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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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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Watching "The Abolitionists"--
Brown and Calvinism Caricatured--Again

The segment on John Brown is nicely dramatized, but it's the same old stuff about how business failure clouded his sense of God's leading, etc.  Then to top it off, the clip with R. Blakeslee Gilpin babbling about John Brown and Calvinism.  Speaking in the historical present tense, Gilpin says:
"Brown is drifting just further and further into a very deep and dark relationship with God.  He's always trying to discern what God wants for him.  That's really what Calvinism is all about, you're eternally in sin, you're just constantly trying to get out of it like a drowning man."
I'm sorry folks.  I don't want to be mean.  I'm sure R. Blakeslee Gilpin is a fine fellow and a bright one at that.  But I've read and reviewed his recent book, John Brown Still Lives! which is a cultural study of Brown, featuring a number of very interesting chapters.  However, the very worst part of the book are the opening biographical chapters--really some of the worst writing on Brown that I've seen in my years as a student of the man.

Now this.

First, the story line of how Brown's business life took a nose dive and devastated him is just worn out gossip.  Brown faced two phases of business disappointment.  The first phase from the economic upheavals of the late 1830s and into the early 1840s resulted in personal bankruptcy.  Brown made something of a comeback by the mid-to-late 1840s when he distinguished himself as an expert of fine sheep and wool and aligned himself with Akron magnate, Simon Perkins, Jr.  These disappointments did not ultimately discourage him or his faith.

The second disappointment was the failure of the Perkins and Brown wool commission operation in 1849.  Yet even though this venture failed, Brown and Perkins continued their partnership, as the former did quite well in cultivating the Perkins flocks and farms.  Their collaboration lasted until 1854, and although Brown hardly moved on as a rich man, he was not ruined and there is not the slightest evidence that this had any negative impact on his spiritual life.

So the storyline in "The Abolitionist", as it regards John Brown so far, has misrepresented the man.  I dread to think what's next.

As far as Gilpin is concerned, Brown never drifted into any dark relationship with God.  There is nothing in his letters, family testimony, or any other evidence that suggests the scenario that Gilpin has contrived.  This is yet another case when a historian substitutes imagination for facts.  As a student of John Brown's life and letters, I am more than annoyed that this kind of poorly studied, sophomoric improvisation get presented by a "talking head" simply because he moves in elite academic circles.

Second, this description by Gilpin of what Calvinism "is all about" is just atrocious.  Any Calvinist past or present would be outraged by the kind of ignorance and bias revealed in this statement.  As one who embraces Calvinism, I would have to say that Gilpin knows nothing about the theology or the experience of evangelical Calvinism.

I dread to think what "The Abolitionists" is going to do with Brown in Kansas and beyond.

Here we go again.


JamesHofsiss said...

Dr. de Caro,

Thanks for your insight! I have waited with anticipation for this series of episodes on American Experience. I wasn't sure how much time they would give Brown, but I must say I expected the typical "conventional wisdom" of The Old Man as a madman and religious extremist.

As soon as Gilpin said "deep and dark relationship with God", I knew where we were headed. If a dyed in the wool Texan raised on the myth of "The War of Northern Agression" and "The Lost Cause" like me can open his mind enough to see that Brown was the only American of his age who truly possessed the courage of his convictions, I don't understand why these so-called "scholars" with access to far more education and resources than I have cannot do likewise.

I look forward to you shining the lamp of unvarnished history on the remaining episodes of "The Abolitionists".

Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. . . said...

Nice to hear from you James. Could not agree more. Sometimes there is more clarity and perspecuity in the approach of grassroots students and scholars than among the "experts," as you put it, "with access to far more education and resources." We all have some presuppositional "varnish" I suppose, so perhaps my arguments do not represent unvarnished history. But while total objectivity may be the carrot on a stick, certainly being honest and doing one's homework goes a long way!