seems quite unlikely.

Temple UniversityLibraries
John Brown as a Reinvention

Russell Conwell was by all accounts a notable figure in 19th century U.S. history, a man of high profile, considerable gifts and talents, and of no small success.  Unlike other confabulators and fabricators of the John Brown myth, Conwell at least was not using the abolitionist to attain popularity, as was the case with the Canadian fraud, Alexander Milton Ross.  Ross spun an ornate web of lies and went to the point of inventing letters from John Brown so he could wile his way into the hearts of Brown's children. 

Conwell was already a success and it is more likely that he was just spinning yarns from the slight fabric of memory and family history.   I would like to believe that in Russell Conwell's early childhood memory, he could recall John Brown--at least, the figure of a kind man that he later was told had been John Brown the abolitionist.  The fact is that when John Brown was most present in his home, he was too young to know him or recall him in any significant manner.  It is clear that in some cases Conwell is familiar with Brown's narrative from other authors.  His description of Brown from his "earliest impression, as a little boy" as  looking like "one of the old prophets" with his "long beard" reminded me immediately of the description of Brown in 1858 by the wife of Martin Delany, preserved in Rollin's sketch of Martin Delany (1883): "She described him as having a long, white beard, very gray hair, a sad but placid countenance; in speech he was peculiarly solemn; she added, 'He looked like one of the old prophets.'"24
He wasn't "Uncle Brown"

Many of the descriptions provided of Brown by Conwell are clearly fictional, from physical descriptions to the description of his voice.  Brown was wiry and muscular, but he was not tall or big-boned.  His voice has never been described as low or deep.  More likely he spoke with a nasal tone and an Ohio twang (example saying "boosh" for "bush.")   Conwell, if he saw Brown in the later 1850s, never saw him with a beard.  He wasn't "Uncle Brown" and I doubt very much that Brown ever took him to school. 

John Brown as a Device

Assuming that only a small percent of Conwell's description of Brown is reliable, the question is why a successful man felt it necessary to spin so much confabulation and fabrication about him.  I suppose that no matter how successful a man becomes, he always wants to be more successful.   By1922, Conwell was an old man and in decline.  It is not unusual for elderly people to specialize in tall tales, either to enhance their profiles or extend the viability of their public profile.  I would assume the latter with Conwell--that by 1922, he needed to connect with a larger-than-life Lincoln in order to recapture the fame and popularity he had enjoyed in earlier decades.

If there is another device in Conwell's "memory" of Brown it is to convey his political sensibilities, and these are a mirror of the times.  By 1922, Abraham Lincoln had been fully deified in American memory as the redeemer of the Republic.  The historical wind had shifted from the late 19th century heroism of John Brown and yielded to the new century of white nation-building-and-expansion.  Reconstruction was long dead, Jim Crow and de jure segregation was now in power, and the plight of African Americans was put to the side as immigrants and industrialization defined the nation's modern comeuppance.  In such a context, John Brown declined in national memory, particularly in white national memory.  Oswald Villard had already written his blaming biography of Brown twelve years before (1910), and from this point until about 1970, the 20th century would steadily become more hostile to the memory of the abolitionist, even as it became more adoring and worshipful of Lincoln.

Conwell: Lincoln "captured the
heart of the people"
This is exactly the trajectory implied by Conwell's assessment in Why Lincoln Laughed: John Brown may have been "high minded, probably as anyone who ever lived," he writes.  But while regarded as a saint by many, Brown "never captured the heart of the people as Abraham Lincoln did, and to-day is virtually forgotten."25   This reading of the past is part-and-parcel of the great revision revealed in David Blight's Race and Reunion--the retro reading of the 19th century struggle over slavery from the presumptions of racial revisionism and privilege.

This is likewise apparent when Conwell tells Agnes Burr that losing Brown "filled us with extreme prejudices against the people of the South," and that "our souls were filled with bitterness and hatred." But rather than a mere description of the past, Conwell's point is to  emphasize "how useless and fratricidal, after all, that war was.  How much better it would have been to have accepted President Lincoln's recommendation and purchased the slaves of the South at their normal valuation and set them free without revolution and without bloodshed."26
Conwell: John Brown is
"virtually forgotten"

This is the voice of historical regret--not merely that many lives were lost, but that so many white lives were lost to liberate the enslaved blacks of the United States.  John Brown was now bound up with the regrets of white society--regrets that it had shed so much blood so "uselessly," and that "bitterness and hatred" had clouded the vision of North and South, when the bond of family (and race) lay between them.  After all, Conwell is saying, that war to end slavery simply cost too much.  Better to have made the South richer by buying their slaves--even though he apparently forgot that in the 1860s the South was not in the market for selling off her slaves.  Rather, the South wished to multiply them and expand the territory of slavery farther west and southwest.   John Brown had seen this and had taken action.  He had planned "revolution," Conwell suggests, and the nation would have been better without him and his plans, just as it would have been better without the Civil War. 

This is really what Conwell meant when he portrayed Lincoln as a man of laughter, beloved of the people.  Quite in contrast, the time for a humorless John Brown was past.  For Russell Conwell in 1922, John Brown was ill-suited to the new century--"virtually forgotten."

Perhaps this is why Conwell's Lincoln laughs.

      1 In some sources I've read online, the military court martial and discharge of Russell Conwell is treated as a controversy emanating from his critics.  However, Diane Brenner of the South Worthington (Mass.) Historical Society has kindly provided me with copies of his court martial guilty verdict and officers' casualty sheet showing his dismissal.
      2 "Russell H. Conwell."  Excerpted from James Hilty, Temple University: 125 Years of Service to Philadelphia, the Nation, and the World. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010).  Retrieved from the website of Temple University (https://goo.gl/e8uJyb).
      3  For example, "Mr. Conwell [as a mature preacher presented] the great truths relative to the Third Person of the Trinity from a practical rather than a doctrinal standpoint." Albert H. Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell (New York: Silver, Burdett Co., 1899), p. 161.   
      4  "Russell H. Conwell," Temple University website.
      5  I am not particularly interested in providing an extensively researched sketch of Conwell's life, but there are abundant sources on the internet by and about Russell H. Conwell for those who are interested, beginning with the Internet Archives.  My sketch is based largely on the Temple University website sketch by James Hilty, and also some use of the Wikipedia article about him. 
      6 Russell H. Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed (New York: Harper Brothers, 1922).
      7 Ibid., pp. 136-37.
      8 Ibid., p. 143; Electronic communication from Diane Brenner to Louis DeCaro Jr., Apr. 22, 2018.
      9 Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed, pp. 137-38.
    10 Ibid., pp. 138-39.
    11 Ibid., pp. 140-41.
    12 Ibid., p. 142.
    13 Agnes Rush Burr, Russell H. Conwell and His Work: One Man's Interpretation of Life (Phil: John C. Winston Co., 1917), p. 48.
    14 Ibid., p. 49.
    15 Ibid., pp. 50-51.
    16 Ibid., pp. 52-53.
    17 Ibid., p. 53.
    18 Ibid., p. 327.
    19 Smith, The Life of Russell H. Conwell, p. 331.
    20 Boyd B. Stutler to Joseph C. Carter, Nov. 12, 1960, RP01-0076B, Stutler Papers, West Virginia Memory Project.
    21  See Stutler's Feb.-Mar. 1963 correspondence with David Keiser, Stutler Papers.
    22  Electronic mail from Diane Brenner to Louis DeCaro Jr.,  Apr. 18, 2018.  Diane has kindly provided me the source for the elder Conwell's gift to Brown.  "Martin Conwell gave ten dollars to John Brown of the Harper's Ferry raid."    Rev. George Reed Moody, The South Worthington Parish (South Worthington, Mass., 1905), p. 79.
    23  Ibid.
    24  [Frances] A. Rollin, Life and Public Services of Martin R. Delany (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1883), p. 85.
    25   Conwell, Why Lincoln Laughed, pp. 136-137.
    26   Burr, Russell Conwell and His Work, p. 53.  Emphasis added.