We Can If We Will
REGENERATION AND BENEVOLENCE
James P. Byrd
HARPERS FERRY, VIRGINIA, was a long way from Northampton, Massachusetts, and much more than place and time separated John Brown, the vigilante abolitionist, from Jonathan Edwards. But in spearheading his attack on slavery, Brown owed something of his zeal to the Edwardsian tradition. Brown admitted as much, often noting his admiration for Edwards, especially his preaching on judgment and hell, apt subjects for Brown’s self-administered judgment of slavery. Brown’s abolitionism—and his interest in Edwards—both developed in part through the influence of his father, Owen Brown. In the summer of 1790, Owen Brown heard a persuasive case against slavery made by Rev. Samuel Hopkins, a student of Edwards and perhaps the most influential Edwardsian theologian. Hopkins had traveled from Newport, Rhode Island, to West Simsbury, Connecticut, where Brown heard him speak. Later that summer, Owen Brown found an antislavery sermon written by Edwards’s son, Jonathan Edwards, Jr. After reading it, Brown became a dedicated abolitionist. “From this time I was antislavery,” he remarked.1 The ramifications of this decision to oppose slavery were obviously momentous for the history of abolitionism in the United States. Moreover, this episode reveals just one among many facets of the Edwardsian influence on moral activism.
There was nothing typical about John Brown. Reports of his terrorist attack on slavery in 1859 reverberated through both North and South, dramatically affecting the abolitionist cause. Understandably, therefore, his appropriation of the Edwardsian tradition was far from typical. More often, Edwardian ideas inspired more peaceful advocates of social reform, whether the cause was antislavery or missions. But the fact that Edwardsians influenced Brown at all demonstrated the pervasiveness of the Edwardsian influence.