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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 02, 2011

152 Years Ago Today:
“A Man of a Different Mould”: John Brown, William Mumford,
and Southern Pharisaism

Barnaby Furnas, John Brown
On the second of December, 152 years ago today, John Brown ascended the gallows, patiently waiting upon his Viriginia captors until they were ready to kill him.  By all accounts, he seemed fearless, except for the peculiar care he was said to have taken in his movements once his head and eyes were covered--a natural reaction, as one observant journalist put it, as if he was afraid to fall.  When the rope was cut and the trap door swung out, the Old Man fell several inches when the rope grabbed him back from the force of gravity, leaving him to dangle in the breeze as he choked to death.  His body showed little movement, certainly no struggle except some movement in his pinioned arms—gestures that steadily diminished as barely sixty years of living drained away.  After some time, a doctor listened for the stillness of his breast and he was finally cut down, but not before “Porte Crayon,” the Virginia-born artist of Harper’s made a morbid sketch of the lifeless face under the hood.  When his remains were returned to the jail, some discussion took place about injecting his body with arsenic in order to make certain the work of death.  But such measures were unnecessary.  The Old Man was quite removed from this world.

The Rebel Gambler

"Poor Material
to Exalt"
A decade later, when the Civil War was over and the nation was slowly inching its way back to reordered form of white supremacy sans chattel slavery, Brown was still a significant figure of heroism to many in the North.  One such admirer, a journalist named Homer Sprague, prepared an article in the Connecticut-based publication, The Soldiers’ Record, which memorialized the reminiscences of Union soldiers and other points of history relating to the recent war of Southern rebellion.  Recounting the conquest of New Orleans by General Joseph Butler, Sprague mentioned some aspects of Butler’s notably harsh treatment of rebels (which ultimately led to his removal from New Orleans), including the hanging of William B. Mumford, a gambler with strong rebel sympathies.  After the Union had taken New Orleans and the U.S. flag was displayed over the city’s famous Mint, Mumford had taken it upon himself to tear it down and desecrate it as an act of pro-Confederate valor.  Perhaps he was at once the antithesis of the murdered Elmer Ellsworth, who was shot dead in Virginia in 1861 when he pulled down a Confederate flag.  But in Sprague’s mind, Mumford was also the antithesis of John Brown.

According to Sprague, “the gambler Mumford” was hostile toward Union forces, and following the surrender of New Orleans, he took it upon himself to tear down the U.S. flag, leading to his arrest and confinement in the Custom House.  Union General Butler found himself in a dilemma—to go easy on Mumford would undermine his authority and diminish the Union occupation.  Sprague wrote that it was his own regiment that guarded Mumford, and for this reason was privy to some knowledge of Mumford’s character and attitude prior to his hanging (June 7, 1862).  According to Sprague, the army Chaplain Salter repeatedly visited him, and with tears offered him the consolation of religion, and begged him to accept a Saviour's mercy.”  Mumford's “singular reply, which Sprague conveyed “in substance” was, "I have no fear of death, because I have lived a blameless life.  Having never done anything wrong, I am prepared for a future world, if there is any future world.  I only hate to leave my friends." 

Brown: "a man of a different mould"
To this, Sprague opined that the kind chaplain would rightly have been “perplexed and amazed” at Mumford’s “stoical indifference, without a prayer on his lips,” for the gambler-turned-rebel “Mumford met death as coolly as did old John Brown on the Virginia scaffold.”
But Brown was a man of different mould; of austere morals, trained to piety, accustomed to spend much of his time in reading his bible or on his knees in prayer.  Mumford was conceded to have no religious convictions, was dissolute, intemperate, and a noted gambler—poor material to exalt into a martyr, even in the cause of slavery, for which he died.1
As Sprague’s point reveals, facing death bravely does not prove one’s cause is noble and true.  History has shown that Brown’s hanging vindicated his vision for a just society and freedom for all humans.  Mumford’s death is largely forgotten; but even when it is recovered from the dusty pages of history, it seems more pitiful than anything else.  A fool in the conduct of his life, a fool in the cause for which he died, and a fool in his own stoic conceit facing the bar of eternity.  

Thomas Jackson and the Pharisaic Spirit of the South

It was a mark of the Pharisaic spirit of the South that its most noble leaders could not recognize the authenticity of John Brown’s Christian faith.  That Pharisaic spirit remains quite vivid in the antagonism that many white Christians still show toward John Brown—the endless harping on his actions in Kansas, his resort to “violence," and all the other self-righteous screeds that typically accompany resentful anti-Brown remarks coming from people I’m supposed to think of as my “Christian brethren.”  Of course, the pro-slavery side had its own saints and sinners, the latter group being represented by the hanged rebel gambler Mumford.  But even among its saints, its supposedly noble Christian leaders, this same blindness was a great affliction.  Consider the remarks of Thomas Jackson, soon to become the Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson, after witnessing Brown’s death on the gallows:
I was much impressed with the thought that before me stood a man in the full vigor of health, who must in a few moments enter eternity. I sent up the petition that he might be saved. Awful was the thought that he might in a few minutes receive the sentence, “Depart, ye wicked, into everlasting fire!” I hope that he was prepared to die, but I am doubtful. He refused to have a minister with him.2
"Grandiose Hubris": Gen. Thomas Jackson
sent money to a "colored" Sunday School while
fighting to keep blacks enslaved
The grandiose hubris of this personal remark is itself a commentary on the kind of religion that had come to typify the evangelical South, including the very pristine orthodoxy of Southern Reformed Presbyterians like Jackson.  The Union soldier-reporter Sprague could at least see the incongruity between the stoic bravery of Mumford and the incendiary and ignoble rebellion for which he was willing to die.  Quite in contrast and notwithstanding his die-hard Calvinist orthodoxy and upstanding piety, Jackson—like so many other agents and protectors of black bondage—could not recognize the death of a martyr, even when that martyr was swinging in the Southern breeze in his very presence.  However evangelically “kind” Jackson was to think he should pray for Brown’s salvation, it seems he missed the point of Brown’s martyrdom altogether.  Brown had not “refused to have a minister with him”; he had refused to have a pro-slavery minister’s words of consolation and companionship.  For Brown to have done otherwise would have fully contradicted all that he had lived and now was willing to die for.  Not only was John Brown as deeply devoted to the same evangelical and Reformed faith of Jackson, but also he was willingly dying for the sake of the oppressed and enslaved, whereas Jackson ultimately died for the cause of the slave master.  That Jackson could believe that Brown was not “prepared to die” was more a commentary on the deplorable nature of pro-slavery evangelicalism—yeah, of U.S. evangelicalism, besotted as it was with racist arrogance.

John Brown Vindicated, Mumford Forgotten

John Brown in jail:
"Martyr" is from the Greek
word for "Witness"
It may be a point of indifference to many (if not most) of my readers that John Brown fully leaned on the biblical doctrines of grace.  However, as a Christian and a pastor, it matters a great deal to me that we understand that Brown was no jailhouse preacher, no self-manufactured saint who grasped at religion as the last straw once his other plans had failed.   Rather, to labor over his letters, especially those letters written to his family, one cannot help but to be moved by the deeply-rooted, time-tested confidence that the Old Man had come to place in his God and Savior.  Furthermore, these points of personal evangelical piety and conviction were inseparable from his devotion to the oppressed, his depth of belief concerning the wickedness of slavery, and his own certainty that dying at the hands of people like Jackson and Mumford ultimately would be vindicated by both Providence and history.  And he was right.

As Sprague concluded, John Brown was “a man of a different mould”—the kind of man who rarely comes on the scene of history, but always leaves it heavily marked by his life and death.  Such men are remembered as if they still live.  Their presence in society remains, their appeal to successive generations is vibrant, and their ability to speak to us never wanes.  Meanwhile generals and gamblers like Jackson and Mumford become part of the political trivia of history.    Mumford is forgotten.  “Stonewall” Jackson, who presumed to judge John Brown’s soul, matters little except to a few Civil War enthusiasts and brooding neo-Confederates. 

But John Brown’s soul goes marching on.

            1 Homer B. Sprague, "Thirteenth Regiment, C.V.," The Soldiers' Record (Feb. 27, 1869), p. 270
            2 Letter from Thomas Jonathan Jackson to Mary Anna Jackson, Dec. 2, 1859, quoted in Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1891), p. 1.

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