Sunday, December 25, 2011

John Brown and the religious right.

I just finished Midnight Rising, a book about John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. Today is Christmas and also, this year, the 6th day of Hannukkah which means that many are observing and celebrating this day. As I was finishing the book I thought about how Brown's act was related to spirituality.

I wrote in an earlier blog that I have been interested in Brown since I read a speech he delivered before he was hanged. I find out in this book that my memory is mistaken. He delivered the speech in the courtroom after he was found to be guilty.

John Brown was a zealot--his mission was to free the country from an abomination, slavery. The Harpers Ferry plan was beyond foolish. It was so short sighted that the author sugggests that perhaps Brown wanted to be caught and that the action more than the ostensible desired result of the raid is what Brown thought would further the cause. On face value the plan was ridiculous--truly worthy of ridicule.

But the raid did bring to a head the conflict between the states and the issue of slavery. Years later Frederick Douglass (I just read) said that the first battle of the Civil War was not at Fort Sumter but essentially at Harpers Ferry.

Since today is the 6th day of Hannukah and also Christmas, I got to thinking as I was finishing the book about the relationship between Brown's act and being religious. In his speech at his trial, Brown talks about the Bible and identifies the hypocrisy of those who kiss the Bible before testifying and then speak on the witness stand of the legitimacy of subjugating human beings.

Being religious does not mean crossing the ts and dotting the I's. Of course, there is no shortage of maniacs who in the name of some religious cause declare it fine to kill others--but in this case, Brown's cause was incontrovertibly right. And his activities toward to the cause expedited the end of an abomination.

Below is an excerpt from Brown's (unprepared) comments after having been declared guilty.

"I have, may it please the court, a few words to say."
"In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection."

"I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment."

"This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!"

"Let me say one word further."

"I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances. it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt.

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