"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, August 24, 2008

A recent discussion thread on a Calvinist website, The Puritan Board, fairly well demonstrates how the Abolitionist is viewed from within his own religious community. Though relatively brief as discussions go, this thread has a handful of interesting contributors, having been initiated by a student at The Southern Baptist Seminary named Tripp Spangler, who has become somewhat conversant in John Brown biography, and was reading David Reynolds’ biography. His question pertains to whether Brown can properly be referred to as a Puritan. The question elicits several responses as to the historical usage of “Puritan” and then, perhaps inevitably, the bitter input from an anti-Brown contributor whose main influence seems to be the poisonous biographical work of the late Otto Scott, a “Christian” historian who labored faithfully (if not maliciously) in the service of the Neo-Confederate movement.

According to scholar Edward Sebesta, who is an authority on the rise of the Christian neo-Confederate movement, Scott was a regular contributor to the Southern Partisan and co-produced a set of videos outlining neo-Confederate political, social, and theological interpretations in conjunction with the League of the South, a neo-Confederate organization. In short, a revival of Confederate idolatry, fused with conservative Calvinism, is taking place in the South. Scott acted as the faithful servant to this movement by attacking the legacy of the abolitionist movement, and especially John Brown, as both a political and religious apostasy.1 Considering that Otto Scott was opposed to the Civil Rights and the anti-apartheid movements as “detrimental” to society, it is no wonder that he so hated John Brown.

At any rate, the reader may find the following discussion thread of interest.2 In addition, I have placed my own comments in brackets following the individual entries.

1See Edward H. Sebesta and Euan Hague, “The US Civil War as a Theological War: Confederate Christian Nationalism and the League of the South,” Canadian Review of American Studies 32, no. 3 (2002): 267.

2Retrieved on Aug. 22, 2008 from The Puritan Board

The Thread: Calvinists on John Brown

Tripp Spangler, M. Div. student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary:

So, I've been reading the latest biography on John Brown: John Brown: Abolitionist by David S. Reynolds. Early on, Reynolds makes the assertion that Brown was a Puritan and that his Puritanism was what helped formed his views on slavery and how to eradicate it. I found this to be very interesting. I always knew Brown was raised in a strong Calvinistic tradition and even appeared to be Calvinistic. However, to place the label of "Puritan" on him is rather new for me. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

[Well, Tripp, I’m glad that you’ve read David Reynolds’ biography. David’s work has done more to put John Brown back into the popular historical discourse than any other writer since Stephen Oates in 1970. Reynolds is a literary scholar, not a theologian, and in referring to Brown as a Puritan, he is only following Brown’s earliest 19th century biographers, especially Franklin B. Sanborn, who clearly linked Brown with the Puritans in theology and politics. Sanborn made this connection even after his first encounter with Brown, referring to him as a kind of Puritan revisitation in a speech made in 1857. As your respondents recognize, it is historically inaccurate to label Brown as a Puritan, although it might literally be correct to refer to him as neo-Puritan, and certainly “Puritanesque.” Brown consciously harked to Puritan theologians and preachers like Richard Baxter, and Puritan warriors like Oliver Cromwell. This is a matter of record. Theologically, Brown was no creature of the New Divinity (contrary to what creative historians like John Stauffer and Allen Guelzo claim); his theological readings, besides the Bible, were decidedly Puritan. Even his friendly biographers, like Sanborn, lovingly chided his views as being archaic. So referring to Brown as a Puritan might be technically incorrect, but he certainly embraced and emulated his Puritan roots. Incidentally, according to both Brown super-scholars, Clarence Gee and Boyd Stutler, John Brown’s roots were almost certainly linked to the Mayflower emigrants through a second marriage of Peter Brown.]

Seth Stark, Communion Presbyterian Church, Irvine, Calif.:

I suppose it depends on the definition of "Puritan". I always thought Jonathan Edwards was the last of the Puritans.

Virginia Huguenot, Puritan Board Librarian:

John Brown the Abolitionist was not a Puritan. He was influenced at various times in his life by the Calvinist tradition, including Presbyterian and Congregational ministries. But in his later life he had no church membership, if I recall correctly. There are a number of John Browns in the Scottish Presbyterian/Puritan tradition, and it is easy to conflate them, but John Brown the Abolitionist is entirely different, both in historical terms (the Puritan label should not be applied to some in the 19th century, and he was not even Puritan-minded) and in moral character.

[Virginia, my dear, you may be the Librarian, but you need to hit the books. Your reading of Brown is only half correct. For you to write that John Brown the abolitionist “was not even Puritan-minded” and that he was not of “moral character” is simply reflective of your bias and ignorance. By all accounts, Brown was a strongly Christian and biblically-minded man with deep roots in the writings of the Puritan writers. Apart from his controversial counter-terrorist action in Kansas in 1856, no scholar has ever found Brown’s record to be anything less than squeaky clean as far as Puritan morals go. Your statement is unfounded and even ridiculous in light of the primary evidence. As far as the Kansas episode is concerned, perhaps you can add my biographies to your library and thereby obtain a fair and balanced view of this theme.]

Don Kistler, Puritan Board Freshman, Orlando, Fla.:

Technically speaking, a Puritan was a member of the Church of England who wanted to purify that church from its corruptions. And the time is pretty much limited to the late 1500's to the early-to-mid 1700's. John Brown, the abolitionist, could not meet those qualifications. Careless historians often confuse someone with Calvinistic leanings to be a Puritan. But we often refer to men like Edwards as Puritans, simply because we don't know where else to put them.

[Yes, Don, you have a point. But you may not realize that in the later 19th century, when many of the descendants of the Puritans of New England had become theologically liberal, they looked at John Brown, however warmly, as being too much a part of the theological tradition that they had jettisoned. You are correct that Brown was not a Puritan of the Puritan time period. But at least credit him for being a neo-Puritan. His heart and mind were strongly so inclined.]

Tim Vaughan, Presbyterian Church of America member currently attending The Evangelical Free Church in San Luis Obispo County, California:

. . . .Otto Scott has written the best bio of him called The Fool As Martyr. He had his own personal cult he built around his family and in laws. A notorious and ghoulish murderer, it was actually Robert E. Lee who in his youth led the bayonet charge that finally led to his removal from this earthly plane.

[Well, Tim, as Tripp soundly corrects you below, calling the work of Otto Scott as “the best bio” of John Brown is quite erroneous. You are obviously ignorant of the scholarly research and writing on Brown, as well as the historiography of Brown studies itself. Scott’s work is not even good secondary biographical material. To no surprise, he relied most heavily on anti-Brown biographers of an earlier era whose work has long been discredited, even by the ultra-conservative “godfather” of John Brown studies, Boyd B. Stutler. Your brief comment is almost purely comprised of baseless rhetoric (“personal cult,” “notorious and ghoulish murderer”) that reflects Scott’s malignant interpretation. Scott was an ally of The League of the South and a “hit-man” for “radical” Southern-based Calvinists who are seen as marginal fanatics by the mainstream of Reformed pastors and theologians today, particularly those who have linked Reformed orthodoxy with the political interests of the neo-Confederacy. Scott was a capable scholar and journalist, but he was an ideologue first, not a historian, and certainly was prejudiced in his work. If his bio was the first thing you’ve read on Brown, then unfortunately you started at the bottom. Incidentally, Robert E. Lee was not “in his youth” when he led the marines who stormed the engine house at Harper’s Ferry, defeating and capturing John Brown in 1859, which was about two years before he betrayed his government and joined the rebellion, leading its forces, ostensibly because he was a “state’s rights man,” and a noble man of conscience. The bottom line is that John Brown attacked slavery and by his own writings and intentions, we know that he had no intention of rebelling against the federal government except insofar as the issue of slavery was concerned. His constitution and plans declared himself and his followers as otherwise loyal to the federal government. Lee, the good Christian, thought so little of his nation as to lead myriads of rebel soldiers against his government. Yet Brown is a villain, and Lee is the perennial hero! By the way, Lee “lead” that bayonet charge as the presiding officer, but he did not lead the actual charge–the marine who lead the charge was killed by one of Brown’s raiders. Lee was afterward sent to “hold” Harper’s Ferry with a command of a few hundred soldiers due to the paranoia that swept pro-slavery leadership in the days following the Harper’s Ferry raid.]

Tripp Spangler [in response to Tim Vaughan, above]:

Wow, with all due respect Tim . . .Scott's biography of John Brown is not the best. Scott was very bias in his biography of Brown because his goal was to paint the abolitionist movement in a negative light. Most biographies of Brown tend to either be very pro-Brown or very anti-Brown. There isn’t much in-between when it comes to one’s opinion of John Brown. Scott was very anti-Brown and it showed in his work. I wouldn't recommend that biography to anyone because the author clearly had an ax to grind with Brown. The most neutral biography I have read on Brown was by Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood: Biography of John Brown. I believe Oates is about as neutral on the subject as one can get and that is the one I would recommend for one seeking a fair presentation of Brown. The current biography by Reynolds seems to be more in the pro-Brown category, but I have yet to finish the entire book.

[Yes, Tripp, there really isn’t much in-between when it comes to Brown; choosing sides is what John Brown studies is all about. Contrary to what some people think, he was neither complex nor deceptive. With Brown, you see what you get, and you get what you see. However, people invariably line up according to their preconceived notions of the man, and those notions have a lot more to do with slavery and racism than most realize. Strongly anti-slavery people have always been sympathetic toward Brown at the least. Of course, pacifist critics of Brown may be sympathetic, but they are ruled by their one abiding presupposition. Otherwise, I find that most people who dislike John Brown are decided and determined in their hatred, although most of them know very little about him and seem to have inherited a skewed sense of his role in history. The kind of vile blasting of words, for instance, coming from your correspondent Tim Vaughan reflect this kind of misinformed prejudice. Lots of people reason the same way because they have simply been misinformed, and because they deal in a problematic view of their own nation’s history. While such ignorance and bigotry is annoying and as common as curbside weeds, the worst violators of history are the smart, sniping writers like the late Otto Scott, whose ideology set him against any kind of liberation movement concerning black people. Naturally, Scott had to despise John Brown and tried very hard to undermine his legacy with a skillfully-wielded poison pen. Fortunately, Scott’s work will not increase posthumously, and will be circulated only among those who think like him. Brown scholars, from conservatives to socialists do not take his work seriously because it is fairly useless in light of all the in depth that we have been doing in recent years. As a John Brown scholar and author of two biographies of the man, I’ve never found Scott’s work of any value or substance and would not even work up a critique unless I really felt it necessary–I would rather concentrate my efforts on important and current works that are shaping and impacting the discourse on John Brown. Scott’s reading may be pleasing for the followers of Rushdoony and the neo-Confederates, but it has no value otherwise. In other words, John Brown’s–not Otto Scott’s--soul is marching on.]

Don Kistler:

Technically speaking, a Puritan was a member of the Church of England who wanted to purify that church from its corruptions. And the time is pretty much limited to the late 1500's to the early-to-mid 1700's. John Brown, the abolitionist, could not meet those qualifications. Careless historians often confuse someone with Calvinistic leanings to be a Puritan.

Tripp Spangler [in response to Kistler, above]:

Perhaps I misspoke. I believe the main argument that Reynolds is trying to make is that Puritan thought had a greater influence on men like John Brown and on the Civil War then we currently realize. Here is a quote from Reynolds:

Normally, Puritanism does not factor in histories of the Civil War. A wider held view is that Puritanism, far from stirring up warlike emotions, had by the nineteenth century softened into a benign faith in America's millennial promise. Supposedly, it buttressed mainstream culture values fostering consensus and conformity. For many in the Civil War era, however, Puritanism meant radical individualism and subversive social agitation. In 1863, the Democratic congressman Samuel Cox typically blamed the Civil War on disruptive New England reform movements that he said were rooted in Puritanism. He insisted that fanatical Abolitionism caused the war, and, in his words, "Abolition is the offspring of Puritanism.". . . Charles Chauncey Burr, another defender of the South, bewailed "this terrible Puritan war."
This is line of reasoning is very new for me. As many of you have said, I am well familiar with the Puritanism of the 16 & 17th century, and even its inroads into the early 18th century. However, Reynolds is claiming that Puritan thought had a huge role to play in the Abolitionist movement (also its leaders, i.e. John Brown) and the start of the Civil War. Indeed, he is claiming that this seemed to be recognized during the Civil War itself. He goes on to say that Brown saw himself as an American Cromwell, and that many after his death agreed with this view....because, as Reynolds claims, Brown could be seen "both as a bloodthirsty terrorist and as a saintly liberator," just like Cromwell. To me, this is a very interesting new claim that Reynolds is putting forth, if it is indeed new. However, like I said, I haven't came across this view before. Any more thoughts?

[Tripp, I have already noted above that I think Reynolds is using “Puritan” in a manner more cultural and “retro” than in the classic sense. The whole “American Cromwell” thing is pretty true. One of Brown’s favorite battle mottos was “Trust in God and keep your powder dry,” which is alleged to have been Cromwell’s words. Sanborn, Brown’s most indefatigable biographer and friend, really waved the Puritan flag over Brown’s legacy during and after his death, and this is what Reynolds is speaking of. But where Reynolds talks about “faith in America's millennial promise,” I think that’s flourish. The whole theme of millenialism and John Brown tends to get muddled by scholars in “American studies,” such as Reynolds, or John Stauffer (The Black Hearts of Men). Brown had no evident belief in “America’s millenial promise,” although he was a fairly conventional post-millenarian in keeping with the Reformed tradition.


Tim Vaughan [responds to Tripp Spangler]:

He was against racial slavery. He detailed the history of Brown, and it came out negative. You don't mutilate people to make political points and have an impartial historian make you come out like a hero. Lee considered it an honor to take the swine down, and he was right. Nothing to do with slavery, which Lee didn't approve of as I think you know.

[Tim, once more, Scott deliberately wrote his biography to slander Brown. It’s not like he started out on a fair-footing and found the evidence so negative that he had no choice but to condemn the abolitionist. You don’t assume that other scholars are “neutral” or “objective,” but you seem to naively accept that Scott’s reading is “impartial” and resulted from the facts. Keep it up and I’ll be writing a book in your honor called The Reader as Fool. Similarly, your point about Brown mutilating people “to make political points” is as stinky as Gen. Lee’s stockings. Brown led a group of men, sons and neighbors, in a preemptive strike of pro-slavery terrorists, who were the real swine in the Kansas story of 1856. The five men who were killed were terrorist collaborators and would happily have seen the Browns killed in their beds, except that the Browns got the upper hand. Keep in mind that this was a territory with no “law and order” to speak of, and certainly no protection for outspoken abolitionist (pro-black) settlers like the Browns. Frankly, I think the Pottawatomie killings were needful and the men who died at the Browns’ swords were low-life racists and criminals caught in a trap of their own making. Basically they deserved what they got and they got what they deserved. As for Gen. Lee, there is no record that he “considered it an honor” to take Brown down. To my knowledge we have no record of Lee’s sentiments regarding Brown. Lee himself proved to be the worst of traitors, because he was a good man who turned his abilities against his government, and did so–not for the freedom of human beings, but for the “dignity” of the Old Dominion in its conspiracy with other slave-powered states in the South. Lee is covered in flowers by historians and the North chose to placate the defeated white Southerner by allowing history to be revised in romanticizing the South and its plantation culture. But the reality is that Lee was at best a puppet of the rich slave master class that drove the poor Southern boys into a bloody and fruitless war. Either Robert E. Lee was a villain and an oppressor, or he was a good man and fool. Take your pick.

The bottom line is that if you were living in the 19th century, the question was to godly men, what will you do about a racist system that enslaves, steals labor and reduces human beings to property, including making black women the property of their white “masters”? John Brown, more than most, tried to do something. Perhaps you would be like most of your Calvinist predecessors, like General Lee, and stand by while this oppression took place, assuring yourself that the Bible sanctioned such criminality and that, “in time,” when “the slave was ready,” he would be freed by a noble and magnanimous white race. That sounds about your speed. Personally, I’ll take one John Brown over a truckload of your kind of “Calvinist.”]

Tripp Spangler [responds to Tim Vaughan]:

I never said that Scott wasn't against racial slavery. What I said was that it was clear Scott had an ax to grind with abolitionism and he CLEARLY was not impartial. Scott's biography painted Brown in a negative light...just like Richard Boyer's painted him in a very positive light. It all depends on how you approach Brown when writing about him, because there is enough there about Brown for you to go either way. For example, one can write that "Lee considered it an honor to take the swine down, and he was right." Or one could write, "Frederick Douglass considered John Brown to be one of the greatest men to ever live." It is all about perspective when it comes to John Brown. That is why I appreciate Oates' biography. He tried real hard to be neutral, unlike Scott.

[Tripp, I have to disagree with your closing points, although your illustration about Frederick Douglass was excellent. First, there really isn’t “enough there about Brown for you to go either way.” I totally disagree. The evidence in favor of Brown’s character, commitment, and goals far outweighs the criticisms of the man. After all, whose opinion would you trust more–Frederick Douglass or “Stonewall” Jackson? It’s not enough to study John Brown and draw “objective” conclusions. One must study the nature of slavery and the historical and political context of the nation in Brown’s time. Then one must certainly study the history of John Brown’s biography against the backdrop of U.S. history. When one does that, one will find that there is really not much debate about which side to take. In fact, the more time passes, the more John Brown continues to look better and better, and the more provincial, narrow-minded, and racialist do most of this nation’s “white” heroes. As a good friend of mine says, “John Brown is not a man of the past. He is a man of the future."  Robert E. Lee is a man of the past. He will remain “great” only as long as the myth of the noble Christian South is foisted upon us. Finally, as far as Oates is concerned, his work is undoubtedly the most important biography of the 20th century in terms of the research that he utilized. This is natural–as time passes, scattered resources are gathered, sources coalesce and are located by scholars. Oates had advantages that even Villard did not have in 1910. But as far as “neutrality,” Oates’ work is sometimes more sterile than objective. He under appreciates and deemphasizes the realities of slavery; he concludes that the Pottawatomie killings were led according to a “spell” that John Brown cast upon his men; and the only real “neutral” aspect of his work is that he neither praised nor bashed the man. But the best single work on John Brown is a little out-of-print work by the late Barrie Stavis called, John Brown: The Sword and the Word. I’d advise you to get a used copy if possible. Best wishes. Glad that a seminary student is reading about John Brown. Brown has a long line of clergy students and admirers.–LD]

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