On December 2, 1859, the Christian abolitionist John Brown was hanged in Charlestown, Virginia (now West Virginia) after being convicted in what certainly was a slave holders court. After a failed attempt to initiate a liberation movement at Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859, Brown was tried and found guilty on November 1, spending the last month of his life in a little jail cell receiving curious visitors and scrawling letters to family, associates, and admiring strangers. Henry Wise, the Governor of Virginia, lamented that Brown was not summarily executed upon capture—perhaps prescient of the problems he would pose as a prisoner of the state.
Indeed, in the several weeks of his captivity, the old Calvinist excited the nation—the South now pushed to outrage, and the North awakened to a growing admiration for Brown as reports of his words and conduct reached the press. In fact, John Brown shortly became the “celebrity of the day,” perhaps even the most famous figure of the antebellum era. While he sat in his jail cell as serenely as a monk, major dailies published wired reports covering even the slightest incidents taking place in quaint little Charlestown, including the reports about John Brown that were smuggled out by a brave reporter working clandestinely for the antislavery New York Tribune. Otherwise, the only reporters permitted in town either were Southerners or Northern journalists from proslavery papers like The New York Herald. Across the North, Sunday sermons often included discourses on the old man—either in praise or condemnation of his audacious attempt to undermine black enslavement in the South.
Brown himself was sufficiently aware of the impact that his imprisonment and impending execution were having upon the nation, and he was pleased—sometimes quoting from Psalm 71, “Now also when I am old and gray-headed, O God, forsake me not; until I have shewed thy strength unto this generation, and thy power to everyone that is to come.” Although he regretted delaying so long in Harper’s Ferry that he was captured, he wrote, nevertheless he greeted his coming execution as his greatest opportunity to witness for Christ. As a willing martyr for the antislavery cause, Brown’s reported testimony in court and his jailhouse letters—a good many of which appeared almost immediately in newspapers across the North—revealed him as a man of great religious conviction, one whose devotion was an expression of Christian necessity and evangelical duty. He renounced even friendly efforts to have his sentence commuted in the name of insanity, although most of them declared him a “monomaniac,” which by today’s standards means he was distastefully extreme in his antislavery devotion as far as white people were concerned. Even his jailer could not deny him a certain admiration—and it was not unusual for him to bring his little son into the jail cell to play and frolic at the old man’s feet—Brown sometimes pausing as he played with the child to tell reporters that children just naturally took to him.
As a Christian historian and biographer who has studied John Brown for nearly twenty years, often I find that the man whom I have come to know in my research is starkly different from the figure that is popularly represented either as a terrorist or as mentally unstable. However, it is not simply that Brown’s story is frequently skewed and biased by agenda-driven biographers and writers, but that his profile as a deeply religious man either is overlooked in the history of Christianity in the United States, or he is characterized by secular writers as a dangerous religious fanatic—“a bearded fundamentalist,” as one journalist referred to him in a New York Times piece that compared “9/11” with the Harper’s Ferry raid of 1859.
It is true that John Brown was extreme both in his antislavery convictions as well as his belief in human equality—although historians are beginning to appreciate that such extremism is quite virtuous compared to the pervasive, blatant racism of that era. It almost goes without saying, too, that Brown may seem far more appealing considering that we have a President in the White House who soft-pedals white supremacists and greets Native American veterans quite condescendingly in front of a portrait of the white supremacist President Andrew Jackson. Indeed, the more that white Christians develop an anti-racist consciousness, the more they may yet need to find inspiration and instruction in a white believer who exemplified an absolute commitment to racial justice and equality.
It is also true that in 1856, Brown resorted to violence amidst crisis, although typically the backstory of “Bleeding Kansas” is skewed to his disadvantage by a selective reading of the record. As a devout Christian, nevertheless he was a soldier who adopted wartime measures when his family faced an imminent threat from proslavery terrorists. Without recourse to protection either by federal or local law enforcement, John Brown took up the sword to eliminate the threat. But when one of his sons was later murdered, he refused an opportunity for revenge, telling his associate, “People mistake my objects. I would not hurt one hair of his head. I would not go one inch to take his life; I do not harbor the feeling of revenge. I act from a principle. My aim and object is to restore human rights.”
On December 2, 1859, John Brown was driven in a wagon to an open field, seated on the wooden crate that held his coffin. With proslavery dignitaries and journalists watching amidst ample militia, he stood on the gallows—a small cannon fixed on him just in case of an attempted escape or rescue. Despite his limbs being tied, he guided the sheriff to a pin in his lapel, with which to fasten the hood over his head because of the strong breeze swirling around them. Journalists watched closely, hoping to see the old man tremble as he stood on the trapdoor of eternity. Instead, John Brown stood firm on the gallows until falling, his body turning in the wind as he slowly strangled to death to satisfy the wounded honor of Virginia:
Over the years I have quietly pondered the parallel of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Brown. Both men were devoted Christians committed to Scripture; both men chose to set aside their own privilege to oppose terrible injustice; both saw the necessity of measured violence in opposing oppression; both failed and were hanged; and both left a witness that has been notable in history. Yet whereas Dietrich Bonhoeffer is beloved and celebrated by many Christians in the United States, John Brown is either despised or contemptuously marginalized in both the history of his country and the history of the Christian church. This is no wonder, however, since obviously it is much easier for Christians in the United States to renounce Nazis than their own slaveholding forefathers.
I do not expect things to change in regard to the old man. It is unlikely that John Brown will ever be celebrated let alone appreciated by Christians in any significant manner. The old man himself called the United States a “slave nation,” and we have yet to come to terms with the depth of his words. Still, I am content:
His soul goes marching on.
His soul goes marching on.