John Brown and Well-Adjusted Folks
"'Normal people don't produce social change,' said Steven Mintz, a historian at Columbia University and an expert on pre-Civil War reformers. 'Well-adjusted people who see trade-offs in life, they don't make social change happen. It's often people like Brown.'" *I just came upon this quote in an article from 2009, the year of the Harper's Ferry raid sesquicentennial. It is a tell-tale remark, especially coming from an academic expert who teaches at one of the foremost universities in the world. The expert, Steven Mintz, presumes to know something about John Brown, although I doubt he has done any in depth biographical work along the lines of primary research. Early on in the development of this blog, I recall objecting to something else that Mintz wrote, so this quote does not surprise me. More to the point, remarks like this one not only betray ignorance of John Brown from a biographical standpoint, but they also suggest a kind of racialist perspective.
First, John Brown was never considered to be anything less than well-adjusted and normal among his friends, countrymen, and family. Throughout his life, he lived a very "normal" life. Except for his passionate hatred of slavery, Brown conducted himself as a good neighbor, community leader, sincere businessman, and humanitarian Christian by all accounts. He was hard-headed and sometimes imperious, but we all know "normal" people with such traits, and maybe such people ourselves. It amazes me that Mintz flips this notion in order to insinuate that Brown was mentally or socially unstable.
Secondly, the mentality that Mintz himself betrays is racialist because he is more than insinuating that as a "white" man, John Brown's strong and passionate hatred of slavery meant that he was not well-adjusted or socially (possibly mentally) stable. Mintz seems to be saying that only an abnormal, unstable, and poorly adjusted man would concern himself with black freedom during the 19th century (or possibly any century)--which means only an unstable "white" man would be so concerned. Now I doubt that Mintz would say that Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, or a host of other black abolitionists were similarly afflicted. But, I suppose, Mintz believes they were normal because, as black people, they were supposed to fight slavery. On the other hand, "white" people are not supposed to break with the status quo or experience a depth of concern for injustice when it afflicts non-whites. I doubt that Mintz would say that the so-called Founding Fathers and "Patriots" of 1776 were not well-adjusted, even though they were as consumed for white people's independence as John Brown was for black people's freedom. Mintz's judgment really does reflect a rationale rooted in racialism, if not in racism. It reveals more about the historian's world view than it does about Brown the man who lived.
Thirdly, "ivory tower" scholars like Mintz often are not just guilty of reasoning from embedded racialist thinking, but also they may be guilty of a kind of prejudice as far as religion is concerned. In this age when many academics are quite alien to any kind of traditional orthodoxy--especially evangelical faith, often it is difficult for them to understand the Christian conception and experience of divine Providence and vocation, things that used to be broadly understood and believed when this society was predominately Christian in its cultural moorings. Not only do many academics stumble over Brown's evangelicalism, they typically misconstrue and distort Calvinism which even the rank-and-file evangelicals today do not understand. Worse, secular/liberal (for lack of a better term) scholars, writers, journalists, and others simply do not understand how well-adjusted people might feel compelled by a sense of calling or vocation toward a purpose in life vis-a-vis faith. In the 19th century, this was not unusual: many abolitionists were convinced of a similar divine calling upon their lives--if not to fight slavery or promote justice on other fields, then perhaps toward pastoral ministry or the work of foreign missions. When Brown shared his belief that God had called him to devote his life to fighting slavery, people in his era were not alienated or mystified by such a belief. Nor would they conclude automatically that such a man was unstable or poorly adjusted.
The problem is that 150 years later, many academics have become either actual or practical atheists, who think that all of human life and activity can be explained by social science. They do not understand the ways of the human spirit, let alone the possibility that humans may be guided or compelled by a hand unseen. Nor can they account for the fact that many people throughout history have felt experiential and existential burdens, and that they have been moved out of their comfort zones into fields of danger and self-sacrifice for the sake of others. One may admire Angelina Jolie's social consciousness and willingness to move beyond Hollywood to speak for the helpless in other societies. But celebrities like Jolie are only shadows of a whole century past of Christian advocates, many of whom gave their lives up for the sake of the poor and oppressed. Anyone who reads John Brown's letters to his family over his adult years knows that he was a well-adjusted, loving, and caring husband and father. Brown weighed the cost of living and dying for slavery, as did his whole family. They did so as Christians who believed that the road that leads to destruction often is also full of "normal" people--self-satisfied devotees of the status quo.
Of course, from John Brown's standpoint, it was the rest of the world that was abnormal. It was white society that was not well-adjusted before the divine judgment, since they were willing to cling to the "trade-offs" of white supremacy rather than fight injustice for black people. Such men and women often die alone, and if they are not branded as "abnormal" by professional experts like Steven Mintz, the meaning of their lives is revised and rewritten in a manner to guard the status quo from facing its own guilt. As for those, like John Brown, whose legacies defy revision, they are simply labeled as having been maladjusted.
* See Dennis B. Roddy, "John Brown's Legacy Divides," Pittsburgh Post Gazette (18 Oct. 2009).