"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 06, 2007

John Brown's Liberation Theology: How and Why He Left Markings in His Jail House Bible

In the last days of his life, John Brown--a prisoner awaiting his execution in CharlesTown, Virginia (today, West Virginia)--was absorbed with the reading of the Bible. While this was nothing new for Brown, it is not clear whether the particular Bible he had on hand was one that he brought with him during the raid on Harper's Ferry (Oct. 1859), or if he acquired it during his imprisonment. His failure and defeat at Harper’s Ferry are well known matters of historical record, culminating in his arrest, conviction, and execution on December 2, 1859. In contrast, few know about his jailhouse Bible. (Oswald G. Villard made note of it in the notes of his 1910 biography, but subsequently historians have overlooked it, being generally disinterested in the relevance of Brown’s religious life.) It seems more likely the Bible was given to him by his captors in fulfillment of a request, for if he did not have a Bible in jail, then most certainly he would have asked for one from his jailer.

John Brown’s jailhouse Bible was the standard English version at the time for Protestants (and for many years to come)--the Authorized, or King James Version of 1611. Brown's Bible was printed by the American Bible Society of New York, and measures 6 by 4 inches, and has a brown leather cover. The chapter numbers are set off by Roman numerals and the verses by Arabic numbers.

Those who observed or visited John Brown in jail could not help but see his devotion to reading the Bible. His guards, the jailor's staff, his physicians and other attendants, and even curious onlookers inevitably would have seen Brown poring over the pages of his King James Bible. Like all evangelical Christians, he believed (as he put it in his 1857 autobiographical sketch) in “the divine authenticity of the Bible.” In contemporary terms, we would say that Brown believed that the Bible was divinely-inspired in its writing by the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit. A Calvinist, Brown believed in the great themes of the Protestant Reformation–sola fide (by faith alone) and sola scriptura (by scripture alone). Indeed, he ate, slept, and drank the Bible, so to speak, and in his last will and testament, he even set aside the little money he had acquired for the purchase of Bibles for his children and grandchildren. When he left home to return to the troubled Kansas territory in 1857, Brown had similarly left an inscribed Bible for his young daughter Ellen, writing:
This Bible presented to my dearly Beloved Daughter, Ellen Brown is not intended for common use; but to be carefully preserved for her and by her in remembrance of her father (of whose care and attentions she was deprived in her infancy, he being absent in the territory of Kansas, from the summer of 1855.

May the Holy Spirit of God incline your heart in earliest infancy to receive the truth in the love of it; and to govern your thoughts, words, and actions by its wise and holy precepts is my best wish and most earnest prayer to Him in whose care I leave you. Amen

From your affectionate Father,

John Brown
April 2, 1857.
In a similar manner–shortly before his execution--Brown thus inscribed some thoughts and signed his jailhouse Bible, making a gift of it to John Frederick Blessing, a baker and confectioner. Blessing had ministered to the needs and tastes of Brown and the other Harper's Ferry raiders awaiting execution in the Charles Town jail and became friendly with the old man throughout his several weeks of imprisonment. Brown so inscribed the flyleaf:
John F Blessing Esq of Charlestown Va. with the best wishes of the undersigned and his sincere thanks for many acts of kindness, received. There is no commentary in the world so good in order to a right understanding of this blessed book as an honest Childlike and teachable Spirit. John Brown, Charlestown, 29th Nov 1859.
Blessing kept John Brown's Bible in his family for many years, but it was later sold to a collector in Chicago, whose materials on Brown ended up in the Chicago Historical Museum, where the Bible is located today.

--- --- ---

Prisoner Brown not only read the Bible constantly, but he marked its pages in several different ways, although no margin notes of any kind appear throughout this Bible. Throughout the Bible, at certain precise points, Brown deliberately folded page corners (dog-eared) to mark a text. More often, he drew ink lines along larger sections of text, or enclosed individual verses in ink lines shaped like parentheses. Apparently, when he read a section that he wished to underscore or mark, he must have first bent the page corners. Usually, chapters with dog-eared pages are also marked at points with ink lines, but not always. For instance, Brown bent the page corners in the epistles of Paul to the Romans, chapter 11, and Galatians, chapter 6, but made no marks in ink.

By my counting, there are about 35 dog-eared pages, with nine only from the New Testament. The overwhelming majority of ink marks and dog-eared markings are in the Old Testament. The Old Testament books John Brown preferred in this case were: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Judges, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel--of which Judges, at chapter 12, and Psalms, at Psalm 42, are marked only by dog-eared pages. The New Testament books marked are Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, Galatians, I & II John, and Revelation. In fact, only passages in Matthew and Revelation are marked with ink lines.

The markings may seem inexact on occasion, but for the most part the verses are clearly set off by Brown's ink marks. There are also periodic ink spots throughout the text that suggest that as Brown was reading he rested his pen point on the pages. These may also constitute markings too, but more likely reveal a habit that Brown exhibited while reading through the Bible.

While Brown’s reasons for marking and bequeathing the Bible were clearly spiritual, his intention was probably also to provide a spiritual witness and justification for his attack on Harper's Ferry. That Brown's passage marks ended up being noted in the New York Illustrated News eight days after his death would have pleased him. This may have been what he actually hoped would happen--that his markings, like his words, would posthumously present his case and stand as a witness on his behalf, and on behalf of the sacred cause of anti-slavery. On the flyleaf opposite Brown's dedication, he seems to have written of himself in the third person, adding: "These leaves are turned down & marked by him while in prison at Charlestown, Va. But a small part of those passages which in the most positive language condemn Oppression & violence are marked."

John Brown knew that he had won a high level of celebrity during his imprisonment, at least in the North. But he also apparently intended that his Bible speak for him after his death, and that by guiding the curious observer across the pages of his Bible, his ink line notes and dog-eared pages would serve as a kind of spiritual autobiography and apologetic.

By emphasizing verses that "condemn Oppression & violence," Brown was hardly presenting the whole scope of his interests or beliefs as a Christian. The Bible's pages are curiously lacking in markings pertaining to matters that were of equal importance to him, such as the doctrines of divine election and predestination, the divinity of Jesus Christ, and other essentials of his Reformed faith. The Bible Brown passes into Blessing is itself a message to the world should they have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is John Brown's theology of liberation, just as it is a rejoinder to the Christianity of his critics in the North and South.

Below are the citations–book, chapter, and verse--that follow the ink line markings of John Brown's 1854 edition of the Bible. A careful study of these verses will provide a sense of how John Brown read the Bible, at least as it pertained to his struggle against slavery. However, they will also provide a means to shape our understanding of him, both explicitly and implicitly. Of course these are biblical texts, first and foremost. But they also serve as a kind of reflection of John Brown. Just as Thomas Jefferson's textual excisions of the supernatural from the New Testament gospels tell us something of his religious and moral character, John Brown's biblical markings tell us about his religious and moral conviction and character. Indeed, they may very well prove to provide a unique and brilliantly crafted self-portrait--a self-portrait that Brown certainly intended as part of his legacy.–Louis A. DeCaro, Jr.


5:19-6:13; 6:1-13; 15:13-14; 18:13-14; 41:11-13; 42:21-22; 50:15-21

1:9-22; 2:11-15; 3:6-9, 16-18, 22; 4:24-28; 5:13-23; 6:4; 9:4-5; 15:1-13; 18:9-11; 21:2-11, 15-16, 26-28; 22:21-24; 23:1-9

19:13, 15, 18, 34-37; 25:8-17, 30-55; 26:35-37

1:17; 9:17-19; 15:12-19; 16:11-14, 18-20; 21:10-14; 24:7, 14-15, 22; 26:6-10

24:17-19; 29:12-14; 31:7-8, 13-16; 31:38-32:5; 32:1-5

14:20-21, 31; 22:16; 22:22-23

1:1-4; 3:16-18; 4:1-2; 5:8; 7:7

1:2, 16-20, 23; ; 4:1-6; 9:13-17; 33:15; 40:7-8; 42:7; 49:14-16, 24-26; 52:5; 54:14; 56:1; 58:3-8; 59:3-10, 13-16

2:7-8, 34-35; 2:34-35; 5:13, 25-31; 6:13-17; 7:1-9; 7:24-30; 9:1-9; 10:17-21; 22:1-4

7:1-27; 8:12-18; 18:1-32


9:13; 12:7; 21:37-38; 23:14, 23, 29-34; 25:44-46


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