This may be off the beaten path for most John Brown students and enthusiasts, but I recently read the blog of LigonierMinistries, the teaching ministry of R. C. Sproul, in my estimation one of the great contemporary religious scholars. I first heard R.C. speak at Geneva College when I was an undergrad there in the 1970s. I was quite taken by his teaching and I still find him to be one of the best resources for understanding theology and philosophy from a Reformed Christian world and life view.
In his blog's November 29 entry, he addressed the theme, "Looking Up to Heroes," reflecting on the fact that throughout our lives, people need heroes. We may change our heroes as we mature, but we always look to men and women of the past and present who inspire and encourage us by their lives. In his article, R.C. mentions some of his current heroes, writing:
"Enter into my home today and it will not take long for you to see who my heroes are now. You can't miss the portraits of Martin Luther, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee. "
I'm not surprised that Dr. Sproul's hero is Martin Luther. To be sure, Luther manifested some very wrong-minded attitudes reflecting anti-Jewish prejudice and favoring his wealthy, powerful allies over against the peasants. Luther would never be my own personal hero for these reasons, but I agree with his work on the bondage of the will and his view of Scripture and his high christology. I have no doubt that John Brown himself would have agreed as well. In these matters, Luther is simply consistent with textual Christian authority, which is the grounding for historic Protestantism across the Reformed spectrum.
What I find truly disappointing, however, is that a thoughtful, indeed masterful Christian thinker at the dawn of the 21st century would have Confederate rebels as heroes--even have their images hanging on his wall. It is my understanding that both of these men were "godly," orthodox representatives of the old Southern Protestant tradition. Theologically they were believers in the Bible, yet no more than old John Brown, who was reared (under the Plan of Union between Congregationalists and Presbyterians) and schooled under the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Pound for pound, John Brown was as much a "Calvinist" as was Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. Yet Lee and Jackson, like John Brown, were not theologians or clergymen. They were militant soldiers, and their alleged heroism must be judged according to the consistency of their militancy with the Bible they claimed to embrace as God's word.
Lee and Jackson served this nation proudly until their southern homeland rebelled against the federal union and seceded. Then both men proudly fought against their nation and countrymen in the name of "states' rights." I am well aware that the argument is made that such noble men were "statesmen," and that they fought for Virginia and the South and that, whether they personally valued slavery or not, they felt a higher call to affirm the Confederacy than to remain loyal to their nation. This excuse is used to redeem them, to somehow present them as heroic figures, as men of character and greatness, because they chose for their "homeland" against the big, bad federal government's "invasion."
I find such rationale vain and empty. Lee and Jackson may have fought for their homeland but as soldiers and officers they had pledged their loyalty to the U.S.A., a pledge they violated. John Brown, though hanged as a "traitor" to Virginia, was never a Virginian. He was likely indicted on this charge because Virginia law at the time would not allow his death sentence to be commuted. Brown was never indicted by the federal government on this charge. Nor was Brown politically determined to betray the union. The evidence of his love for the nation and his refusal to invoke any outright war against the U.S.A. on principle is in clear in his words and writings. Despite his militant confrontation with slavery, his political goal was to excise slavery from the union, not to tear the union apart. When it was suggested to him that he wait to launch his campaign until the U.S. went to war against another nation, Brown refused saying he would not betray his country by taking advantage of its weakness. In forming his own Provisional Constitution, he insisted on flying a U.S. flag and declaring loyalty to the U.S.A., nor would he permit black Canadian expatriates to fly the Canadian flag under his leadership. Accept it or not, John Brown was a principled patriot.
Lee and Jackson were neither principled nor patriotic. They broke their pledge to the U.S.A. and turned against the government that had trained and educated them in the skills of war for the nation's defense. They fell in line with the rich and powerful slave holders driving the southern secession and became their lackeys in a war, ostensibly for Southern rights and against Northern aggression. But in reality it was the selfish, stubborn, and wicked lusts of rich and powerful Southerners to sustain and extend African slavery that underlay the Confederacy and which drove hundreds of thousands of southern men to their deaths in vain. That Lee and Jackson fell in with such a cause, good men though they may have been in some respects, suggests either they were naively loyal (and therefore fools) or they were united with such a wicked political agenda and thus anything but good men and heroes.
Lee and Jackson were losers of the first order. They not only lost their "war," but they took their place on the side of the "war" that, if triumphant, would have condemned successive generations to enslavement, theft of labor, rape, and racial degradation. The fact is proven by the behavior of the South after the demise of Reconstruction; former Confederates snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by reclaiming power and once more suppressing and oppressing African Americans for another century.
It means nothing when Calvinist romancers of the Confederacy today speak of the South's evangelical character over against the liberal, Transcendentalist mind of the anti-slavery North. John Brown likewise disagreed with the religious liberalism and heterodoxy of many anti-slavery people, which is probably one of the reasons he never joined an abolitionist group. Yet being a Christian, neither would Brown align himself with the Pharisees in keeping an "orthodoxy" that sanctioned the systematic debasement and exploitation of African people as did the Southern Presbyterian church and other evangelical denominations in the South.
As far as R.C. is concerned, I have no idea what his arguments would be for embracing such traitors and pro-slavery Christian hypocrites to his bosom, when he has at his fingertips a long history of notable Christian heroes who are truly heroic. Robert E. Lee betrayed his nation and used his great powers to lead myriads of his countrymen to their deaths. Providence, as Old Brown would say, brought him to his knees in defeat. He was allowed a season of great victory, perhaps so that both North and South could pay for their racist arrogance in blood. As Old Brown said to his Virginia captors quoting an ancient poet: "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad, and you are mad." Confederate victories reflected that madness. It is fashionable for historians to argue "counterfactuals" these days. They can argue the viability of the South's efforts and the near possibility of victory "if only." I do likewise in regard to Harper's Ferry. But alas, Providence had for Brown to fall and for Lee his captor to fall afterward. But Brown fell in glory. Lee fell in disgrace, or so it will increasingly appear as we are rescued from the illusion of Confederate nobility.
Jackson, who presumed that John Brown went to hell (he witnessed Brown's hanging), took a bullet in "friendly fire" and perished. Another Providence of the Civil War. I would not presume, as Jackson so arrogantly did of Brown, that either he or Lee broke hell wide open. Perhaps they were of the Elect (as Brown would see it) and thus they repented of their wickedness before dying. Still, I would hardly hang either men's picture on my wall as heroes; one might admire aspects of their lives and character, but I weary of having to "redeem" the Jeffersons, Lincolns, Lees, and Jacksons of history by propping up their personal nobility despite their racism and failure to practice justice by their fellow human.
Claiming slave holders and slave holders' generals as my personal heroes seems to carry far greater weight. It suggests one would emulate and follow them. I am disappointed that R.C. Sproul, one of the brightest lights of contemporary Reformed theology, would wish to emulate and follow deluded, slave-holding traitors while probably also disdaining John Brown. Still, I would not presume to judge R.C. Sproul. I will continue to listen and learn from him where I am able. However until or unless he takes down those pictures of Lee and Jackson, he'll be something less than a hero to me.