History, Research, and Current Themes

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

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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