Madman or American Hero? (part 1)

Sitting in Mrs. Tuggle’s 5th grade classroom as a 10 year-old, with U.S. maps and Gettysburg Address posters on the walls, I remember a few things. When I wasn’t presenting about the great locomotive chase of Kennesaw Mountain or staring blankly down my t-shirt in my desk, we learned about U.S. History since the Civil War. I learned about Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote a book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and probably even John Brown, who raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Both of them helped start the American Civil War.

Fast forward fifteen years, and I’m sitting at a kidney-shaped table, laptop open, looking at the twenty empty student desks in front of me. A few half-done worksheets rustle in the breeze of a box fan in the corner. It’s twenty minutes after our school day ended, and one of my students sits at the table completing some unfinished work from the week. He’s a tan, good-looking young boy with a penchant for losing his focus during important assignments. I’m keeping him after school to get him caught up, but more important, to build relationship with him. These kids need men in their lives. He works, and I browse the internet. I’m curious and reading about John Brown. My eyes don’t show it to my student, but I’m sitting in quiet astonishment. It reminds me of new things I’d recently learned about Harriet Beecher Stowe. What I’m finding out about these figures help me see American history in a whole new light.

For those of you who read my post on Atlanta’s spiritual history, my nerdiness should already be apparent. My fifth-graders have recently been learning and researching about the Civil War. Just as important as the actual events of the Civil War are the events that led to it. In the course of that, we have learned about many abolitionists in American history.

To get to that, we must discuss the first and second grade awakenings in American history. The subject could exhaust volumes of books, but I’ll give you a condensed version here. The first great awakening happened in the first half of the 18th century in the Americas. Many irreligious Americans were swept into revivals on America’s frontier. Preachers from both America and England saw a demonstration of the great conviction of the Holy Spirit on people’s hearts. For the first Great Awakening, the main mark was the issue and assurance of personal salvation.

The Second Great Awakening, a broad term for many smaller but connected movements, happened in the first half of the 19th century in America. Many prayer camp meetings and open-air preaching sermons caused many more Americans to come into the kingdom. Where as the first great awakening largely concerned the individual soul, and the second had a thrust more aimed at the common good. As often a healthy church can birth a social justice movement, this happened in America in the 1800s on a large scale. For the first time in America, God-fearing people were deeply concerned with helping the poor, the illiterate, and the oppressed. A great number of women also grew in influence in society as they took leadership in this movement. At the beginning of the 1800s, there were comparatively few abolitionists in America. By the time of the Civil War, they had reached a critical mass in the north so much to spark southern states to break away from the union in fear of their influence.

Now we rejoin Little Miss Stowe. She attended a church much like the ones that had sprung up in the First and Second Great Awakenings. As she sat in church one day, suddenly she began to have an open vision of a Southern plantation. When she arrived home, she scurried to record what she was seeing. It was so startling, so vivid, and so detailed that she ran out of paper describing the vision and had to continue on brown paper sacks. The writings became the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was the first time, through mass media, the common American understood the atrocities of slavery. It depicted with great drama, emotion, and detail the horrors of many slaves on Southern plantations. The book sold 300,000 copies within a year – unprecedented in the mid-1800s – and produced such a wide and lasting effect on the American populace that one day, when Abraham Lincoln met her, he said something to the effect of, “So you’re the woman that started this Civil War.” As sensational an effect as the book had, its process of being written was equally sensational.

John Brown was another such gentlemen. Who remembers him? A man who attacked Harpers Ferry? Yes. I madman? Perhaps. A radical, Violet abolitionist? Yes.

To be continued.

Leave a Reply