"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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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Osawatomie Notebook: John Brown's Practical Theology
Grady Atwater is the administrator of the John Brown State Historic Site in Osawatomie, Kansas

John Brown and his family believed in the equality of all people in the eyes of God, and therefore viewed African-Americans as equals to European-Americans.

Brown practiced what he preached, as evidenced by a report from the novelist Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in the July 1871 issue of Atlantic Monthly. Dana and a group of men had been out hiking in the Adirondack Mountains in the summer of 1849 and had gotten lost. They emerged from the woods and found themselves at Brown’s farm at North Elba, N.Y. Brown welcomed Dana and his party into his home, where Dana found Brown’s racial egalitarianism surprising.
John Brown in his forties, around
the time he met Dana and his 
companions in North Elba.

Dana described his first impression of Brown’s home: “Three more worn, wearied, hungry, black-fly-bitten travelers seldom came to this humble, hospitable door. The people received us with cheerful sympathy, and, while we lay down on the grass under the shadow of the house, where a smutch kept off the black flies, prepared something for our comfort.”

Mary Day Brown, Brown’s second wife, took care of the hiking party. “She would not let us eat much at a time,” Dana reported, “and cut us off resolutely from the quantities of milk and cool water we were disposed to drink, and persuaded us to wait until something could be cooked for us, more safe and wholesome for faint stomachs; and we were just weak enough to be submissive subjects to this backwoods queen.”

Dana observed that John Brown was aiding former slaves and free African-Americans to establish new homes in the Adirondacks on land donated by Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist. Dana reported that a Mr. Aikens, their guide, “told us that the country here belonged to Gerrit Smith; that Negro families, mostly fugitive slaves, were largely settled upon it, trying to learn farming; and that this Mr. Brown was a strong abolitionist and a kind of king among them.”

John Brown proved that he put shoe leather into his beliefs at supper.
As a prisoner of the state of Virginia in 1859, Brown would
not allow pro-slavery clergymen to pray with him because of his
firm conviction regarding the injustice of chattel slavery.

“We were all ranged at a long table, some dozen of us more or less, and these two Negroes and one other had their places with us,” Dana wrote. “Mr. Brown said a solemn grace. I observed that he called the Negroes by their surnames, with the prefixes of Mr. and Mrs. The man was ‘Mr. Jefferson,’ and the woman was ‘Mrs. Wait.’ It was plain that they had not been so treated or spoken to often before, perhaps never until that day, for they had all of the awkwardness of field hands on a plantation, and what to do on the introduction was quite beyond their experience.”

John Brown believed in the equality of all people in the eyes of God and acted on that belief. He regarded African-Americans as equals and acted on that belief —  making him a radical in a time when racism was the norm in American society.

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