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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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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Osawatomie Notebook--
Pro-Brown Preachers Helped to Shape His Historical Legacy
The Case of Reverend S.H. Taft 

Grady Atwater *

John Brown was eulogized by abolitionist ministers in the north following his execution for his raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., one of them being an abolitionist minister named Rev. S.H. Taft of the Church of Martinsburgh, N.Y., who delivered a eulogy for John Brown on Dec. 12, 1859.  Rev. Taft’s sermon illustrates the salutatory nature of the sermons and how they helped to build John Brown’s image as a major figure in American history, and his role in combatting proslavery forces in Kansas Territory.

“My text this afternoon, my hearers, is ‘John Brown,’” Rev. Taft wrote. “You will find it recorded in all the newspapers of the land and it will yet be inscribed in bold characters on the record of the World’s History!”

Rev. Taft argued that John Brown was not executed for his Harpers Ferry raid, but for his success in his militant abolitionist crusade in Kansas Territory, and wrote: “For be it known, my hearers, Brown was not executed for his tragic conquest of Harpers Ferry; he was taken prisoner, tried and condemned for this; but he was executed for having driven the myrmidons of slavery from Kansas.”

Rev. Taft further stated that John Brown’s actions in Kansas had so inflamed the spirit of revenge in southerners that they hung him in Harpers Ferry.  “But they remembered that to John Brown, more than any other man, the slave power owed its signal defeat in Kansas,” he wrote. “Such a crime could know not forgiveness, neither in gubernatorial mansion nor in the Legislative halls of Virginia.”

Rev. Taft further wrote that John Brown was a leader in the Free State forces and was an extremely effective guerilla fighter:
When the marauding forces led on by Atchison, Stringfellow and others were pouring into Kansas to overthrow the three great bulwarks of liberty – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the ballot box – Mr. Brown gathered around him a band of faithful, upright men (for he would never allow a profane or unprincipled man in his camp), and went forth to defend the right. So successfully did he contend with the foe, that his name became at once a tower of strength to the Free State party, while it inspired corresponding terror in the hearts of the slaveholder and his allies.
Rev. Taft further argued that John Brown’s abolitionist crusade was successful at combatting slavery in Missouri: “A Southern writer lately said that the decrease in slavery in Missouri is so rapid that ‘Whole counties would soon be without a single bondman.’”

Certainly, Rev. S.H. Taft’s sermon alone did not establish the historical importance of Brown’s abolitionist crusade in Kansas Territory.  However, abolitionist ministers across the north eulogized Brown and extolled his actions in Kansas Territory following his execution in Charlestown, and helped build up Brown’s militant abolitionist crusade in Kansas into a major event in American history that is still studied today.

Grady Atwater is the John Brown State Historic Site Administrator in Osawatomie, Kansas.  This article was originally published in The Osawatomie Graphic, 24  Oct. 2012, under the title, "Sermons boost Brown's legacy."   It is used by kind permission of the author.--Ed.

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