Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Who Would True Valour See?

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Who Would True Valour See?

Article excerpt


THE VIOLENT abolitionist John Brown, whose assault on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in 1859 helped spark the Civil War, has been called many things: savior and monster, saint and murderer, visionary and fanatic. And the interesting thing is that all of them are true. As depicted in David S. Reynolds' meticulously researched and eloquently written new biography, John Brown-Abolitionist, he was a man who sincerely believed, rightly or wrongly, that the only way to destroy the evil of American slavery was through bloodshed. One wonders whether the slaughter of the Civil War proves he was right-or did his actions help cause the war and thereby make violence the only solution?

Most Americans know how the story ended, with Brown captured by federal troops under the command of the young Robert E. Lee and hanged for murder and treason. Less familiar is Brown's pre-Harper's Ferry life as a family patriarch, lay preacher, failed tanner and land speculator, abolitionist agitator, promoter of racial and sexual equality, and terrorist in the mini-civil war known as "Bloody Kansas"-all of which Brown engaged m with indomitable gusto.

One cannot understand John Brown without comprehending the power of religious belief to drive, for good and ill, the course of human affairs. Indeed, few figures in history have in one life demonstrated both the transcendent possibility of faith to lift the believer's consciousness to the heights of human benevolence, and its potential to mutate into a dangerous utopianism in which one arrogantly presumes to act as the right arm of God. Reynolds admirably lays out this paradox of Brown's life, expressing tremendous admiration bordering on love for the man, while generally not glossing over the terrible wrongs he committed.

Brown was a through-andthrough Calvinist who embraced his faith literally and wholeheartedly. He saw himself as a Puritan and patterned his life after that Puritan deposer of kings, Oliver Cromwell. His belief in predestination bolstered his often difficult life with a stoic spirit that permitted him to accept with true thanksgiving poverty, repeated business failures, physical hardships, the deaths of several children, including two sons at Harper's Ferry, and his own hanging as the expression of God's will. It also allowed him to commit heinous murders.

Brown believed wholeheartedly Paul's words in Galatians, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are one in Christ Jesus." He lived these beliefs by making his home in North Elba, New York, among a community of freed bondsmen, where he assisted with the Underground Railroad. He advocated not just an end to slavery, but full inclusion of blacks into society, including the rights to vote, work, and be educated. He was willing to die -as he did -to help blacks achieve these ends. No wonder, as Reynolds notes, Brown remains a revered figure among African-Americans to this day.

But it is not until "Bloody Kansas," three years before Harper's Ferry, that Brown fully enters the drama of American history. There is an astonishing mural, in Kansas' state capitol building, showing an enraged Brown in all his prophet-bearded glory, holding a Bible in one outstretched hand and a rifle in the other (with tornadoes portentously in the background), as he leads in the effort to make Kansas free. With the exception of the beard-Brown was clean-shaven in Kansas-there is more truth than legend in this depiction.

Prior to Kansas, Brown had never hurt anyone. But in the 185Os, the slave powers began to gain political ground. With the 1854 passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Missouri Compromise, which had kept the free and slave states in rough political parity, was dissolved. …

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