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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, December 19, 2008

Dear Norman,

This is just a short note to thank you so much for your powerful presentation of "John Brown and the Trumpet of Freedom" at the teacherʼs seminar that we taught at Yale University last July. It was not only greatly entertaining, it was also a major educational resource for the seminar. You are a fine actor, and your knowledge and extensive understanding of your subject are particularly striking and greatly informative.

During the discussions in the days following your performance, the teachers made clear their great appreciation for the insights you provided on John Brown and his critical role in American history. They were certain that yours was a significant contribution to their teaching, satisfying much of their curiosity related to Brownʼs philosophy and the broad impact of his actions in the years leading to the Civil War. We thank you so much for your valuable contribution to our seminar.

Yours truly and gratefully,

Jim and Lois Horton

James O. Horton
Benjamin Banneker Professor Emeritus of American Studies and History,
George Washington University

Lois E. Horton
Professor of History Emerita
George Mason University


As we approach the sesquicentennial of the Harpers Ferry raid and the Civil War it ignited, John Brown’s central place in American history is becoming increasingly recognized. Bestselling books such as Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter and David Reynolds’ John Brown, Abolitionist have offered readers valuable verbal portraits of the fiery abolitionist, but John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom brings him to life in flesh and blood. Beyond mere acting, Marshall’s portrayal is something closer to possession. Harrowing, inspiring, and surprisingly humorous, this is a show that must not be missed.

Robert P. Forbes, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History and American Studies
University of Connecticut – Torrington

As a historian who has done extensive research on John Brown, I found the portrayal [of "John Brown: Trumpet of Freedom"] deeply moving and extraordinarily accurate. In fact, Mr. Marshall can be said to channel the spirit of John Brown in his performance.

The play begins with focus on a noose -- the instrument of Brown's death -- and Mr. Marshall singing as he strides onto the stage. It is extremely arresting. The body of the play is a monologue on Brown's evolution from antislavery partisan to an abolitionist warrior-prophet. He does not shy away from Brown's deeds, but explains them contextually and morally. Marshall's Brown apologizes for nothing, and lays out precisely why the traditional tactics of the abolitionist movement (prayer, moral suasion) were inadequate for eradicating slavery.

I also had the pleasure of "introducing" Mr. Marshall as John Brown in Topeka, Kansas. I can't speak for Mr. Marshall, but for me the experience (taking place in Kansas and in the week before a world-premiere of an opera about Brown) was extremely memorable. I cannot think of a better subject or participant for a tour of our nation's historically black colleges during the sesquicentennial of Brown's Harpers Ferry raid than Mr. Marshall's excellent show.

Jonathan Earl, author of John Brown's Raid: A Brief History With Documents

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Henry Louis Gates Jr. Recalls Frederick Douglass & John Brown's Favorite Hymn at Obama's Victory

"A new dawn of American leadership is at hand." - President-elect Barack Obama

We have all heard stories about those few magical transformative moments in African-American history, extraordinary ritual occasions through which the geographically and socially diverse black community - a nation within a nation, really - moulds itself into one united body, determined to achieve one great social purpose and to bear witness to the process by which this grand achievement occurs.

The first time was New Year's Day in 1863, when tens of thousands of black people huddled together all over the North waiting to see if Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. . . . On that first transformative day, when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Frederick Douglass, the greatest black orator in our history before Martin Luther King Jr., said that the day was not a day for speeches and "scarcely a day for prose." Rather, he noted, "it is a day for poetry and song, a new song." Over 3,000 people, black and white abolitionists together, waited for the news all day in Tremont Temple, a Baptist church a block from Boston Common. When a messenger burst in, after 11 p.m., and shouted, "It is coming! It is on the wires," the church went mad; Douglass recalled that "I never saw enthusiasm before. I never saw joy." And then he spontaneously led the crowd in singing "Blow Ye the Trumpet, Blow," John Brown's favourite hymn:

Blow ye the trumpet, blow!
The gladly solemn sound
Let all the nations know,
To earth's remotest bound:
The year of jubilee is come!
The year of jubilee is come!
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home.

At that moment, an entire race, one that in 1863 in the United States comprised 4.4 million souls, became a unified people, breathing with one heart, speaking with one voice, united in mind and spirit, all their aspirations concentrated into a laser beam of almost blind hope and desperate anticipation.

It is astounding to think that many of us today - myself included - can remember when it was a huge deal for a black man or woman to enter the White House through the front door, and not through the servants' entrance. From Frederick Douglass, who visited Lincoln three times during his presidency (and every president thereafter until his death in 1895), to Booker T. Washington, each prominent black visitor to the White House caused people to celebrate another "victory for the race" . . . . Visiting the White House is one thing; occupying the White House is quite another. And yet, African-American aspirations to the White House date back generations.

. . . . I wish we could say that Barack Obama's election will magically reduce the numbers of teenage pregnancies or the level of drug addiction in the black community. I wish we could say that what happened last night will suddenly make black children learn to read and write as if their lives depended on it, and that their high school completion rates will become the best in the country. I wish we could say that these things are about to happen, but I doubt that they will.

But there is one thing we can proclaim today, without question: that the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States of America means that "The Ultimate Color Line" . . . has, at long last, been crossed. It has been crossed by our very first postmodern Race Man, a man who embraces his African cultural and genetic heritage so securely that he can transcend it, becoming the candidate of choice to tens of millions of Americans who do not look like him.


Excerpted from Henry Louis Gates Jr., "Barack Obama's victory shows America has crossed the colour line," Telegraph [U.K.], Nov. 6, 2008.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

David Letterman's Historical Footnote

I almost missed it, but John Brown's own great-great-great-granddaughter sent out an email mentioning that she had heard David Letterman mention her famous ancestor during his monologue. As it turns out, not only was she correct, but it happened that Mr. Letterman referred to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry on the 149th anniversary of that epic event, October 16. During the monologue of his popular Late Show, Mr. Letterman made this joke:
It was interesting last night during the debate at one point, John McCain brings up Barack Obama's relationship with '60s radical William Ayres; and then, Barack Obama brings up McCain's relationship with John Brown at Harper's Ferry. . . I thought, 'wow!'" [mild applause]
Obviously the joke was intended to target Sen. McCain's advanced age as a presidential candidate. Nor is the Brown-Ayres comparison sound in historical and political terms. (Although I am always hesitant to accept what the media or politicians tell me about a "radical.") We will never know what Brown would think of Prof. Ayres, given the differences between them in time, presupposition, and political context. It has always been the inclination of "radicals" to identify themselves with Brown when they take unpopular and extreme measures, undoubtedly because his strong integrity and moral heroism remain undeniable in our national memory despite the empty rhetoric of prejudiced critics. As for Prof. Ayres, I would not use this blog either to condemn or praise him in the context of John Brown. He must answer for his actions before history and ultimately before the Judge of all the earth, Who is certainly neither "radical," conservative, nor liberal.

Regardless, Mr. Letterman's monologue joke had a certain historical resonance that most of his viewers probably missed. Whether intentionally or not, the joke marked the event--reminding us that even in jest, John Brown's action in opposition to tyranny and injustice cannot be forgotten by this nation. Even when overlooked by "serious" thinkers amidst a presidential race, Brown's work inevitably wafted up with the stirring breeze of a yet another cool October evening. What Mr. Letterman himself knows or thinks of Brown is unclear, but his humorous little footnote about Harper's Ferry was not missed--at least by Brown's direct descendant. Without obvious intention, the Late Show host invoked this nation's most controversial "good guy" on the very anniversary of his effort to overthrow slavery.

Whether or not you believe it, John Brown's soul is marching on.

Update on John Hendrix's forthcoming JOHN BROWN: THE OATH OF FREEDOM

I met John and Andrea Hendrix in the early 2000's while they were living in the New York City area. To my great blessing as a pastor, the Hendrixes joined my congregation in Jersey City, N.J. When I heard that they had lived in Lawrence, Kansas, I raised the subject of John Brown, only to discover that John had some interest in the abolitionist and had done illustration work on Brown-related matter. Perhaps I can take some small credit for "watering" John's growing interest in Brown during those years of happy association, but his own independent and inquiring approach to the subject was immediately evident--reading expansively on Brown and developing his own ideas as a student of history. Apart from the fact that John and Andrea were the kind of parishioners that every pastor would hope to have in his congregation, I was excited to see John pursue this interest through the amazing medium of his illustration work (he also produced some amazing sketches during my sermons, as I recall, something I prefer to take as a great compliment). There are a number of illustrated young people's books on Brown in publication, but I am certain that the forthcoming John Brown: The Oath of Freedom is going to be the best, both in narrative and certainly in illustration.

John has recently provided an update on the forthcoming work in progress on his blog, "Drawing on Deadline," and the reader is encouraged to visit both his blog and website (his website is included in the right column under recommended sites). On October 15, he wrote:
Part of my absence from regular blog entries over the last three months has been due to my current labor of love, the children's book, John Brown: The Oath of Freedom. In celebration of the 149th anniversary of Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry (tomorrow actually), here's a preview of two interior spreads. Now, back to work--today I'm drawing Frederick Douglass!
I have taken the liberty of copying the two images he has posted for his readers. By the way, no illustrator has done such extensive, excellent portrayals of the clean-shaven Brown, such as the excellent one above, showing Brown in the work of "smuggling" an enslaved person to freedom. Brown his siblings, his father and uncles were deeply involved with the underground railroad and aiding escaping victims of slavery throughout their lives. (One such reminiscence of Brown in action is that used a wagon loaded with furniture to disguise his liberation efforts.)

The second illustration posted is downright brilliant: a "living"map of the troubled Kansas territory of the 1850s, including an elevated Missouri, the pro-slavery state that played the primary role in creating havoc and bloodshed in the Kansas territory); images of invading terrorists and "Bleeding Kansas"; and a larger pen-in-hand sketching the border between the Kansas and Nebraska territories. We assume that this hand represents the federal government's determination to create two territories, presuming that one would serve the cause of slavery and the other the cause of free state citizens. Notwithstanding this assumption, the territories were open to "popular sovereignty," meaning that the standing of each territory was not pre-determined regarding slavery. Settlers were to decide according to the ballot. In fact, free state settlers from across the north far outnumbered the pro-slavery settlers in Kansas; but the militancy and lust of the pro-slavery leadership, their politicians, and racist "ruffians" poured fire upon Kansas that nearly consumed the territory. Free state settlers tended to respond passively and naively to terrorism, many of them believing that the federal government would stand behind the ballot system. In fact, the federal government was heavily infused with pro-slavery influence and did little or nothing to protect free state settlers. It was only when men like Brown and Montgomery fought fire with fire that the federal government rose to some level of leadership. Even then, pro-slavery forces did not easily relent despite the far greater number of free state settlers. It should be added that John Brown himself did not go to Kansas to settle. His adult children settled there, hoping to find lives of prosperity and success in the new territory. But Brown himself preferred working on his own liberation efforts in the east, and wanted to stay in his beloved Adirondack region of New York. It was only because of the outrageous terrorism and increasingly threatened his own family's well-being that he loaded up a wagon with guns in the and made his way to the territory, arriving there in the fall of 1855. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. The problem is that too few people are willing to look at the John Brown episode in Kansas in connection with that history. They simply want to call him a terrorist, as if things in Kansas were stable and fair when Brown drew the sword.

It may be that John Hendrix, as an illustrator and story-teller, will do far more to advance the integrity of Brown's story than many biographers and scholars have done. If we could have a filmmaker who is similarly as devoted to the facts and skilled in their work, we could overthrow the wicked legacy of Santa Fe Trail once and for all. Like Brown, who was himself a perpetual optimist, we look forward to more positive portrayals of his life and work. We all wish John Hendrix great success in the completion and publication of John Brown: The Oath of Freedom.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Abolition Hall to Honor 4

Commemoration weekend to remember John Brown, others who fought slavery

Today [October 16] marks the 149th anniversary of the raid on Harpers Ferry.

On that fateful day in 1859, abolitionist John Brown led a group of 22 men in an attack intended to initiate a slave uprising in the South. Though the uprising was quickly squelched and Brown hanged for treason, the event was a contributing factor to the start of the Civil War.

For Alice Keesey Mecoy, the story of Harpers Ferry isn't just some obscure piece of history. It's a part of family lore.

Mecoy, of Allen, Texas, is John Brown's great-great-great-granddaughter, and next week she will be in Central New York for the National Abolition Hall of Fame's second biennial induction commemoration.

The event takes place on Oct. 24, 25 and 26 in Morrisville and Peterboro.

Brown and abolitionists Lydia Maria Child, Wendell Phillips and Sojourner Truth were 2007 Hall of Fame inductees. They will be honored during the commemoration ceremony, which Mecoy wouldn't miss.

"It's important to me to have someone represent (Brown) there," Mecoy said. "It's very important to me that it be broadcast he wasn't a lunatic. There are people that thought he was. There are others that thought maybe his violence was an answer to the times. He truly thought all people should be created equal. He was quite ahead of his time."

Why should Madison County residents care about John Brown? Besides his role in the abolition movement, Brown also had some important local ties, including a powerful friend in Gerrit Smith.

Smith, a wealthy antislavery philanthropist who resided in Peterboro, was one of the so-
called "Secret Six," a team of men who bankrolled Brown's militant-style abolitionist efforts. Though Smith preferred peaceful nonresistance, he supported Brown's efforts, knowing that violence might ultimately be necessary in the fight against slavery.

Unfortunately, he was right.

"Harpers Ferry was a kind of inevitable evolution of the development of the abolition movement," said Milton Sernett, a member of the National Abolition Hall of Fame's governing body. "Change came not at the free will of the slaveholders but at the point of the sword. That was a kind of development born of the failure of all other means."

Sernett, a Syracuse University professor emeritus, will provide the commemoration's keynote address on Oct. 25. His presentation, "To Make the World Anew: The Transformation of Upstate New York's 'Burned-Over District' into 'North Star Country,' " is billed as "a program of projected images."

According to Dot Willsey, president of the Cabinet of Freedom the Hall of Fame's governing body all of the commemoration activities are designed with one primary purpose.

"To educate the public so they understand the importance Central New York had in the national reform movement in the early 19th century and understand that what the abolitionists began in the 19th century is not yet completed," Willsey said. "We still have racial discrimination and the abolitionist movement must continue."

Above all, Willsey said, she hopes the efforts of the National Abolition Hall of Fame and its future museum convey to people some sense of 19th century reality.

"Our forefathers were fighting for their liberty, risking their lives and incomes for the freedom of another group of people," she said. "Without it, these changes wouldn't have occurred. The Underground Railroad has been romanticized. We've been led to believe everyone helped. But people died, had their houses burned down with them in it. There are too many people who leave the history in the 19th century. They don't understand we're not there yet."

The National Abolition Hall of Fame's first round of inductees was announced in 2005 and the second was announced in 2007. According to Willsey, the two-year time span between selection and commemoration is intentional.

"We don't want to be a warehouse of abolitionist names," she said. "We want to educate the public about these overlooked people in our history."

Next weekend's full roster of activities, held at Morrisville College Oct. 24 and 25 and in Peterboro on Oct. 26, will allow Willsey, Sernett and the other members of the Cabinet of Freedom to do just that.

A concert featuring abolition songs and narrative will be held the evening of Oct. 24 and a symposia on the 2007 inductees will take place in the afternoon on Oct. 25, followed by the Hall of Fame's annual dinner.

The commemoration takes place that evening and features the unveiling of inductee banners, introduction of inductees' relatives, dramatic monologues, and abolition poetry reading.

"It's a moving piece of the weekend, probably the heart of the weekend when people come together," Willsey said. "There's a lot of emotional energy at that point."

Activities on Oct. 26 take place in Peterboro at the Smithfield Community Center, which is the future home of the National Abolition Hall of Fame Museum.

A catered lunch follows a morning tour of the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark. In the afternoon, Sernett will present the first of "The Abolition Sunday Lyceums."

"This is one of our attempts to educate the public on this complicated and overwhelming era," Willsey said. "The lyceum will extend over five years. (Sernett) will present a lecture with many visuals he's collected over 30 years of teaching, and then there will be reading sessions to get ready for next year."

Mecoy will be there to soak it all in. After dinner on Oct. 25, she will unveil Brown's banner and say a few words, a moment for which she is undoubtedly ready.

"I'm really excited," she said. "I can talk about John Brown forever. The fight is still on."

Monday, September 01, 2008

Historian Scott Wolfe to speak on abolitionist John Brown and his men at Springdale, Iowa
Please note that my associate and friendly correspondent, H. Scott Wolfe, will be addressing the theme of John Brown and his men at Springdale, Iowa, in a presentation before the Great Lakes Civil War Forum on September 13 2008. Scott is one of our leading JB scholars and has done a great deal of study on Brown's raiders, a much neglected topic in our era. His presentation is highly recommended. Below is the forum announcement and description with registration information. PLEASE NOTE: THE REGISTRATION DEADLINE IS SEPTEMBER 6!
Great Lakes Civil War Forum September 13
Three speakers and a special tour of the new Civil War Museum of the Upper Middle West will highlight the Great Lakes Civil War Forum Saturday, September 13, 2008.
The museum examines the role of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and Michigan in the Civil War. The facility is located on the shores of Lake Michigan in Kenosha, Wisconsin, between Chicago and Milwaukee
Speakers include Dr. Gordon Dammann on "The Letterman Plan as Devised at
South Mountain and Antietam”; Scott Wolfe on abolitionist John Brown and his men at Springdale, Iowa, and Daniel Nettesheim, a former West Point history instructor, who will examine the career of U.S. Grant.
Registration will open at 9:00 AM and The Forum begins at 10:00 AM.
The fee for the program is $35 for the public or $30 for Friends of the Kenosha Public Museums and includes lunch. The deadline to register is September 6.
Registrations can be taken over the phone using Visa/Mastercard by calling 262-653-4140 or by mail. All mail registrations should be sent to:
The Kenosha Public Museum
5500 First Avenue
Kenosha, WI, 53140.
Please include your address, telephone, email information, and title of the event with your registration. Checks should be made out to “Kenosha Public Museum.”
The $16.7 million block-square, two-story museum features a 19,000 square foot permanent gallery entitled “The Fiery Trial,” a research center, veterans’ memorial, gift shop, second floor temporary gallery, and class and seminar rooms.
The building is located at 54th Street and First Avenue north of the Kenosha Public Museum. For information call 262-653-4140 or go to www.thecivilwarmuseum.org.

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]

Sunday, August 10, 2008

"Portrait of the Abolitionist John Brown" by Perceptive Brooklyn Sculptor

Nancy Rohan, a self-identified "working mother of three now-grown children" has become the latest artist to complete a sculpture of John Brown. Rohan told this blogger that she had decided to create a portrait in clay to be cast in bronze (in order to learn that process), and had to pick a subject. "I wanted a heroic figure," she says, but "no contemporary person came to mind, and most historical figures had been commemorated many times." However, during a visit to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C., Rohan "was struck" by Ole Peter Hansen Balling's painting of Brown (ca. 1873). The "piercing eyes" of that portrait caught her attention from as far as fifty feet away, and Rohan was drawn to the portrait. "I knew immediately that John Brown would be my subject." Feeling responsible to learn more about him, she began to read about Brown online, but found "conflicting accounts." She also observed that "historically, artists' depictions of him had changed over time toward portraying him as a wild -haired wild-eyed madman." Very perceptive observation--since these same skewing of Brown was taking place in writing about Brown as well, both fictional and historical writing. Rohan studied illustrations done at the time of his capture, observing that Brown's beard was "neither long nor unkempt." She also read transcripts of interviews with him by prominent citizens and officials and concluded that he showed no sign of mental instability. "Conversely, they spoke of his calm demeanor." "Then," Rohan declared perceptively,

right after his death the SPIN began. His actions seemed frequently taken out of context, viewed apart from the circumstances in which they occurred. I was amazed that this twisted "history" could have been perpetrated for so long and become so deeply ingrained in our culture.
Rohan says that her older brother remembers being taught in high school that Brown was crazy. No surprise, since this has been the presumption of many standard U.S. history textbook authors despite their lack of sound information. She concluded that it is "encouraging that more recently scholars and biographers seem to be making efforts to restore Brown's reputation," although she is still bothered by the "underlying implications and continuation of the spin." To Rohan, to "trivialize his beliefs and goals by burying them under the cloak of insanity is so insulting on so many levels to so many people, and so purely political, that in itself the spin seems diabolical. " Consequently she has concluded that "John Brown may be the most misrepresented, maligned figure in our history." It seems like Rohan the sculptor understands what too many academics cannot seem to understand despite all their high-brow conferences and publications. "I decided I would rather portray him in the more dignified traditional manner usually reserved for the highly respected," concludes Rohan.

Rohan's sculpture is now at the foundry and she expects the first bronze casting to be ready in early September. She will eventually offer castings in plaster as well as bronze. She acknowledges that the whole process is new to her, so anyone interested in supporting her work would be welcomed. Interested readers are encouraged to leave inquiries in the comment section below this article with your email address. They will be forwarded to Rohan and will not be published on this blog.--LD

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dear John: Response to an anti-Brown reader

Interesting how my previous post on the Christianity of John Brown so quickly drew a negative reaction. It is published in the comment section below that article, but I will also publish here, followed by my response:

Anti-Brown "John" writes:

Reverend, I'm very surprised at your comments. What about the lives John Brown ended in Kansas? The innocent (free black) railroad employee at Harper's Ferry? How do you absolve John Brown of his crimes against humanity? If Jesus were John Brown, what would he do? Rise up in anger and murder all those who oppose him? Hmmmm. I don't think so.Where is your book on Timothy McVeigh? You must think he is ready for sainthood too.

Dear John:

Unlike you, I am not surprised by your comments. They're as typical as they are unimpressive coming from the anti-Brown element. Let me assure you that you presume a great deal that is wrong, or at least open to question. However I suspect your comments are not so much reflective of an open mind as they are sarcastic. So be it. Nevertheless let me address your ideas point by point.

"What about the lives John Brown ended in Kansas?"

There are two sets of "lives" that John Brown "ended" in Kansas. The first set of "lives" are those whom Brown may have killed in open battle. I doubt that you are referring to them. Unless you are a pacifist, the killing of people in open battle probably does not bother you on moral grounds. If you're a pacifist then nothing I say can change your mind about that, so I'll leave that alone.

The other set of "lives" that John Brown "ended" in Kansas are the Pottawatomie five-- some of the leading pro-slavery neighbors in his family's immediate vicinity. As I understand it from my own research, the five men whom Brown and his party killed were (1) terrorist collaborators; and (2) involved in a conspiracy to kill or drive out the Brown family. When Brown's men led out the Doyles (father and two sons), even Mrs. Doyle scolded her husband for being involved in "devilment." Of course she resented Brown's role in having her husband and sons killed; but it is very likely that she would have cared far less if Brown and his sons were killed by her husband and sons.

The Pottawatomie "massacre" is hotly debated by scholars, but I'm afraid that most writers--including lots of historians and journalists--merely parrot the "facts" as propounded by Brown's critics. I don't want to bore you, but scholars not only study historical evidence, but they should also study the history of historians. I've done both and although I would not claim absolute perfection in my assessment and must stand to be corrected or challenged by scholars who are actual experts in the field. Apart from that admission, I have examined the evidence and examined the papers of those who examined the evidence before me, especially Oswald G. Villard, the "friendly" biographer of Brown who really gave foundation for the popular notion of the Pottawatomie "massacre." Villard was a radical pacifist and the grandson of pacifist abolitionist Wm Lloyd Garrison. In my opinion, he already knew what he was going to conclude before he considered the research (which he paid someone else to do for him).

As a minister, a Christian, and an honest individual in my work, I am not all convinced that the claims you are parroting regarding Kansas are true. Rather, I am more convinced that

1. The Browns, being loud-spoken in their pro-black sentiments and openly defiant of the pro-slavery forces that had bullied their way into power in Kansas, were marked for attack

2. Brown and other free state men had certain information identifying specific pro-slavery neighbors who were involved in a mortal conspiracy

3. Brown himself did surveillance to verify these facts and learned that his family were indeed targets of invading proslavery "hordes" (as the called them), who were the real "terrorists" of that day

4. There was no real police or constabulary force active in Kansas territory that would be able/ willing to protect the Browns and they had to take some kind of militant action in crisis mode

5. The five men who were killed were not killed for being pro-slavery. The Browns and the free-state settlers played by the rules and were not threatened by the minority of pro-slavery settlers in a bona fide voting context. Brown was actually quite optimistic that Kansas was going to democratically go into the Union as a free state. It was the desperation of proslavery settlers, acting in accord with invading terrorists from the South, who committed crimes against humanity and presumed to violate the law. The men who were killed at Pottawatomie were all considerably bad or dangerous men, were acting in a conspiracy, and were specifically eliminated because they were apparently acting as a vector of terrorism to invading "ruffians."

Under such circumstances, while I find the Pottawatomie episode ugly, I sympathize wholeheartedly with Brown. In fact, I would never apologize for the outcome. Nor did he act alone; he was fully supported by those with him and the actual sword-wielders were equally convinced that the killings were necessary in a crisis mode. I really wish critics like you would be equally offended by all the innocents that our "great white fathers" have murdered in the long, bloody history of establishing this nation's political boundaries and land/wealth acquisition. I am far more troubled by the fact that I have to look at slave holders and Indian killers on our currency, which also reads "In God We Trust."

The innocent (free black) railroad employee at Harper's Ferry?

Yes, the shooting of the porter at Harper's Ferry was a tragedy in more than one way. Not only did he lose his life, but it was disappointing and damaging to John Brown, who specifically instructed his men not to discharge their weapons unless fired upon. Again, this was an unfortunate outcome but I do not see this as specifically speaking to Brown's moral character. I do not recall at the moment who shot the black porter, but I would think the greater inquiry must be made as to why he shot him. The mayor of HF was also tragically killed. In both cases these were unfortunate but arguably accidental outcomes.

I should add too, that hopefully you are equally offended by the barbaric and murderous manner in which some of Brown's men were killed by the drunken, outraged "victims" of John Brown's raid. A couple of them were gunned down at close range despite being unarmed; one was shot under a flag of truce; their bodies were desecrated and mutilated by the good Christians of Virginia.

If you bothered to read my latest book you'd find that Brown actually lost at Harpers Ferry because he paid too much consideration to his captives. He even let some captives go home to visit their families during his occupation. For a guy that you (in your ignorance) think was so guilty of "crimes against humanity," he actually erred in being too benevolent.

How do you absolve John Brown of his crimes against humanity?

Sorry, I am not aware of any "crimes against humanity," unless you mean "stealing" human "property" from slave owners and taking various material goods as compensation for them as reparations. When the Virginians hanged him, one of their leaders thus declared Brown as "an enemy of humanity." When Booth murdered Lincoln, he likewise declared (like a true Virginian), "Thus ever to tyrants." You really need to examine the roots of your own thinking. You sound a lot like a slave master.

If Jesus were John Brown, what would he do? Rise up in anger and murder all those who oppose him? Hmmmm. I don't think so.

This is kind of silly, John. Again, you're dealing in other people's caricatures of Brown. There is no evidence anywhere that Brown rose up "in anger" and "murdered" people. Again, if you read my books on Brown, you'd find how inaccurate is your prejudiced assumption concerning his character, motivation, and intentions.

I should add too, that plenty of people think they know Jesus. However, according to the Bible, when Christ returns, he is going to send myriads of sinners to an eternal hellfire where they will suffer forever. No one spoke more often and warned sinners more frequently about the coming wrath of God and the reality of judgment and damnation than did Jesus. Today is the day of salvation. Like John Brown, I believe in Christ's second coming and the judgment. When he returns, I hope you're not as inaccurate in your ideas about Him as you are about Brown.

Where is your book on Timothy McVeigh? You must think he is ready for sainthood too.

This is sheer sarcasm but let me answer it too. Only someone with a skewed sense of history would associate Brown with McVeigh. Unlike Brown, McVeigh was full of hatred and revenge. Unlike Brown, McVeigh attacked a government building to express his anger and malice toward the government, not to set people free. Unlike Brown, McVeigh was willing to destroy many lives, even children ("collateral damage"). Brown was so overcome by even the whining of his captives that he essentially ruined his own efforts by paying too much attention to them in allaying their fears. This is a matter of record. McVeigh was a real terrorist, but he was not imitating John Brown in either the letter or spirit of the man's story. At John Brown's trial, his former captives testified as to his kindness and concern for their well-being. What witness did McVeigh leave behind. You really show your ignorance in making this comparison.

John Brown the abolitionist was a wonderful man. He was a conscientious Christian man who lived and died for a noble cause. Notwithstanding his imperfections, his flaws at least were indicative of a man who loved humanity and was willing to set aside his own comforts and family's well being to seek the well-being of the weakest and most despised in the land. I dare say, if your forebears were not slaveholders, they were at least not as fair or brave as was John Brown. The fact that you cannot even put your last name to your comments also suggest your cowardice.

Your type--cynical, malicious, and ill-informed will continue to litter the discourse on John Brown with your bigoted and sarcastic sniping. I have only incorporated your comments to make an example of you to my readers of the kind of ignorant prejudice that John Brown still faces these many years since his death. And you are a good example indeed.--L. DeCaro Jr.

P.S. If you wish to write again, be assured you will receive no further attention, not so much as a glance. Nothing you could write about Brown except an apology to him would be worth reading, let alone publishing on this blog--LD.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Evangelical Witness of John Brown

His Conversion and View of the Bible
John had been taught from earliest childhood to ‘fear God & Keep his commandments’; & though quite skeptical, he had always by turns felt much serious doubt as to his future well being, & about this time became to some extent a convert to Christianity & ever after a firm believer in the divine authenticity of the Bible. With this book he became very familiar: & possessed a most unusual memory of its entire contents. (Source: John Brown’s autobiographical sketch, July 15, 1857)
His Belief in the Depravity of Sinful Man and Justification by Faith in Jesus Christ
. . .we hope that a life still lengthened, may not all be misspent; & that the little duty to God, & mankind it may yet be in his power to do, may be done with his might; & that the Lord Jesus Christ will be the end of the law for righteousness, for that which must be left undone. This is the only hope for us; Bankrupts, as we may see at once; if we will but look at our account. (Source: John Brown, Springfield, Mass., to Owen Brown, Hudson, Ohio, December 2, 1847)
His Conviction Concerning the Christian Life
Do not forget for One Moment the amazing power of a kind & consistent, Christian example. (Source: John Brown, New York, N.Y., to Mary Brown, North Elba, N.Y., July 3, 1850)
His Desire for the Conversion of His Children

That God in infinite mercy for Christ’s sake may grant to you & Wealthy, & to my other Children “Eyes to see” is the most earnest and constant prayer of Your Affectionate Father, John Brown (Source: John Brown, Akron, Ohio, to John Brown Jr., Vernon, Ohio, August 6, 1852)

. . .would to God all our dear children had the consolation of the Christian religion to support them while the cords that bind them to Earth are broken asunder. I have been drinking of the cup all along; & still need it no doubt. (Source: John Brown, Rockford, Ill., to Mary Brown, North Elba, N.Y., May 18, 1855)
His Regard for the Church and Disdain for the Pro-slavery Church

I am much rejoiced at the news of a religious kind in Ruth’s letter; and would be still more rejoiced to learn that all the sects who bear the Christian name would have no more to do with that mother of all abominations, man-stealing. I hope, unfit and unworthy as I am, to be allowed a membership in your little church before long; and I pray God to claim it as his own, and that he will most abundantly bless all in your place who love him in truth. “If any man loves not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” [1 John 4:20] (Source: John Brown, Akron, Ohio, to Henry & Ruth Thompson, June 30, 1853)
His Faith in Christ and Conviction of Martyrdom

I am not a stranger to the way of salvation by Christ. From my youth I have studied much on that subject, and at one time hoped to be a minister myself; but God had another work for me to do. To me it is given in behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake. (Source: John Brown, Charlestown, Va., jail, to Rev. James W. McFarland, November 23, 1859)
As always, John Brown can speak for himself. More of a religious nature can be found in the body of Brown’s extant letters, especially in the letters written in the weeks prior to his hanging. It is a shame that Brown is not embraced in the bosom of his own faith community to this day. The day may yet come when evangelical Christians–having overcome their own racial and cultural prejudices–will come to appreciate that John Brown was far ahead of them by way of faith, action, and example. Perhaps, too, some of John Brown’s non- and anti-evangelical admirers will get over their own academic and cultural prejudices and learn to respect the message of the cross that he so fervently embraced as his faith, hope, and inspiration.--LD

Friday, May 30, 2008

Kirke Mechem's JOHN BROWN Opera in 3 acts Premiere, 2008: Review Excerpts


Saturday’s world premiere of John Brown by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City was the sort of magical success that composers and musicians dream of. With unabashedly lush solo and choral writing, a shimmering orchestral backdrop and a raw-nerved story of continued relevance, this opera is a natural almost from start to finish….Mechem’s musical language is approachable but complex…spiced by unexpected harmonic turns and orchestral color…. It is an opera that I suspect will take on a life of its own…could easily become an iconic American classic. — Kansas City Star

In the fifty years of Lyric’s history there has never been such a prolonged standing ovation.

Russell Patterson, founder and former general director of Lyric Opera Kansas City

Mechem has resurrected Brown in all his ambiguity. At the very center of his opera is the confrontation between Brown and Frederick Douglass….James Maddalena makes of Brown a towering and commanding figure, and although Mechem portrays him positively in sometimes mesmerizing music, he never evades the complex issues encountered in Brown’s position. Donnie Ray Albert makes Douglass, a man to whom ambiguity was alien, a veritable Rock of Gibraltar….This role must be a major triumph in Albert’s long and distinguished career….The score is often marvelous both in sound and emotion, yet it is always measured. It is tonal and lyric throughout, but never trite, and a major strength lies in Mechem’s experienced hand as a choral composer….The choruses “I’m free!” and “Stoke the Fire” are as stirring as anything Verdi ever wrote. Opera Today

A wonderful opera in every respect, and it does no impermissible violence to the historical record ….captures perfectly the conflict and tragedy at the core of the John Brown story…It should stand as a model for anyone attempting to use the past creatively….I was deeply moved.

Stephen B. Oates, author of To Purge This Land With Blood, A Biography of John Brown

This Brown is not a wild-eyed fanatic but a family man of holy rage, pushed to extremes to right one of history’s greatest wrongs…. in a show-stopping walk-on, local soprano Vanessa Thomas turns the tragic story of a slave woman into a pained marvel….the libretto offers the greatest bits of Douglass’s greatest speeches, and the score rises….At moments like this, John Brown clutches music, history and the soul itself…. By the end…Mechem’s score swells into both requiem and celebration, a majesty fit for its subject: the delayed, bloody birth of a truly free America. Afterward, the crowd leapt to its feet and clapped so long and hard that hands grew sore. Pitch.com

We have just seen the premiere of what may well be the great American opera….What is said, what is sung, what happens in Act II, Scene 1 constitutes one of the most powerfully moving scenes in all opera….[Brown’s] hubris, his martyrdom, and his apotheosis bring this character and events from the historical into the pantheon of the great tragic figures in theatre. -- Prof. Theodore Johnson, Kansas University

(Four stars) Mechem’s work is breathtaking, aided by the rich performances of Maddalena and Albert, [who] nearly stopped the production with his rich delivery of this moving work. A&Evibe.com

[Mechem’s] fidelity to the essentials of the abolitionist's gripping story constitutes his opera's greatest strength …. a production worthy of its subject…with a cast headed by two powerful singing actors, baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Frederick Douglass and especially James Maddalena, whose John Brown evolves as a stern, compassionate, ultimately sympathetic figure of much complexity….Audiences have given it standing ovations. Toronto Star

Thursday, May 22, 2008

In the News: Kirke Mechem's JOHN BROWN


John Brown, hero: Lyric's new opera is hit at opening performance

At several points during composer Kirke Mechem’s 20-year struggle to put the story of John Brown on the opera stage, he must have despaired of its chances of ever becoming a reality.

But it is very real, and Saturday’s world premiere of “John Brown” by the Lyric Opera of Kansas City was the sort of magical success that composers and musicians dream of.

With unabashedly lush solo and choral writing, a shimmering orchestral backdrop and a raw-nerved story of continued relevance, this opera is a natural almost from start to finish.

What it has going for it, for starters, is Mechem’s libretto drawn largely from the profound and often movingly poetic writings of John Brown and his ex-slave abolitionist friend Frederick Douglass.

(“Those who want freedom without struggle, want crops without plowing,” Douglass sings, paraphrasing an actual speech. With texts like that, who needs a librettist?)

Mechem makes no secret of his admiration for a historical figure who has at times been regarded as a treasonous, cold-blooded murderer. The first words that Brown utters in the opera are not his but Jesus’: “Think not that I come to send peace on earth. Not peace but a sword.”

His words are set off by a warm cushion of string sound throughout the opera, in much the same way that Bach gave Jesus’ words a string “halo” in his Passion settings. (Coincidentally or not, the “Once To Every Man and Nation” hymn sung in Act 2 and heard again in the finale contains the melodic contour of the opening of the “St. Matthew Passion.”)

Those who still find Brown a violent, controversial historical figure might find this near-deification jarring, but it is consistent with Mechem’s Brown: He is a loving, caring man, shown in sympathetic situations with family and friends and wanting the best for America regardless of the cost.

Mechem’s musical language is approachable yet complex, and only occasionally prolix or overly sentimental. The opera’s chief strength is the composer’s skill for marrying musical and dramaturgical design. The Act 2 scene at Emerson’s house builds tension using hymn verses as structural principle, with conversation interspersed — its hymnal humdrum spiced by unexpected harmonic turns and orchestral color.

Mechem also shows skill in mitigating heavier passages of historic talk with emotional moments. By the end of Act 1 we’re feeling a bit overloaded with narrative, and the love-duet between Oliver Brown and his fiancée that opens Act 2 comes as a welcome moment of human sentiment.

Likewise the effective, simply-written duet between Brown and the dying Oliver in Act 3 is a tender if bitter moment in a whirlwind of violence.

Several of the solo songs were part of an earlier version of the opera that was never performed, and they remain some of the strongest bits, in particular Frederick Douglass’ melancholy “The Songs of the Slave are the Sorrows of His Heart.”

Mechem’s special skill in choral writing stood out throughout, in numbers ranging from the joyous (“I’m Free!”) to the rhythmically nervous and dynamic (“Stoke the Fire!”).

Any opera is historical fiction by its very nature, and indeed Brown’s heroism is enhanced by the bronzed-voice mastery of baritone James Maddalena. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in American opera who could more powerfully convey both the sympathy and the hard-headedness of Mechem’s Brown. His was one of the few voices in the cast that could always project over the busy orchestration.

Another was that of baritone Donnie Ray Albert, who inhabited the role of Douglass with inner smolder and tinges of humor where necessary, his robust voice like a cannon firing ingots of gold.

The rest of the cast was mostly strong, including pleasant-voiced Patrick Miller as Oliver Brown, fierce soprano Jennifer Aylmer as Martha Barber and the surprise standout of Vanessa Thomas in the small role of Daniel the slave’s wife.

Kristine McIntyre’s stage direction was deft and natural, to the point that you didn't think much about “direction,” even in the crowd scenes. And except for intonation issues in the low strings, the Kansas City Symphony under Ward Holmquist played beautifully in the pit.

Mary Traylor’s costumes showed attention to an 1850s period look. R. Keith Brumley’s multi-use set design featured a wood-plank floor topped by an upstage “shelf” that ran the width of the stage, serving variously as hill or boardwalk or abstracted elevation.

The huts and cabins were a tad ungainly, and the Emerson interior cartoonish, but the pioneer "moment" of communal barn-raising was effective.

Some of Mechem’s numbers trailed on a bit long, like the love-duet. But “John Brown” is an opera that I suspect will take on a life of its own, particularly at a time when Americans are pondering the question of when violence is justified to avert greater violence. (When are we ever not pondering that question?)

It’s the sort of opera that could easily become an iconic American classic, worthy to stand beside accessible American favorites by Carlisle Floyd or Robert Ward but possessing its own unique visceral energy.


Wes Blomster, "John Brown lives again in Kansas City." Opera Today, May 12, 2008

(photo by Douglas Hamer, Lyric Opera of Kansas City)

John Brown might have been a’mouldering in his grave since he was hanged in 1859, but he was resurrected — in body and spirit — on May 3, when the Lyric Opera of Kansas City staged the world premiere of Kirke Mechem’s John Brown.

Like the nursery rhymes of childhood, Dred Scott, Harper’s Ferry and John Brown are words that resonate only indistinctly in the minds of today’s elders; an ahistorical younger generation knows them not at all. Thus the astonishment that prevailed in the Lyric’s aged venue at the contemporary relevance — indeed, the urgency — of the story of the man determined to end slavery in this country — even by force, if necessary.

Although decades in the making Mechem’s monumental score — it runs slightly over three hours, less two intermissions — comes to the stage as racism rumbles beneath the surface of a major political campaign. Brown, if not totally a’mouldered, would turn nervously in its grave at the sight of current events.

Mechem, author of the Brown libretto as well, has done his homework in his use of the archives in what is in many ways a documentary drama. Furthermore, for Mechem Brown is a family matter, for his historian father once attempted to tailor this story for the opera stage. Much to his credit, the younger Mechem, born in 1925, has resurrected Brown in all his ambiguity. At the very center of his opera is the confrontation between Brown and Frederick Douglass, the eloquent black leader who insisted upon abolition by legal and peaceful means. Brown, on the other hand, killed no one, but approved the murder of six men to achieve his goal. Thus questions of violence and terrorism, ghosts that lingers from the years of opposition to the Vietnam war, add weight — and darkness — to Mechem’s tale.

The Lyric could hardly have done better than casting James Maddalena and veteran black baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Brown and Douglass. Maddalena, on stage almost without interruption, makes of Brown a towering and commanding figure, and although Mechem portrays him positively in sometimes mesmerizing music, he never evades the complex issues encountered in Brown’s position. Albert makes Douglass, a man to whom ambiguity was alien, a veritable Rock of Gibraltar in the middle of this story. Indeed, this role must be a major triumph in Albert’s long and distinguished career.

Mechem adds a person dimension to Brown’s story with a sub-plot involving his family and the hesitation of those next to him to support his plans for the raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, the attempt to free slaves that failed and resulted in his arrest and execution. Son Oliver Brown, movingly sung by tenor Patrick Miller, and daughter-in-law Martha, sensitively played by soprano Jennifer Aylmer, underscore the human toll taken by history.

Mechem’s lush score abounds in moments of richness, such as the love duet between Oliver and Martha that opens Act Two, when Vanessa Thomas steps forth from the wings to read a letter by a young slave’s wife and when Oliver dies in his father’s arms. The score is often marvelous both in sound and emotion, yet it is always measured. It is tonal and lyric throughout, but never trite, and a major strength lies in Mechem’s experienced hand as a choral composer. In many especially moving moments he concludes a crucial scene with a chorus that never stands by itself, but is always an integral continuation of what has gone before. The choruses “I’m Free” and “Stoke the Fire” are as stirring as anything Verdi ever wrote.

Mechem makes no secret of the deep religious convictions that motivate Brown, who sees himself doing God’s work in fighting slavery. However, he treats this aspect of his hero’s character with reserve, never allowing him to seem a zealot — despite many Biblical references and the inclusion of hymn tunes in his score. There are points in the opera at which Mechem hauntingly recalls Bach’s passions in his portrayal of Brown’s agony. Lyric artistic director Ward Holmquist conducted members of the Kansas City Symphony to fine effect.

It is clear that John Brown, a commission that celebrates the Lyric’s 50th anniversary, should move on to other stages. Before it does so, however, revision is needed. The opera now runs over three hours; and, word from within was that considerable cuts had already been made.

The first act is totally absorbing in its dramatic force. The final act, on the other hand, wanders and lacks focus. It could end at a number of places, and the contribution of the post-scripted Apotheosis to the score is questionable. One knows by then what Brown’s fate is to be, and to have him swing visibly above the stage on the hangman’s rope is — well — overkill and even raises questions of taste.

The Lyric, set to move into a new performing arts center next year, has outdone itself in staging John Brown in its current outdated home. Book — and flag-burning — to mention only two special effects — are staged credibly. One does not often seek a message in opera, but there is one here and it is of particular urgency today. “One of the uncomfortable truths this opera asks us to confront,” writes director Kristine McIntyre in comments in the program, “is that most people, even when confronted with a great wrong, are simply afraid to stand up and be counted. We don’t want to be stirred out of our complacency and we aren’t ready to have our preconceptions challenged.”