The National Catholic Review

The Kansas State Capitol Building is the prettiest in the nation, especially when the petunias are in bloom. Most Kansas school children visit it; my class was no exception. The French Renaissance architecture of the exterior is memorable, but the John Steuart Curry murals within, depicting Kansas history, are unforgettable, especially one — often reproduced —  entitled “Tragic Prelude.” 

Two groups of Kansans face each other, rifles mutually aimed, beneath U.S. and Confederate flags. In the background are tornado winds and flames; two dead men lie low in the foreground: a Free and a Slave Stater. Towering above the dead, above the combatants, and above the elements of nature is John Brown, arms fully outstretched, one hand holding a bible, the other, a rifle. His face, both furious and frenzied.

In his new biography, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, Tony Horwitz ably captures the utter ambiguity of Brown, one that still shakes the American psyche, perhaps even more so today, when the violent abolitionist can be considered the first fundamentalist terrorist in our history.

On the night of May 24, 1856, John Brown and his company of Free State volunteers murdered five pro-slavery settlers who were living along the Pottawatomie Creek in southeastern Kansas. Brown was responding to the burning and pillaging of the anti-slavery haven, Lawrence, Kansas, three days earlier, the work of Quantrill’s Raiders, border ruffians from Missouri. 

Brown’s anti-slavery crusade famously came to an end in October of 1859, when he led a raid upon the Federal armory in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. His goal had been to seize sufficient arms for redistribution to area slaves, in the hope that a local uprising would lead to a national denouement of America’s moral dilemma. 

Brown’s followers seized the armory, but few slaves rallied to their cause. After they had refused to surrender, U.S. Marines, under the command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, stormed the engine house holding Brown’s small band. Only two weeks later, after only forty-five minutes of deliberation, a jury found Brown guilty of conspiracy, murder, and treason. He was sentenced to be hanged in public on December 2nd.

At the time of his death, Brown had few open supporters, North or South. To the South, he was a terrorist, bent upon attacking the homeland.  To the North, he was an extremist who eschewed, and weakened, hope of a peaceful solution. It was only in the very last moments of his life that Brown rewrote his own history, altering his persona from that of warrior to prophet.

Here’s Tony Horwitz’s account. Brown had been informed by authorities a few days before his death that

he wouldn’t be allowed to give a speech from the scaffold or write a public message intended for publication. “The object of this prohibition,” the New York Herald explained, “is to avoid any further parade being made of his so called martyrdom.” The order was redundant in any event. The military cordon around the gallows ensured that no one would hear any final remarks he attempted, apart from soldiers and a few privileged observers close to the scaffold.

But Brown found other means to make his last thoughts known.  A jail guard, Hiram O’Bannon, had asked the famous prisoner for his autograph.  Instead, as Brown exited the jail on the morning of his execution, he handed O’Bannon a scrap of paper bearing a few lines of his distinctive, oddly punctuated script.  Also characteristic was the terse, emphatic message it conveyed.  “I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.” 

Brown had a rhetorical habit of going on a beat too long, diluting the power of his words and muddying their meaning.  He did this in his final message, adding a second line that was much gentler and almost apologetic in tone.  “I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done” (255-56).

Within only a few years, perhaps as many as 700,000 Americans would die in the largest military conflict the Western hemisphere has ever known, and those who survived the war found themselves asking, how could John Brown see so clearly what was to come?

Most Christians confuse prophesy with soothsaying. The Bible contains many examples of the former and condemns the latter. Prophesy is not the ability to foretell the future through some exercise of occult sight. That’s soothsaying, which the Bible forbids. Prophecy is the God-given insight to predict the future on the basis of current trajectories. A prophet doesn’t possess magical powers of insight. With God’s grace, a prophet simply sees what the rest of us would see if sin and shallowness didn’t occlude our sight.

In like manner, on the Feast of the Epiphany — “the shining forth” of God in our midst — the issue is not a magical insight given to Magi so much as an interior change within ourselves that would make the same sight available to us.

Knowledge is more than taking a look, seeing what anyone can see. An indifferent stranger can’t begin to see with the eyes of a lover.  What one sees depends upon who one is. To a certain extent, we see what we are. “Darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory” (Is 60:2).

John Brown didn’t see the American Civil War before it happened. He simply saw more clearly than his contemporaries the America in which they lived. He was saw the moral evil of slavery, and after Harpers Ferry he was “now quite certain” of its corrosive conclusion.  He saw what others could have seen, had they wanted, had their own selfish interests not occluded their sight.  We see what we are.  John Brown saw coming what he already was: an avenging angel loosed upon the land.

All Christians attest to the “mystery made known by revelation” (Eph 3:3).  For some the “shining forth of God” is only a long ago event, now ratified and rarified in creedal confession of faith.  For others, it’s an ongoing reality, a daily grace.  All of us lie somewhere between, which is why we should never stop asking, what needs to change in order for me to see?  If what one sees depends so very much upon who one is, who am I?

Rev. Terrance W. Klein

 

Comments

John McNicoll | 1/10/2012 - 10:13pm
I believe Harpers Ferry is in West Virginia, although it is mighty close to Virginia and Maryland. 
Bill Collier | 1/6/2012 - 2:13pm
Though I look forward to reading this new book about John Brown, I have trouble equating him to a prophet with Biblical bona fides. It's true that he did more than talk the talk when it came to advancing the abolitionist movement when he lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, for example. He attended an African-American church, and he socialized with many African-Americans. In fact, Frederick Douglass was so impressed with Brown when he met him in Springfield that he later wrote that Brown's commitment to the use of force, if necessary, moved Douglass somewhat in that direction, too. Even after Brown's death, Douglass's admiration for Brown did not flag. Douglass wrote that though he was "willing to live for his people," Brown was "willing to die" for them.

The problem that I have with Brown is that his willingness to use violent force pervaded most, if not all, of his career as an abolitionist. There seems little doubt that at least from the time he became embroiled in Kansas Free State politics, he was a zealot who would not refrain from achieving his goals by the use of violence if the need arose. Though he believed his family had been targeted by pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre cannot be characterized as anything but cold-blooded murder. That's why I question whether it was only in the moments before his execution that Brown was "now quite certain" that slavery must be purged with large quantities of blood and not just the small quantity of bloodshed he said he had "vainly flattered" himself about. After all, his goal in attacking the arsenal in Harper's Ferry was to liberate the weapons for their use by Southern slaves against their masters.  

While I admire Brown's anti-slavery sentiments and his treatment of African-Americans as his equals, I don't really see him as morally different from an abortion protester who resorts to the murder of an abortion provider in an attempt to advance a just cause. Respect for human life and equality are not taught by the use of violence to end a life. Brown is a complex historical figure, true, but I don't regard him as a prophet in the Scriptural sense.