Continued . . .
A man who attacked Harpers Ferry? Yes. A madman? Perhaps. A radical, Violet abolitionist? Yes.
It’s easy to see where this man’s reputation comes from—first, the part you’ve heard. John Brown felt the federal government wasn’t doing enough to in slavery, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. He attacked the federal arsenal then at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with an aim to use the confiscated arms to equip slaves across the South to rebel against their masters. His attempted uprising failed, and he was captured, later being sentenced to death. This was all I knew about him before too long ago. Then, studying for the curriculum I was to teach, I saw deeper into his life. This complex gentlemen was much more than meets the eye.
In the 1800s, a century that saw the wholesale destruction of native American society, John Brown’s family, which were pioneers, befriended and lived among the natives. As a boy, young John would even play with other Native American children and wore their clothing. These early signs of egalitarianism decades and centuries ahead of its time would define John Brown’s life. As he grew older, he had a friend who was a slave boy. At age 12, he personally witnessed the torture of this African American friend. It enraged him and sparked off a desire to change the world. In his teens, he had a personal salvation experience and joined a church. He committed himself to memorizing the entire Bible. His own family stayed in that vein, as he would give his children lashings for lying, although sometimes he would instruct them to punish him, perhaps a picture of substitutionary atonement. He fathered 20 children with two women over the course of his adult life. Perhaps hardening his personality, nine of those children died young. While attending a church in his adult life, he demanded that two African-American friends be given equal seating along with the white church goers. For this, John Brown was expelled from the church.
In 2014, we know that segregation was not eliminated an American law until the early 1960s. In this case, the so-called lunatic John Brown was a full century ahead of his time. This egalitarian ethos smacks of the 1906 Azusa St. revival. More than 50 years later, it was America’s first, perhaps, glimpse at racial unity in church.
Yet we all know John Brown’s fate. He died a traitor against United States of America, justly accused and justly convicted. He might have become a mere footnote in history, were it not for a few particular events following his failed to raid on Harpers Ferry. As abolitionist sentiment in the north continued its crescendo, John Brown’s raid was a Boston Tea Party. It was a flashpoint that polarized the nation. The reason is the trial following the raid. The trial was broadcasted throughout the United States via newspaper, in much the same way celebrity trials become media circuses on today’s networks. John Brown’s cause was taken up by highly influential transcendentalists, some other names you might also know for American history – Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Their take on these events spun him out to be a martyr, a freedom fighter, even a John the Baptist figure. The second aspect was Brown’s own performance in the trial. Though wounded, he remained as impenetrable as a wall of granite through the questioning. Once convicted, the judge asked him if he had anything to say. At that moment, from his stretcher, he rose up and delivered one of the most inspiring and polarizing speeches in our nations history. America would not hear another piece of oratory like that until Abraham Lincoln would deliver his Gettysburg address several years later.
Marching Union soldiers even wrote a song to memorialize him. They marched to the song, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave / His soul still marches on.” A few years later, Julia Ward Howe would take that tune and write different lyrics to it. It’s a song that would describe the judgment day of the Lord, and the chorus was changed to, “His truth is marching on.” The song about John Brown’s decaying body became the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Brown’s life and death galvanized Northern abolitionists and terrified Southern secessionists. Some saw him as a martyr and others an example of just how crazed the abolitionist sentiment had become. He was a saint to some and a frenzied ghost to others. Like a wedge, his small life drove the divide between North and South even further. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life also drove the divide further by outraging Northern abolitionists. Without these two individuals, the trend of compromise could have continued. Some historians say it could have been another two decades before the Civil War erupted. Can you imaging how many slaves’ backs would be scarred in that time? How many children would have been born and died in bondage? With more advanced technology, would 600,000 American deaths in the 1860s become over a million in the 1880s? Would the nation have been ready to step into position as a world power in the 20th century?
Perhaps the hand of God over two individual’s lives led to the sparing of many others’ lives. Now let’s zoom the camera lens back. How do these events tonight? What do they mean to us today? What did they tell us about how God can turn a nation back to himself?
In age where have to United States was in support of the evil institution of slavery, God had a plan. First, he sent his revival through his church to bring many souls into the kingdom, and he put on people’s minds and hearts the ideas of social justice. Then, he used his people – imperfect, small, and rough around the edges, yet his people no less – in the most extraordinary and strange of events, to tip the scales of justice and change the conscience of the nation. He used far right radicals and far left ideologues.
How will the LORD use you for great awakening revival in the church? Will He lead you to become a part of His social justice movement? Can you turn the conscience of the nation? The LORD has used the week and flawed in the past, and I believe he will use you. How today will you be a part of God’s truth marching on?
Stay radiant, my friends.