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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Friday, April 15, 2011

Clergymen on John Brown--
Clarence Macartney, Civil War Enthusiast

Clarence Edward Macartney (1879-1957) was an evangelical and Reformed Presbyterian minister of Scottish background. He was on the conservative side in the "culture wars" between so-called fundamentalists and modernists and was the main spokesman in opposition to the liberal theological arguments of Harry Emerson Fosdick. A renowned preacher and scholar, Macartney pastored congregations in Paterson, N.J., Philadelphia, Pa., and Pittsburgh, Pa., and served as the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. In later years, he resided on the campus of Geneva College, a Reformed Presbyterian College with an abolitionist heritage. The Geneva College library is named for him and holds his personal library. Macartney has been referred to as an amateur historian, but among the list of his many published theological and homiletical works, he also wrote extensively on the Civil War, his favorite field of historical study. Among his Civil War titles are Highways and Byways of the Civil War (1926), Lincoln and His Generals (1926), Lincoln and His Cabinet (1931), Little Mac: The Life of General George B. McClellan (1940), Lincoln and the Bible (1949), and Grant and His Generals (1953).

Macartney's view of Brown was heroic but conservative, much like that of Boyd B. Stutler the dean of John Brown research in the 20th century.  However Macartney's main focus was Lincoln.  Although he never wrote on the theme of John Brown's life, he made numerous references to him in his sermons, which were as exegetical as they were famously topical and relevant to the times.  A number of these sermonic illustrations regarding Brown are recorded in his book, Macartney's Illustrations: Illustrations from the Sermons of Clarence Edward Macartney (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1946).  The following three references reflect Macartney's travels, which from time to time brought him on the John Brown trail in research and reflection:
One August day, touring through the Shenandoah Valley, I stopped at Charlesto[w]n [West Virginia] and visited the old courthouse where John Brown was tried, convicted, and sentenced, following his ill-timed attempt upon the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry.  Out of one of the vaults the clerk drew an enormous ledger of the year 1859 and opened it to the page on which was written the last will and testament of John Brown. 
As I read it through I was amazed at the poverty of the man.  In his will he directs what shall be done with his silver watch, his Bible, and a few Sharps rifles.  That was all he had to leave.  But when I went out again into the bright sunlight and looked off toward the mountains with their drapery of infinite blue, and with the Potomac and the Shenandoah washing their base, I could not help thinking of the contrast between the material bequest of the man and the spiritual.
All that the courts could take cognizance of was a watch and a Bible and a few old guns.  But to humanity he had left a firmer faith in virtue and in liberty; and in less than three years those same mountain-walled valleys were resounding with the song of marching men at arms: 
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave,But his soul goes marching on. (pp. 409-10)
Recently I read a remarkable letter written by John Brown to his family just before he was hanged at Charles Town, [West] Virginia.  Among the many excellent things he says in that memorable letter is his statement to his children that he has found the highest joy in life in loving and in being loved.  Man is made for love.  But in the image of the earthy there are many shadows and many difficulties in the way of loving and being loved.
(p. 215)

Elijah was one of the those few men "of whom the world was not worthy." (Heb. 11:38.)  That such a man lived makes us rejoice in our common humanity.  Carmel itself was not more rugged and more majestic than that prophet when he stood upon the mountain peak, his face flushed with the splendid victory over the howling priests of Baal.  As eloquent Wendell Phillips said over the grave of John Brown, "Men will believe more firmly in virtue now that such a man has lived and died."(p. 114)

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